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O Me of Little Faith

This is the last thing I’m going to write about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, and it’s not even really about the book. I’ve read the book. I enjoyed parts of it. I was frustrated with parts of it. I hate Rob Bell’s writing style, which sounds exactly like he speaks but, you know, shouldn’t. I wish there were footnotes and better source crediting. I think he used a lot of metaphors and asked a lot of questions without giving many answers, but I also think that was his goal with the book. Mission accomplished.

Anyway, if you want to read a review of Love Wins, there are lots of places to do it. I don’t have anything unique to add to that conversation, except (maybe) this:

I was listening the other day to an episode of Reasonable Doubts, a skeptic/atheist podcast, because they were 1) discussing Love Wins, and 2) from Grand Rapids, and I thought the perspective of nonbelievers from Rob Bell’s backyard would offer something I hadn’t yet read or heard. It did. Here are a couple of things that stuck out to me from their discussion:

1. They were surprised by the book’s overview of the ways hell is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, especially in terms of its ambiguity. One of the podcasters had assumed the biblical idea of hell always fit the fiery torment variety, and was surprised how much nuance there was in the whole Sheol-Gehenna-Hades-Tartarus usage in the biblical languages. Rob Bell is right, they said: The Bible isn’t consistent in how it speaks of hell.

2. They agreed that Rob supported his ideas and questions with thought-provoking uses of Scripture, but weren’t impressed. Why not? For one thing, they found him to be annoyingly vague about his theology. For another thing, they understood that the traditional view of hell — the one he was challenging — could also be supported by Scripture. They pointed out that someone with a fair amount of biblical knowledge can make a scriptural case for fiery torment, or annihilationism, or universalism, or pretty much anything else. All you have to do is elevate certain biblical verses and passages above others.

That’s why almost every Christian belief that has developed over the years has been based on something found in Scripture…even the beliefs that seem at odds with one another. It’s all about context and interpretation and nuance.

And that got me thinking…

Right now, Christian theology is broader and more diverse than most Christians are comfortable with. In fact, over two thousand years of biblical interpretation, the Christian religion has proved to be ridiculously flexible, able to tolerate significant theological and practical differences without, you know, us having to say “farewell” to people who land on a different interpretation. Consider:

There are Christians who believe they are saved exclusively through grace, period, full stop … and Christians who believe some manner of works are involved (those “works” may be as basic as an acknowledgment of Christ’s lordship or as complex as to what extent we cared for the “least of these”).

Some Christians believe salvation is eternal. Others believe it can be lost or cast aside.

Some Christians believe the elect are predetermined by God, chosen for either salvation and damnation. Others believe God gives mankind real freedom to make his or her own choice.

Some believe salvation occurs at the moment of baptism. Others believe baptism to be an important, public confession of salvation — but only symbolic.

Some believe Christ is present, mystically or literally, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, or communion. They believe participating in communion is the central act of Christian worship. Others believe communion is more of a metaphor, yet one which plays a central, symbolic role in Christian worship.

Some Christians observe that “central metaphor” every time they meet together, Sunday after Sunday. Others relegate communion to a once-a-quarter observance.

Some Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, infallibly true, without error and inspired word-by-word to ancient scribes. Others believe the Bible is inspired or somehow divine, but not without error. They see those ancient scribes’ fallacies and fingerprints all over its holy pages.

Some Christians believe deuterocanonical books like Tobit, Judith, or 1 and 2 Maccabees are parts of the biblical canon. Others deny that these books are biblical. (And many Christians, to be perfectly honest, don’t even know they exist.)

Some Christians venerate saints like Mary, St. Anthony, or St. Christopher. Other Christians view this behavior as superstitious (at best) or idolatrous (at worst).

Some Christians observe the Sabbath on Sunday, others on Saturday. Some worship in ancient cathedrals or gleaming buildings. Some worship in converted malls or rickety storefronts. Some worship in homes. Some worship outdoors.

Some Christians seem to focus primarily on God, the Father. Some seem most interested in Jesus. Others emphasize the Holy Spirit more than any other member of the Trinity.

Some pray in tongues. Some pray casually or spontaneously. Some pray via formal liturgy.

Some believe a Christian’s highest calling is to remove him- or herself from the world, in order to spend their remaining days in solitude, contemplation, and prayer. Some believe a Christian’s highest calling is to be active and present in the world, in order to spread the message of the Gospel.

Some preach evangelism and personal salvation as the apex of the Christian faith. Some preach social action or missional living as the core element of Christian practice.

Some allow their faith to inform every aspect of their lives, from how they dress to how they eat to how they are entertained. Some live lives that are practically indistinguishable from non-believers.

Some … you get the idea.

This is a long list, but it’s far from exhaustive. Though we base our beliefs on the same source (the Bible and the last couple thousand years of tradition), we Christians are a fantastically diverse people. Some of our core beliefs are not just very different from another, but frequently at odds with one another.

Most of us think we’re right. But we can’t all be right about everything.

Which is to say: almost all of us are wrong about something. Regardless of what we believe, there are Christians somewhere in the world who think you are dead wrong. Dangerously wrong. Maybe even a heretic. Why? Because you are on the wrong side of what they consider a core belief.

For all our talk about narrow roads, Christianity has become a broad, gushing stream. Acknowledging that, with humility, ought to give us pause before we start all the in-fighting and name-calling. I need to remember that the next time I decide Rob Bell is wrong…or John Piper is wrong…or I am right.

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Note: I’ve adapted the meat of this post from one I wrote Saturday for FaithVillage. Here’s the original, titled “How Flexible is Christianity?

 

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