Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dangerous Fences - Higher and Stronger (Walls and Fences)

(a parable)

A few weeks after building the fence between us and our son, we were sitting at the kitchen table of our daughter's house. The mood was sad, and we missed our son's lively conversation. It broke our hearts to have to cut him off like that, but what else could we do?

While we were discussing how we had no choice, we heard a giant CRASH. When we ran into the yard, one of my daughter's kids was breaking down a fence. The anger and bitterness in her voice was palpable, as she screamed about hating fences and oppression. Our son's influence was being felt already. This merely confirmed for us that we had made the right decision.

 Of course, we had to rebuild that fence, but we made it stronger and higher. The offending child was given a few extra temporary fences, and the problem seemed to be addressed effectively. But it wasn't, and soon the fence was knocked down again, only this time a couple of the kids were involved. It didn't matter how strong or high my daughter made the fences, they would get together and smash through it.

It was a hard decision, but my daughter confined the offending children to the house. They had to be kept safe from the danger, and danger seemed to be cropping up more and more these days. What else was she to do? She obviously loves her children, and their safety is her primary concern. It seemed that walls were better than fences.

The difficulty of keeping the children occupied in the house was obvious, but my daughter is a clever lady. She poured her life into the kid's education, making sure to teach them about the importance of high and strong fences. She paid special attention to explaining the danger of going over, around, or through fences. That way, when they left the house, they would be able to stay safe.

Every once in a while they would venture out, but only when she was there to tell them exactly what to do. That was when I noticed the children had learned a secret way out of the house. As long as their mother thought they were playing in their rooms, they could go outside and play. My daughter was doing everything right, but the high walls and strong fences didn't seem to help. They always seemed to find a way over, around, or through both walls and fences.

No wall was high enough, and no fence was strong enough. As a grandfather, I couldn't do much other than watch, and I couldn't help but feel that the children were like a seething pot. While the kids were relatively well managed, they didn't seem contented or happy. They say you get to see how effective you were as a parent when you watch your grandchildren, and I was beginning to get nervous. The situation seemed hopeless...

Next: One More Time Around the Fences
Previous: Fences or Windows

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dangerous Fences - Fences or Windows?

(a parable)

The following is what transpired, as best as I can remember it, of the conversation I mentioned at the end of the previous post:

"Windows are much better than fences," I heard my son assert, but his sister's retort was quick and decisive, "You've got to be kidding! Haven't you learned anything from mom and dad?" [I was not a little nervous at this turn in the conversation, but I was also too interested to interject. My whole life was invested into these two and their siblings, and there was too much at stake to simply ignore such an important conversation. Besides...I was curious as to why my son had so thoroughly rejected my fences.]


Of course, I love mom and dad dearly and greatly respect what they were trying to accomplish [I was thankful for this]. However, I don't think the fences they built really did what they expected. You know, as well as I, that the fences didn't prevent our playing on the other side; we simply learned how to do it so that we looked like we were playing on the right side of the fence. Remember how we used to do it? [I confess that my curiosity was piqued]

Daughter: could I forget? It is true that there were certain places where we could play that had the appearance of staying in the fences, but we were too careless. Higher fences would have prevented that, and the added benefit would be the removal of temptation. Higher and stronger fences help our children learn to stay in the fence. [I couldn't help but resonate with her assertion, but an uneasy nod of approval was all I could muster]


Why would I want them to learn how to stay in the fences? The danger isn't even close to the fences, and I would rather them learn to recognize and avoid it...


That is simply irresponsible! Children always go over, around, and through the fences, and if you put the fences so close to the danger, they will surely get hurt! [Amen, I thought]


...give me a chance to finish...don't you see how you are contradicting yourself? All those fences are built on the assumption that children always go over, around, or through fences, and you haven't actually prevented it. All you have done is make it safer, but don't you remember what we discovered about the danger? We seemed to always discover some new and dangerous places inside the fences. Sometimes we got hurt, but we hid the hurt so that dad wouldn't build another fence.


But that is why parents must be increasingly vigilant and keep building fences! We really need to cultivate a relationship with our kids that allows them to be open about the dangers, so that we can build fences to help them avoid the dangers. How is it that you could leave dangerous places unguarded? [Good question, I was really proud of that girl]


Who said that they were unguarded? We simply have chosen to build windows in the house so that we could keep an eye on the yard. Every danger is in full view, and we spend a lot of time walking and playing with the children. We simply don't have time to build a lot of fences, and it really hasn't been necessary.


But don't your kids get hurt?


Sometimes, but we are usually nearby. We have chosen to spend the time we used to spend building fences by watching over them, helping when they fall, and instructing them how to see and avoid the dangers. When we lived inside the fences all the time, we didn't learn to recognize the dangers, or we learned the hard way. [He did seem to be making sense, but everybody has fences. It is impossible to go through life without them.]


However, you can't simply get rid of the fences. Every house has fences, and it is impossible to live without them. [That's my girl] We can't possibly be so vigilant as to prevent the kids from every danger, and what happens when you aren't looking? The fences keep them on the right side of the fence when we aren't able to watch.


But we have already agreed that it didn't prevent us from playing on the other side of the fence. [His frustration was beginning to show]


True, but we could still play safely, even though we went over, around, or through the fence. That is the true genius of dad's fences [heheheh...that was probably a little over the top]; as long as they were far enough away from the danger when they go over, around, or through the fence, they wont be hurt by their actions. [Atta girl]


But we have already seen that there were dangers both inside and outside the fences, and those dangers increase over time! [hmmmm...]


Exactly...and that is why we must keep building fences. We should never tear them down, and the whole window thing...that seems extraordinarily dangerous. Without high fences, there will be nothing to prevent the children from seeing and going near the dangers. If we build windows in our house, it would only make it easier for them to see where there are weaknesses in the fences. If we put in windows, like you suggest, there would be nothing keeping the children from making a b-line to the danger. [That was a really good point]

Son: higher fences don't prevent danger; more fences don't prevent danger; and no matter where you set the fences, danger is not as far away as you would like. Don't you see the problem? Fences cannot prevent or help to avoid danger! [My discomfort was on the rise, and I simply couldn't stand by and let my son destroy all those fences. I had to interrupt...]

I told my son that I was disappointed at his position on fences, and it was plain to me that he had clearly fallen into danger himself. He was so affected that he didn't see it. We were grieved, and though he stammered and denied he was in danger, it was clear. For the sake of our other children; we wouldn't be coming back to visit.

I had to build another fence.

Next: Higher and Stronger (Walls and Fences)
Previous: Second Generation Fence Building

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dangerous Fences - Second Generation Fence Building

(a parable)

I have already explained how and why we came to have all these fences (and a few barriers) around our house, but I haven't really told you the whole story. Many of our neighbors watched our lives carefully, and they genuinely seemed to appreciate how well behaved and orderly our house was. However, they were very critical of how we "sheltered" our kids.

They warned us that there might be problems after our kids started building homes for themselves, and we dismissed their critique as simply being people who loved the product but didn't like the process. We were very proud of our kids.  It wasn't long after we built the fences with our back-yard neighbor that things began to unravel, and before we knew what had happened, everything we had worked for began falling apart.

It was at this time that our oldest son soon moved away to begin his own household, and we were very careful to help him establish all the right fences and barriers for his family. After didn't make sense for him to have to learn the hard way. He would be ahead of the game by using our yard as a template.

We thought things were going well, and he seemed to have gotten a good start following our advise. Of course, we didn't mind the few minor changes that he made here or there. As long as he had high fences, his kids would be safe. Of course, it wasn't long before he began to notice that his kids were finding their way over, around, or through their fences, and he would always come to us for assistance in how to construct and maintain strong fences. However, we knew something was wrong when he gradually stopped coming to us for advise.

As concerned parents, we worried that he might be tempted to remove some of those good fences, but we didn't want to interfere with their home. After a long period of near silence, we drove down their road, looking those familiar fences, but to our horror, most of the fences were removed or destroyed. He had lowered what few fences were left, and to top it off, he had built many windows in his house, overlooking the dangerous places. His kids were definitely not being kept safe.

We thought we had taught him better than that, and we pleaded with him to put the fences back and protect his family. We reminded him of the hurt that always happened to those who played on the other side of the fences, but he didn't seem to listen. We also tried to help him understand that the windows he had built would only make his family desire the other side of the fences more, but he was immovable, and our hearts were broken.

There was one bright spot in our lives. Our oldest daughter married a fine young man, very much like her father, and he was especially careful about fences. We were glad to see this because we didn't want her to have the same problems that her brother was having. Our son-in-law even asked permission to use our yard as an example, and even though he took away a few minor fences added a few of his own, he had very high fences, and we knew that at least their kids were safe.  All we could do is watch and see what would happen to our children; it was a very helpless feeling.

On the one hand, our daughter's kids were the picture of goodness. They were growing older, and of course, they tried the fences as all children tend to do, but our daughter was right on top of it. She remembered how her and her brother used to secretly play on the other side of the fence, so she was careful to construct new fences and repair the ones that were getting old.

Then on the other hand, we were increasingly burdened by our eldest son. There were very few fences in his yard, lower than they should have been and painted red, instead of white. He seemed to be rebelling against the high fences that we had made a part of his youth. The worst part was the many that you could see every area of the yard, including the dangerous places. It was almost as if he was rejecting everything that we taught him.

Thanksgiving we all met at our son's house, and we determined to try one last time to help him see his error. We asked him why he built all the windows and took down the good fences, and he started by reminiscing about sneaking around the fences with his sister. He described how they learned that they could go over, through, or around the fence, as long as they were careful not to look like they were on the wrong side. We were surprised at how often they played there.

In the middle of the conversation, he and his sister began to argue. She contended that higher fences were needed, and she claimed this was what she and her husband had done with great success. He, on the other hand, said that all the extra fences didn't address the dangers at all and that windows were a far better way to address the problems that they were describing. It would be hard to tell you the gist of the discussion, so next time, I'll just bring a copy of their conversation for you to read.

Next: Fences or Windows?
Previous: The Other Side of the Fence

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dangerous Fences - The Other Side of the Fence

There is an interesting article from Dave Doran, on his blog. In it, he talked about building fences, and it reminded me of a series of posts on my old blog called "Dangerous Fences" that was one of the all-time most read series of articles. It is a parable about a family and their experience with fences, and I will post the series over the next few days:

Dangerous Fences - The Other Side of the Fence
There was an open place in our yard, with an unobstructed path to a dangerous spot, so I built a fence to prevent my kids from going there. It wasn't long before one child discovered that the fence didn't extend into the trees, and they went around to play on the other side. What is a good father to do? I built another fence.

This one extended further and was set back a little more from the danger, just in case one of my kids might go around again. Can you believe it? The pull from the other side of the fence was so strong, that one of my kids tested the fence until they discovered they could go through a small opening in one side. I had no choice, I built another fence, longer and stronger than the last. My children must be kept safe.

The fence wasn't all I was going to do this time; my children needed to be cautioned about going beyond the fence. It was there for their own protection. So I explained that when I was younger, I went to the other side of the fence and got hurt, and I didn't want them to be hurt as well. They needed a healthy fear of what is on the other side of the fence. The only problem was my trouble-making neighbor.

He let his kids play on the other side of their fence, within sight of my own children. When my kids began to notice and questioned why I built the fence, I explained that the other father was unwise to allow his children to play so near to the danger. They would get hurt sooner or later.

Well...the other day, the thing I feared the most actually happened. One of my children crept around the fence to play with the neighbors, and my child was hurt. So what was a father to do? I built another fence and again explained how playing on the other side of the fence was dangerous. At least now they had an example of the danger, and to remind them even more, I put up a sign, with a picture of their brother, hurt on the other side of the fence.

It wasn't long before one of the neighbor's kids were hurt as well, and I was sure to point it out to my children. "That is why we have all these fences," I said, "They are good and right." Only unwise parents allow their children to play on the other side of the fence, and only unwise children go around, through, or over the fences that their parents have built.

You know...that wasn't the end of the matter.

I discovered one afternoon, that one of my children was talking through the fence to one of the neighbors. Their friendship was tempting my kids to try to find a way over, around, or through the fence. What else could I do? I was forced to build a barrier to keep the neighbor's kids away from my yard. My children had to be kept safe. At least they could play with the neighbors on the other side of us; they had the same fences that we have. Their children were safe.

Our problem was first noticeable when my neighbor said that he didn't agree with the barrier we had erected. After all, he had a neighbor that didn't have the right fences either. However, one by one, his kids were enticed over the fence into danger. Some even got hurt, but even worse than that, they began undermining my neighbor's fences so that other children could get through. After I noticed my kids playing on the other side of the fence, I knew there was no other choice. I built another fence and another barrier between us and them. My kids must be safe.

I was in the back yard a few days later and I discovered that the family behind us had the same experiences. They were so very like-minded that we got together and built another fence. This one extended around both of our houses, so we made certain that our families were both safe together. It was so wonderful to see the kids playing with their friends in the back yard, and the front yard was so close to the danger, they were better off back there anyway. An added benefit was that our united approach to fences gave our families the opportunity to meet together to reinforce the dangers inherent on the other side of the fence. We were careful to point out how much better it was in our yard and how unwise it was for the other neighbors to have so few fences.

We didn't know it at the time, but the kids usually went to the front yard to play when we weren't looking. However, as wise parents, we expected that they would test the fences (kids always do), and this is why we built those fences so far from the danger. At least now that they have grown older, they are still safe, even if they go over, around, or through the fence. As long as we are careful to encourage them back, they will be kept away from the danger on the other side of the fence.

Of course, you might not understand all the fences and barriers in our yard, but at least our kids are safe...

Next: Second Generation Fence Building

Friday, March 25, 2011

Worst Ever Worship Experience

While traveling through the south one Sunday, we found a church and stopped in for services before continuing our trip. At that time, our two oldest kids were very young, and we had no idea that we were in for quite a unique experience, but there were a few harbingers of things to come that we began to notice as we entered the building.

Walking through the auditorium, we heard the organist playing an arrangement of "Amazing Grace." It was unique, to say the least. The stop selections evoked a Calliope sound that was more reminiscent of a carnival than anything, but at least the organist was playing in a style that was consistent with her stop selections. Unfortunately the effect, musically, was comedic.

It wasn't long before we were greeted by a smiling couple, who proudly informed us that there was no nursery for our kids because, "Kids don't disrupt our services." As I said, our kids were very young, and even though they were fairly well behaved, I had a hard time understanding how that could be. Either way, we took our seats near the back and waited for the service to start, curious about how this would work out.

As we sat, listening to the organist's caricatures of various traditional hymns, I noticed that the drum set on the platform had microphones set up to amplify them. That was odd, since the auditorium was definitely not large enough to warrant amplifying the drums, and in the moments before the service started, my mind started to connect the dots while trepidation replaced curiosity.

The music was painfully loud, even where we were seated in the back of the auditorium, and the sounds were a confused cacophony at best. Calliope music from the organ was being hammered into submission by the drum as a piano and other instruments struggled to get some attention as well. The lyrics were completely overwhelmed by a sonic experience that was so out of control it made thinking impossible.

At least the loudness served one useful purpose. The people around us probably thought my oldest son (who now plays keyboard with us) was singing as the music drowned out his insistent observation, "Bad music, daddy! Bad music!" He was right. It was awful, and although it might seem impossible, the whole service went downhill from there.

This experience is still the worst ever example of a worship service I have ever heard, but how do we evaluate it? Can we really say it was bad? Is there some way to determine what is good worship music? If it is left to the audience, then those around me seemed to have a very different reaction than mine, and we would have to say that it was good...for them. So can we really judge a piece of music as being bad?

I would like to suggest that there are a few items that we should consider when choosing, playing, or leading worship music: the communication of the music, the content of the lyric, the quality of the art, and the question of the heart.

Briefly, we should be concerned with what our music is communicating, and we should evaluate this according to a broader cultural context than the local church. Either way, it is a mistake to think that your music isn't saying something about your church and its message, and if what the music communicates is important, then the content of our lyrics should be very important. So if you really want to be effective, the emotional communication of your music should match the lyrical content, which should be thoroughly grounded in the word of Christ and blossoming with spiritual fruit.

Music that is artistically superior, will stand the test of time. It will have a melody and core harmonic structure that are timeless. One of the ways you can recognize a good song is if it can communicate effectively outside of its original context. Bach is a tremendous example, as his music is so enduring that it is still recognizable and communicates effectively, even when played in a variety of contexts and styles.

We should strive to keep the art of our worship music as high as we can, with the resources that we have at our disposal. This doesn't mean that we need professional musicians in order to have good worship. Quite the contrary, the desire for technical and artistic quality needs to be balanced with the communal nature of worship music that is concerned with the heart of each individual and the unity of the church.

An inferior musical expression can have greater impact and clearer communication when the participants are authentic. In other words, just as the emotion of the music should match the content of the lyrics, the heart of the song should be matched by the heart of the musician. Just as it makes little sense to pair loving lyrics with angry music, it makes little sense to have a wicked heart singing songs of holiness.

When music reflects an emotion that is consonant with the lyrics, when the lyrics express truth that reflects Christ fully, when the worshipers are in a right relationship with Christ and are bent on loving Him and one another, when all of these elements are in harmony with one another, we will have truly amazing worship. When this chain is disjointed, out of alignment, or broken, the worship will be qualitatively (or possibly even morally) inferior.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Love vs. Justice - Brian Mclaren weighs in

Brian Mclaren has recently written a rebuttal to Al Mohler's critique of Rob Bell, which really shouldn't surprise anyone. I would like to address a piece of Mclaren's article that relates to my own critique of Bell's book. Here is what he wrote:
First, many of us are concerned about the traditional doctrine of hell for reasons of justice and holiness, not mere sentimentality. Even putting God's loving nature aside for a moment, it's very hard to square the idea of eternal conscious torment with a just or holy God, especially when Jesus repeatedly encourages us to trust God as a just and holy father (in contrast to human fathers who, Jesus points out, can be downright evil). If a human father decided to throw his child in a fireplace for just ten seconds as punishment for disobedience, we wouldn't fault the father simply for being unsentimental: we would say such behavior was unholy, an act of torture in violation of our most fundamental sense of justice. Any definition of justice and holiness that involves being unsatisfied unless the imperfect are suffering eternal agony seems to many of us as unworthy of a human being and if so, how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own.
That doesn't solve the problem, and it doesn't address all the biblical texts that those who defend the traditional view can quote from memory. (Which is a legitimate topic for civil discourse - discourse that I hope will come in the next innings of play.) But it does demand that the question be opened so the traditional interpretations of those texts can be reconsidered - alongside the other often-marginalized texts that argue for a wideness in God's mercy and a compassion in God's justice. Having grappled with those texts myself, like Rob I found it more reasonable and faithful to the full witness of Scripture to conclude that love wins through God's restorative (not merely punitive) justice. And no, that's not traditional universalism because it works within a very different framing narrative than traditional universalism, exclusivism, and inclusivism all assume.
In answering Mclaren, Dr. Mohler has addressed each of his four critiques, but there is something here that I would like to address specifically that is related to my previous post. In that article, I argued against Bell's position, suggesting that he is wrong in regards to the relationship between Love and Justice. That article is focused on the nature of divine love, and in this article I would like to look at Mclaren's defense of Bell in relation to divine justice.

Categories are Important:
Of course, whenever we discuss these sorts of things, it is important to know that we are talking about the same things, so with that in mind, I would like to examine a few key ideas that under-gird the above quote. In the process, I will contend that Bell and Mclaren have shifted the terms and categories of the discussion in making a case for their position.

Child / Enemy?
In the example that Mclaren uses, that of a father throwing his child into the fire, there are several assumptions that require some scrutiny. In the first place, the traditional position has God's enemies as the objects of His wrath, rather than God's own family. By telling the story in this way, the discussion is prejudiced against hell, but the story doesn't match the Biblical narrative. A better, more biblical, story would be something like this:

A father wakes up to gunshots only to discover a murderer and thief in his house, who has shot and killed his son. After warning him and calling on him to lay down the weapon and surrender, the criminal responds by shooting at the father and empties his gun. The father then moves in and throws the man into the fireplace. But now imagine that the criminal in the above story actually lays down his weapon and asks the father's forgiveness. Then, in response, the father forgives the criminal, accepts him into his house and treats him like family.

That version of the story is far better aligned with the Biblical narrative than Mclaren's, and the emotional impact, rhetorically, is quite different. The fact is that we must be reconciled to God before we are considered anything more than an enemy, but when we have been reconciled, we are adopted into His family. The truth of reconciliation, in Mclaren's narrative, does not adequately consider the state of man as confirmed enemies who have participated in the murder of His son. It also does not adequately consider the significance of those enemies who repent being adopted into God's family.

Imperfect / Rebel?
This problem shows up again when Mclaren says,
"Any definition of justice and holiness that involves being unsatisfied unless the imperfect are suffering eternal agony seems to many of us as unworthy of a human being and if so, how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own." 
Again, you can see that he is shifting the verbiage to minimize the significance of sin as active rebellion rather than the result of a flaw. Using the language of mere "flaws" implies that the problem of the human condition is introduced through no fault of their own, or at least that it makes sin understandable or even excusable. A flawed person needs our pity and our help, where an evil person must be destroyed.

This can be easily seen in respect to Satan. First consider that the original rebel took up arms to overthrow God and then deceived our first parents, which introduced untold human suffering and ruined the perfect God-glorifying creation. Then consider that hell is a place that was prepared for him and all those who follow him. Those who remain in Satan's family, following him in his rebellion and participating in the defacing of God's glory, earn their place with him in the day of vengeance.

The bottom line is that the human race is not simply passively flawed, every one of us are confirmed and active rebels to God's rule. This places us in the category of children of wrath, and unless that changes, God is perfectly just to punish us with the vengeance that our father, the devil, has earned.

Restorative / Punitive (or both)?
This leads us to a question; is justice ever restorative? Well, yes - when God chastens his children, he is moving them toward Himself and correcting them in a way that will produce more Christ-likeness in them. Is justice ever punitive? It would be hard to argue that it wasn't, particularly when God's justice is meted out upon Pharaoh, for example. Didn't his rebellion earn him the plagues? Who would argue that he didn't deserve what he got?

But Mclaren inserts the word, "merely" in a way that suggests three main thoughts. First is that punitive justice is inferior to restorative justice, and second is that even punitive justice, if it is present at all, is expected to be restorative. Finally, there is the intimation that God's divine justice could never be "merely" punitive, since his justice is expected to be better than ours and restorative justice is better. Regardless of whether allowance is made for limited punitive justice, the effect is to assert that God's justice is always restorative.

At least one path we may take to test this idea is related to Satan. If Mclaren is correct, the door must be open for God's restorative justice to reconcile with Satan himself. Yet Jesus taught, regarding the nature of hell, that it is a place that was prepared for him and the angels who followed him. This means that Bell and Mclaren must leave the door open that this place can be emptied, even of those for whom it was prepared, otherwise God's justice can, indeed, be purely punitive.

We can also examine this matter in the light of the cross for a clear understanding of the key issues, for if Bell and Mclaren are correct, the idea that the Father's wrath was poured out upon the Son must be discarded for some alternate view. The alternative would suggest that the transaction on the cross is not Christ taking the penalty for our sin but is really a demonstration of restorative forgiveness in the face of human violence. We can examine this notion without too much difficulty.

Upon scrutiny, the alternative offered is inadequate, at best. In the first place, Jesus Himself did not think of Himself as a victim of violent men on the cross. In John 10:18 Jesus said no one takes His life, but He has the power to lay it down and take it up again. That is exactly what He did. We cannot perceive the cross in a different light than our Lord, who viewed it as an act of obedience to the Father to lay down His life - on our behalf.

That phrase, on our behalf, is not insignificant. We see this concept in Galatians 3:13, Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 2:24, and 1 Peter 3:18. In each of these verses there is something inherent in the crucification that belonged to us, which was our sins, lawlessness. Jesus, who kept the law perfectly, was crucified for those who broke it continually, but where is the justice in that? How can God punish the Innocent? Did Christ deserve the cross? To this question we must answer, yes. Wait! The answer is no... isn't it?

This is important; when Jesus took sin upon Himself, he owned them as His own sins and took the guilt upon Himself as well. It isn't simply that he took the punishment; He claimed your sins, and the wrath of God, and the condemnation that was upon you as a result! In a very real way, He became a sinner so that you could become righteous in the sight of God. This was the exchange made on the cross, and lest we misunderstand, the physical suffering was not the worst of it. God the Father turned His back on the Son.

So sin brings death, separation from God as well as physical death, and Christ owned your sin unto death. That sounds like punishment of the just for the unjust, and indeed, that is exactly what happened on the cross. Bell and Mclaren both undermine this transaction and mute the glory of the cross. They redefine love and justice then switch the categories of the discussion so that they can tell their better story, but what they give us in return is a social gospel that neuters the Scriptural teaching.

What makes a story "better"?
That brings us to this important question. Bell proposes what he thinks is a better story, but what actually makes it better? The heart of this question is an interpretive distinction that is at the core. For Bell, love (as he conceives of it) defines God and constrains justice, but if we are to take revelation seriously, God defines both love and justice infinitely and completely in Himself. God does not do justice and love because they are right; He is not constrained by some outside rule of these notions. He defines them, and his actions in the world, in the entirety of Scripture, define what is loving and just.

Bell defines God by his notions of love and justice and fashions the story to fit. Then he passes that story off as a better, more believable, story. This becomes an interpretive framework that must ignore large swaths of Scripture. However, a better story is the one that most rightly understands the revelation of God in Scripture and in the person and work of Christ. We are not free to fashion a better story to suit ourselves or our audience, and we are not free to redefine the attributes of God. We must believe that He is (as He has revealed Himself to be), and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

In the final analysis, Bell's story is not actually better, but at least to the carnal mind, it is more palatable. Unbelievers will come to the God of Rob Bell's story, but they will not find the cross or the God who died on their behalf. They will only find a metaphor that serves as an affirmation for their own prejudice. For those who would know God on God's own terms, Bell's story is corrosive to truth and ultimately makes a God in man's image.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Destruction began with a question

In our LCN discussion group in Hudson we are planning on discussing Rob Bell's recent book, "Love Wins." To suggest that the book has engendered controversy would be an understatement, and there is little doubt that the discussion is likely to continue for a while.

On the surface it seems to some that Bell is denying that there is a hell and it seems that he believes that everyone is ultimately saved in the end. I say on the surface because  those who would defend Bell's position are quick to point out that he has flatly stated that he believes in hell and that he is not a universalist. Of course, this assumes that we agree on what is meant by both hell and universalism, but before we go there, we should perhaps wonder if it isn't too much to attack a guy just for simply asking questions.

And Bell does ask a lot of open-ended and provoking questions, but what is the harm in asking those questions? Any belief that is worthy of trust should be solid enough to stand up to scrutiny, but lest we think that questions are harmless, remember that the devastation of the human race began with a simple question regarding what God actually said. "Hath God said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'"

No, questions are not harmless, and they can be powerfully deceptive, if only because they can be used to lay the groundwork for persuasive rhetoric that can be used as a lever to move the audience. This is exactly what Satan did. He followed up his simple question with a statement that was a half truth, but notice that even his statement carried implicit questions regarding the nature of God, undermining their confidence in His goodness, His faithfulness, and His justice.

His questions were disarming, powerful, and deadly.

Ultimately this is exactly what Bell's book does. He asks questions to challenge a view of God that He believes is "toxic." Then he tells his "better" story in terms that directly confront what many churches teach regarding the nature of God. Of course, if he is correct in his understanding, then the false views he confronts should be undermined, but if he is wrong, he is actually perpetuating Satan's argument in the garden and participating in yet another attack on a true and right view of God.

Either way, the argument is not really about heaven or hell.

The argument is about the nature of God,

and for Bell,

it is all about God's love.

"Love Wins" is the big idea, a rubric that frames Bell's understanding (or at least his journey). As such, Bell's understanding of the love of God is both central and critical to the discussion. He ends the book,
"Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year to person after person. Love is why I've written this book, and love is what I want to leave you with. May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones, that loves wins."
So if the book rises and falls on Bell's presentation of the love of God, what exactly does he say about the love of God? Throughout the book, the theme of God's love is placed as opposite judgment and divine retribution. For Bell, the former is God's nature and the latter is found, at least primarily, in separation from God. Any notion that God actively punishes forever is subjected to ridicule and caricature,
"[The inferior view is] God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy - unless there isn't confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever."
Implicit in this caricature is the idea that God's love, kindness, grace, and mercy are incompatible with divine justice and retribution. For Bell, this is a key assumption, that God cannot be loving at the same time He is meting out justice. As a result, getting what you deserve has been morphed, by the end of the book, into simply getting what you want. And while there is an element of truth to the idea that it is an act of judgement for God to deliver wicked people to their own imagination and attending consequences, Bell's view presents God's role in judgment as almost exclusively passive.

For example, in describing what Jesus was teaching, Bell says,
"[Jesus] was trying to bring Israel back to its roots, to its divine calling to be a light to the world, showing the nations just what the redeeming love of God looks like. And he was confident that this love doesn't wield a sword. To respond to violence with more violence, according to Jesus, is not the way of God." (emphasis mine)
There is another aspect of Bell's view of God's love that is crucial to his entire argument. It is that God's love demands the recipient's response be completely unencumbered and optional, and this is asserted as if it is an unassailable fact, without any supporting Scripture or argument. This lack of defense seems odd to me, since this statement is also critical to his argument leading toward his passive view of divine justice,
"Love, by its very nature, is freedom. For there to be love, there has to be the option, both now and then, to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to chose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is." (53)
To make sense of this paragraph, we need to clarify by restating it as generously as possible: "God's act of love, by its nature, requires that the one loved be able to either reciprocate that love or reject it." So, as respecting man's freedom, Bell's position forces us to conclude that God's ability to love depends upon the preservation of human nature in a neutral state. If, at any time, man's nature is inevitably predisposed in any direction, God would cease to be able to love. This means a person can never be brought to a permanent state, either in reprobation or in glorification. This also means that God cannot guarantee a progressive future that culminates in a complete reconciliation of all things, and this would mean Bell cannot rightfully conclude that love wins.

Now, if we find that the Scriptures teach us the nature of fallen humanity is so corrupted that they cannot even respond rightly to God without a divine operation that changes the nature of that person, then Bell's position would be either falsified or it would require mankind be left, without hope, in that state of condemnation, since changing the nature of a person means they will inevitably act according to that nature.

If we turn the question of love requiring freedom around, from man toward God, we can get a clearer sense of the problem. Assuming that Bell's position is correct, in order for man to love God, God must be free to accept or reject that Love, but is God free to act contrary to His nature? He is love, and He created man to find His deepest joy and satisfaction in Him. If God were to act contrary to His nature, then He would cease to be God. Thus it is impossible for God to act contrary to His nature, so it is impossible for God to reject genuine love, offered from His creatures. Bell's view of human freedom as necessary for love to exist cannot be sustained.

Bell also has a problem as to how he seems to understand the inter-relatedness of God's attributes. Particularly regarding God's love and God's justice. As we mentioned earlier, his perspective regarding God's love requires that divine justice be passive. The idea that God stands ready to exact divine retribution on those who rebel is intolerable to Bell.
"This leads us to another distinction, one that takes us back to the recurring question, What is God like? Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.
Let's be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer."(90)
This seems hard to reconcile with the message of Psalm 2, where the Father says to the Messiah, "They all belong to you, and you will break them with a rod of iron." Then the Psalmist urges the rebels to reconcile with the Son before his wrath is kindled. Then you have Psalm 110, where the Messiah ultimately executes the heads of many nations. Passages like this can be multiplied, but Bell persists in presenting death, sin, and destruction as things we choose for ourselves, and God simply gives us what we want.

The reason is that Bell's view of love cannot allow divine justice to coexist with it. Notice how active justice is portrayed and juxtaposed in opposition to love in the following:
"But there's more. Millions have been taught that if they don't believe, if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.

Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.

Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can't bear it. No one can.
And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't, because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable." (85-86)
In His view either God is loving, or God is acting with justice. This misunderstands the nature of God and requires God to be less than He is at one point or another. But God cannot change; He is never more or less. He is perfectly and simply complete. With every action and in every moment, God is fully just and fully loving - all at the same time. However, for Bell, judgement is simply missed moments and never final.
"Jesus told a number of stories about this urgency in which things did not turn out well for the people involved. One man buries the treasure he's been entrusted with instead of doing something with it and as a result he's 'thrown outside into the darkness.' Five foolish wedding attendants are unprepared for the late arrival of the groom and they end up turned away from the wedding with the chilling words "Truly I tell you, I don't know you." Goats are sent 'away' to a different place than the sheep, tenants of a vineyard have it taken from them, and weeds that grew alongside wheat are eventually harvested and 'tied in bundles to be burned.'

These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities."
Bell uses these stories to press urgency on the reader, but the bottom line is that his handling of divine justice fails to encompass the full scope of what God means when he says, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." His view of God's love ultimately confounds what Scripture teaches regarding the nature of God and sets attributes of God's holiness at odds with one another.

I haven't even touched the reduction of the cross of Christ to little more than an enduring symbol and metaphor, rather than a real event that reveals God's active justice against sin, upon the Son He loves. If Bell's rhetorical flourishes were aimed at the cross, what kind of God would be intimated? If we saw a father punish his son for wrongs that other kids at school had perpetrated, what would we think of that father's sense of justice?

Then there is another major problem, both interpretively and practically, regarding the person of Christ being abstracted in such a way that the gospel becomes potentially pliable and even unrecognizable. On top of this, there are more interpretive problems, logical fallacies, and historical inaccuracies in the book, but the core problem of the book is how Bell handles the nature of God, undermining who He has revealed Himself to be. In the final analysis, "Love Wins" bears more similarity to the deception of Satan than the teachings of Scripture.