The Common Good

God For Us and The Scandal of Being Good (Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 6)

(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About GodRaven Foundation Education Director, Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)

Cross shadow on earth, Cardens Design / Shutterstock.com
Cross shadow on earth, Cardens Design / Shutterstock.com

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Tripp Hudgins touched on something in his post yesterday that is essential to this discussion about Rob Bell and his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. He wrote:

Why does Rob write this stuff? Whose side is he on? Yours. Mine. Ours … Rob is on everyone’s side. He’s trying to live like the God who meets him when he’s surfing, hanging with his kids and friends, walking along the city streets, or doing just about anything.

Tripp, how can you say such a thing! “Rob is on everyone’s side”? How could Rob possibly be on the side of those who ruthlessly criticize him?!? I’m sorry my friend, but that’s just ridiculous and absurd.

And yet the ridiculous and absurd is at the heart of the Christian message. I hope that Rob is for everyone. Not because I need Rob to be on my side, nor because I need his approval or acknowledgment. (Although, I wouldn’t mind it!) Rather, I hope it’s true because at the heart of the Christian message lies the ridiculous, absurd, and even scandalous message that God is for everyone.

This chapter is called “For,” so let’s talk about the God who is for us. But first, we need to be aware of a major problem. That problem is the toxic message of against that permeates our ideas of God. Rob says that while the message that God is for all humans “is simple and straightforward, for a staggering number of people in our world the for of the Jesus message has been buried under a massive pile of againsts” (128).

How could this fundamental message of Jesus – that God is for the flourishing of every human being – be turned into a message that God is against some? It’s because we have a major problem with being good.

Yes, our desire to be good is a problem. I’m sure you’ve been asked the question Rob brings up on page 135, “Isn’t the only thing that really matters to God in the end that you’re a good person?” This question, which seems to have an obvious answer, is problematic because an affirmative answer actually moves against the Gospel message. As Rob states:

That question often flows from a belief system that God operates according to a point or merit system, and if you do the good or right or decent or religious thing, then you will get the point you need to get on God’s good side.

That’s not gospel (135).

The Gospel message is that we are all loved by God, who is unambiguously for us. What flows outward from receiving that love is a goodness that we cannot imagine, nor can we author ourselves.

The problem with thinking that all God cares about is that we are “good” is exactly the point system that Rob warns us against. The anthropologist René Girard’s mimetic theory is a helpful supplement to Rob at this point. Girard claims that we are imitative creatures, and part of that imitation is in seeking the approval of others, especially the approval of our models. This imitation leads to a competitive grasping for approval against one another for being “good.” Even the disciples competed for the approval of their model. They argued, right in front of Jesus, about who was the best! Like the disciples, I often wonder if I’m good enough. And like the disciples I often fall into the trap of knowing that I’m good by comparing myself with someone else – whom I secretly want to be bad, so I will know that I am good!

Jesus beckons us away from this competitive grasping for “goodness” and into the faithful assurance that God is for everyone, that God loves everyone, just as we are.

Receiving that message has consequences, of course. When Jesus invites us to follow him, he’s inviting us to model our lives after his life. Jesus received his sense of “goodness” from God. Jesus didn’t worry about being “good” in the eyes of others because he knew he was good in the eyes of God. But God’s goodness leads to scandal. After all, Jesus was for everyone, but especially for the social outcasts, earning him a reputation as a sinner by the religious elite of his day. Modeling our lives after the God who is revealed in Jesus has these kinds of risks. If you hang out with social outcasts, you may become a scandal to the religious elites. In Jesus – and especially in his death – we see that “You cannot bring a fresh, new word about human flourishing and expect the old, established system of oppression and power to stand by passively” (142-143). The cross will come. And when it does, Jesus is there with us and for us, leading us to receive the gracious love of God and share that gracious love with everyone, including our enemies.

So, Tripp, is Rob on everyone’s side? The only way that Rob, or anyone, can possibly live this out is by receiving the unambiguous love of God who is for everyone. Only then can we follow Jesus and become the kind of people who who are for everybody. Rob concludes this chapter by claiming:

… at the heart of Jesus’s message is the call to become the kind of person who is for everybody. Especially people who aren’t Christians. This is why Jesus talked so much about loving our enemies. To love God is to love those whom God loves, and God blesses and loves and gives and is generous with everybody. (150)

The Gospel is not about being good. The Gospel is about knowing that we are loved by the God who is always for us, and nothing can change that. Once we receive that message, we can participate in it. We can move away from competition that leads us against one another and participate in the life of God who is for everyone.

I love where Rob is taking us. God is indeed with us, for us, and next we will discover the God who is aheadof us, pulling us forward. Where will God take us? I can’t wait to explore that with Tripp next.

Read Part 1: An Open Letter to Rob Bell
Read Part 2: The God Of Jesus: Beyond Religious Tribalism

Read Part 3: What Do You Mean, 'Open,' Rob?
Read Part 4: Faith and Doubt Dancing on Good Friday
Read Part 5: Awake My Soul

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Image: Cross shadow on earth, Cardens Design / Shutterstock.com

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