February 21, 2012 / Perspective
Tim Suttle offers a social gospel vision of evangelicalism that calls Christians beyond the individualistic constrictions of contemporary Christianity to a retrieval of the social dimensions of the good news.
April 20, 2011
One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain. – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power[i]
I grew up in a family obsessed—blessedly so, I believe—with what we might call the “biblical specifics.” Baptized immersion style at the age of fifteen, I recall a Sunday a couple of years later when I’d agreed to fill in as the assistant manager at a local movie theater. I’d mostly overcome the sense of shame I felt for working on what I took to be the Sabbath, but at about a quarter to midnight I suddenly realized I was staring down the barrel of having missed, for the first Sunday since my baptism, my partaking of communion. This was decidedly not OK. While nobody had spelled out such quandaries explicitly, according to the way I had these things added up in my head, such negligence might prove to constitute a kind of cosmic deal-breaker. There would be no further cleansing water to erase this particular stain, and my scarlet soul might not be rendered white as snow. I calmly asked a co-worker to mind the shop and made for the door.
Were you there in Nashville at a nearby Kroger in 1987, you might have seen a young man in a red vest running up and down the aisles looking for saltine crackers and Welch’s grape juice. Once past the register, I walked briskly toward the exit and paused in the parking lot to say a quick prayer to the God who, as far as I could tell, seemed to demand these things. I stared at the starry sky above as I wolfed down the crackers and juice with seconds remaining and laughed to myself. I’d made it…for now.
As a scene in my autobiography, I wouldn’t trade moments like these for anything, and I’m grateful to have been raised to read scriptures as seriously as I know how. What I felt then and continue to feel now is a kind of anxiety of continuity. Does what I’m on about now have anything to do with what the prophets and Jesus and his company were up to then? I take this to be the pinch (or haunting) of a necessarily open question. What does attempted faithfulness to a living tradition entail exactly? I ask myself what I have to do and not leave undone if I hope to esteem myself to be somehow in sync with that tradition, if I hope to embody a remotely coherent witness to it. I wouldn’t wish upon my children the kind of fear I felt running through the grocery, but I do want to pass on a kind of ethical pinch that comes with a sense of inheritance, a desire to be in line with a way of living that would rightly be rightly deemed prophetic and poetic.
While there was something comically deficient in at least one aspect of my eighties-era God-view, I didn’t have it all entirely reduced to baptism, communion, and believing—or pretending to believe—certain things about Jesus. I’d seen and been moved by tales of Jesuit martyrdom in The Mission, and the likes of U2, Springsteen, and (truth be told) Sting were actively expanding my sphere of ostensibly Christian interest to include all manner of social justice concerns. The word “Christian,” I imagined even then, was probably best understood as a kind of verdict, a compliment even; not an adjective to be presumptuously self-applied or ever broadcast as a boast. I could aspire to be someone upon whom the word might be suitably dropped as a descriptive term, but doing so myself would be horribly tacky, akin to the cart before the horse. The proof is in the practice.
As I understand him, Rob Bell is animated by the same concern, and I witnessed it first-hand a few months ago in Waco, TX. Having worked an audience into a small frenzy of elated solidarity with a powerfully witty, Henry-Rollins-like appeal to the outlandishly righteous, radically hospitable and just world Jesus announces in word and deed, he delivered a devastatingly amusing aside: “He [Jesus] is really something. You should consider following him.” The response was quieter at that point, but the pinch of evangelical crisis had been applied, a kind of “Not so fast everyone. Let’s not presume we have it all in hand already.” In this account of what I believe Bell was up to, I deploy the term evangelical in an attempt to invoke the kind of transpartisan good news (news that cuts all kinds of ways) perhaps best associated with the likes of Karl Barth, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eugene Peterson, who praised Bell’s latest offering, Love Wins, as indicative of “evangelical conviction.” This invocation of a sense of crisis is essential to any properly evangelical proclamation lest anyone confuse their excitement or their strong personality for the good news of God’s kingdom or presumptuously narrow the wideness in God’s mercy to the scope of their own understanding. Your quickened pulse mustn’t be confused for the Holy Spirit. No one owns this good news. We’re always only learners of its mysteries, never experts or professionals.
As Barth argues in The Epistle to the Romans, the gospel has to be (and remain) a question mark sitting strangely next to whatever we dare to deem orthodox and sound in our own thinking. And when it comes to what we hope to understand of the judgments of God, we have to leave an awful lot to unwritten history lest we believe ourselves to own the copyright on them or find ourselves explaining them away. One recalls King’s expounding of a beloved community to come on earth even as he kept it in tension with the darker visions hinted at in his final sermon title, “Why America May Go to Hell.” An alleged devotion to the life of God can be undertaken, aspired toward, and even celebrated, but it should never be decreed a done deal or a mission accomplished. There’s always more to imagine, lean into, and be convicted by.
If I may be permitted to esteem my 17-year-old self so mercifully, it is here that I suspect I was on to something then even if my vision of a God who might consign me to hell over crackers and grape juice was woefully misguided. While there was something perversely deficient in at least one aspect of my God-view (as there doubtless is even now), I feared my own complacency enough to feel the pinch of witness, of living up to and knowingly within the tradition that had formed me, the community I’d signed up for. As Bell has it, one job of the community that might rightly be called “church” is that of a clarifying, lyricizing, parabling stewardship concerning the mystery of God’s redeeming presence in the world. In this sense, the church names the people who “name, honor, and orient themselves around this mystery. A church is a community of people who enact specific rituals and create specific experiences to keep this word alive in their own hearts, a gathering of believers who help provide language and symbols and experiences for this mystery.”[ii]
In my own witnessing work, I was stuck (or in danger of being stuck) in what Bell terms “an entrance understanding of the gospel” which views it “primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation.”[iii] To remain there is to hold to and, more tragically, embody that “cheap view of the world” that is born of “a cheap view of God.” While there is for some, perhaps inevitably, a developmental stage of this kind in religious formation, it can become what Bell deems “a shriveled imagination.” He observes that “An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art. Or innovation.”
But while the fellow in the parking lot would live by other means—more imaginative and redemptive means—than abject fear by way of better glimpses, experiences, and visions of a more perfect love that somehow mange to cast out such fears (if I do say so myself), the pinch of the aforementioned crisis remained. And against Bell’s critics who could perhaps be forgiven a little for confusing Bell’s advertising for his text, it seems to me that Love Wins is committed to sustaining, clarifying and elaborating upon this pinch. As Bell has it, the question of life’s meaning, its lasting significance, is at the heart of Jesus’ famous exchange with the rich young ruler. How does one “enter life?” Keep the commandments. Bell focuses the conversation: “Another way of saying ‘life in the age to come’ in Jesus’s day was to say ‘eternal life.’ In Hebrew the phrase is olam habah….What must I do to inherit olam habah?…This age, and the one to come, the one after this one.”[iv] Or as he puts it in what I hope might prove to be the book’s most popular soundbite, “Here is the new there.”[v]
Judgment, the decision to be made, the alive and signaling, evangelical pinch isn’t to be deferred. It’s now. Or as Modest Mouse famously puts it, “If you wasted this life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?” Life in the age to come is as inescapably social and ethically laden as this one, only moreso. With Jesus’ counsel to the young man to sell everything he has and give to the poor, we’re given a vision of here and there which is anything but neutral (economically, politically, what have you). “Heaven also confronts. Heaven, we learn, has teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points. What Jesus is insisting with the rich man is that certain things will not survive in the age to come.”[vi] As Bell points out, the Apostle Paul draws on the same sensibility in his vision of values, identifiers, and fixations being burned and those overly attached to them being saved, but only as one passing through the flames. No disembodied faith will do: “What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now.” [vii]The question of inheriting olam habah can’t be evangelically distinguished from the question of what we’re up to now, because here is the new there: “How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age.”[viii]
What about Hell? In Bell’s account, Hell names a reality that is both the psychological refusal to view the life of the world as the site of God’s creative, redeeming cultivation and the kind of world we make for ourselves and others—what we make of the world itself–when we live according to this dysfunctional vision. Hell is the very real yield of a creative incapacity. Bell is especially skewering when he has in view those cultures of creative incapacity which presume to advertise themselves as Christian and deem themselves purveyors of a gospel that is anything but. Those who view God as a hellish handler of human beings are often prone, he notes, to make of life a hellish situation for fellow humans. So away with Hell? Not at all. “We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.” Having taken a stab at using it for all the word’s worth, he advises, “Let’s keep it.”[ix]
And in what strikes me as a further invocation of Modest Mouse, Bell demonstrates that this isn’t to be understood as a rhetorical flourish, “Lots of people in our world right now choose to be violent and abusive and mean and evil, so why won’t they continue to choose this path after they die.” [x]The possibility of getting life cosmically wrong remains. “We are that free,” he observes. The love that is God’s, the God that is love “can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality. Now, and then…To refuse this love moves us away from it, in the other direction, and that will, by very definition, be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality.”[xi]
Universal salvation? Annihilationism? Successful resistance of God’s loving purposes? Bell advocates (if one can put it that strongly) a kind of agnostic imperative which is biblical in it’s way. Let the questions reverberate. “Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.”[xii]
And yet, if I read him correctly, Bell leans toward Hans Urs Von Balthasar, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright by insinuating, if I read them right, that desiring cosmic restoration–living into the hope of it–is a self-evidently more glorious end a more God-worthy ending than the other readings. He notes that Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius held to universal reconciliation and believed that nothing less is true to the proclamation that the victory of God’s love over death and destruction would be final, complete, and without remainder. All things, as Colossians has it, “whether things on earth or things in heaven.” All manner of things will be made well, as Julian of Norwich transcribed.
“Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?”[xiii] Bell asks rhetorically. And I think, too, of Martin Luther King’s assertion that the divine image within a person, any and every person, is never totally gone – and King’s long-suffering, enemy-loving politics that followed such an assertion. But even in reveling in such good vibrations while considering their cost, the pinch returns, “Of course, to celebrate this, anticipate this, and find ourselves thrilled by this promise of the world made right brings with it the haunting thought that we each know what lurks in our own heart—our role in corrupting this world, the litany of ways in which our sins have contributed to the heartbreak we’re surrounded by, all those times we hardened our heart and kept right on walking, ignoring the cry of someone in need.”[xiv]
“Litany of ways” is an especially apt phrase in that it refuses to spiritualize or despiritualize our everyday doings—which are liturgies, after all—liturgies that characterize our living, practiced faith as it actually is, as opposed to what we say or believe we believe. THIS has to do with THAT, we’re reminded on every page. Tongue slightly in cheek, Bell describes a world in which alleged followers of Jesus believe their primary hope involves escape from the present world to another reality where believers get to be alone with God. That world might leave us with the kind of geopolitics where millions die of malnourishment, thirst, preventable diseases, and creation is pillaged to the point of being uninhabitable for most, a world where people of good conscience resist—have to resist– what they believe they know of the Christian tradition on account of the bad behavior of its self-professed copyright owners. “That would be tragic,” Bell wryly notes.
Desensitization to the suffering of the world we’re in is anti-Christian by Bell’s account. And to the extent that talk of eternal life might resensitize, have more talk of these strange, surreal things. Failing to land where he lands need not be a dealbreaker: “I believe the discussion itself is divine.” Rehearsing the stories, the images, the promises, and the prayers is the good work to be done. It’s what there is.
But be warned, if you take Bell on (and there’s hardly a biblical Hell-related reference that he doesn’t address) you’ll have to show him how the justice he tries to do to the particulars of the biblical witness is somehow less beautiful, less righteous, and less just than the reading you bring to the conversation. Having a go at understanding the scriptures together—the work of bible study—is, I imagine, his favorite pastime. I imagine he has yet to meet a friendly argument he doesn’t like. He is especially devastating in the end (SPOILER ALERT) with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. What we have are conflicting ways of viewing the good father’s economy/household, a space that was, in some sense, a party all along. The story the magnanimous father tells (“Everything I have is yours.”) is one the younger son is at long last beginning to believe. His interpretation of events differs sharply from that of the older brother who believes his father’s generosity to be problematic, irresponsible, and grossly unfair to the one who’s been, by his account, laboring and heavy-laden all this time. The generosity Jesus announces in the story and throughout his career can be taken, in this sense, one of two ways. Bell argues that the difference between their takes is essentially the difference between heaven and hell. Then and now.
To review, the evangelical pinch/question is this: What does it mean to live a life of participatory celebration for, within, and in anticipation of the coming economy of God? Bell adds “Love wins,” as a response to those questions and tensions that constitute the Christian inheritance. The earth will be filled with knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. God will swallow up death forever. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world. I’d like to place within this inventory a Tom Waits song (famously covered by Johnny Cash) called “Down There By the Train.” In his plaintive croak, he sings of a place he knows where the train slows and all manner of human being gets reconciled. Judas Iscariot was spotted there carrying John Wilkes Booth, for instance, and by the end of the song, the only hint of condemnation is that self-administered kind (alluded to in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray) where we remove ourselves from the work of mercy by holding ourselves aloof from works of mercy, in this case Waits’s song, already in progress. We don’t just hear the song. We get to believe it. Receive it even. Everything might depend on it. The pinch is there. Sing it again.
David Dark is the author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons and Other Pop Culture Icons and The Gospel According To America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea. Following years of teaching high school English, Dark recently completed his Ph.D. in Religion at Vanderbilt University. A resident of Nashville, Tennessee, he attempts to raise children and live a life of mindfulness with singer/songwriter Sarah Masen.