Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Gods Aren't Angry Tour

My brothers don't go to church.

Interestingly, though, when they do go to church, they have very specific expectations for what happens when we get there. There are specific rituals and songs that they want to sing. Since it is usually Christmas or Easter when they plunk their skinny little asses into the pews, their desires are often met. That's right, my brothers are Creasters. Creasters are folks who only come to church on Christmas and Easter, usually tagging along with family members (parents) who go more regularly but often independently out of some vague sense like my brothers' that there are certain rituals that need to be attended to on a somewhat yearly basis. I think there are other people that show up out of curiosity or yearning and the fact that the country recognizes the holidays gives them a push to explore. Actually, I shouldn't speculate. There is probably a rich complexity of reasons why people can be classified as Creasters. I'm a little intrigued by it.

So, anyway, my brother Daniel believes that the pastor who preaches on both Easter and Christmas should only preach on one topic: the Good News. When Daniel wants the pastor to preach the Good News, he means the good news that "No matter what you've done, God loves you. See, he sent his son to die for you." He gets very upset if a pastor tries to get fancy and preach on some other topic, like the history of Easter celebrations or the four women in Jesus' lineage. He thinks it's a waste of a church full of people for whom that message is not run-of-the-mill and familiar to the point that they require something more innovative in order not to be bored by hearing the same thing again and again. It is a waste of an opportunity to tell people who don't know that God loves them that God loves them.

This is a man who doesn't go to church.

He wants people to know that God loves them.


Trust me, it's adamantly.

He wants people to know that God loves them.

So, a search of my blog will indicate that I've been pretty attentive to Rob Bell over the last year or so. OnMonday, I went to hear him speak when he came to town on his The Gods Aren't Angry Tour. The tagline for this talk is "Part anthropology, part history, part deconstruction - this is new material that Rob hasn't taught before, exploring how humans invented religion to make themselves feel better." From that, I expected a somewhat academic lecture (that's the report about how his last tour went) aimed at a mixed audience of Christians and any non-Christian co-workers they could arm-twist into coming. Certainly, I tried to get some of my secular friends to come with because I felt like I could assure them that it wouldn't be a bait-and-switch. I trust Rob to give them the freedom to think about what he said without trying to scare them into conversion. Unfortunately, we have a mid-term tomorrow so none of my school friends could come and another friend is two centimeters dilated and could give birth today or two weeks from now.

I suppose this is a reasonable place to talk about how I feel about evangelism.

Generally, I'm against it.

The Christian community has made such disgusting historical display of evangelism and the almost inevitable prostelytization that I would prefer to sacrifice it altogether than risk the harm it can cause to even a few people. Now, this is easier for me to say because I don't think the afterlife is the payoff for spiritual people. But, I know that there are a lot of people out there who will disagree with my priorities because eternity seems like such a long time and I really respect a lot of those people. Bob Lupton responds to this better than I ever could in his book, And You Call Yourself a Christian: Toward Responsible Charity:
"Do you believe in a literal heaven and a literal hell?" one sharp young theology student retorted. I knew the rationale behind his question. If you believe that either eternal bliss or eternal damnation await every person after death, then the most loving act is to present the truth of the Gospel to as many people as possible and thus save them from everylasting destruction.

It's a compelling argument. The problem, of course, is that it leads to viewing others as souls instead of people. And when we opt for rescuing souls over loving neighbors, compassionate acts can soon degenerate into evagelism techniques. Pressing human needs depreciate in importance, and the spirit becomes the only thing worth caring about. Thus, the powerful leaven of unconditional, sacrificial love is diminished in society and the wounded are left lying beside the road."

My church interacts a lot with people who have been wounded by sometimes well-meaning Christians who saw them as a soul rather than a person or who were just looking to add to the notches on their batismal fonts or who counted how many people showed up on Sunday morning rather than whether the people that showed up were getting closer to Jesus. (Yay to Bill Hybels, by the way, for addressing that last particularly difficult problem in his own church.) Spencer Burke talks about those folks as being innoculated against Jesus by being exposed to only a token amount of Christianity injected by an often cold and sharp needle. Often, what they hear from the evangelism message is that Jesus will only love them if they change to be more like the Christians in that particular church. That is not the Good News. So, if the evangelists' goal is to save souls, their work is counter-productive in a huge percentage of cases.

However, there are a lot of people out there who are lonely. Who believe they are worthless. Who want to talk to God but flinch because of the previous times the Church has slapped them. They are leading the lives of quiet desperation that Thoreau talked about.

I want them to know that God loves them.

I don't care if they go to my church.

I don't care if they call themselves Christian.

I don't care if they say the magic words and get baptized.

I care that they have a community.

I care that they believe that they are valuable.

I care that they be able to talk to God when they need to.

I want for them life in all its fullness and I don't care how they find that.

So, although I don't evangelize, I do talk about God a lot and I talk about going to church and I tell people that they are always welcome to come with me and I invite them to go see Rob Bell. Because I think I have found ones of the ways to have life in all its fullness and if my machete-hacking through the jungle of experience that has been my life makes someone else's life a little easier, I shall not have lived in vain, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson. I also usually tell them that I believe they're going to Heaven no matter what, so they should feel free to refuse or accept my offers without worrying about how it will affect our friendship. I hope I'm treating them like people and not like souls to be bartered and traded by doing this.

So, enough with the aside about evangelism. I was talking about Rob Bell. And my brother's expectations as a Creaster. And my desire for all people to know that they are valuable enough to be loved.

I wish that more lonely, anxious people had been there because it was a slam-dunk Easter sermon.

Now, I could be wrong. But the Vic certainly looked like it was full of young, hip Christians, many of whom I knew and myself included. The theater seemed to hold the proverbial choir that was being preached to.

It's a weird feeling. I don't want Rob or this emerging church movement to become a Billy Graham tent revival, but he speaks so eloquently, and with such respect for the humanity and intelligence of his audience that it's like I feel the reverse of my brother's Easter morning disappointment. Instead of the pastor missing an opportunity to look people in need in the eyes and to tell them without doubt that God loves them, I feel like people in need missed an opportunity to have their eyes looked into because all the seats were taken by folks who didn't know their seat would be better sacrificed to someone else.

Although I didn't realize it until now, I guess my response to that has been to talk about it a lot. You know, "I went to see this cool speaker last night." It's created some interesting conversations with folks, especially over the drinks we needed after our last mid-term. I suppose hearing the Good News from a friend while putting back a Long Island Iced Tea (yuck) is probably better than hearing from stranger who just seems like any other televangelist on the surface except for the funky glasses and allusion to Gordon Gano (which absolutely flopped, pretty much proving my hip young Christian theory). "I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record." Perfect rhythm and and inflection.

I can only hope to be so cool.


thechurchgeek said...

I certainly wondered that too; there is really no way to tell is there?

My wife and I, two presbyterian ministers, drove four hours from Iowa to be there, so that's two seats already taken up!

I would argue that just because it was prominently attended by 'christians' (if that in fact was the case), that his message is just as needed too many of us.

I know for my wife and I it helped us as we process our own thinking about sacrifice and atonement, and the grace of God, and will prove tremendously helpful in our own ministry.

Plus all proceeds help support the church's water project in africa, so that's another way the gospel gets out, regardless of who was in attendance.

Anonymous said...

I like Rob Bell, I like the violent femmes, I don't like the way a lot of Christians go about doing what they call evangelism, but I wasn't clear on a lot of things Rob said in Chicago on Monday night. See this other blog post I saw. Does anybody have some widom or clarity on this?

Thursday, November 8, 2007
A Letter to Rob Bell
I attended Rob Bell's The Gods Aren't Angry Tour at the Vic Theater in Chicago on Monday evening and left less than completely satisfied with some of what I heard. So, I decided to write Rob and ask for some clarification. I connected with Karen, a PR person at Zondervan and she said she'd forward my questions on to Rob. Here's to hoping for a response!

Has anyone else seen this show? Did anyone else have similar or other questions?

November 8th, 2007


Greetings – my name is Jeff Clinger. I’m 27 years old, a United Methodist Pastor in Indiana, and a huge fan of your ministry. When I was first introduced to the Nooma series several years ago I began using them in teaching youth, young adults, and even older adults. I went to the “Everything is Spiritual” presentation last year and loved it – I’m still waiting for it to be released on DVD. I have read Velvet Elvis and Sex God and have recommended them and given them as gifts to many. Monday night I attended your lecture in Chicago and left feeling less than satisfied.

I am writing today to ask a couple of questions and potentially engage in some dialogue. As a pastor who is quite aware of the fact that people don’t always hear what we’re trying to say, I thought you might be interested in hearing my perceptions and questions following what was, in spite of leaving me less than completely satisfied, a quite enjoyable presentation. I would much rather have this conversation face to face over a beer (we could toast to Ninkasi), but I figure engaging the questions via email is better than not at all.

If I heard you correctly on Monday night I heard you say several things quite clearly:

1) God does not, nor has God ever required blood sacrifices. I was particularly appreciative of your references to Psalm 50 and Micah 6.

2) Jesus did not come to die for our sins. Jesus came, lived a life instituting a new way of living in relationship with God and others, and was killed because his message was a threat (economic and otherwise) to the institution built around temple sacrifice.

3) Many lives in our world today still seem to be lived within that sacrificial system – trying to earn God’s love, trying to be worthy of the love of others as well. However, we don’t need to do this, God loves us as is.

If I misunderstood you on any of these points, the following question might not make sense. If I understood you correctly, what I struggled with was this:

It seemed to me that in addition to the above statements you clearly made the statement – God is now at peace with all of heaven and earth because of the blood sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Did I hear this correctly? If so, how does this reconcile with points 1 and 2 above? To me, the idea that God required the blood sacrifice of Jesus, is troubling theology. It also seems inconsistent with so much of the rest of what I’ve heard and read from you.

Can you offer me some clarification regarding what you were saying? If you don’t have time to respond to me personally I totally understand, but thought you might like to know where I struggled with what you had to say Monday night in the off chance that others will struggle with something similar in the coming days as you continue to travel and speak.

Thanks for all of the time and energy you put into teaching new things. I will continue to follow your work enthusiastically. Speaking of which, do you blog or journal online anywhere? I would be very interested in reading your reflections on life and ministry if they are available anywhere. Should you have any interest in seeing more of where I am coming from, I blog at If you’d rather respond to my questions via phone rather than e-mail I’d also be happy to set up some time when we could have that conversation. You can call me at ... or email me at

Blessings in all of your continued work.

Grace and Peace,


Posted by Jeff at 8:20 AM

thechurchgeek said...
A very good and well articulated question, I wondered that myself; It did seem a little inconsistent.

However I gather the thrust of his main point, rather simplified, was that you can't end a sacrificial system without a final once and for all sacrifice?

So in some sense as he argued it's not really about what God requires but about what it takes for us to understand that sacrifices are no longer and never were really needed by God.

I heard someone once say that it wasn't that God needed animals to die, but that God knew we learned much better by way of that picture.

November 8, 2007 5:12 PM
barbmom said...
Hey Jeff, I will give your blog address to Maria. She saw Rob in KC and was chatting with me about it this afternoon. Keep asking the good questions.

November 8, 2007 7:30 PM
Anonymous said...
Yeah, a big fan of Rob but, although he's attempting some really great stuff here, he leaves some gaping questions out there (at least in the first installment in Chicago). The largest question simply put is, Rob, why the cross? Yes, you quote Hebrews saying "the culmination of the ages," yet if all of these sacrifices since the dawn of humankind were to appeal to our own consciences, than why this bloody sacrifice of the son of God? By not addressing it, it highlights those who see cross-worship as some primitive form of divine child abuse??

Helen said...

Hi Rebecca, I saw some of your thoughts about evangelism from this post on Mike Clawson's blog. I know this post is about Rob Bell but I hope you don't mind me picking up on the evangelism part in particular.

I love what you said about it because it shows you have such a heart for people!

I don't know if you know about Off The Map's approach to evangelism which we call "doable evangelism". It's not a program - the tagline of is it "What if evangelism meant just being yourself?" One of the key things we hope to teach people is the value of really listening to others and giving them our attention. Like you said, we want people to feel valued and get the idea God actually likes them.

In the 'OA stories' section we share stories from people who are trying this new way of being non-manipulative as they give their attention to others, trusting God that this 'counts' as evangelism. We find people get very excited at how much easier and more fun it is to listen to people instead of trying to control a conversation in order to force it a particular direction they thought they had to make it go.

We aren't saying, don't talk about God. We're saying, relax and have fun and trust that the conversation will go there if it's meant to. It might actually go there quite quickly if the other person is stunned to run into a Christian more interested in listening than 'selling' Jesus to them at the first opportunity. (Not that you do this - but guilt over the obligation to share their faith evangelism does often push Christians into behavior they don't even feel comfortable about)

You can read more about it on our Doable Evangelism site. It seems to tie in a lot with what you shared so I'd be curious to hear what you think of it.

Helen said...

(Maybe I should clarify since I'm almost an atheist: I totally buy into the "let's give our attention to other people and really listen" part of doable evangelism; the people who believe in Jesus, like Randy and Jim who are in charge of Doable Evangelism - would like people to know that Jesus likes and values them - that's not a place I'd go personally but I do want people to know that *I* like them and I also would love more Christians to learn better ways of communicating real love than some of the behavior I see going on out there called 'evangelism'

So, I'm not 'an evangelist' but I really like the principles of doable evangelism and I have nothing against people sharing what is on their hearts - whether that's "Jesus likes you" or some other good news - as long as they do it in a way which doesn't compromise showing real love to others)

PrincessMax said...

Wow. I was away from my computer for a couple of days and Mike has a party while I'm gone by quoting me on his much-more popular blog. He says I'm "wonderfully random" by the way. Thanks to thechurchgeek, Jeff and Helen for stopping by.

Thank you for pointing out that my certainty that the hall was full of self-proclaimed followers might be a little rash on my part. Both in your blog and here you are generous and curious and I appreciate both of those attitudes. And you're right that both pastors and laity need help processing new discoveries and thoughts so that when we turn to folks on differents of the path, we don't say, "Well, I remember a stream, but I'm not sure where it was."

I saw on thechurchgeek's site that you said Rob had responded to your email. That's pretty cool. I'd love to read your follow-up. Are you comfortable linking to the site from here? The only response I can formulate right now is to #2. I didn't hear him say that Jesus didn't come to die for our sins. I heard him say at least one other explanation for the cross but I don't think we should assume that just because he only mentioned one theory that he is eliminating the possibilities of the others. I'm really comfortable leaving that one a mystery and acknowledging that all explanations (because they are inherently human) reflect the truth but don't encompass it. What's the quote? If I could explain the dance, I wouldn't have danced it?

That being said, I would answer your final question about why God would need the cross to be at peace with all of heaven and earth is better answered by being reframed a little. Isn't it possible that we needed the cross to know that God was already at peace with us? How much of our human drama is caused by us assuming that someone else is mad or dishonest or doesn't like us or is trying to sabotage us when really it's all just a big misunderstanding? I mean, the whole sit-com industry is built on this premise. When one person steps forward and says, "Wait a minute. That's not what I meant. I'm sorry that you felt hurt by my actions. Let me take you out for coffee so we can talk about it," then we stop feeling so anxious and realize that there was always peace between us, we just worked ourselves up into a tizzy over nothing. Christ sacrifice could be God's attempt to show us that our anxiety that causes us to live outside of peace and tranquility in an attempt at atonement is just a tizzy of our own making.

Just a thought. I'm so glad you stopped by and shared some of your thoughts, too.

Hi Helen,

It's always good to hear from you. I'll definitely check out the Doable Evangelism. There's also a great chapter in the Emerging Manifesto of Hope that helped shape some of my thoughts.

I welcome any other thoughts folks have about Rob Bell's tour or any of the other issues it has brought up. This is fun!

Helen said...

Thanks Rebecca. Hey I might be able to come to Monday's meeting!

Since I liked your evangelism comments so much, I sent them to Off The Map's Director of Doable Evangelism. He posted them on our Doable Evangelism site today, here:

Generally Against Evangelism

Nick Jones said...

Great thoughts here...

I came across this post just doing a random google search on the message I heard last night on the tour. The idea of "universal grace" has my head spinning a bit, and I wanted a bit more insight into what others were saying.

I guess where I am at right now is chewing through the thoughts on what blood sacrifice was all about in the first place. I love the part in Hebrews where it mentions that blood never had the power to remove sin. If Rob's take is correct, and that was all simply for us. Is the point of the crucifixion to simply say "we are at peace". "nothing more needs to be done", essentially the line we know as "it is finished."?

This would explain how Christ died for the tribal people living in the deepest, darkest parts of the world, even though they will never hear the message, or "accept"....

Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing them.

Jeff said...

Oddly enough, I didn't post the full text of my blog here previously. Someone else did. I just stumbled upon this today while googling myself (moving to a new job, just wanted to see what was out there).

I did hear back from Rob and posted some of the follow-up here -