The Common Good

Getting Ahead of Ourselves? (Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 7)

(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.)

Light trails from fast-moving cars, ssguy / Shutterstock.com
Light trails from fast-moving cars, ssguy / Shutterstock.com

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Wait. What's absurd again? I'm confused. Is hope absurd or is it the thwarting of hope that's absurd? Thanks, Adam Ericksen, for your (lengthy) missive yesterday. The Gospel is absurd. Good stuff abounds, my friend.

Today's chapter is entitled “Ahead.” It's about the Kingdom of God. It's about the Kingdom that is here, now, with us, for us, and, well ... way ahead of us. This is where I think Rob shows his cards. He's talking to other evangelicals here and the people who have received the popular/commercialized mass media Christianity that appears to be so past-oriented. Right at the beginning Rob asks a question:

In many ways this is one of the central questions of our time about everything: Is the best future a return to an imagined pristine era when things were ideal, or is our best future actually in the future? (Kindle Locations 1856-1857)

Then he takes some of us Christians to task. He tells a story of being invited to a peacemaking event with the Dali Lama, and Desmund Tutu among others. They were talking about peacemaking and faith, the power of interfaith witness. At some point Rob is informed that there are people outside protesting the event. So, Rob asks:

Who’s against peace? That’s like being against puppies, or flowers, or Taylor Swift. I asked who was protesting and was told it was a group of Christians. (Sigh.) (Kindle Locations 1867-1870)

And there it is. Christians protesting peace. This is the kind of thing that wears on Rob. Nuanced or not, are Christians, especially evangelicals, perceived as being against things like peacemaking? Or is it that their version of peacemaking is backward looking toward some halcyon day of yore (or 1950s America)? At this point in the book, Rob spends a lot of time walking us through the development of justice in the Bible from “eye-for-an-eye” to “turn the other cheek.” I want you to read this chapter for yourself and make your own conclusions about what Rob sees and tell me if you see it, too.

Rob's thinking is that people are gradually cluing in to God's vision of a world without retributive violence. “Revenge always escalates,” he writes (Kindle Locations 1919-1920). Always. 

So, God takes vengeance away from us. He situates the conversation in ancient history and what we can gather about the cultural situation of their time and place in history. It's a gloss. Truly. But this is Rob at his homiletical best. If you want an in-depth historical analysis, check Rob's bibliography. He's preaching as he is wont to do. He suggests our movements forward are incremental ... and it is God who is ahead of us calling us into a blessed future. Rob's eschatology is “realized.”

I find this interesting. In a tradition that is so well-known for its focus on salvation and the afterlife, Rob is trying to turn evangelical attentions to this life, to the God who, in the Bible, is asking people to live mercifully, justly, without vengeance, in this life and not to wait to the next life to be kind to one another.

I don't know what Rob thinks about the afterlife or the rapture, etc. I don't. He offers nothing here, and I'm not going to speculate. But I do find it interesting how he uses the Bible (good evangelical) to remind us of God's vested interest in the Kingdom manifesting itself here and now and God's invitation into that Kingdom. God is ahead of us beckoning us into the Kingdom of God but not just as some cosmic Other Place, but as a place that can be experienced here and now. Significant evangelical ink has been used to talk about the Eschaton. Enough. Please stop already. So, Rob is putting his evangelical pen to the Social Gospel, to Desmond Tutu's vision of justice in this world, to MLK's vision of equality in this world. He's turning to the Hebrew prophets (Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah) and reminding us that the call to living this life is a call to doing so in the here and now. Rob is seeking the Peaceable Kingdom that Christ proclaimed.

This is Rob's turn to today's evangelical institutions ... and his ecclesiology. Yes, all in one chapter. You see, they are linked, these ideas of ecclesiology and the Kingdom. Of course they are. You can't talk about the Kingdom of God without talking about ecclesiology.

Have you ever been part of an organization and the experience soured because you realized there wasn’t any larger mission or purpose or motivation beyond its own preservation? (Kindle Locations 2036-2037)

And there it is. The backward-facing longing for the Kingdom reveals itself in how we understand our institutions. If there is a loving God who is calling people into a future worth getting excited about, then why would we try so very hard to keep our institutions from changing along with the people whom God wishes to change?

It is possible for religious people who see themselves as God’s people to resist the forward-calling of God to such a degree that the larger culture around them is actually ahead of them in a particular area, such as the protection of human dignity or the integration of the mind and body or the treatment of women or inclusion of the forgotten and marginalized or compassion or intellectual honesty or care for the environment. Churches and religious communities and organizations can claim to speak for God while at the same time actually being behind the movement of God that is continuing forward in the culture around them . .  . without their participation.(Kindle Locations 2042-2048)

Is this why Rob is looking outside the structures of the church? Is this why he's publishing a book and going on tour? Maybe. Maybe he sees no point in talking to an institution that is seeking only its own preservation while God is outside the institutions in other human communities casting out demons and transforming the world whether the Christians wish to or not. Why does Rob step outside the walls? Well, because he believes God does and always has. Rob is interested in following God and not Christians. Some will claim that this is a false dichotomy. I understand that, but Rob points to the story where someone is casting out demons and the disciples of Jesus want to stop them since they don't know them. Jesus says, “whoever is not against you is for you.”

Casting out demons is a good thing. Why would we try to stop them from doing it? Well, because we don't know them and that makes us nervous. We want to claim all good for ourselves when God is out in the world using anyone who will say “yes” to do some good. Rob concludes:

A careful reading of the Bible reveals a book about people having their minds blown and hearts exploded with a vision for humanity so thrilling and joyous it can’t be grasped all at once. It has to be broken down into a step, followed by a step, followed by a step, followed by a step. Click, then a click, then a click. (Kindle Locations 2088-2090)

Listen, anyone who is looking to Rob for a systematic approach to evangelical doctrine is going to be disappointed. He's not attempting doctrinal theology. He's preaching. He's showing. He's not debating nor is he arguing in an academic sense. He's showing. That's all. He just wants us to turn and face forward. Then, if we see God beckoning us into some Kingdom where there is more love, more grace, and vengeance is left to God ... well, then maybe we should take a step in that direction and stop trying to get back to the past.  

The last post is Adam's. Have fun with it. 

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
Read Part 6: God For Us and the Scandal of Being Good

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

Photo: Light trails from fast-moving cars, ssguy / Shutterstock.com

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