Archive for category Emerging Church

No Hell = No Jesus


As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

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But if you’re a Christian, then what am I?


Over on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of the members has (hopefully) started a thread by asking this question:

How do Christians define Christians? What makes you or not a Christian?

I often come across the argument that “said person is not a real Christian”, many tend to use this argument to exclude particulars who happen to shame the religion calling themselves part of it, or act in the name of it.

I think it would be interesting to see, how does every one define it, is it simply believing in a higher authority?. Is it taking every literal word of the bible?. Is it following the “reasonable” aspects of the bible?

Now, so far, only one person has given an answer, and it is one that I suspect the majority of American Christians would agree with:

A Christian is somebody who believes that Christ died on the Cross and shed his blood as the ultimate atonement(replacement for the blood sacrifice of the Old Testament law) for the sins of mankind. They believe that Christ is who He said He is. ie, The Son of God, and therefore God Himself. The concept of the Trinity applies here. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was the product of the immaculate conception. Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Isaiah 53:3-7 is an example, among others of the prophesy.

The first chapter of John in the New testament, gives a good representation of what Christians believe about Christ.

To be saved (ie a Christian), is nothing more then the realization that man is born into sin, and the acceptance and acknowledgment of the free gift of eternal life(made possible because of Christ sacrifice on the Cross), that is offered to mankind, should they(exhibit their “free will”) except it. It is nothing more then Gods grace being demonstrated through mans faith.

If all of the above needs to be believed in order to be a Christian, then I guess I am not one.  Of course, for many reasons I think the above definition, although perhaps “orthodox”,  is incorrect.

Over on Ric Booth’s blog there is an interesting conversation taking place about a new organization that John Shore is spear-heading called ThruWAy Christians, particularly their controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians.   The stated goal of ThruWAy Christians is to provide moderate Christians with a new forum.  As it says on their website:  “If you find conservative Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive Christianity too theologically tenuous, you’re probably a ThruWay Christian.”   Which means that, though I agree with much of the content of their founding document, my theology is much too “tenuous”  (something which I am sure the Conservative Christians could accuse the ThruWay people).

Surprisingly,  I don’t believe my theology is any weaker than theirs or any one else.  It’s different to be sure.  Maybe not as orthodox as they would like.  And like Christianity, it is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that it is “flimsy, insubstantial or lacking in strength”.  This is a charge that the orthodox have always levied at those who had the audacity to question theological authority.

The good folks over at ThruWAy Christian are not really challenging conservative Christian theological authority, though. They are only challenging the  conservative interpretations of certain scriptures that they believe lead to intolerant and mean spirited attitudes and behavior.  But I would suggest that the overarching theology that both the moderates and the conservatives still hold in common ( much of which has been condensed by the commenter from the WSJ blog and jives with the  first line of ThruWay’s creed )  is actually what drives this intolerance.  And has for centuries.

I ‘ve found that it is nearly impossible for Christian moderates to  engage Fundamentalists in any meaningful dialog that might result in a change of perception on the part of either, so  I’ve given up on it myself.  If this is the goal of the folks at ThruWAy, well then, have at it.  But  if they would be open-minded enough to engage some Christians whose convictions are not quite as solid, substantial or strong as theirs then perhaps they might find that ‘progressive’ is not such a bad word after all.

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The Bible as Dictionary Auto-Antonymica


From Wikipedia: An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contranym (originally spelled contronym), is a word with a homograph (a word of the same spelling) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). Variant names include antagonym, Janus word(after the Roman god), enantiodrome, and self-antonym. It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings.

Here are some examples of these words, from A to W:

  • apology – admission of fault in what you think, say, or do; formal defense of what you think, say, or do
  • aught – all, nothing
  • bolt – secure, run away
  • by – multiplication (e.g., a three by five matrix), division (e.g., dividing eight by four)
  • chuffed – pleased, annoyed
  • cleave – separate, adhere
  • clip – fasten, detach….
  • rent – buy use of, sell use of
  • screen – show, hide
  • seed – add seeds (e.g., “to seed a field”), remove seeds (e.g., “to seed a tomato”)
  • skinned – with the skin on, with the skin removed
  • strike – hit, miss (in baseball)
  • table – propose (in the United Kingdom), set aside (in the United States)
  • transparent – invisible, obvious
  • unbending – rigid, relaxing
  • variety – one type (e.g., “this variety”), many types (e.g., “a variety”)
  • wear – endure through use, decay through use
  • weather – withstand, wear away
  • wind up – end, start up (e.g., a watch)
  • with – alongside, against

Now, most of the words I find in my Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary have more than one definition.  And a surprising number of them have meanings that, though they are not necessarily opposite, are in no way related. Many of these differences have to do with the cultural and technological changes that take place throughout history.  Some words may become obsolete in less than a generation (“phonograph needle” and “phone booth”)  while others take on completely new meanings as jargon and common slang work their way into our vocabularies ( “bad” and “mouse”).

Imagine if we read the dictionary like many of us read the Bible (though it seems to me that most people read the Bible like a dictionary, but that’s another discussion).  We would have factions refusing to accept the idea that one word or phrase could have more than one definition. We might have some people using dictionaries with Old English definitions –  the first definition is the only correct one.  ( Of course this ignores that the ‘first’ definition is really a synthesis of other definitions from other languages and cultures.)  Others might ignore any definition that is not in conventional use, refusing to accept what they consider outdated.  In ether case, conversation between these two groups would prove difficult.

Now, if it came down to  over which dictionary (or its reading) would be ‘right’ and which would be ‘wrong’,  what would it be- the Old or the New?  I think it is pretty obvious that whatever definition is in the forefront of most people’s minds would now be the best way to use that word.  But forgetting the earlier definition would make it almost impossible for us to study the past and perhaps learn important lessons from our ancestors. We would have to leave that up to the ‘experts’ and thereby lose an important part of our ability to decide things for ourselves.

And isn’t this kind of what has happened with people of faith and the Bible?  Some just want one ‘simple’ understanding of scriptures that does not take into account changing times and utter ponderous sentences in attempts to force archaic ideas on contemporary lives. (Whew! Just like that one!)   And others seem to want to take ancient concepts and simply change their meanings to fit only what they can understand today, resulting in increasingly one-dimensional and shallow language.

Seems like there should be another way.

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Heaven Insurance


I’ve been fortunate to land a part-time job working with youth at a local Presbyterian (USA) church. Realizing that I am woefully ignorant when it comes to the doctrines of any denomination aside from Roman Catholicism and Methodism, I picked up a little book called Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt – a Theological Survival Guide for Youth, Parents, and other Confused Presbyterians written by two Presbyterian ministers;  Ted V. Foote Jr. and P. Alex Thornburg.  The book is published by Geneva Press, an arm of the Presbyterian Publishing Company so I figure that it’s pretty orthodox.

I’ve found the book to be very refreshing and the theology is right in line with my own evolving beliefs.  Their use of the phrase “Bible Belt” doesn’t refer to a geographical place but a theological  and spiritual state of mind, one that I am very familiar with. In particular, I appreciated their discussion of heaven and hell, a topic which has been a  bone of contention when talking to Hyper-Reformed Calvinists.

The question of heaven and hell are of primary importance for the neo-evangelical in the Bible Belt. In many ways, the concern about the destiny of one’s soul in the afterlife is the motivating force for accepting Jesus into your heart. As we noted earlier, many neo-evangelicals consider the future salvation of your soul to be dependant on your conversion, your acceptance of Jesus into your heart. “If you don’t, God won’t save you.” Therefore, the ultimate reason for accepting Jesus is to ensure your place in heaven. The life of faith is really just a kind of ‘heaven insurance” so that you can be certain of being fitted with wings and a halo. You “take out the policy” by believing and doing the right things, and then it’s paid off when you die and you get your reward.  Heaven is the place for people who paid the right dividends on their hell insurance. (we never thought of ministers as insurance salespersons, but it fits the metaphor.)

Obviously, there are a number of problems with this view of the world, or the afterworld. Not the least is the prevailing attitude that it’s always “our people” who get into heaven and the bad guys, usually anyone who doesn’t quite believe and act the way we think they should, who end up being cast into hell. Heaven becomes an exclusive country club for the beautiful people who can look down at those sinners in the ghetto of hell and feel sorry for them.

Well said, though I am embarassed to say that not too long ago the idea of my faith as  ‘heaven insurance’ would have had a nice ring to it. If I get nothing else out of this  little book I’ve learned a new word that will be seeing some regular use: neo-evangelist.  I love it.

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Do We Have to Deconstruct EVERYTHING?


That’s a question a friend of mine asked me today, in regard to much of what I have been saying on this blog.  I think the answer is; YES. We need to spend more of our time questioning authority and cutting through the layers of crap that have been laid down over the centuries like so much sediment on the ocean floor. We are buried beneath orthodoxy.

Is nothing sacred? Well, sure, some things really are sacred.  But not the same things are sacred to everyone.  So much of what we consider to be sacred – hands-off  doctrines and dogmas – when you investigate how they came about, well, they really aren’t that sacred after all.  Or at least they shouldn’t be.

Rather than illuminate, the bulk of our doctrines obscure the meaning of scriptures. We have volumes of religious dissertation, created over the centuries, devoted to explaining the words of one Palestinian man  preached over the course of  (probably ) one year (I’m counting Paul’s epistles as part of this body of expository work as well) .  This is to be expected. This is human nature – look at the millions of words that the United States and local  governments need  to explain our very brief and concise Constitution.

God  made us in his image – he gave us brains that are capable of innovative and imaginative thought.  We are capable of common sense. So, yes, let’s decontstuct. Tear it all down until we are left with the truth.  Let’s make it a mission.

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God’s Exact Words: Bothered by the Good Book


Rev. Brady

In an earlier thread, Logiopath and I shared this exchange:

Logio:  The next time your boss tells you something, try and read a double meaning into the words. In other words, if the Gospel texts have any reflection of Jesus’ words, then what is said is probably what is meant (regardless of the accuracy of the statement).

Me:  That’s actually not bad advice. Never having managed people in a business setting you probably have never encountered the overly literal employee who ONLY does precisely as he is told or perhaps follows the instructions so ‘religiously’ that he botches things up….”But that’s what you TOLD me to do!” It helps to understand your bosses general intent (bad bosses kept this secret – Jesus did not).

Logio: You’re right, I’ve never been in management, but I understand giving instructions to students who are literal in their interpretation.

When I discussed this conversation with my friend, Jack the Trivia King, he snapped his fingers and, nodding his vigorously, said “Just like Greg Brady’s exact words!” Which meant absolutely nothing to me.

It turns out that this is a famous episode of the Brady Bunch (a TV show that puberty saved me from having to watch) in which the eldest boy (Greg) is told that he is forbidden to drive the family car for two weeks because of his carelessness behind the wheel.

Taking his father’s words quite literally, Greg instead borrows the neighbor’s car for a drive. Having been found out and now grounded, Greg complains that he did not disobey his parents; after all, he didn’t drive the family car. He was actually very obedient and followed his dad’s instructions to the letter.  To avoid further confusion, Greg suggests that from now on everyone should only say EXACTLY what they mean, using only EXACT words. His wise (and very hip) dad readily agrees and wholesome family hilarity ensues.

This sitcom episode is apparently a classic example of a literary ‘trope’ – “a storytelling device and convention that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”; like the Genie granting three wishes or the boy who cried wolf.  In this particular case someone is taking an authority’s instructions so literally that they actually, and quite legally, subvert the authority’s purpose in giving those instructions in the first place.

In the workplace this is known as “Malicious Obedience” or “Destructive Compliance” or “Bothering by the Book”. In order to further their own agendas, the workers obey the rules so religiously that it subverts their employers intentions. Any well run business will encourage their employees to ‘take ownership’ of their responsibilities, allowing them the flexibility to be innovative in their interpretations of the workplace rules, as long as they remain in the spirit in which the rules were written.  In fact, good companies don’t give rules, they provide guidelines. Some of the most successful companies today (like Yahoo!) are quite radical in this respect.

This, I think, is a pretty good analogy for the differences between fundamentalist religion and progressive religion. Jesus would have been considered a progressive, if not even a radical -breaking the religious rules in order to better serve the spirit of those rules.

We’ve all witnessed the sometimes silly but often tragic results of people reading scriptures by their exact words.  More often than not they end up subverting the spirit of those words. Just as in how some have changed Jesus’ imploration to not judge others (in that case, adulterers) into a new legalist ‘sin’; sexual titillation.

Much worse, many have used the ‘exact words’ of Hebrew and Christian scriptures to justify slavery, prejudice and war, the ‘exact words’ of Matthew and John to justify anti-Semitism, the ‘exact words’ of Paul to justify male chauvinism and homophobia and the ‘exact words’ of Mohammed to justify misogyny and initiate violent intifada;  all zealously bothering by the Good Book.

As Greg Brady painfully learned in that episode, taking someone at their ‘exact words’ is something you learn to avoid as you grow up. If you want to avoid confusion and if you want to better serve authority.

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Postmodernism for Dummies (by a Postmodern Dummy)


"Vooki", a sculpture by Raimo Utriainen (1927 - 1994)

What’s it all about, anyway? Is postmodernism a good thing or a bad thing? Some people accuse others of being ‘post modern’, using it as an epithet.  Others wear the mantra proudly. But what does it mean?

There are plenty of opinions on this, from the pedestrian to the scholarly.  But I often find that they confuse the issue more than anything else.  As for me, analogies and anecdotes help me to understand things better, so with that in mind, here is my take:

A modern mind set claims to be logical and scientific.  It is based upon the idea that there are irrefutable propositional truths that are to be known. Not only are they to be known, they already are known and anything that is not in complete agreement with these truths must ‘logically’  be in opposition to these truths.  Something is either off or on, hot or cold,  Left or Right, right or wrong or true or false.  This way of thinking in terms of absolutes  boils down to a matter of  ‘either this or that ‘  but rarely both. Gray areas, ambiguity and compromise are things to be avoided.

In this way, modern thought is not necessarily conservative or liberal, it is just very definite. It is built upon time-proven conventions passed down by respected authorities (often teachers and other experts). Certain absolute truths have already been established so there is no need to waste time and effort questioning them. Those that do so are not really interested in finding the truth (since it is already known and accepted) but have other motives in mind. Anyone who questions accepted doctrine, be it religious, scientific or political, is discouraged and even ridiculed. (Those who are slavishly devoted to the prevailing theory of global warming as well as those who refuse to contemplate the prospect are both examples of this typically modern mindset.)

Postmodern (or what I prefer to think of as ‘anti-modern’)  thinkers are inclined to be dissatisfied with conventional wisdom. They are skeptics who choose not to believe everything that the experts say is true, especially if the observable evidence suggest otherwise. (In other words, those truths expounded by the experts are not as propositional as the experts might think.) Therefore, they will try not to speak in absolute terms because when they do so they often fall back into a ‘modern’ way of thinking, effectively closing the door on dissent and constructive dialog. The authentic postmodern response is to suggest that we consider both/and possibilities rather than either/or’.

One case in point: Not too long ago the preferred way to teach students how to read was with the use of phonics. At some point the teaching authorities determined that not all children could learn to read this way and they introduced whole language instruction techniques, and in many places ceased to teach phonics. This proved to be (according to parents and many reading teachers) generally unsuccessful.  It was often said by parents (who themselves learned to read using phonics); “Why change things? If it worked for everyone before, it should work for the students of today”.

But it didn’t work for everyone before. Many students, though in the minority, were labeled as below average in intelligence or just plain ‘dumb’ when really their only problem was a lack of reading comprehension.  The trouble with those experts who resorted exclusively to whole language instruction  was  that they fell back into a  modern mindset – either whole language or phonics, but not both. Today both techniques are being used successfully in the class room. (All of us learned to read using both techniques.  How else would we know how to pronounce words like ‘epitome’ or ‘antique’ ?)

Another case (and one currently close to my heart) involves the science of nutrition.  Around 40 years ago, the nutritional ‘powers that be’ came to the logical assumption that fat is bad for humans, in spite of over 100 years of well researched and documented evidence to the contrary (not to mention the anecdotal histories of millions who have unsuccessfully tried to remain healthy the ‘conventional’ way).  Today these experts (who are typically academics and politicians that rarely have any field experience) will admit that the evidence suggests an entirely different conclusion: that it is a diet high in carbohydrates (and correspondingly low in fats) that is causing the current epidemic(s) of heart disease, obesity and diabetes – but irrationally they  refuse to accept this very same conclusion. For them, the ‘truth’ is already known: Fat is Bad.

Not surprisingly, this same type of thing occurs with religion. Certain people interested in things of a spiritual nature come to definite and non-negotiable conclusions based upon an accumulation of what they believe to be incontrovertible evidence, even when that evidence seems to contradict itself. During this process extensive debates may occur among those who come to far different conclusions but eventually one school of thought wins out and this school is is now considered to be the  exclusive holder of the sole  ‘truth’.  This truth is passed on from generation to generation and (just as happens in science) it is increasingly saddled with subordinate ‘truths’ that help protect it from confrontations with contradictory ideas and evidence. This is what we call orthodoxy. (This custom of creating ad hoc theology can result in dogmas that have a decidedly post modern aura about them, such as the idea that God is both infinitely merciful as well as rigidly judgmental – but we’ll save that for another discussion.)

When other people with spiritual interests (such as those ’emerging’ from the ‘modern’ Christian traditions) come to see inconsistencies in this orthodoxy and are driven to question it, they are called heretics and not only their arguments, but their motives as well, are called into question.

When I look at things this way it makes sense (for me at least) to toss out the confusing terms ‘modern’ and ‘post modern’. There have been modern and post (anti) modern thinkers throughout history, no matter the era.  The ‘moderns’ are more interested in maintaining their (often the majority or controlling) status quo while the authentic  ‘post (anti) moderns’ have no interest in status quo.  It seems to me that the great discoverers, artists and thinkers though out history are  postmodern. Whatever at the time is considered to be the accepted and indisputable truth – the conventional wisdom – is  ‘modern’ for that time.  Anyone willing to call the conventional wisdom into question, while conceding that (no matter what they find) the search for truth is never over, is ‘post modern’ in spirit.

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