“There’s an insect in your ear if you scratch it won’t disappear
It’s gonna itch and burn and sting
Do you want to see what the scratching brings?”
-U2, Staring at the Sun
We have a cat and her name is “Kitty”. Over the past few years, she’s become more playful and personable, more so since our daughter moved out and went to college. Kitty is an interesting animal, like most cats, she is moody. She will usually have nothing to do with us…unless she wants something. Especially when she wants her head scratched. I’ve seen the cat go to great lengths to scratch that itch. I’ve watched as she has rubbed her head on the gears of my bicycle (seriously), against the cabinets in the kitchen, , last night, she even jumped onto my lap and “let” me pet her while I was watching basketball. When I get out of the shower in the morning, she comes into the bathroom and whines until I open the window for her (even when it is below zero outside) so she can sit in the sill. I am very much aware that I am being used, because as soon as I put her in the sill and try to pet her, she scratches and bites me! We should change her name to “ungrateful.”
Over the past few weeks, much has been said about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. I picked it up (downloaded it, actually) last week and am about a chapter and a half in. The gist of it, so far, is that the concepts of heaven, hell and the afterlife as taught by traditional christian teachings are faulty. As such, the idea of an eternity of separation from God is a stumbling block (Bell uses the word “toxic”) and the idea of an other-worldly heaven is incorrect. To be sure, Bell is asking what I consider to be some reasonable questions within the book. In fact, as a minister and Christian, I have been asked the same types of questions:
“How does one get to heaven?”
“Is my unbelieving relative in hell?”
“Is homosexuality a sin?”
On the surface, these seem like black and white questions and answers. And, at the end of the day, there are answers. The temptation for those who are questioning is to bring our own assumptions, desires and preconceptions to the question, and to continue to ask, and ask, and ask, until, like my cat, we find relief in the answer. The temptation for those in a position to answer is to scratch the itch. And though it’s a little early to render my total judgment of the book, by agreeing with the notion of a separation from God as “toxic”, Bell seems to put himself in the camp of simply scratching an itch.
What if some find the notion of atonement “toxic”?
How about repentance?
Are these doctrines and concepts also springs, open for interpretation?
In the Nooma video Dust, Bell interprets for us Jesus’ statement about yokes and burdens. As a Rabbi, the yoke Jesus was talking about was his teaching. Since “rabbi” means “teacher”, Rob Bell would be a rabbi, even a priest (the whole priesthood of all believers thing). In Hebrews 8 and 9, the author talks about how the law was modified over time, 8:7 seems to imply that the first covenant was faulty, hence the need for a new one. But, why was it faulty? Because as the priest rotated into their positions, they brought in a “new” yoke”, a new interpretation (7:11-13). The “evolving” of interpretation however, ended with Jesus. The original interpretations by the earthly priests “dealt only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation” (9:10), in reality, they were, and are, “dead works” (9:14). Because Jesus is the Ultimate High Priest, the atoner who even can “purify our conscience” (9:14), the ultimate sacrifice has been made. Because He is the “final” Rabbi, (not the earthly shadow like Bell, or myself), His interpretation would be final and perfect. So, when Tony Jones accuses Jesus of “having a faulty cosmology“, he is really challenging “who Jesus is” as that final priest. Either Jesus’ interpretation, his yoke, is wrong, or it is not.
If His cosmology is indeed wrong, then those whose ears itch for a “happily ever after for all” will find the answer that they are looking for.
If His cosmology is correct, then Bono’s question, “Do you want to see what the scratching brings?” is an appropriate one to ask.
As ministers of God’s Word, it is our role to love people. Sometimes, love looks like truth. A few years ago, we discovered that my wife might have cancer. As we talked to the doctor, we were completely uninterested in nuance, contours of truth or layers of the discussion. All we cared about was, “Is it cancer?” We soon learned that truth looked like the need for 6 months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments that debilitated my wife and pushed our family to the brink of exhaustion and tested the limits of love.
In the end, love won, because truth mattered. I seem to recall reading an admonishment to “speak the truth in love.” May we all feel this burden.