Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Meaning of Following Jesus, not Christmas

I just read Jim Wallis’ The Real War on Christmas… by Fox News. Boy, did he get that one right. In a nutshell, Wallis calls the annual counter attack by Fox News (against the supposed “war” on Christmas by our secular society) a misguided defense of our cultural and commercial Christmas symbols, not a defense of the real meaning of Jesus’ message.

When defenders of our Christian heritage scoff at the secular or government forces that replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” or no longer refer to “Christmas” trees or ban a crèche scene on public property, they inadvertently miss the genuine message from which our Christmas tradition derives: that God’s personal expression of Himself in Christ transforms us to be truly human, radically loving, and defenders of the poor and oppressed. And, as Wallis reminds us, Mary’s declaration foretelling Jesus’ birth and purpose, that God dethrones the powerful, lifts the lowly, fills the hungry, and sends the rich away empty, is what Fox and its defenders would call class warfare.

Defending symbols and terms is not important. Acting out the message behind them is. The way I see it, Fox News defends civil religion, not spiritual transformation or good news for the poor. Yes, our family will exchange gifts and rally around our Christmas tree. But the real “Christmas” stuff happens when we choose a poor African entrepreneur to give a microloan to, correspond with one of our sponsored children in Malawi, or write a letter to a forgotten prisoner in Yemen. In other words, when you or I love the physically or spiritually poor.

I welcome your comments on what Christmas means to you.

Monday, November 21, 2011

31 Reasons I Left Evangelicalism and Became a Progressive But Not a Liberal

Okay, in the spirit of Rachel Held Evans' blog post on 13 Things that Make Me a Lousy Evangelical (and a Lousy Progressive and a Lousy Feminist), I've come up with my own list of 31 reasons I left evangelicalism and became a progressive (for lack of a better term) but not a liberal. So, here we go:

1. I'm allergic to contempary Christian music.
2. I never believed in the inerrancy of the Bible (and think it's rather obvious it's not inerrant) and got tired of hiding that fact.
3. I realized biblicism (the notion that the Bible is infallible, internally consistent, universally applicable, contains all the truth we need, and makes us certain about most everything) is intellectually hallow and dishonest (see The Bible Made Impossible).
4. I think it's not only fine to try to ascertain what Jesus meant or what Bible authors meant, in the original culture, but more importantly, if we don't, we're not taking the Bible seriously. We love tradition over truth.
5. I think it's perfectly acceptable to pick and choose what one thinks is inspired and true in the Bible. After all, that's how the Bible was composed. Someone else picked and chose and copied and translated, so why can't we? Why do we have to take it on faith and they get to decide? How does one do that you ask? Have an open mind, look at objective biblical scholarship, use some common sense, and let the Spirit speak to your heart. What? You think that's crazy? If accepting everthing at face value works, then why does evangelicalism have a thousand denominations and opinions about what the Bible teaches?
6. Despite 2-5 above, I think much of the Bible is inspired by God.
7. After studying the historical and cultural context of the Bible and learning how it has sometimes been miscopied, and frequently mistranslated and misinterpreted (by people who care more about tradition than truth), I find it a remarkably progressive book--okay, okay, minus that stuff about genocide and killing women and children, etc.
8. I might be called to love him, but I don't like Rick Warren, and especially those Hawaiian shirts he wears.
9. R.C. Sproul defending Mark Driscoll makes me a bit nauseous. Okay, a lot nauseous.
10. I not only think believing in The Rapture is delusional, but also believing we live in the end times too.
11. I believe Jesus already returned (figuratively) in the first century (you gotta read my book).
12. I believe the Bible teaches the good guys get left behind (again, it's in the book).
13. I sometimes agree with R.C. Sproul. For example, he actually pretty much believes #11 too.
14. Going to a U2 concert is a spiritual experience for me.
15. I no longer believe evolution is the enemy.
16. I think intelligent design is a grand idea that needs to be seriously considered.
17. I think one can be a practicing gay or lesbian and still follow Christ.
18. I'm a microbrew enthusiast and love to talk theology over a couple of brews.
19. Rick Perry makes me really nervous (but not as much as Sarah Palin).
20. I hate sexual exploitation but find some erotica perfectly acceptable for adults.
21. I think the evangelical church is sex-negative (okay, there are a few good evangelical marriage sex manuals out there, but that's the only exception).
22. I think Charlize Theron is hot and I'm not afraid to admit it.
23. I voted for Barak Obama. I still support him but see a lot of things he could do better.
24. I hate it when Republicans accuse Obama of doing or proposing things that George W. Bush (increased the deficit by $5 trillion) and Ronald Reagan did (raised taxes 11 times).
25. I think what evangelicals call "church" is a non-biblical, man-made construct (back to my book, and yes, these are shameless plugs!).
26. I think nine times out of ten spiritual disciplines (praying, fasting, time in the Word, worship, going to cutting-edge, spiritual conferences, and following the latest, trendy book -- think Purpose Driven Life) becomes a legalistic treadmill.
27. After studying the issue and examining the historical and biblical evidence, I became a Universalist.
28. I think the emergent "conversation" is good (and I really like Brian McLaren), but wish they'd come to a concluson once in awhile. Just for grins.
29. I often disagree with Bishop Spong, but sometimes I do agree with him.
30. I like Bishop Spong way more than Rick Warren or Mark Driscoll.
31. I think the truth is embodied in a composite of Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Please comment, challenge me, and share your own lists of where you're at!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hope for Forgotten Prisoners

This year, there were at least two prisoners who caught our attention in the media: Troy Davis and Amanda Knox. Davis spent 20 years on death row for murder--a crime for which recent evidence strongly supported his innocence. Despite an Amnesty International petition signed by a million people worldwide to commute his sentence and other pleas by politicians, Davis was executed by lethal injection in September. "I know you're still convinced [of my guilt]... but I am innocent... I am so sorry for your loss. I really am," he said to the victim's family in his final words.

Then there was American student Amanda Knox from Seattle, held for four years in Italy on murder charges and finally found innocent and released on appeal last month. Knox, along with Raffaele Sollecito, was a victim of a miscarriage of justice by an Italian court. Despite their ordeal, compared to prisoners of conscience in corners of the world out of the spotlight, they were the lucky ones.

Today, hundreds of forgotten prisoners languish in detention, some in the most squalid conditions, for crimes they did not commit, and often for merely defending human rights. Because of the work of Amnesty International, there is hope for these prisoners. Next month, Amnesty is holding their Global Write for Rights initiative to get people involved to shine a light on these forgotten souls.
I helped organize two events last year and know from experience how effective they are. When you simply write a letter to a prisoner or a government official on behalf of a prisoner, a lost soul is encouraged, prison conditions improve, and sometimes the deluge of letters help to get people released. "I am alive today, after 34 arrests, because members of Amnesty International spoke out for me," said Jenni Williams, human rights defender in Zimbabwe. And there are many more successes.

I encourage you to get involved in a local write-a-thon (or just do it individually) and see how this small, strategic gesture--writing a handful of letters to several of the 14 cases highlighted this year--can help change the world and shine a light of hope to the oppressed. I'm helping to organize another event in Seattle with a local Amnesty chapter. Come join us.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Smart Aid to Somali Refugees

Finally. The humanitarian community is wising up when it comes to providing emergency food aid during famine or disaster. But, as usual, the United States is lagging behind.

I'm gathering information for my second book on innovative ways to change the world and erradicate global poverty. Microfinance is at the forefront with its microloans distributed to groups of poor entrepreneurs. When you add in the new products that microfinance institutions are providing today--agricultural loans, cell phone banking, and crop/funeral/health insurance--the future for your typical poor urban dweller or villager is hopeful. These programs are effective and are reaching more and more people.

But then there's food aid, an intervention that is notorious, believe it or not, for doing more harm than good. One, it's expensive (shipping halfway across the planet to remote areas); two, it takes weeks or months to arrive; three, it presents a security nightmare (stolen or sold on local markets); four, it's culturally inappropriate (why would an African want to eat American grain and why are foreigners distributing it?); and five, it hurts local economies. How can local farmers' produce compete with free or discounted food?

The better solution? Vouchers distributed by local NGOs. Seattle-based World Concern has designed a brilliant system to feed desparate victims of drought and famine in eastern Kenya and southern Somalia. In fact, most nations donating food aid are moving towards giving vouchers.

No surprise when you see the benefits. Food vouchers are faster, cheaper, more dignified for the needy, and don't harm the area's economy. In fact, they grow it. Regional farmers have a new market and local merchants have new business: distributing food to places like Dhobley, Somalia near the Dabaab refugee complex. A Somali NGO, the African Rescue Committee, determines who should get vouchers and distributes them. Needy families simply go shopping for their food in local markets. Shop owners accept vouchers knowing that, when they match up with duplicates, they receive a promissory note and eventual reimbursement to their bank account (electronic transfers from Nairobi of all things!). Unfortunately, US AID has not adopted this superior method of intervention. Why? Our motive isn't entirely pure. Our food aid is surplus crops the government buys to keep prices high for US producers.

Yet, this voucher and local-NGO-partnership idea is the kind of ingenuity poor people desperately need. And donors need to insist on it. We really shouldn't just be giving aid to people living in poverty, we should be giving effective aid--aid that uses innovation and smart alliances to build self-reliance and long-term development.

I welcome your comments. Look for more related posts as I continue my book research.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How Big is Your Spiritual Umbrella?

I'm a member of the Christian Universalist Association (CUA) and just read their latest newsletter. In it, Donne Hayden reported on the board's discussion on how large the CUA umbrella should be. I am really encouraged by some of their conclusions.

Answer: As big as it can be to cover any person who claims to be Christian and a Universalist. In other words, any "conservative" or "liberal" believer who fits the above would be included. This is a wise decision on their part because it is diametrically opposed to what evangelical and fundamentalist churches love to do: Draw boxes around doctrines and dogma and declare who is a true Christian and who is not. Typically, the doctrines include the many that are problematic when examined closely. Namely, biblical inerrancy and its literal authoritative nature, hell, the return of Christ, the end times, the institutional church, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and more. Even more moderate evangelical organizations have this tendency, such as World Vision, who recently won a lawsuit (and an appeal) brought against them by former employees they fired because one didn't subscribe to the deity of Christ and the other, the Trinity.

In my former life as an evangelical, I carried far too small an umbrella and adhered to a far too narrow statement of faith. Hayden cites Jonah as a biblical example of someone who had a small umbrella. But God's rebuke of him reveals God even includes His enemies in his cosmic umbrella, calling Ninevah to repent (not to a particular dogma, but of their violent ways) but even moreso, showing his care and concern for the most misguided people. How much more should we? I welcome your comments.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A New Spiritual Age

I recently read Harvey Cox's latest book, The Future of Faith, and took away a few nuggets of truth that are very encouraging. First, Cox divides the history of Christianity into three periods: the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, and the Age of the Spirit. The Age of Faith was the two centuries after Christ, when followers embraced the Spirit and emulated Jesus in community. "Faith" is more accurately translated "trust," as this period was not about doctrine but trusting a new way of relating to God through Jesus.

The Age of Belief--which includes the dark ages--is from the time of Constantine to the 20th century. During this period the focus was on what one believed--either orthodox dogma and creeds or heresies--rather than trust in Christ. Some of this period is still going on within fundamentalism and literalist evangelicals as they dig in their heels around various traditional views. For example, Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll told his flock not to read The Shack because it promoted unbiblical ideas. I'm not sure why he didn't encourage people to read it and decide for themselves. This "Age of Belief" mindset puts more emphasis on what one believes rather than on how one acts in terms of loving others and living like Jesus did. Notice how a conservative blog portrays and endorses Driscoll and how many times "heretical" and "false teaching" are mentioned. "Age of Belief" people will find it difficult to admit that The Shack might have some redeeming value, even if they disagree with some of it.

The Age of the Spirit, Cox argues, has begun and will continue to emerge as new paradigms replace fundamentalist and literalist thinking and as the number of non-Western Christians grow. This Age is also a renewal of the initial Age of Faith (Trust), as focus isn't on the details of what one believes, but how one is led by the Spirit of love (Not that what one believes is irrelevant, but it is secondary to love). I have seen this trend, especially in the last ten years, and trust Cox is correct. The Age of the Spirit is here to stay.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Why the Christian Right Should Support Gay Marriage

(Even Though They Believe It's a Sin)

Conservative churches need to do everything they can to reconcile with the LGBT community. I have written about the paradigm shift that needs to take place for this to happen and how it occurred in my evolution from conservative to progressive believer. Interestingly, until yesterday, I thought the only argument to present to my evangelical friends in favor of a reconciliation, which in my mind should include acceptance of gay marriage, was to show that the traditional Biblical basis for rejecting all homosexual behavior is flat-out wrong. This is still a good strategy, because the case is so strong that those "clobber" passages have been mistranslated and misinterpreted and that the NT law of love prevails in such cases. One can be a practicing homosexual and a Christian.

But wonders never cease. Misty Irons, a young mother, seminary graduate, and conservative Christian, has made a brilliant case that conservatives should support civil same-sex marriage, even though they believe it's a sin. How can this be? Irons says it's simply an issue of civil liberties and supporting such liberties is always to the church's advantage.

Think about it. Even the Christian Right always argues for religious liberty and concedes that people like Buddhists and New Agers should have a right to practice their religion, even though they would call it an idolatrous practice (I would add they do this in countless ways, e.g. not calling for a legal ban on pre-marital sex even though they call it a sin). The reason is simple. To protect their own religious liberty, the church supports the liberties of others they disagree with. This is the American way, after all. So, why not support the liberty of the LGBT community on the gay marriage issue?

You must read Iron's rationale, which is really quite good. She says the church should allow homosexuals the right of same-sex secular marriage to affirm their civil liberties, but still have the right to keep the conservative church's religious marriage homosexual free. She doesn't concede that there are progressive churches that would choose to accept homosexual religious marriage, but then again, her audience here is conservative Christians.

I was pleasantly surprised to see her logic and candor. Of course, as to be expected the conservative church is not taking up her recommendation. In fact, her own church forced her and her husband to leave their denomination as a result of her plea. Not surprising. But also take note she is a speaker at the Gay Christian Network conference next January. Way to go, Misty. And thank you for your insight and showing me I have another tool in my arsenal with which to challenge my evangelical friends on this issue.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Root of the Anti-Gay Church

The source of anti-gay homophobia in the church is the Christian worldview that buys into incoherent biblicisim. It's the view that the Bible is God's Word and the literal exclusive authority for Christian faith and practice. It claims the Bible is (1), inerrant, (2), self-sufficient, (3), self-evident in its meaning, (4), internally consistent, and (5), universally applicable. These are the root of a host of misguided theologies in mostly conservative churches, not the least of which is the anti-gay rhetoric and "ministries" that attempt, in the name of God, to de-gay GLBT people.

But as Christian Smith argues in his new book, The Bible Made Impossible, this worldview is indefensible. In light of logic, the Bible's own assertions, and the historical/cultural context of its writings, none of these five claims hold up to scrutiny. Therefore, the many theologies associated with this brand of biblicism (in addition to the attack on gays are the "end times," idolizing the institutional church, and making moralism superior to love) are false.

A more sensible way of looking at the Bible can still uphold much of it as inspired by God and holding a type of authority. However, this alternate way recognizes much of what it asserts was never meant to be universally applied as a set of behavior codes but is culturally or historically conditioned. Moreover, many of its proclamations are misinterpreted or mistranslated due to the misguided assumption that the divine word is always self evident.

In the case of religious conservatives, a handful of passages are used to condemn all homosexual behavior while ignoring the cultural evidence that biblical writers were addressing unique sexual sins, such as cultic prostitution, pederasty, and exploitation; also ignored is the New Testament powerful theme that all things are lawful as long as no harm is done to one's neighbor and love rules.

I trace my own personal evolution from evangelical narrow biblicist to progressive believer, and particularly my transformation from an anti-gay to a pro-gay position, in my forthcoming book Confessions of a Bible Thumper. As I was sincere and well meaning in my views, so are today's religious conservatives. The path to understanding is wrought with psychological and theological struggles. Activists should challenge prevailing narrow views on homosexuality, but should also be aware how entrenched this worldview root is.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why Rick Perry Makes Me Nervous

I have to admit, Rick Perry's rise to prominence among Republican presidential candidates, shortly after he convened a prayer meeting (The Response patterned after The Call), makes me nervous. Why? It has to do with his close alliance with the theology, ministries, and at least one former pastor of mine on the evangelical Christian Right.

On the surface, Perry has remarkably diverse political positions. While maintaining conservative credentials, he has called for a quick exit out of Afghanistan and Iraq, college financial assistance for children of illegal immigrants in Texas, and once used an executive order to create a mandatory HPV vaccine program for schoolgirls to fight cervical cancer. These are some of the reasons he has been attacked by other Republicans at the debates. He's doesn't fit neatly into their box. That part is good.

On the other hand, in other ways, he does fit the conservative bill. He scoffs at global warming, claims there are holes in the theory of evolution, and has a disdain and distrust of big government. Yet, these aren't the reasons I'm nervous. You see, I'd agree there are problems with orthodox Darwinian evolution (but support other unorthodox evolutionary theories) and have no problem with the "concept" of limited government, albeit I disagree with most conservatives on where to draw the line.

No, the reason I'm nervous is Perry (and Michelle Bachman for that matter) still buys into the popular evangelical fairy-tale notion that America is a Christian nation the roots of which we must return, or else. His kick-off prayer meeting was part political ploy and part rallying cry for true believers. By quoting strategically selected scripture (Joel 2), he told the audience, and the whole conservative evangelical movement, that he's one of them--one who, in the context of the OT prophet Joel, is calling our nation to repent of our sins (think gay and abortion rights) and return to the Lord. At Falwell's Liberty University, Perry said "America is going to be guided by some set of values. The question is gonna be, whose values? It's those Christian values that this country was based upon." Never mind that's not exactly true. We're equally based on Enlightenment values and some of the "Christian" values of our early history were detestable.

But what makes me really nervous is how Perry and the religious right and my old pastor Lou Engle (of The Call) define "Christian values." It's an extremely narrow, black-and-white view of Christ that I am all too familiar with, having spent almost 25 years in this movement. It's a view that ignores huge swaths of Christ's teachings. One that promotes OT law over NT grace (think Perry's pride at the 200+ executions in his state), militaristic solutions over non-violent alternatives, criminalization of homosexuality, protection of the rich from equitable tax increases, literalistic biblicism, and control (influence at the very least and dominion at worst) of government and major sectors of society. Some very devoted Christians would say these aren't Jesus' values at all.

These evangelical pseudo "Christian" values consider anyone outside the conservative fold as part and parcel of the enemy in a world of "spiritual warfare." It can't recognize that God works outside the institutional evangelical church/parachurch, reveals himself to people of other religions, and our current President, although obviously not perfect, is a devoted follower of Christ and might actually have some Christian values of his own!

What makes me nervous is not the Christian values, but the inconsistency in claiming them--the narrow mindset--and how it negatively affects public policy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Does Jesus Need Saving?

Yes, according to the Saving Jesus Redux DVD I recently purchased. "Kidnapped by the Christian Right, discarded by the Secular Left, Jesus needs saving." I'm enjoying the host of theologians that explore a more credible Christ for the 21st century and yes, I give a hearty "amen" to the program's premise.

In my experience within evangelicalism, the Christ of the scriptures (and of the original first century gatherings of followers), although honored as Lord in evangelical churches, was routinely used to espouse political, social, and "moral" positions that today I find are foreign to the gospel message. Pushing church hierarchy and programs, mandatory doctrines, acceptable behavior codes, and devotional rituals come to mind. As does condemning gays and lesbians, worshiping the Bible, preaching exclusive salvation, and twisting scripture to create a "last days" mentality that assumes we are on the cusp of the "end" with the world going to pot. These attitudes provoked an "us vs. them" approach to life and society that can be seen in religious right personalities today, including some of the leading Republican candidates (think Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman) and their supporters who come across like only their brand of Jesus is authentic.

On the other end, are secularists who mock all faith and ignore Jesus as an irrelevant religious teacher of a bygone era who has no claim on modern society. It appears they haven't twisted scripture, but have discounted Christ's teaching based on those who have.

This set of discussions on DVD is more evidence for the new trend that Harvey Cox explains as the Age of the Spirit--a movement where traditional Christianity is giving way to more grassroots and organic communities of faith (rather than institutions) who take Jesus seriously, respect biblical scholarship and historical evidence, and focus on the inclusive message of the good news, particularly that love, not religious law, is paramount. Yes, Jesus, and his teaching, need saving. Listen to Saving Jesus and see how you can help with the rescue.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Church on Tap!

I meet with a group of progressive Christians at a restaurant or pub from time to time to discuss spirituality. You never know who is going to show up! Last week, eight people came, representing a continuum from conservative evangelical to avowed atheist and everything in between. My friend Jonathan, said, "I live for this kind of discussion!"

These type of meet ups are critical to build bridges in the religious community. No one is trying to convert the other and everyone's perspective is respected, although also occasionally challenged in good faith. These meetings are foreign to my days in my evangelical enclave, where people were content to build an alternate moralistic universe (where everyone basically believes the same way) to protect themselves from the "world."

So during the conversation, a guy name James announces, "I go to a Foursquare church and wanted to get outside the walls, so started Church on Tap. Our group gets together at a different microbrewery every month to encourage each other and share our love for good brew."

If you know about my new book, you'll know both of these meetings sound familiar. At the end of each chapter, which deals with a hot-topic issue, friends and I discuss it over a couple of microbrews. I believe these types of organic groups are key to the future of Christianity and a way of building bridges with others of various spiritual stripes. Meeting at microbreweries is just one of a myriad of ideas. The important thing is to get outside (and in some cases, out from under) the church structure.

Our progressive Seattle Meetup and Church on Tap are good examples of an emerging trend. I'll drink to that! Will you join me?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Water, Hope, and Life out of Death: The Story of Rachel Beckwith

How could a tragic car accident that killed a nine-year-old girl this month have a silver lining? Because of Rachel Beckwith's one act of compassion before she died. Just a month earlier, she had requested people not buy her birthday gifts but rather make a donation to an international agency called Charity: Water--an organization that brings clean and safe drinking water to the poor in developing nations. Her goal was to raise $300. When the community heard of her death and commitment to help, an outpouring of support flooded Charity: Water. By this week, $200,000 has been raised. It's likely her $300 wish will turn into $300,000! Maybe more.

Charity: Water is not just pouring money into projects with little long-term impact. They are committed to sustainability, which means building community ownership, partnering with local organizations, and designing an ongoing maintenance program for their projects, which include wells, protected springs, and rainwater catchments. May more of us help make Rachel's dream come true and honor her short-but-meaningful life by participating in this effort to empower the poor.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review of Julie Ferwerda's Raising Hell

Here's my review of Julie Ferwerda's new book on

Finally, permission to think for ourselves!

For too long most Christians have been told the Bible they hold in their hands is inerrant, miraculously preserved, and its pronouncements should be accepted without question. Any doubts about the Bible's major teachings are interpreted as "liberal" bias or "heresy." Julie Ferwerda, in Raising Hell: Christianity's Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire, reveals why these assumptions are grossly misplaced.

On the issue of hell, Julie brilliantly weaves the case for believers to think for themselves and honestly investigate this controversial doctrine. One that, for many of us, clashes with our sense of reason and experience with God's love. If you have a high view of scripture and you've ever openly (or secretly) questioned the concept of eternal conscious punishment, this book is a must read. It traces Julie's sincere quest for biblically affirming answers about the afterlife based on objective scholarship.

Our modern Bible is the product of centuries of institutional and theological interpretations that may or may not be accurate. What Julie does is show us how important it is to understand what a Bible passage originally meant. If we don't, we are not honoring the Bible but dishonoring it. Julie's conclusion is the modern church, through mistranslations and misinterpretations, reads hell into the Bible, rather than derives it from the original meaning. When we read the Bible with a "Hebrew lens," we discover the modern concept of hell is foreign, she says. As she clearly argues, she's not the first person to come to this conclusion. The notion of everlasting torment was not a widely held view for centuries--including among early Church fathers--until the Western (Catholic) Church took root.

Having taken the same journey as Julie's, I especially appreciate this courageously written book that helps readers think critically while maintaining their faith. Far from advocating an easy believism, Julie's Christian Universalist take on the hereafter doesn't belittle God's judgment, but puts it into the context of a consistently loving God. Without an air of superiority (that some Universalists may have), Julie uses both heart and head to make her case. You will enjoy her personal vignettes and appreciate her in-depth biblical research (Part 4 alone, the Resources for sound Bible study are worth the price of admission). Whether you welcome such a message or find it unsettling, Julie will give you a smooth ride and let you come to your own conclusion.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rob Bell's Hell

Looks like Rob Bell has stolen my thunder with his new book Love Wins and now front page coverage on Time Magazine. Well, good for him! Having only read the Time article and not the book (yet), I don't have full knowledge of his arguments, only that he is making the case for an alternative to the traditional understanding of hell--an evangelical-style Universalism. And a view I wholeheartedly endorse and defend in a chapter in my book.

What's fascinating to me is the reaction of the evangelical world. From John Piper tweeting "farewell Rob Bell," to the claim his arguments are out of context and ambiguous, to Amazon reviews that charge he made the flimsiest case or that claim hell is essential to the gospel, to David McDonald at The Ooze who makes the outrageous assertion that Bell is irresponsible for writing the book in the first place! Rob Bell has deliberately chosen to expose the world to some of our ugliest flaws, he says, referring to the reaction of the Religious Right. Are you kidding? Rob Bell is irresponsible because he knew how people would react to his book? Was Jesus irresponsible because he knew how the Religious Right of his day would react to his message?

Then there's McDonald's even more ridiculous assertion: Rob Bell was also irresponsible in publishing this book this way because of what he did to everyday, ordinary pastors like me... Rob Bell has forced the rest of us to speak up about our own beliefs concerning the Final Judgment. You can't be serious! Then McDonald goes on to admit he has rarely if ever taught on the subject for 15 years because he'd rather talk about the good news not the bad news.

Now let me get this straight. Rob Bell should have shut his trap about this subject because he's making us all look bad that we purposely avoid a large swath of scripture because we don't have the courage to address it head on. I'm sorry, David McDonald, and anyone who agrees with you, but Rob Bell is free. Free to preach on the whole biblical narrative and ask the tough questions to ascertain the truth. And you're free to avoid those questions. Just don't blame Rob Bell when you do.

I look forward to reading this book. From Amazon reviews, in my mind, it appears the book's only weakness is that it doesn't exegete the eternal punishment passages very well, nor back up the claim of Universalism in the early church with solid evidence. Perhaps an oversight by Bell, but hardly a reason to reject his case with the growing number of other books on the subject, e.g. The Inescapable Love of God, The Evangelical Universalist, and even a more conservative variety in Hope Beyond Hell (and the Universal Life chapter in my forthcoming book). Really, we ought to thank Rob Bell for being responsible and courageous to address difficult questions and be willing to rethink this problematic doctrine in light of the biblical and historical evidence.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

What Would Jesus Brew?

WWJB? It’s a legitimate question. Jesus drank with the best of them. He made choice wine from water at a wedding in Cana—and lots of it. About 150 gallons. In case you’re wondering, that’s about 800 bottles. And it was good stuff.

“You saved the best for last,” said the master of the banquet to the bridegroom. All proof that Jesus approved of earthly celebrations and drinking, despite the fact that some fundamentalists make the ludicrous claim that his wine wasn’t fermented. It was. The Greek word used is oinos, which means fermented drink derived from grapes. In fact, in the Torah, God told the Israelites to use a portion of their tithe to buy food, wine, and strong drink—whatever their appetites craved—for an annual party. Like the Cana wedding, it was a time of rejoicing, which the Psalmist echoed when he said “He makes wine that gladdens the heart of man [and woman].” The scriptures tell us the abundance of wine is a divine blessing.

Don’t get nervous, teetotalers. God does not approve of alcohol abuse. Paul told his hearers “don’t get drunk with wine” in the Greek continuous tense; meaning don’t be in the habit of overindulging. The implication is, it’s fine to tie one on with restraint once in a while, as the Israelites were encouraged to do once a year; just beware of the dangers of drunkenness, in other words, alcoholism. It will ruin your life. Today, unlike biblical times, it is complicated by the deadly combination of drinking and driving.

But what of societies where moderate imbibing is practiced responsibly? If Jesus was invited to a wedding in Belgium or Germany or the home of an American microbrewer, and his mother Mary was worried because they ran out of beer, what would he brew? You can bet your bottom dollar it wouldn’t be Bud Lite.


New Website Launched:

It's been awhile since my last post but I do have a good excuse. I've been developing, tweeking, and launching my new website at! Please check it out and give me your feed back. There's a summary of the two books I'm working on and an articles page, which includes screeds on my crazy theological ideas.

My book, Confessions of a Bible Thumper: From Evangelical to Heretic on My Quest for a Reasoned Faith recently got back from my editor, Jason Black. Jason gave me incredibly valuable feedback and advice that I trust will take the book to the next level. He also really liked it--despite the fact that he's an atheist--and told me "it's a darn good book."

The manuscript will have Jason's input incorporated later this spring. Then it will be time to market it (websites, interviews, speaking), search again for an agent, and get it in line for publication. Stay tuned for more news here and more material/articles on my website.