Nate Watkins put together this video, adapted from a page in my book, “God Scent” (2006). My next book, “Hardwired,” will be published by Abingdon Press in September.
This weekend we climbed a mountain. Quite literally, we hiked the Garcia Trail up at the back of Azusa, up past the overly proud, white “A” emblazoned on the hill, up to the cross that is frequented daily by students from the expanding Christian college next door.
“I’ll never do that again,” you told me, as did your sister.
It was slow going. You were afraid of the sheer cliff that sat alongside the narrow path, and though you were never in any danger, the higher we got, the more you sounded like a kid mounting a diving board. We had to hold hands most of the way to the top. Your sister was not much better. It was a complaint parade with grunts like a timpani and whines like a clarinet, with stops under every shady overhang we could find.
On the way down you and I walked a few feet in front of the girls. I told you about being a leader and being brave, and how when times are hard, your family needs you to be a brave leader.
“Hm,” you said. I think it was assent.
I wonder how much these moments will sink in over time.
Up at the top, the cross is ironically graffitied. I’m not sure who decided that was appropriate. It overlooks a vast 180 degree panorama of LA, all the way to Catalina island, and on the other side an equally sized panorama of national forests, spotted with reservoirs. Cars wind through a lonely valley road, far enough away to seem like a silent movie of a leaf floating down a river.
Here I’m struck with an irony that we climbed to the cross. I mean I get it, but it’s all wrong. That first cross initially sat atop a hill, and placing them on top of hills today is sort of an implicit declaration of superiority and finality. Jesus’ cross and our crosses are the parentheses that swallow all the history in between. But theologically, it’s all wrong. We don’t climb to the cross; it descends to us. The whole point of the cross was that our climbing up was ineffectual, and so he climbed down. The cross was ultimately replacing our useless ladders with his working one. So I’m afraid I’ve emblazoned on your memory an image of intense perseverance that earns you a view of the cross, when what I want you to know is that the perseverance was all on his part.
I wish I had told you that too, but perhaps this will make more sense later.
Rob Bell gave a lecture tonight at First Baptist Church of Pasadena to promote his new book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.” He kept repeating a phrase that was incredibly revealing.
The crowd was about 300 people, almost all students of Fuller Seminary, which had promoted the event. I should say, in the world of hipsters, hats are apparently completely out after having been completely in for about a year. The crowd was maybe 50/50 on the gender split, mostly around 30 years old, and heavily Caucasian. An one hat.
The hour long lecture was a funny and warm-hearted verbal rendition of the first chapter of Bell’s book. Literally almost word-per-word in some sections, with all the same punchlines. For first timers, it was a lot of fun. For anyone who had read the book, it was like watching the same episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” for the second day in a row. You’re like, “Yeah, I remember that being funny.”
At the end, in a Q&A period, a couple of students asked some really smart questions. They asked them humbly and hesitantly, so I’m not sure if everyone understood how sharp they were. One person observed that Bell keeps talking about the God who is “ahead of us, pulling us forward.” In Bell’s cosmology, God’s primary goal is progress. God is working to get us to “the next step,” and there’s no judgment for being in your present place (I’m not sure if these means theologically, morally, or in terms of mental health). “What about the fact that the Bible seems like it’s behind us then?” the student asked. Bell rambled on this one. He said that the Bible was in fact progressive for its time, which only left open the possibility that it’s not progressive in our time. Rather than linear answers that addressed the questions, Bell tended to float around verbally to different illustrations which were not always on topic.
Another student followed up, “Let’s say you have a friend who is a spiritual seeker who reads about Joshua killing the Canaanites,” he began. “Who picked that text?” Bell teased. Then he answered that “You can just start with Jesus and work your way back from there.” He referred the student to a British theologian whose name he couldn’t remember who argues that it wasn’t actually genocide (I think he’s referring to Christopher Wright, though Wright actually says that the Canaanite slaughter was as bad as it sounds, and God was just accommodating that context). Bell simply dodged the question.
THE BIG ISSUE
Which brings me to absolutely the most interesting part of the night. Several times Bell referred to doctrinal accuracy with the phrase, “Getting the mental furniture in order.” He said, “Instead of trying to get the mental furniture in order, which you’re never going to do…”, we should instead gather around the eucharist and make sure everyone’s needs are met. What’s shocking about this is that Bell isn’t taking his own advice. Bell very clearly thinks he understands God’s nature, and very clearly thinks that “the institutional church” is getting it wrong. He says that if we believed (aka got the mental furniture in order) that God was with us, for us, and ahead of us, this generation would be more interested in God.
This is just contradictory. If getting God right is important, we can’t very well dismiss doctrine. Bell threw in an aside, “Sure, some doctrines are helpful.” But he seems to be missing the heart of the exercise that he himself is taking part in, which is the revision of doctrine. He’s absolutely right about what’s at stake – a mistaken understanding of God turns people away from God. The problem is that the God who is always leading people towards progress without judgment isn’t an entirely accurate picture of the biblical image of God. Bell has moved the furniture while denying that the placement of the furniture matters.
The upside of Rob Bell is that he really believes that people need love. He thinks that they need to know Jesus. He just doesn’t seem to think Jesus jibes with the God of the Bible, including the God that Jesus himself describes. Bell needs to have a come-to-Jesus talk with himself where he admits that he has intentionally ordered the mental furniture to arrive at his present theology. Then he might realize that he’s got the furniture in the wrong places. And maybe then we’ll find the hat rack.