Thursday, June 3, 2010

who really goes to hell? a review

This is my review for Viral Blogger on the book, Who Really Goes to Hell? The Gospel You've Never Heard.

First I'll get the criticisms out of the way.

What Rudel is attempting to do is commendable. With his book and several websites, he seems to be trying to start a massive theological movement. I wouldn't even be surprised if deep down inside Mr. Rudel fancies himself to be modern day Martin Luther, and get the sense that the author believes he has stumbled upon a new reformation. Now I won't disagree that we certainly need a new sort of reformation, and indeed I believe we are in the midst of one currently. But Mr. Rudel's less than subtle attempts to spark a new one himself with his book and blog comes off as a little naive.

Secondly, if Mr. Rudel wants to be taken seriously he should nix the "biblical heresy press" thing. The logo is amateurish and cheesey. But more importantly, while I get what the author means by the name, many people won't. I have decided not to lend out my copy of Who Really Goes to Hell to some conservatives in my life because I think the phrase "Biblical heresy" will be too off-putting and color their view of the author's arguments from the get go.

Thirdly, as other reviewers have noted, there are typos and grammatical errors galore. I also could have done without all the font changes, bold type face and previews of what's to come in further chapters.

Now that those quibbles, most dealing with style and presentation, are out of the way I would like to say that I really enjoyed the substance of the author's arguments. I thoroughly resonate with the notion that the modern gospel has been piled upon by centuries of theological lenses that are far removed from the world view and cultural-historical context of the first century Palestinian Jew. Mr. Rudel's argument that one would come away with a thoroughly different gospel than today's evangelical one, if he or she were only given the synoptic gospels, is spot on. Furthermore, I found many of my own questions and arguments being brought up in the pages of Rudel's book.

Because I'm not a bible scholar and I cannot adequately critique all of Rudel's claims about ancient Jewish beliefs and culture, I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt that his interpretations of Hebrew and Greek words and his depictions of ancient Jewish thought are accurate. However I would have appreciated Rudel citing his scholarly sources. Here and there he mentions N.T. Wright and David Flusser, but a notes section would have been much appreciated.

Overall, I agreed with much of Rudel's criticisms of "the modern gospel." Like Rudel, I grew up in the world of conservative evangelicalism, and found him asking the same questions I have. His observation that the modern gospel comes by way of reading the Jewish gospels through a western protestant lens, and that we must revisit the writings of the apostles through a Jewish lens has been made before. Yet I think that Rudel's contribution to this view is very helpful and I found his differentiation of deliverance and regeneration intriguing. I'll definitely be re-reading this book.

And by the way, I agree with his answer to the title's question.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

original sin: a both/and?

in some follow-up thoughts to my last post, i've been thinking that maybe this extrinsic v.s. intrinsic debate on original sin is really a both/and.

if my premises are right that our ethics come from culture which comes from human relationship (with God, humans and creation), and our ethics are screwed up because our relationships are screwed up, then what happens when we consider that to be a human being-- ontologically-- is to be cultural and relational? in other words, human beings have a relational/cultural dimension, and when we are born into a relational/cultural tainted world, then the moment that dimension begins taking shape that part of us is tainted.

now i understand that this won't satisfy those who insist that a human being, in utero, is already depraved. but if we understand that being human is more than just biology, then i think my explanation that sin comes from the outside, but immediately affects our relational/cultural dimension from the very beginning of our life could be a satisfying explanation.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

can't we all just get along? thoughts on original sin, culture and relationships

i've been reading a new blog lately by a fellow grand rapidian named jeremy bouma. he has been blogging about many things emergent including doug pagitt's view of original sin. it has got me thinking about my own view, and while i would typically say that i do believe in it, something doug said in the comments really resonates with me. in fact it has caused me to do a lot of thinking today because doug's statement fits into my own worldview quite nicely.

here's a summation of my thoughts on this:

all of creation, or reality, is relational. everything that exists, including us, is made of things are that also parts of, and exist in relationship to, bigger things. humans (which are made of atoms, which form molecules, which form cells etc.) form social institutions, which make up society. the DNA or soul of society is culture.

culture is a manifestation of human relationship. human relationship engenders culture. it is the water in which we swim. culture affects us from the very beginning of our life. we are completely enveloped in it.

relationship and culture are part of who we are.

original sin then is the relational fracture between God and humans. this fracture spreads to human relationships and culture, which spreads to the human/creation relationship. this broken relationship with God affects our behavior and ethics since ethics are cultural and deal with relationship.

thus, because our fall comes by way of a relational fracture with God, our salvation comes by way of relational healing with God through Christ.

the statement i liked that doug posted was from his book, a christianity worth believing. here's the statement that resonated with me:

"Sin isn’t a legal problem with God; it’s a relationship problem with us. In the garden, Adam and Eve were perfectly integrated with God. But when they ate from the tree, they acted outside their partnership with God and began to experience the disintegration of their relationship with God. And that’s what sin is—disintegration. We were created for integration, partnering, connection with God. Sin irritates; it destabilizes. It causes us to come unraveled from the life we have with God."

i think doug is right. sin, from the beginning is a relationship problem, and not an imago dei problem. yet jeremy argues that ontologically we are still made in God's image, but ethically we are rebellious:
"We are not worms. We are the Image of God. That image is cracked and corrupted though, though, by sin which is why we act in ways that we were not intended to act, resulting in death that was never intended to be. Ethically we are morally rebellious. The ontological consequences of ethical autonomy that comes from that sin nature which Paul says we've inherited from Adam is Death (and I would also say Diseases, like cancer), but could also affect us at the DNA level."

jeremy really seems contradictory in this statement. we are the image of God, but not really...
why instead can't it be: we are the image of God, but our relationship with him is broken. that would make much more sense, and would explain why our ethics are so screwed up given that ethics are grounded in relationship and culture which affect who we are.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

irrational grace

i was reading the chart of a patient i was assigned to the other day and it read: "patient was found in a dumpster surrounded by trash, vomit and his own feces." this man was a homeless alcoholic, and i couldn't help but think of all the times i've seen people like him and thought, "what a piece of trash." and i also thought how, if i wasn't a social worker and supposed to be the epitome of compassion, i might have thought: "huh, well at least he knows where he belongs." i know that sounds incredibly harsh, but it is the truth. we do think like this. even social workers. furthermore, when i met this man and attempted to have some semblance of a conversation with him, he stated that when he left the hospital, he was going to go to a local party store and get some beer. he also could not understand, even after i described to him how he was found, why i didn't think he should go back to living where he was. once again, how many of us would think, "why waste the time and money on this guy!" yet, we do.

we do this despite the total irrationality of it. for the rational thing would be to just have let him die in the dumpster. after all, his worth to society is about the same worth as the trash he was lying in. if pure reason informed our decision making on such matters we wouldn't use the resources of our society at keeping people like this alive. why is it that we follow reason and rationalism to the tee in all of our academic disciplines yet, in circumstances like these compassion and grace trump reason? or put another way, in circumstances like these, we might say things like "i don't care what makes the most sense, or what is the most reasonable thing to do, i'm going to do what's right." the irrationality of grace turns reason on it's head because what is rational isn't always what is right.

recently, i was thinking about the question: how is one saved? often in discussions of this topic, arguments play out like this: the bible is the objective standard of truth about salvation. thus, one must extract a set of propositions from scripture from various proof texts that logically explain how one is saved. invariably, however, there are different verses that always seem to contradict other verses, and in the end, it is impossible to come up with a perfect unquestionable formula. in my own thoughts, i was considering the story of jesus and the rich young ruler. in the story, the rich man asks jesus how one can be saved-- or enter the kingdom of God. after the rich man says he has obeyed all the laws-- which implies he believes in YHWH and takes his beliefs seriously-- jesus tells him to sell his possessions and follow him. as i rolled this story around in my head for a while and pondered other salvation proof texts i just gave up. i was getting nowhere.

perhaps salvation remains mysterious to us for one, because God saves and not us; it's not our job. but perhaps another reason is because we are saved by grace, and grace is irrational. most people have a problem with the notion of turning the other cheek. "if someone hits you, then you ought to hit them back!" we say. grace just does not make sense. it doesn't make sense to fish someone from a dumpster and spend tens of thousands of dollars on him in hospital bills after he tells you that when he leaves the hospital he will go right back to living the same way. but we do. though we think angry thoughts when we encounter these people, our society creates policies that allow this. and most of us wouldn't have it any other way.

a day after my meeting with this individual, he coded and was transferred to the ICU where he subsequently died. thankfully some of his family showed up, so at least, he didn't die alone. but this person is in God's hands now. most people, and probably most christians, would agree that this man is in hell. i get why people come to that conclusion based on scripture, but the opposite can also be said-- based on scripture. and i also have to believe that if our society can conjure up enough grace to save people most of us despise, i have to hold out hope that the God, from where grace originates, might do the same.

Friday, July 31, 2009

on being a skeptical believer: chaos

this past couple of weeks have been hectic partly because my sister and brother-in-law lost their baby and anne and i have been travelling across the state to see them and attend the funeral. i'm not complaining. i feel horrible for them, and strongly desired to be with them in the midst of this. and it was incredibly emotionally draining for my wife, so i also wanted to be there for her. their whole experience is tragic, and it eerily co relates with a lot of things that have been on my mind. throughout human history, people have struggled to live often losing child after child. it's been only recent that medical technology has lessened the infant mortality rate in our world. and as someone who loves history and realizes all of this, and in watching them suffer, i have been constantly aware of how chaotic our world really is. these thoughts constantly whipped through my mind as i sat through the funeral and listened to their pastor struggle to find meaning in this loss. not to be narcissistic, but in an odd way their whole experience embodied many of the questions i have been wrestling with lately.

in the past few weeks, i have been obsessed with watching debates online. and not just any debates, but ones featuring the journalist, literary and social critic, christopher hitchens. i admit, i have a bit of a man-crush on hitchens. not just because he's brilliant and amazingly well-read and articulate, but because he's hilarious as well and his presentations are as entertaining as they are informative. hitchens recently penned a book called God is not great: how religion poisons everything. after writing this book he has embarked across the country debating various theologians, apologists, scholars and rabbis. i first watched him debate the microbiologist and oxford professor of historical theology, alister mcgrath. knowing mcgrath's credentials and that he has written several books refuting atheism, i expected him to mop the floor with hitchens. much to my surprise the reverse was true, and i was shocked at how foolish mcgrath looked. other debates i watched were between rabbi shmuley boteach and dinesh d'souza. there are actually several with d'souza, and i think he's faired the best. but some of hitchens arguments really bother me, and i've been finding myself arguing with him in my head ever since i began to watch.

my foundational belief for why i believe in God is that there is something rather than nothing. there is order in the midst of chaos. our universe has laws that can be articulated in mathematical language, and our earth exists against tremendously unthinkable odds. now this doesn't necessarily mean that the God of the bible is the intelligence responsible for our universe. that belief i base on the story of the jewish people laid out in scripture, and how that story, once again, despite inconceivable odds, shouldn't have even existed, and yet has changed the world. furthermore, even though there were countless jewish messiahs who were crucified by rome, one of them created a movement that some how flourished even after he was crucified. to me, the story of our universe, human history, and jesus all seem to have the same force driving them.

hitchen's argument, however, is so what? our planet occupies a vast universe full of failed solar systems that didn't give such a result. in focusing on the order, we ignore all the immense chaos that exists. we ignore that fact that we've had meteors crash into our planet or whizz right by us. we ignore the fact that in a few billion years our sun will burn out or the andromeda galaxy will collide with ours rendering us a frozen scorched rock and nothingness and chaos will be our reality again, just like it was in the preceding billions of years before the big bang. we're just a tiny speck in an enormous, dangerous chaotic universe. our existence is a blip in the history of the universe. as hitchens puts it, "we exist on a knife's edge. some design..."

why did my brother and sister in law's baby die? so that God could glorify himself? really? babies have been dying for thousands of years. was God just glorifying himself then? as i sat in that funeral listening to their pastor plumb the depths for meaning in this all too common-- in fact way more common than not-- situation, i couldn't help but think, "are we just bullshitting ourselves?" chaos really seems to have the upper hand. order really seems to be unfathomably rare-- so rare that maybe it is all just a fluke.

so here i sit. i don't have a good answer for this. these are the hard questions, and i think back to my high school days pissed off at myself at how cocky and certain i was. and it frustrates me even more when i hear christians, just as cocky and ignorant as i once was, dismiss these arguments. because at the very least, in wrestling with them, i am ever more aware of just how good, exceptional and precious this life is. and just how much i truly have to rely on faith.

Monday, July 6, 2009

in the midst of mediocrity

well the fourth of july has come and gone, and now we're smack dab in the middle of summer. in the past few years, as i have become increasingly geekier and boring, and as proof, the fourth of july brings up feelings of excitement in me about... not fireworks or boating or cookouts or other things people do on the fourth, but learning about american history. this all started a few years ago when i first subscribed to TIME and received my first annual "making of america" issue. that first issue was on my favorite president, teddy roosevelt, and ever since, the fourth of july has always gotten me interested in history. this year the issue was, fittingly, on FDR and had some great articles by FDR biographers and a critical article by amity shales who recently authored the book, the forgotten man. anne and i also spent the weekend at my parents where i got to spend a couple hours, on the morning of the fourth, watching american revolution documentaries on the history channel. i was in heaven.

we had a good and relaxing time, and we did other non-history related things. lately, i have just been feeling like life is pretty dull, good, but dull. i think about the things i like to do and they amount to reading, watching movies and trying new foods and drinks. anne and i have a good time together, but the exciting couple we are not. yet, in all this mediocrity, i can't help but wonder, if this is the calm before the storm. soon fall will be here and i will be starting my internship, we will be off to europe, the holidays will be upon us and we may even be pregnant. things could get crazy really fast.

overall, i feel as though we are in a transitional period. we have big goals and plans that are all set to begin in the fall. it reminds of me of when i first met anne. i had just finished my first degree, and gotten my first pharmacy tech job. i was in the midst of paying off my car and looking at finding a job in grand rapids and finally moving out of my parents house. things were exciting and new. fall is my favorite season, and it is always the season where big things happen for me. i am eager to see what this fall brings.

until then i'm just slogging through my last class and adding books to my reading list. currently i'm reading theodore rex, the wrecking crew, and two views of hell. the book, the fourth day by howard vantill is on the way in the mail. in the latter book, i have just really gotten into the section on the traditional view of hell. i admit that the author presents some convincing arguments, but i'm finding that it really does all come down to interpretation. do the dead bodies being burned and eaten by worms in isaiah chapter sixty-whatever symbolize people who have been destroyed, or do they symbolize people experiencing eternal conscious torment? you can really read it both ways.

such is also with summer. to some, summer means exciting vacations, camping, water-sports, and amusment parks. for me, summer is the last few months i have to get through before the best and most exciting time of the year.

Monday, June 15, 2009

is death really a bad thing?

a couple years ago my wife and i were talking about creationism, and what people believe about a literal creation story. in our discussion i mentioned that people who hold to a literal, or at least somewhat literal interpretation, believe that people weren't meant to die. now, i'm not sure if anne knew that or not, or if she ever really thought about the implications of that, but she asked a question that, to this day, i have no good answer to. she asked, "but if no one died, then wouldn't the earth get overpopulated really quick?"

it's a fact that death is necessary for life. if there were no death, then much of the planet's inhabitants couldn't eat (which i guess they wouldn't need to?). and like my wife pointed out, if there were no death, not only would there be human overpopulation, but animal and plant overpopulation as well. there might not be any death, but life might be pretty miserable on such an overcrowded planet. death and life are totally interconnected. we even see this played out in the christian story-- to gain life, one must die to himself.

but wasn't death a result of the fall? some theologians would say spirtual death-- being separated from God-- was, but not physical death. i admit that this explanation, while it has some problems with the whole of scripture, seems, for me at least, to ring true. but at the same time i'm not so sure. what if we eliminated all physical death that is caused, directly and indirectly, by the activity of human beings? i wonder how much less death there would be. i wonder if people had stayed in that harmonious relationship with God, eachother and creation, if we would have continued toward a deathless-- at least for human beings-- existence. maybe we would have fulfilled our mandate to populate the planet and ceased having children.

another thought i have had is that everything seems to exist in a cycle e.g. seasons. the ancients understood this well. scripture speaks about the ages of the earth, and eternal life refers to life in the age that is to come. in other words, God made this creation, and later on there will be a new creation which inhabitants of this creation will populate. maybe this current creation is part of a cycle-- kind of like seasons-- of a whole continuous process of creations. and the first people who lived in that edenic state were aware that their life would continue on into the new creation after they died, and physical death was simply part of this creation (thus there was no fear of physical death and no need to care about an afterlife, which is what you see in the OT). maybe the death that resulted from the fall was a spirtual death that damaged the human-God relationship in such a way that humans couldn't be part of the new creation. thus salvation from death means a restoration of that relationship in order for humans to, once again, be part of that future new creation.

whether or not physical death was intended for humans, we'll probably never know. i find it incredibly problematic to imagine the current creation without any physical death. if there were no death there would be no need for A LOT of things that make this creation tick. the changes that resulted from the fall would need to be much more than labor pains, hard work, male dominancy, clothes, the end of talking animals, and snakes losing their legs.

and lastly, don't take this as a "this is what i believe" type of post. i'm just thinking out loud, throwing out ideas, and putting into print the crazy stuff that bounces around my neurons.