The Newest Front in the Culture War: Tim Tebow

Back in the day, the culture war in this country revolved around simple things like abortion, evolution, prayer in school, gay marriage, the death penalty, assisted suicide or the size of government.  Today, apparently, it is about how one man’s ability to read a defense, throw a tight spiral on a 10 yard out pattern and whether any of this is directly attributable to God.  Tim Tebow is the latest hot button issue in the culture war of America.

Tim Tebow is a Christian.  Tim Tebow is also an NFL quarterback.  Somehow, his ability to play his position has become a referendum on God by proxy.  You see, Tim Tebow does not play the QB position particularly well by the typical standards that QBs are judged by.  He does not have a strong arm.  He has a long throwing motion instead of a more ideal quick-release motion.  He does not have good mechanics.  When he was coming out of college, a lot of experts thought he was more suited to be an H-back or a halfback than a QB because of his running ability.  They believed he would have to unlearn all of the bad mechanical habits he had that came as second nature to him.  They believed this was going to be practically impossible because in the pressure situations of the NFL that QBs typically find themselves, unless a QB has had the right mechanics ingrained into them early enough, guys like Tebow will revert to their natural throwing motion.  In short, they didn’t think there was any way that Tim Tebow could be a successful NFL QB.

Except that now that he has been given the chance to be a starting QB for the Denver Broncos, he is 7-1 as a starter this year, and 8-3 as a starter including the 3 games he started at the end of last season.  And in doing so, there has been a clear division of fans into the Pro-Tebow and Anti-Tebow world.  And the debate that has arisen makes it seem like there is no room for middle ground.  Either Tebow is the greatest or the worst thing ever.

Tebowmania has taken hold of the NFL and even beyond the sports world.  He has become the ultimate Rorschach test.  Do you see only the good (wins) or the flaws (mechanics)?  Presidential candidates (I’m looking at you, Rick Perry) are name-dropping him in their debates, hoping that the mere mention of is name will be enough to engender themselves to potential voters in the primaries; talk about pandering.  People have gotten to the point where they seemingly cannot talk rationally about him as a player.  “Tebow Magic” has become a way of explaining his 4th quarter comebacks.  Other people are just completely incredulous, chalking him up to being nothing more than a product of the ESPN hype machine.

I feel like I am in a unique position.  I’ve never actually seen Tim Tebow play a game of football.  I have seen some of his highlights in recent weeks, but I’ve never watched a full game in which he has played from start to end.  I do not watch college football, so I never even saw him play when he was at Florida.  The only thing I have to go on is what I have heard everyone say about him, what I have heard from him personally, his pro-life Super Bowl commercial from two years ago (no doubt there’s a bit of latent animosity out there towards him for that for some people), and fantasy football analysis of him.  I’ve been fascinated and perplexed by everything surrounding the guy.  Just this past Sunday I was checking scores and stats online and noticed that the Broncos were down 10-0 to the Bears, Tebow was 3-for-18 and had an INT entering the 4th quarter.  And I thought to myself, “Well, this is about when it’s time for the Broncos to turn it on.”  And they did!  As a sports fan, moments like that are exciting and are what makes sports so enjoyable.  But apparently not everyone can fully enjoy these things because they are so blinded by their perceptions and their entrenchments.

The divide between the pro- and anti-Tebow forces has gotten to the point where it very much like how entrenched people have gotten in this country about certain politicized issues.  Neither side is willing or able to listen to anything the other side has to say, nor are they willing to engage in a productive conversation of any kind, they just want to get their talking points out there and prove that the other side doesn’t know what it’s talking about.  And everything is dealt with in absolutist terms.

Well, I’ve got news for everyone, the truth about Tim Tebow as an NFL quarterback is somewhere in the middle between the two entrenched sides who remain steadfast in their opinion of the guy.

As a Christian, I think it is great that he is upfront and open about his faith.  He isn’t afraid to say what he believes, and he believes very strongly that his professional success has afforded him a unique platform to spread the word about something he believes passionately.  This is not unique.  All kinds of athletes and other various celebrities use their celebrity status to get the message out about various causes or topics that are near and dear to their heart.  Curt Schilling is an outspoken advocate of finding a cure for ALS.  Lance Armstrong is very vocal about cancer.  Tom Cruise has his Scientology.  Barbara Streisand has things which she is outspoken about.  No one in the general public is faced with the choice of having to choose between buying into what a celebrity’s cause or dismissing their professional output.

Countless people in the public eye also take time at the beginning of their acceptance speeches or postgame interviews to “thank God.”  Too often, I find this to be incredibly cliché and an insincere throwaway line.  Tebow is one of the few people who say that and seems genuine when he says that, which is unsettling to some people.

On the flip side of that, people who take umbrage with the “Tebowing” phenomenon need to realize that when you make your faith so public, you put it out there for public consumption and all that comes with it.  Personally, I find the Tebowing fad entertaining, but that’s just me.  Also, how public is too public with your faith?  Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  How does an athlete like Tim Tebow balance this with routinely kneeling to pray in celebration?  This is not necessarily a question to which I have an answer, but it is one that I think is worth asking.  And as a counter to that, you could just as easily toss in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

I think it is ridiculous to think that Tebow is winning because he has God on his side.  I am sure that there are plenty of Christians on other teams and that the outcome of a sporting event is of eternal significance.  And too many people are willing to give all of the credit to Tim Tebow for the Broncos winning with him as a starter.  In reality, the team as a whole has stepped up.  The team has won, in part, because of Tebow, but as much if not more credit could be given to the Broncos’ kicker, Matt Prater, who made two 50+ yard field goals in the 4th quarter and in OT last week to complete a comeback win, by no means an easy task.  And their defense has been playing very well too, led by stud 1st round pick Von Miller and one of the best corners of all time in Champ Bailey.

However, I think, indirectly, God does have something to do with what is going on in Denver.  Tebow, for all of his faults as a quarterback, has belief in his abilities and an unwavering confidence, and has an ability to get his teammates to believe in their ability to win too.  And that is a huge thing in sports.  This is the same team that was underperforming with Kyle Orton as their quarterback.  And the quarterback position, fair or not, is often as much about the intangibles and the ability to lead than it is about the stats and the arm and how you play the position.  He’s an elite QB now, but Tom Brady was not the Tom Brady we know today when he first took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001.  But he had a similar confidence and belief in getting the job done that rubbed off on his teammates.  And when a team starts to believe in its ability to get the job done, the sky is the limit.  It is at moments like that when a team’s sum truly becomes greater than its parts.  And as a Patriots fan who has never seen him play before and whose team is facing him in just a few hours, I am terrified of what he might do to the Pats porous defense.

To me, the biggest thing the Tebow critics don’t get and refuse to accept is that he gets better in crunch time.  A lot of QBs can put up great numbers, but when the pressure situations come, they falter and fall apart.  That is a criticism that has been made of Tony Romo over his career.  Tebow can put up some awful numbers through the first few quarters, to the point that it looks truly ugly, but he believes that his team can keep it close, they can find a way to pull it out.  There is something to be said for that.  And it is something I don’t think he gets enough credit for, especially since everybody wants a player who gets better in the big moments.  Tebow gets better in crunch time.

At the same time, you cannot turn a blind eye to his poor play leading up to crunch time.  I don’t believe you can consistently succeed in the NFL if your only have two completions for an entire game, or after three quarters of another game you find yourself 3-for-16 throwing the ball.  That is an area he needs to improve.  Right now, he is able to get away with it, but he cannot do this forever.  He is proving a lot of doubters wrong right now and challenging conventions that have been held for forever in the NFL, because he is finding a way to get it done and win games, but one convention he cannot change is that of the scrambling QB.  Scrambling QBs have a shelf life.  They need to adapt or die.  Eventually, his running ability will not be the asset it is right now.  Age or injury always take their toll on scrambling quarterbacks, and once the running ability is not what it once was, they need to have the passing ability to get by without it or be more judicious with it.  That was true of Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Steve Young, and, currently, Michael Vick.

Here is where Tebow should consider himself really blessed by God: His GM is John Elway, one of the greatest, most clutch QBs who ever played the position.  And he could run too.  If I was Tim Tebow, I would tie myself to John Elway’s hip as soon as the season is over, and spend the offseason trying to be a sponge and soaking in as much knowledge and whatever help I can gain from Elway.  You can’t ask for much of a better situation than that.

Lastly, people should keep in mind that how they feel about Tim Tebow is not a referendum on God.  Christians should not feel like they are obligated to support him blindly without reservation or criticism.  And non-Christians should not feel like rooting for Tebow is a tacit endorsement of God.  At the end of the day, it’s a helpful reminder to keep in mind that it is sports and it should be fun.  It’s a game where adults are being paid millions of dollars to play a children’s game.  Sit back and enjoy the spectacle of sport unfold.  If you’re a Broncos’ fan, you’re within your right to be over the moon with what is happening.  If you’re a fan of another team, you are well within your right to root on or jeer Tebow and the Broncos and not have it be about his beliefs.  And if you want to embrace him because of his faith, that is fine too.  What isn’t fine is to accept or reject his play based solely on his beliefs.  Don’t unnecessarily simplify what is happening and dig in just because you feel like you have to be pro-Tebow or anti-Tebow.  There is a wide middle ground.



The Tree of Life – A Review

“The nuns taught us that there were two ways in life – the way of nature and the way of grace.  You have to choose which one to follow.”

“The only way to be happy is to love.  Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is not a movie.  At least not in the conventional sense.  It does not follow a straight narrative.  It does not have a clear protagonist and antagonist.  It does not progress in a linear way from Act I to Act II to Act III with a stirring climax and then a denouement.  It features as much, if not more, voiceover from the characters than dialogue between them.  It is not a movie that you can distill down to one or two sentences to clearly explain it.  What it is, though, is a work of art.  And beautiful work of art.

Most of the movie centers around a family living in a small Texas town in the mid-1950s, a father(Brad Pitt), a mother(Jessica Chastain), and their three boys.  The parents are as much archetypes as actual characters, with the father embodying “nature” while the mother embodies “grace.”  Both outlooks on life are shaping their kids, for better and worse.  We see the childhood lives of these three boys from the perspective of the oldest son with occasional voiceovers from the father and mother as well.  Intercut with all of this are scenes involving the oldest son as an adult (played by Sean Penn), reflecting on these things and more and struggling to find some understanding during a difficult day of remembrance.  And intercut with all of this, are images of nature and the universe around us, going as far back as the creation of the world, to the dinosaurs, to the end of time, even.  That is the movie boiled down to its barest bones.  And yet it does not come close to doing the movie justice.

I knew going into that it was an atypical movie.  One reviewer had described it as “impressionistic” in a review I had read.  A lot of times, I find movies described in similar terms to be more “pretentious” than anything.  Also, when it comes to art, I would say I have a hard times appreciating impressionist painters.  Also, while some people swear by him, I am not the biggest Terrance Malick fan.  I liked The Thin Red Line, but I only saw it once when I was a teenager, and was more caught up in the thought, “This is not as good as Saving Private Ryan” at the time.  I think there might have been a lot in that movie I missed.  But in anticipation of this movie, I also watched Days of Heaven and Badlands, and I thought they were only alright.  Aside from being fascinated that Malick being intensely private and that he took nearly 20 years off from directing in between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, I am ambivalent toward Terrance Malick in general.  This movie, though, captivated me.  To me, it is probably the best movie he has ever made.  It’s like a magnum opus piece, the culmination and pinnacle of someone’s body of work.

On a purely visceral level, the film is amazingly beautiful.  I can only imagine that the Blu-ray of the movie is presentation-level material for showing off how awesome HD can look.  The scenery is lush and vibrant and seems to comes alive for the camera at times.  It is a totally different movie, but if I had to compare the awe I experienced at some of the sights this movie, it would be Avatar and some of the stunning imagery of that movie.  But Malick does not need 3D to wow the eyes.  The CG involving the space/creation sequences are resplendent.  Some of the most beautiful and amazing imagery in movie history reside in this movie, I have no reservations in saying that.  There should be no way that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Cinematography for this movie.

On an emotional level, this film resonated with me.  A lot of the childhood scenes are evocative and probably universal or collective on some level.  It really captures a lot of what would be mundane, everyday life.  The movie feels as much like it is observing as it is telling a story.  Brothers playing, wrestling, fighting.  Bringing a lizard into the house to terrorize their mother.  Swimming together at the local swimming spot.  Being reprimanded at the dinner table.  Hiding from their mother as she’s calling them to come in for the night at dinner.  Climbing and walking over the church pews on a Sunday morning.  And mixed in with all of this, though, are examples of “nature” and “grace” all around them, and the parents trying to do their best to lead them through the world and bring them up right; whether that means telling them to keep their elbows off the table when they eat, or shielding their eyes and leading them away from a man in the background having a seizure.  And the oldest son, through whose eyes we see this world, grapples with feelings he doesn’t understand and questions he doesn’t know how to ask and beginning to grow up in general.

Finally, on another level, this movie is deeply spiritual and meditative.  It opens with a verse from the Bible, Job 38:4,7: ““Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth . . .When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  While it opens with a passage from the book of Job, taken as a whole, the movie plays out like something from Psalms.  Characters cry out to God, questions why things are happening or even questioning if God is even listening, before eventually seeing God in everything that surrounds, and accepting and embracing the divine at work in the world.  The one line that stood out to me as the most spiritual was a voice over of the son saying, “I didn’t know how to name You then.  But I see it was You.  Always You were calling me.”  I’ve seen very few films that moved me spiritually like this movie did.  Even the long origin of the universe sequence, which a friend of mine didn’t like because it was “all about evolution,” was, given in the context of the film, infused with a sense of creative, divine design behind it all.

The Tree of Life is not a movie that I think everyone would like or appreciate.  I know that the reactions to the movie run the full spectrum from loving it to flat-out hating it and everywhere in between.  Count me firmly in the former group.  Movies like this are the reason I love watching movies.  For the rare moment when a movie lives up to your expectations or surpasses them; when it stays with you long after you’ve seen it; when you are moved by what you’ve seen.  The Tree of Life is one of those rare pieces of art that transcends it medium.  It is not just a movie.  It is an experience.


“Life Is Complicated, Huh?”

This was at the end of an e-mail that I received from a friend who I had been writing back and forth with on Saturday.  Given the news we had learned recently, it was an understatement.  A few weeks ago, someone we had grown up with had committed suicide and, more recently, some very sad and upsetting news had come out about him.  I don’t want to go into any more detail than that, because it’s not my place and it’s not why I’m writing about it.  I had not known him since high school and was not even particularly close to him growing up.  I do know that I can’t think of anyone that didn’t get along with him.  Even though we weren’t friends, there is still a connection when you grow up with someone as early as preschool or kindergarten.  All of this news left me in a daze and trying to deal with how to process everything.  It was all very complicated.

Growing up as a Christian, I’ve realized from time to time how easy it is to gloss over a Bible verse that you’ve read many times and never fully understood its meaning, or you read it and it strikes you differently than it did previously.  Philippians 4:7 is a verse I’ve read and heard many times.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (ESV)  Peace that surpasses understanding was a concept that my mind had glossed over or never tried to fully grasp.  And in a situation where I was finding it difficult to process and reconcile contrasting pieces of information this verse popped into my head.

It is comforting to know that when we have a hard time understanding something that is difficult to deal with, whether it be someone’s death or a difficult ordeal that we are going through, God’s peace transcends.  It’s not saying that we should seek to be ignorant and not try to understand things.  But there is a limit to understanding.  We may never know the full story about some things.  With others, we may just have a limited capacity for understanding.  There will always be unanswered questions, which can be incredibly disappointing, frustrating, or hard to accept.  Life is complicated.  But God’s peace transcends the unanswered questions.  It helps us to live with the complicated.  If we seek it, it’s there for us.  I’m finding renewed comfort in that.  And it is my prayer for those who are struggling even more so with the loss of this person in their life.


Pride, God & C.S. Lewis

My small group is in the process of reading through and discussing Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  Tuesday night we had a spirited discussion about the chapter on pride.  Lewis wrote that the greatest sin is Pride or self-conceit.  It is a sin that is at the root of all other sin; the “utmost evil” and the “essential vice.”  Pride is simply putting the self before all others in any and every instance.  It is an excessive self-love and sets self up as the ultimate authority.  It is the exact opposite of humility.

Having read Mere Christianity back in college, I loved the book and got a lot out of it that has shaped my Christian beliefs ever since.  I found the chapter on Pride particularly insightful because it did such a good job helping me boiling down the essence of sin.  I came to view sin of any kind as being some kind of derivative of Pride; some way of Pride manifesting itself.

In Christianity, Pride is considered to be the downfall of Satan, who viewed himself as being equal to God.  It was this lie, this misplaced belief, that Satan then sold to Adam and Eve causing sin to enter creation.  It wasn’t the fruit that Adam and Eve ate that was the sin.  It was the act of
disobeying God’s command to not eat from the tree.  And what was the motivation behind that act?  They bought into the idea that they would be “like God.”  Satan appealed to their Pride, their desire to be more or greater.  This is just one of many examples of why the phrase “Pride cometh before the fall” exists.  Not just The Fall of Man, but in every instance where someone falls from grace or does something wrong, Pride is right there in the midst of it all.

I honestly believe that Pride is at work every time we sin.  Because every time we sin, we are saying with our actions that we know better than God.  This means we set ourselves up as our own god.  Because of this, we do not acknowledge God’s rightful authority, which means we are not acting in humility.  And Pride is the opposite of humility.

This idea that Pride is among the chief sins is a long held belief in Christian thought.  Lewis did not originate this idea.  Lewis set out in Mere Christianity to “explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”  He was not saying anything new when he wrote that “Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”  Christians as varied as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Matthew Henry, and John Stott have commented on the seriousness of Pride as the chief of all sins.  Part of the reason why Pride is so dangerous is that it is so difficult to for us to see it in ourselves and incredibly easy to see it in others.

This is why I love Mere Christianity because Lewis couches the chapter on Pride in between the chapters of Forgiveness and Charity(Christian love).  In these chapters, particularly in the one on Forgiveness, Lewis brings up the concept of “hate the sin, not the sinner.”  This seems like a difficult thing to actually do, but we have a perfect example, how we treat ourselves.  We are far more forgiving of ourselves than we are of others.  Lewis is saying that we should treat others in the same manner, which is really just another expression of the golden rule to love God and others as we love ourselves.  By extending to others the same forgiveness that we extend to ourselves, we help to keep our pride in check and stay humble.

Saying that Pride is the greatest sin may make us say, “Well, God says that sin is sin in his eyes.  No sin is greater than any other sin.”  This is true, but only insofar as it relates to God.  In his eyes, sin is sin because it creates that separation between us and God.  It doesn’t matter if the divide between us and God is a foot or a football field.  The important thing in God’s eyes is the existence of a divide.  But when it comes to us and sin, not all sin is created equally.  It has an impact on the soul, what Lewis refers to as that “tiny central stuff that no one else sees” in that some things may be more damaging to us in the short term or long term than others.  But it also has a real world impact that can affect our daily lives and also the lives of countless people around us.  What is so dangerous about Pride is its ability to almost seamlessly blend into the background and go undetected.  Like a disease, the longer something goes undiagnosed, the worse things usually are.

In the end, Pride is something every human being must deal with, both from within us and from outside sources.  The only way to combat Pride is humility, and in extending to others the grace and forgiveness that God has shown toward us.


When the World Didn’t End…

So I spent an inordinate amount of time yesterday fooling around on Twitter making up a fake playlist for the apocalypse/rapture.  It was a fun time to pass the time until the rapture didn’t happen.  A lot of people were making #myraptureplaylist compilations and also making #rapturedayconfessions.  It was very interestng to see social media fuel the buzz surrounding the irrationally bold proclamation of a preacher out in  California who claimed that the rapture was going to take place yesterday at 6pm and that it would be the start of the apocalypse, which would culminate in the end of the world in November or some time down the road.

There is a lot of religious division in this country, but I thought it was tremendous that basically the majority of Christians were able to laugh this guy off as someone that not even they take seriously, which is a good witness to the secular population in this country.  I hope that the fact that so many believers dismissed this man and his followers outright is an example to atheists, agnostics and nonbelivers that not all Christians are looney and so desperate to just believe in something that they’ll be taken in by someone so obviously out there.  I also hope that Christians use this as an opportunity, a teachable moment, not just something to brush off and dismiss or laugh at.

I love to have my fun and make jokes about ludicrous people and idiotic proclamations as much, if not more so than anyone else, but there is also a chance to use what this nutjob was talking about to explain what Christians really believe and why we believe.

Harold Camping is someone who is rightly deserving of derision and scrutiny for what he has said and claimed in the name of God.  Christians should be, and I believe, are at the forefront of dismissing anything this man has to say.  He led a lot of people astray who were willing to sell all of their possessions and totally buy into what this man was selling.  There are a lot of vulnerable people out there.  And as someone who is claiming to speak on behalf of God, it is especially shameful of him to lead people astray like he did.  It is an awesome responsibility and something that he abused.

This man originally claimed that the world would end in 1994, and even wrote a book about it.  Of course, when it didn’t happen in 1994, as he had predicted, he said he had made an error and revised his calculations to say it would happen in 2011.  The cynic in me, heck the rational believer in me, thinks he was probably just buying time to continue to manipulate people into giving him money to support his ministry and lifestyle, knowing that there were enough people out there who would continue to give him money, like a snake oil salesman.

So his revision gave the date of May 21, 2011 as the return of Jesus Christ to take away his Church from this world.  So if he was absolutely, completely serious about this, if he truly believed this, and if he wasn’t just interested in taking people’s money and manipulating them, then why would his organization need to file for an extension to file their nonprofit paperwork?  “The group is required to submit financial documents in many of the states where they solicit donations, and in Minnesota they requested an extension from their July 15 deadline to November 15.”

There are few things that fill me up with righteous indignation as much as preachers who are actually swindlers and manipulate people in the name of God.  Not only do they exploit the needy and the desperate believers who either aren’t smart enough or mature enough in their faith to see through their deceptions, but they also give Christians as a whole a bad name.  And Christians need to step up and do a better job of calling these people out for the frauds that they are.  We should not give them an audience and we should seek to counter them and show to our friends and neighbors what real Christianity is all about.

And it starts by acknowledging who Jesus Christ is and what he has done in our lives.  It doesn’t mean we have to be standing on street corners screaming at the top of our lungs that people are going to hell.  It doesn’t mean we are supposed to be bombing abortion clinics or calling the women who go into them “whores” and “baby killers.”  It doesn’t mean you hate people who have opposing political views than yours and seek to make sure that a godly people rule this nation.  It doesn’t mean fighting with fellow Christians about doctrinal beliefs that cause unnecessary division.

We make Christianity about so much more than it needs to be and should be.  It is first and foremost about Jesus Christ.  What do you believe about the man who lived some 2000 years ago.  It’s as simple as that.  And you proceed from there.  We make it far too complex.  I believe in God.  I believe Jesus was the Son of God, as he claimed to be.  I believe he died.  As crazy as it may sound, I believe he rose from the dead.  I believe that his death and resurrection was done for a reason because of human sin, which we all have.  Sin is one of those seemingly harsh words to non-Christians, and sometimes Christians do a poor job of expressing what we mean by it.  But everyone has sinned, or failed to always do the right thing.  I believe that through Jesus, God made a way for us to be right in his eyes.  I believe that Jesus ascended to heaven and will return someday (and the Bible says that no one but God knows when that will be).  I believe that as a Christian it is my job to share this with other people through my words and through my love for them and in the way I live.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t still continue to fail or fall from time to time or that I’ve got everything figured out.  But it does mean that I can be confident that I have a Creator who loves me, provides for me, and considers me his.

There is a lot more to it after that, but those are the essentials to me.  After that, the rest of the stuff is peripheral and secondary.  Don’t ever get hung up on the peripheral stuff.  Denominational differences are like bickering over shades of a color.  As important as you may think it is to know how salvation, sanctification, grace, or any other things to do with God work, at the end of the day, the important thing is that they do work.

Christians need to know what they believe and why they believe it fr moments like this past week.  The world is watching.  There are belivers who are deceived by people like Harold Camping, and then when they are let down by this cult of personality, they are left with confusion, despair, and maybe feeling like there is no hope.  Confusion, despair and loss of hope are not things that are associated with God.  God is not about those things.  Hopefully those people who were manipulated by this man and his organization will find real faith and have a firm foundation.

And I hope the world begins to see a different Church in the future.  One that is multi-dimensional and not defined by crazy people on the fringe making ridiculous pronouncements or harsh condemnations.  I hope they see Christians that are doing God’s work in this world.  Christians who are feeding the homeless.  Providing care for those in need.  That look after orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:26).  That don’t equate being a Christian with being a member of a political party.  That are willing to bridge the culture war.  That they’ll know we are Christians by our love.


Love Wins – A Few More Notes

I had a few more things I wanted to mention about the book and the talk surrounding it… 

There seems to be a thread in Christianity that doesn’t allow for anything that questions the status quo, which seeks to stifle any possible hint of doubt and dissent and questioning.  This is zealotry and ideology.  We should never be afraid of questions.  Nor should we be afraid of healthy doubt.  Not the kind of doubt of unbelief.  Rather, a doubt that leads us to ask questions and to seek answers to those questions.  To not be content with Sunday School answers.  The kind of doubt that can actually grow your faith.  On top of this, there needs to be a healthy doubt on our part, that is much like humility.  We need to question and humbly admit the limitations of our own reasoning as fallible human beings.  God’s thoughts and his way are higher and beyond our own.  While God has chosen to reveal himself through scripture, through Jesus Christ, and throughout history to his people, he has not revealed all things to us.  This gets back to the mystery of God that we need to allow for, because there is some information that we are not privy to.

I read a few more reviews and commentaries online about the book, and people still continue to misrepresent some of what Bell is saying.  They say that he doesn’t believe in a future hell, only that hell is real and present on earth right now.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  He actually says that there is a present hell and a future hell.  Just as he says there is a present heaven and a future heaven.  To me, this just smacks of someone who has their own particular talking points and only hears what they want to hear.  It’s something that happens all of the time in politics, and it drives me nuts.  Both sides, rather than addressing the issues or what their opponent actually is saying, they create a straw-man of what they believe their opponents argument is, and gear everything they say toward attacking that straw-man instead of actually taking on what is actually being said.  This also rears its ugly head when it comes to divisions/denominations in the Church too.  Just look at the predestination arguments or the “once-saved-always saved” debates that rage in Christian circles. 

It shouldn’t surprise me, but I was shocked by the level of hatred and venom spewed out by some people toward Rob Bell personally.  I can get disagreeing with what the man is saying.  And I can understand presenting differing viewpoints.  But some of the stuff out there, particularly from Christians, is not the kind of attitude that Christians should be presenting to the rest of the world.  Make no mistake, the rest of the world is watching this.  And how many of them are saying to themselves, “This is how they treat one of their own???” 

Along those same lines, though, I love that this is creating a discussion point in the Church.  I love that pastors are out there digging into the Bible and actually talking to their congregations about these things.  Even, and maybe especially, if they disagree with Rob Bell.  Because then it becomes a teachable moment for them and an opportunity to spread the gospel.

One of the criticisms of the book is about one of the chapters being dismissive of the importance of the cross, both as a symbol of what Christ did for us, but also that the sacrificial substitution model of it is something that is obsolete in today’s world.  In all honesty, that was not what I took away from that chapter, but I did think it was one of the weakest chapters of the book; the one in which he was most vague about what he was trying to say.  I do not believe that he was trying to be dismissive of the blood of Christ and the atonement that it provides to believers.  What I believe he is saying is that the concept of blood sacrifice is something foreign to our society today.  Back in 1st century Jerusalem, it was very common.  In fact, animal sacrifice was a pretty common practice throughout much of the civilized world at that time.  It’s not that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice was a metaphor itself, it was the illustration and symbolism that his death provided as a means of showing what God had accomplished through Christ.  It was something that resonated powerfully with the people of that time.  No doubt it impacts us today, but the resonance and impact of it is not the same for us as it would have been for those who grew up with animal sacrifice as a way of life. 

The important takeaway from Bell’s book, I think, is that we need to find those illustrations and symbols today that would have the same impact on us; that would resonate with us in the same way it did for the people back then.    There is a lot about the Bible that we miss out on today because we do not fully understand or realize the context of the world in which it was written.  Of course, there is still plenty that we are able to get out of it.  But when I discover a fuller context of a passage of scripture, it makes the verses come more alive for me.  It has more impact.  It is a challenge.  And I know that when I can relate what is being said in scripture to something in my own world that I can relate to and experience, it also becomes more alive to me then too. 


Love Wins by Rob Bell – A Review

A few years ago my small group started watching this video series called Nooma.  It was a series designed to foster discussion in a small group setting and ask questions and get people thinking.  Everyone in the group liked them and got a lot out of them.  The series was put out by the Mars Hill Bible Church and their pastor, Rob Bell.  After the video series, we also ended up reading a book of his, Velvet Elvis.  It was nothing really revolutionary or anything, but it was a pretty accessible read and made some good points.  We also watched a lecture DVD he had done called “The Gods Aren’t Angry” which was also pretty good.  On my own, I read his book Jesus Wants To Save Christians which I thought was a good idea for a book, but was actually a little disappointed with it in its execution.  Short of actually attending his church in Michigan, I’ve had pretty significant exposure to Rob Bell, his style, and his substance in the last few years.

I was a little surprised back in February when all of a sudden a big storm started to brew about an upcoming book by Rob Bell that was stirring the pot.  At the same time, I wasn’t that surprised, because I knew from his previous material that he had a tendency of sometimes saying intentionally provocative things intended to tweak certain stuffy Christians.  I also knew that sometimes he was a bit too vague and broad for his own good and sometimes he writing lacked focus, asking more questions than he was prepared to answer.  So I was curious to see what all the fuss was about.  A friend of mine on Facebook had posted a link to a blog that was decreeing that Rob Bell was now a Universalist and that he was finally showing his true colors in this new book.  I checked out the link, and, much to my surprise, the internet screed against Bell and his book was simply about the description of the book and not from anything that the blog writer had actually read.  I cautioned my friend to reserve judgment until the book was actually released and read before coming to ay conclusions about it. 

As it turns out, all of this was the tip of the iceberg.  This book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, has becoming the biggest trending topic relating to Christianity since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released back in 2004.  The book, for better or worse, has opened up a huge can of worms in the Christian community concerning Church teaching on heaven and hell.  Pastors have been talking to their congregations about it, directly or indirectly (For what it’s worth, my pastorTravis Bush gave a… “hell” of a sermon on the subject a few weeks ago).  Sadly, I think the discussion itself has overtaken and outpaced the book in some ways and become its own entity.  Needless to say, I was eager to read the book. 

I almost bought it at Borders in South Portland, but it was $22+ in price, and I knew I could get it for less than half of that on Amazon, so I waited a few days before finally getting a chance to dig into it starting April 1st.  I devoured the first two chapters of the book on Friday, read the next two chapters over the course of Saturday and Sunday, and then finished off the remaining four chapters on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning while at work.  It’s a brisk 198 pages.

Going into it, I had my questions and concerns.  And it was also very hard to divorce the book from the controversy and discussion surrounding it and to merely read the book on its own merits.  I found myself getting fairly upset about halfway through the book at one point and then saying, “I’m not judging the book based on its own merits, but on the expectations of the criticisms and controversy around the book.”  So I had to force myself to shut that out. 

I thought the first two chapters were some of the best stuff that I’ve ever read from Rob Bell.  He does a good job of raising interesting questions to get you thinking and pondering things.  The second chapter deals with heaven, and I thought it was terrific.  We always seem to think of heaven as some “away, up there” kind of place, but we also need to keep in mind that Jesus prays for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Bell uses this as a spring-board to say that we need to be working on making heaven on earth now.  He also brings up an interesting point about how the early Christians and Jewish people in Jesus’ time viewed time itself.  They viewed time in terms of a present age and an age to come, which reminded me a bit of how time is viewed in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. 

What Bell rails against most is the mindset of Christians being so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good.  If Christians view heaven as some place we will someday escape to, the temptation then is to do nothing of real significance in our world.  Instead, he frame the discussion in terms of renewal and God reconciling the world to himself.  I think this is a mindset that Christians would do well to adopt. 

Framing the discussion, I think, is the biggest difficulty most people will have with this book and it is where the controversy about it stems from.  I think a big part of the issue at its heart is the disconnect in communication.  Words can have significant meaning, and to different people they can also mean slightly different things.  I think this is a barrier that has been the cause of a lot of division in the Church throughout history.  I think it again rears its ugly head here, because I don’t think Bell is saying what a lot of people think he is saying, necessarily. 

In his chapter on hell, he says that hell is a real thing that exists (similar to heaven), both now and in the future.  A lot of people are living in their own personal or communal hells every day.  And some people choose to reject love and goodness and those things that find their source in God.  In essence, what he says is a slightly nuanced/different way of saying that God does not send people to hell, but rather that people choose hell.  This is discussed in his chapter on whether God gets what God wants.  Bell posits the question that if God is all-powerful and is wishing that all would come to repentance, does God get what he wants in reconciling to himself everyone who has ever lived?  Ultimately, he says that is an unanswerable question, but that a better one exists: Do we get what we want?  And to this, his answer is a resounding “yes.”  And it is because of God’s love that we get what we want, even if it is not what he wants for us.  “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option.”  This is nothing controversial or revolutionary.  But because people have thrown out the “Universalist” label at him, basically a four-letter word in Christianity, people have taken up arms against Bell.

That last piece of the book that I think is controversial is what Bell says in his chapter about Jesus being the rock.  Of Jesus being the only way to God Bell says that “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.”  His argument in this chapter is a bit convoluted, as he talks about exclusivity, inclusivness, and then an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivness.  All of that is a bit muddled.  But what I took away from that and other statements throughout the book is that Bells says we need to allow for the mystery of God.  We need to be ok with the idea that we do not know the full plans of God nor the entirety of how he may be at work in the world.  And when it comes to the afterlife, we do know some things, based on what Jesus said and in other passages of the Bible.  But there is a lot about it that we don’t know.  And since no one has been to the future or the “beyond” and come back with hard, empirical evidence we shouldn’t be making hard, fast judgments about the eternal destinations of people.

One smaller things that I loved in the book were comments that he made about objections people have with God.  “So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word ‘sin,’ my first response is to ask, ‘Have you sat and talked to a family who just found out their child has been molested?  Repeatedly?  Over a number of years?  By a relative?’  Some words are strong for a reason.” 

Any criticisms I have with the book have more to do with Bell’s style and only a little to do with his substance.  I find that he is apt to occasionally throw in one or two things that I think are either playful or intended to tweak a hardcore Christians audience.  In listing things off, at one point he mentions in passing “the woman who wrote the book of Hebrews.”  Now, the authorship of the book of Hebrews is unknown.  There is a lot of scholarly work out there as to who the potential author is, and one strand of thought suggests that the author is a woman, and that is why we do not know the author of the book; certain people in the early church suppressed that information.  Honestly, I don’t know whether Rob Bell genuinely believes that or not.  I’m sure he doesn’t think that the authorship of the book is as important as what the book of Hebrews actually says.  But because some people would very vehemently argue against the author being a woman, he throws it in there to tweak them.  Probably innocently, but, like in a few other instances, it’s unnecessarily antagonizing some of his audience. 

One problem I had with the book is that Bell offers up far more questions than he is willing to actually answer.  Now, it’s not a huge problem, because that is his style.  But sometimes it leaves you wanting more and wishing that he would come out with a definite position or answer.  As I said, at one point, I became very frustrated with the book because he said in answer to a question that he himself posed, that it was one we do not need to answer and can be content to leave it and its potential contradictions in tact.  It felt like a cop-out.  He recovered after that to finish the chapter nicely, but in that moment, I felt very perturbed.  Part of the problem with Rob Bell’s writing is that sometimes he is too vague and you would like him to be a little clearer about what he is saying.  However, when it comes to asking more questions than he intends to answer, I also realize that it is his style.  He asks questions in order to get the reader thinking. 

My biggest criticism is that he deals a bit too much in the realm of speculation.  He points out, correctly, that no one has been to the future/heaven and been back to report about it with concrete, tangible evidence.  In the grand scheme of things, there is scant little to go on.  As such, he says (again, correctly), that we shouldn’t make hard, fast judgments about people’s destinies, because ultimately none of us really know.  But if that is the case, he himself should not spend so much time in the book elaborating on what he thinks or hopes might be the case.  At the very least, say “I don’t have any more of an idea than the guy on the corner, but here is what I hope based on what I know of God…”  In his letters, Paul would often say something to the effect, “This is just me talking, not God…”  A simple preface like that would have been more than sufficient.  But instead, he leaves himself open to wrong interpretation of his words.

So, what exactly has happened?  Now that the dust has settled a bit, where do we stand?  And where do we go from here?

I think, ultimately, the intent of the book and the message the book was intended to convey was co-opted by people who then took the course of the discussion off in a way that Bell was not prepared for.  Before the book was even released, people were attacking the book.  They threw out the term “Universalist” and really charged the atmosphere surrounding the book and divided the audience.  I’m pretty sure that most of the people who are critical of the book have not actually read the book and are basing what they are saying upon what they have read and heard from others talking about the book. 

I think a healthy discussion of heaven and hell is good for the Church.  The Church is strong enough to stand up to any and all scrutiny, and to change if necessary.  How we present these things to the world around us should be at the forefront of our minds and how we go about integrating them into everyday life should be discussed.  Jesus never spoke about hell in order to lead sinners to God.  He preached good news.  The condemnations and the warnings were always for the religious leaders who were making things so difficult for the people. 

We should have a healthy appreciation for the mystery of God and acknowledge the unknown in God that has not been revealed to us.  We should not make hard and fast statements of people’s eternal destinies, because we don’t have all of the facts.  We should be focused on making God’s will real and present in the world today; “heaven on earth.”  We should realize that God’s love allows us to choose to reject it, to reject humanity, and to live a life apart from him. 

We should also make room for nuance and grace in our dealings with fellow believers.  So much of the barriers that come up between Christians is in misunderstanding and miscommunication.  We should bear with one another patiently.  Seek out what the person is really trying to say instead of rushing to judgment or assuming that they are defining things the same way you are. 

Finally, read the book.  If you are a believer, you owe it to yourself to know what you believe and why you believe it.  You should have a firm foundation.  A controversial book is not something to shy away from.  You can judge what it is saying on its own merits.  And you don’t have to accept the whole.  There can be some aspects of it that you disagree with.  But there may also be something valuable that you can take away from it.

Read what other people have to say about it too.  There are some great reviews of varying opinions here, here, here, and here.  Read more about or by Rob Bell.  The book is not a standalone piece; nothing ever really is.  Read the book in context of the bigger picture of what else Rob Bell has written or spoken about.  Test it for yourself.  Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions.