When rightness trumps goodness: theology and Rob Bell

As part of my master’s degree, we were recently asked to reflect on the ways in which we seek to live an integrated life: our theology and spirituality. Oh goody, a favorite question! My thoughts…

I’ve watched with both fascination and consternation the utter nonsense surrounding the newly released Rob Bell book, “Love Wins” as the doctrine cops race out of the starting gate, Bibles in hand, barking like rabid dogs at any hint of theology that in any way falls outside their miniscule parameters.

I know a ton of atheists, agnostics, and ass-holes whose theology gleams like the sun on the windshield. Jesus did, too. They were called Pharisees. They were those who held the keys to heaven and hell, blessing and curse, whether you were in or out, good or bad. In fact I seem to remember reading somewhere, “the demons also believe and shudder” – oh yeah, the Bible. Merely saying the right stuff out of a head full of all the right stuff doesn’t make us the right stuff.

The early theologians were more concerned that bad theology would corrupt good character. Theology as it is often lived out in contemporary terms is an exercise in “right” ideas, character be damned. In fact, in our rush to prove one another wrong, we display the very bad character that good theology seeks to redirect. We become the very demons we strive so assiduously to exorcise.

Moreover, I fear that the American cult of nationalist conservatism/moralistic ideology has hijacked Christianity in our culture. What passes for the gospel is too often a fundamentalist Puritanism that relishes in telling all of us how wrong (liberal, apparently, by default) we all are. Believe this stuff, and then give up pretty much anything that would ruffle our plumes ‘n feathers in the Victorian tea ‘n sympathy society.

Jesus risked living life with the ever present possibly of being misunderstood. Guess what? He was. He told his friends cool stories while taking walks and loved to be the life of the party. He quoted Old Testament poetry. He would never make it past the front door of our well-heeled, respectable, doctrinally correct churches. The ushers would escort out the street guy who stunk like wine and fish and refused to keep his mouth shut about disputable things.

I’m a musician. Musicians learn scales like Christians should learn theology – to forget them. The point is the music. Theology lies hidden, like the trout swimming just below the surface of the water, which is the peaceful beauty we see. They not only live in concert together but are utterly dependent upon one another. The water needs the fish to add a practical context to the beauty it possesses. It will yield something wonderful to those who seek. The fish requires the water for life and survival. Without it, it lives for but a moment and then perishes.

This, my friends, is what happens when the church becomes an edifice, protected rather than a garden, planted. This is what happens when being right trumps being good. This is what happens when we disavow grace in favor of controlling who’s in and who’s out. When our theology is divorced from life changing practice, i.e. orthodoxy without orthopraxy, we become headhunters rather than lovers of our brothers and sisters. The beauty of Christian theology rightly understood is that it is ultimately only a scaffolding for the cathedral of our souls under construction. It is the skeleton upon which the meat of our existence adheres and grows.

All of that to say this: I’d rather be judged for having compassion without holiness than holiness without compassion; for being more righteous than right; more glad than sad; more inclusive than exclusive; more truth-“filled” than “truth”-full; more understanding than understood; more gracious than corrective and, to quote Anne Lamott, more “Jesusy” than “Christian.” I want weirdos in the Church. Too many ties. Too few beanies. Too many BMWs. Too few skateboards. Too many businessmen. Too few radicals. Too much tidy. Too little messy. Too much church. Too little Jesus.

Despite obvious frustration over these matters, I love the Church in all her hypocrisy. I share in this hypocrisy. It has meant a willingness on my part not to enter into blogospheric theological debate, preferring instead to seek out relationships. It has also meant handing over my ministry, my music, my values, my long-term direction and everything else over to God in a posture of trust. I fear a day of reckoning is coming to the Church in North America when many of us will be revealed as those more committed to party line ecclesiastical politics than to an ethic of love. We’ll probably be blamed for being a weak-kneed kumbaya liberals who don’t “stand for anything.”

That’s alright – what that meant to Jesus wasn’t winning arguments. It meant dying at the hands of his own people. In the end love wins. And that’s the truth.

Just another online blowhard…R

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