Following up on my last post, I thought it would be helpful to further clarify what I believe folks like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren are doing with their theological work. A model that’s been helpful in other conversations as I’ve tried to explain this idea is two elevators (below):
The two elevators represent the traditional world-view that most of us in the Evangelical church have grown up with. The Bible story goes something like this:
There are two elevators, the first goes to hell and the second goes to heaven
Everyone is born into the first elevator (i.e. born into sin)
If we accept Jesus sacrifice for our sins we get to transfer to the second elevator
The point of the Christian life is to help get as many people into the second elevator as possible
That probably sounds pretty familiar. Now, the main concern in Evangelicalism has been to update the ways we explain the cross in this diagram. For some, the main question that is discussed is how exactly does the cross work within this equation (e.g. is it those who are predestined who get to cross from one to the other or is there human will involved?). For others, the main concern has been whatÂ tacticsÂ we use to communicate this world-view to the culture around us. We can use fear (think of the fire and brimstone preachers or the left-behind movies from back in the day), we can use logic (anyone been through an apologetics course?), we can even use culturally familiar language and music to make the message seem more “hip” (would you like a mocha with that?).
What folks like Bell and McLaren (and to some extent NT Wright) are doing is to question whether this whole worldview accurately depicts the story found in the Bible. The view that’s being articulated by those folks (among others) is that the story the Bible is telling throughout is that God is redeeming and restoring the world here and nowâ€”not sorting out who he’s going to rescue out of this world. It’s a story about how the Kingdom of God can be realized “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Check out this video by Bishop N.T. Wright further explaining this idea.
Brian McLaren makes a strong statement in defense of Rob Bell in the wake of theÂ controversyÂ around his book, “Love Wins.” Money quote:
its not that the critics have accurately understood what Im trying to say and have explained why they disagree. Its that theyve misrepresented what Im trying to say and have explained why the misrepresentation is audacious and ludicrous.
Brian McLaren wrote a brilliant essay in the Washington Post last week concerning the differences and similarities in world religions. The basic idea of his essay is that when people emphasize the similarities in all religions their motivating factor is a desire for peace. Similarly, someone who emphasized the incompatibilities among religions is generally approaching the topic with a need to confirm and maintain their own religious identity.
The problem comes when people on either side assume the worst about their counterparts. When distinctivists accuse similarists of being against religious identity, or when similarists accuse distinctivists of being against peace, each contributes negatively to the causes of dialogue, the common good, and wisdom.
A Lesson About the Constitution
One of the byproducts of the Elena Kagan confirmation going on this week is the opportunity to better understand how the American Judicial System works in relationship to our Constitution. Â On NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week they presented a discussion that helped explain different views of how to interpret the Constitution and why those views are important.
There are two basic views that can be taken when interpreting the Constitution; an originalist view that basically states that law should be interpreted in black and white terms based on what is written and that if there is a flaw in the law that it must be amended by congress rather than affected by a judicial opinion, and a living constitutionalist that believes that law must be interpreted over time since laws that were written to apply specifically in one context and time period may not make sense in a different context and time period.
The value of an originalist view is that judges can’t just “make it up as they go along,” and on the surface seems to make common sense. Â The downside to this view is that while there are many laws written into the constitution that are very specific and black & white, there are many that are left intentionally vague and require an interpretation. Â Take, for instance, this example from the NPR discussion:
And then there are phrases like cruel and unusual punishment. It seems to me that phrase almost asks judges or justices to think what’s cruel and unusual punishment today? The fact that someone could have been put to death in the 1700s, the 1800s, for a theft, even if the person was 12 years old or 15 years old, how many people would think that that is not cruel and unusual punishment today, to execute a 12-year-old?
So the critics of the Scalia view say you’ve got to, in effect, take terms like unreasonable search and cruel and unusual punishment and to some degree reflect how we understand those words today.
It should be clear from this example how judicial interpretation plays a vital role in applying the Constitution and why it’s challenging to hold a simple “black & white” view of the Constitution.
A Lesson About the Bible
In Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity, he warns about the dangers of reading the Bible like a constitution; stating that by reading the whole of the Bible like a constitution we miss the original intent and context of the literature and instead try to prove that we are right in our religious views by referring to specific “black & white” proof texts (i.e. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”).
I think that the same criticism that can be made of strict Constitutional Originalists can also be made of Biblical Literalists except worse because although there are places where the Bible is either vague or short of specific “black & white” answers about a topic, there is also no means to “amend” the Bible in order to clear up areas of uncertainty.
But in the same way that the Constitution can be considered a “living document” that needs to be interpreted over time in many cases in order to apply it to real life (including the danger that we could just “make it up as we go along” if we over interpret) I would state that a mature reading and understanding of the Bible is very much like a mature reading and understanding of the Constitution.
Brian McLaren shares a powerful story of the work being done by Musalaha, an organization committed to reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.
Whenever we bring Palestinians and Israelis together and attempt to talk about the history of our conflict, different and conflicting narratives emerge. Both sides think of themselves as peace-loving, innocent victims, and think of the other side as the aggressor.
The historical narrative of a people is the storytelling of the historical past of the people. It isÂ Â Â a reflection of reality as seen by these people. Other historical narratives may include the same historical events but seen from a different reality, a different perspective.Â Â In areas of conflict, a narrative tells the story of how the conflict was caused by the other side, how our actions are justified as self-defense and how the other people continue to violate our basic rights. Since the narrative paints its own people as heroic victims fighting evil, it is used as a powerful tool to motivate the people and the international community to fight on behalf of the people. The narrative is constantly repeated everywhere in schools, media and conversations and has become imprinted in the minds of the people to such an extent that it is perceived as historical truth and often mistaken for history. Although a historical narrative does contain historical facts, it only gives a subjective, selective one-sided perspective of the whole truth.
Brian McLaren addresses several interesting questions that he believes the church should be asking in his new book, A New Kind of Christianity. Â At the crux of his book is a question about how we view the overall narrative of the Bible.
Here’s a video about that idea in the book that was created with theooze.tv.