As always, Time magazine has come out, just in time for Easter, with a cover story on Christianity, this time on the topic of Hell. It’s actually more about the pastor of a mega church – Mars Hill Church outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan – and usually the Easter issue of Time has more to do with the resurrection or the Jesus Seminar. Time must have found out that articles on religion are good sellers around Easter – and Christmas too.
What is fascinating to me about the article are two things:
First, that anyone still believes that the God we worship – you know, the “God is love” kind, the one Jesus likened to a benevolent heavenly Father, who cares for us as his little children – that anyone professing that sort of God (and even the most Fundamentalists among us do) can still think God created or at least tolerates a Hell where people are tortured forever. And ever. And ever. Even a little while would be bad enough.
But alas millions of Christian people do believe in that Hell, and a God who sends people there. And so when an Evangelical like Rob Bell (the aforementioned mega church pastor) writes a book daring to question such a primitive and horrifying God, a whole bunch of people cry Foul! and declare him to be a heretic. Such is the state of the evangelical/fundamentalist world of America.
But aside from that, given our reading of Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg, I am taken by the language used in the article. The writer clearly uses the modern – Enlightenment – ideas of what belief is. Belief is “traditionally” he says (Armstrong would say only recently “traditionally”) “the key is the acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God, who, for us and our salvation came down from heaven . . . and was made man. In the Evangelical ethos one either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell.”
There it is: belief as intellectual assent, the affirmation of a list of statements about God. Here is logos – rational, thinking language -- rather than mythos – symbolic, experiential language.
Pastor Bell is daring to approach God through metaphor, reading the Bible not as a prosaic prescription for describing God but instead as poetry, symbol. And he’s getting into trouble for that from the right.
Let me add a third observation about the article, or rather about something Bell says in it. Namely: “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air.”
Marcus Borg, John Crossan, Karen Armstrong would agree, and might say that “something new” is already here, in people for whom faith does not mean intellectually affirming things that are patently false, but is rather experiencing the mystery of the universe that is God – unknowable, refusing to be limited by our language and minds – and in response to that awe seek to live compassionate, gracious lives.
Another recent book answers Bell’s wonderment with a resounding Yes, something very new is happening! Phyllis Tickle in The Great Emergence (2008) says that every 500 years the followers of Christ – the Church – has undergone a tremendous change. The last change was the Protestant Reformation. We are now in the midst of another revolution, she says, out of which will emerge a new faith, a new Christianity. One that I would think will have a lot to do with what we have been reading about in Borg, Crossan, and Armstrong – and Ellul too.