The Common Good

Rob Bell, Oprah Winfrey, and Christianity’s Identity Crisis

Christianity is facing an identity crisis that boils down to one question: Who is God? It’s the question that Rob Bell tackled in his latest book What We Talk About When We Talk About God and it’s the question Rob and Oprah Winfrey discussed this week on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. (You can watch the full episode here.)

Rob and Oprah sum up the crisis at the beginning of the interview:

Rob: For many people … God is against us. God doesn’t want human flourishing. God is the one waiting to punish or torment …

Oprah: Yeah. Because when you say to people, “God is love,” there’s a whole other group of people who say, “Yeah, he may be love, but God is also judgment and wrath and punishing …

Rob: Right … People immediately take that to mean, whatever struggle I’m going through, whatever life is really like for me, God is against me.

The crisis facing Christianity is whether God is for human flourishing or against it; whether God is love or a mixture of love and hate. Of course, this crisis is nothing new. Humans have always assumed the divine was a mixture of good and evil, of being for humans sometimes and against us at other times.

I’m in the midst of reading the revised and expand version of Michael Hardin’s book The Jesus Driven Life. Michael brilliantly speaks to the history of this crisis. From nearly the beginning of religion, the human experience of the sacred has been marked by ambivalence. The gods were fickle and you never knew where you stood with them. They were loving and wrathful, forgiving and judgmental.

Michael refers to this as the Janus-faced gods. Janus was a god of Rome, and the god that January is named after. Janus was literally two-faced, but the metaphorical way we use the term “two-faced” is a good way to understand Janus, and indeed, all the archaic gods. Christianity’s identity crisis stems from our conception of God remaining infected by Janus. In fact, many theologians hold to a god that looks more like Janus than the God revealed by Jesus.

In Jesus, we discover that God has nothing to do with violence or retribution, but everything to do with a love that is for human flourishing. As Michael puts it:

By removing retribution from the work and character of God, Jesus … opened up a new way, a path, which he also invites us to travel. Sadly, few have found that this path and church history replete with hundreds, even thousands of examples of a Janus-faced god, a god who is merciful and wrathful, loving and punishing. Some have said that we need to hold to both of these sides together. Jesus didn’t and neither should we. It is time for us to follow Jesus in reconsidering what divinity without retribution looks like. (70)

Rob and Michael are two pastoral theologians who are guiding us in imagining what God looks like without retribution. For Rob, it looks like the God in Jesus who is for human flourishing; who is withhumans during times of success and times of suffering; and who is ahead of us, pulling us into a future full of love, compassion, and forgiveness.

Near the end of the interview, Oprah asks Rob what he wants to do in the next chapter of his life. Rob responds by stating, “I want more people to have a sense that they are loved. That the grace of God is real and it’s for them.” God is not like the Janus-faced gods; God is like Jesus, who loved everyone, including those who sought to kill him.

The interview finishes with Oprah asking Rob a series of fill in the blank statements. One of them is “God is _____.” Rob responds, “Love. Let’s stick to that one. God is love.” This is the Christian alternative to the Janus-faced gods that have plagued human history. Michael fills in the blank with the same word. “In the only instances in the New Testament where axiomatic statements are made about God (God is _____), God is called ‘light’ and ‘love.’ These statements about God in I John 1:5 and 4:8 are correlated with the graspability of God in Jesus, the ‘word of life’ who could be seen, heard and touched” (94).

Christianity is suffering from an identity crisis and I thank God for it. I’m also thankful that we have Rob, Oprah, and Michael to help guide us through the crisis so that we can rediscover the ancient truth that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). God is not like Janus — a mixture of love and hate, forgiveness and judgment. There is no tension within God, for God is love. God is like Jesus, whose love and forgiveness embraces all things and reconciles all things. Or, as one of the earliest Christians explained it, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (II Corinthians 5:19).

(For more on the theological dangers of believing in divine punishment, see Suzanne Ross’s article “Are Sinners Hellbound?”)

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

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