Tuesday, May 24, 2011

American Hell

I'm just not tuned in enough to American Evangelical circles. I think they as a group tend to obsess about theological trifles and biblical non sequiturs. I also don't identify as an Evangelical, nor do I particularly hold to many American Evangelical theological norms, particularly in the realm of the extreme American individualism that infests virtually every aspect of life what I perceive as the Evangelical movement in the USA.

I say this not to point fingers at my Evangelical brethren. They are committed and sincere Christians, and I certainly wish them all the blessings in the world. They certainly do way better at telling people about Jesus than my denomination could ever hope to do. We just simply have to agree to disagree and a good number of things. I do say this because I have trouble understanding the American Evangelical mind, and perhaps that is my own fault.

To be fair, there is very wide spectrum of varying traditions that vie for the title "Evangelical," at least in the US. This ranges from everything from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to Evangelical Church of the Brethren to the New Right "Jesus was a Reagan Conservative" crowd and everything in between. Evangelical is one of those very squishy terms that no one can probably to agree on. I would probably tend to define it as the more conservative branches of American Protestantism that tilt toward either the Pentecostal/Charismatic or from the Arminian/Calvinist controversies and in whom believe some version of Sola Scriptura. I realize my Evangelical brethren who are reading this blog will likely be frothing at the mouth as such descriptors, but that is at least what comes to my mind when I hear the term "Evangelical." I realize my definitions above are disgustingly broad (and probably unfair), but that's just what pops into my head, fair or not.

As such, the Evangelical crowd tend to get into snits and full blown arguments from time to time that I just don't understand. To be fair, the Episcopal Church gets into snits all the time that neither my Evangelical friends (nor even me for that matter) understands fully. Every denomination gets obsessed about some thing or other (often multiple things), often to the merriment of other denominations.

A month or so ago, certain Christian circles were all abuzz over Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins. I was somewhat at a loss as to why people were so worked up over the book. Until this book was about to come out, I had never even heard of Rob Bell. Turns out he is a mega-church guru over in Michigan, and his name carries a lot of weight in Evangelical circles.

Given the hubbub and vehement denunciations by a large swathe of my Facebook friends who would self-identify as some form of Evangelical, I was morbidly curious. I actually even picked up the book in the library and read about 3 chapters of it. Like most theological writers from the Generation X crowd who have no training in formal logic or classical rhetoric, I found his arguments to be emotive and largely a litany of circular non sequiturs and half formed ideas and flights of fancy. I thumbed through the rest of the book and it seemed to be much of the same stuff that gripped Christianity during the Modernism crisis of the late Victorian/early 20th Century era. In his distracting way, he seemed to largely be parroting a lot of the questions that Classical Liberal Protestantism was asking. I didn't particular see anything new from his work that shed any new thoughts or light on issues like traditional notion of hell, other than restating positions already argued over for decades in the last century. Again, I didn't pour over every dot and tittle of his work like many have, but from what I read and what I have read of people who have read it in its entirety, I would be comfortable making that general assessment.

Retired Anglican Bishop NT Wright posted this thoughtful response on Bell's work earlier. I think its worth a listen if you have three minutes. Unlike a lot of responses, Wright, while disagreeing, is more thoughtful in his response but does not feel it necessary to flame the guy. Another of my friends has his response to Wright's video here. He entitles his blog entry "American Hell," which is directly to the point. Basically the point Bell and others is arguing (going back to at least the 1800s) is the question of "How can a Good God send people to Hell?" That is a theological question I will tackle at another time.

Having grown up in a very Scots-Irish area where fire and brimstone preachers are quite common and holiness churches abound, I have watched his debate over Bell's book heat up with some interest. We, Americans, come by our fixation with fire and brimstone honestly. There is an excellent book entitled Albion's Seed that historically maps the four major religious traditions that came to America and took root as migration waves, having originally been labeled as outcasts and dissenters back in the height of Anglican Church establishment in Britain and largely had to flee or were expelled. The groups were largely the Quakers, Scots-Irish, Puritans, and the non-landed Anglican gentry who had sided with Charles I in the English Civil War. (One can also take this 4 part dichotomy and apply it to red state/blue state electoral college maps, as well as what region tended to side with whom during the American civil war.)

While I agree with the premise that Love Wins, I would only quip that God is more than simply warm, fuzzy love. God is also Justice, and Justice wins. Personally, I tend to follow the more Eastern Orthodox view of hell, which is laid out very well in many of CS Lewis' literary works. I just know hell is a place I don't want to go to, regardless of whether its fire and brimstone or outer darkness where we live in isolated divorce from God. But I also have to say that I don't worry about it because God is not a God of fear. If God is nothing more than a great being fearing us into submission for its own sake, then I don't know if I want to spend eternity with a being of that nature. 

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