Friday, March 25, 2011

Influential Books

10 Books that have most influenced me and who I am today:

1. Rob Bell - Velvet Elvis - Hands down the largest influence on my theology and on the way I look at life. This book was a light to me in a dark time of frustration, anger, bitterness, and when I felt that the Christian tradition I had grown up with had abandoned me because of who I am. Had I not read this book with the timing I had, I would have renounced my faith and spent years running from something very important to me. A Godsend.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche - The Gay Science - Nietzsche's "God is Dead" paradigm is nothing short of Revolutionary, not to mention offensive to those who don't understand it, and even to some who do. Regardless, everyone knows something is wrong, and that's what this work is about, though it is one of the few of Nietzsche's books to not make a solid argument. I do my Philosophy the way this book is written: playing at an argument rather than making one.

3. Brian D. McLaren - More Ready Than You Realize - Showed me a different side of the dirty word "Evangelism." Made me realize that I didn't have to be obnoxious in order to tell people what I believe, and that evangelism hasn't always been what it is today, and doesn't have to be yelling on street-corners, turn or burn, or being obnoxiously relevant and condescending to those not in a social group.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche - The Antichrist - A searing critique of Christianity that remains relevant today, due to it being years ahead of its' time. Called me out and made me rethink a lot of things, including my commitment (or lack thereof) to Truth at any cost.

5. Friedrich Nietzsche - Beyond Good and Evil - "Suppose truth is a woman - what then?" I recommend this to everyone that wants to read Nietzsche, because I find it to be his easiest read and the most relevant to what he's about. A redefinition of morality altogether, and forced me to rethink my own moral compass.

6. Bruce Ellis Benson - Graven Ideologies - All about Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion on the concept of idolatry. Made me realize my own idols (which I still have) and what an idol really is. Whether you're committed to a religious text as Absolute Truth or feel you cannot live without something, give this book a read for a bit of a shake-up.

7. Rob Bell - Love Wins - This may actually belong up at #2, but I'm still turning the concepts in it over in my head. However, it was such an affirmation of my own eschatology and soteriology and so terrifyingly freeing at the same time that I have to say it made me rethink my beliefs anyway. For more on this, go to almost any Pastor's blog, or read my post below this one, and then read the book.

8. Brennan Manning - The Ragamuffin Gospel - A book about the Furious Love of God. Brought me to tears at least once, and I never even finished it. If you know anything about my theology, you know it is Love-central, and this book is one of the reasons why.

9. Rob Bell - SexGod - I have read this book twice and all of it still hasn't sunk in for me. Most of the reasons this book has been an influence on me are too personal to post here, but its' portrayal of God and Humanity is beautiful. God does not run out of balloons. Everyone should read this book.

10. John MacArthur - The Truth War - I read the first 2 pages of this book in a bookstore and nearly started crying. If you want to know the reason I almost left my faith, give this book a cursory glance. Horrifying, and I do everything I can to not be this way. I am sure MacArthur has good intentions, but that cannot excuse the Ad Hominem and highly offensive language that give away that he is personally offended by something and wrote a book about it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Review: "Love Wins"

This is a review of "Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived" by Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as if the internet does not already have enough of those. I've mostly read the critiques, and there are a lot of them, and there are a lot of people defending Bell and his latest work. There are charges that he is a Universalist, charges that he is a heretic, and a lot of people feel that this book is his most dangerous yet. Still more people have felt freed by his latest work, liberated from things that have held heir lives hostage for years, and their theology has been changed or reaffirmed by this latest fire starter of a book.

If there is one thing Bell excels at, it is sparking conversation.

I am not writing this to lay out Bell's theology and exegetically defend it or deconstruct it. There are many that could do that better than I. I am here to lay out for you what I think this book represents, and you can decide from there.

Despite the absurd amount of controversy sparked by "Velvet Elvis," Bell's first book, that was minor compared to what this book is now causing. The reason for this is because Bell finally laid his cards on the table. As he recently said when responding to the repeated accusation that he downplays Hell, he wrote an entire chapter on the subject in this book. He also wrote about Heaven, Eschatology (the study of what happens at the end of the age), Salvation and just what it is, and naturally, a Jewish Rabbi named Jesus.

If "Velvet Elvis" was Bell's theological introduction, "Love Wins" may be his theological masterpiece. Indeed, only time will tell. Since the release of his first book in 2005, Bell has written 3 other books, "SexGod," "Jesus Came to Save Christians," and what is likely his least controversial work ever, "Drops Like Stars." He has always written about theology, Jesus in his Jewish context, which is easy to forget about in the Western World where we get hung up on the particulars of language, and he's always had his own particular flavor of writing.

He write in questions, and they're questions that resonate deeply, in all cases. From repainting the Christian faith to Sexuality to Social Justice to Suffering and Art, and finally to what many would say is at the center of the Christian faith and what Jesus did and still does, Salvation.

That hasn't changed. However, what has changed is his tone. In this work, he is more confident than ever, more explicit than ever, and he machine guns the reader with Scripture. He's always referenced the Bible in his works, but in this book he quotes them in the chapters every single time, and he creates systematic coherent structures for his arguments.

One would almost think that Bell has gotten more Western, except that his book is profoundly Eastern in theological tone. However, one thing is clear: the past 5 years of people criticizing Bell's view of Hell and eternity without a clue what he is actually saying about it are over. That is of course assuming that people read the book before they criticize it, which one would think is common sense.

The cards are down on this topic, and Bell unapologetically and passionately argues his points with stories, scripture references, and question after question, which he proceeds to provide answers for. As he states in his book, this is not a book of questions, it is a book of answers to those questions.

Some of the answers, some of the theology, are different than what you typically find in Evangelical Christianity and indeed, in Western Christianity in general. Some of it is very much the same. He argues that his theology is within the wide stream of Christianity, full of differing perspectives and differing traditions and theologies. However, his Philosophy comes into direct conflict with one of those traditions in this book, and he makes a compelling and whole-hearted argument against it.

To be clear: this book represents a coherent laying out of a different kind of Christian. This is a Christian dissatisfied and even horrified with the answers given by contemporary Evangelicals, and under this argument lies a Philosophy. It is a Philosophy of Love, and it comes from the same place as what many of the Reformed and many Evangelicals will argue: the presuppositions the speaker brings to the discussion, and its constructive tools are Scripture and Church history.

So who's right? You'll have to decide that one.

To those of you that are angry or outraged at this work, I encourage you to carefully consider your words before using terms like "universalist," "liberal," and ESPECIALLY "heretic." By Bell's own proclamation, he is not a universalist (and he isn't in the traditional sense), and to call him a liberal is to jam him into a category that doesn't fit in a postmodern world. Don't oversimplify matters, and don't allow this situation to schism Christianity any further, please. If you disagree, state why and engage the man, engage his followers, engage whoever reads the book, and engage his theology. Do you really think any of this would've come about if Christianity wasn't broken and incomplete in some way in its' current state anyway?

To those of you that think this book is the best thing ever written: I entreat you to treat it critically. Do not return the name-calling, do not take this book as the truth and the last word on the matters written about, and remember what Bell entreats us to do in his first book: do not take it face value. Test it, turn it over and over in your mind, figure out if you agree on every point, every question and every answer. Bell's writings are not perfect, and he's not right about everything.

To everyone else that doesn't understand why this is such a big deal and think it's absurd that Christians are fighting again when they claim to "have the truth," I hear you. I assure you, I'm sick of it too. Let's have a beer and talk about it sometime.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Dying to Live"

I did not come up with this title. It is the title of Chapter 5 of Rob Bell's newest book, "Love Wins," and it's some thoughts I've had due to that book and due to life lately.

What kind of a life does one lead when they have so much money that expenses go beyond their perception? How satisfying is it to get to the "top" and have all of the power you have ever wanted? What happens when you finally get the respect you feel you deserve, you finally have everything go right for you, and you finally obtain that thing you've always wanted?

What then?

It's very easy to go through life dissatisfied. In fact, I am a master at this. My critical nature gives me the perspective to see weaknesses in almost anything, and it's very often my greatest weakness, as it leads to unnecessarily hurting others and mostly hurting myself.

We are our own worst critic, are we not?

However, it's also easy to live in a way that is solely focused on comfort. Pleasure seeking, living the good life, food for the stomach, because why deny ourselves something we want when it's easily attainable? Substance, sex, any food we want, endless entertainment options, constantly living in a world where we are comfortable.

And yet for some reason, this gets boring. We begin to feel run down, tired all the time, bored, and we need something else. Some kind of variety, some kind of change of routine. We need new entertainment, different substances, more crazy forms of sex, we eat more, find more TV shows, buy more DVDs from the store, get new pets, move for no reason, adventure restlessly, and keep looking for that elusive satisfaction that our existence is centered on.

It's part of who we are, we always want something new. This isn't a bad thing, it's human nature to be creative, and it's also our nature to find the thing that defines our existence, defines who we are.

The problem is, when we live in such a way that we look out for ourselves all the time, we miss out on a lot, and we miss what we're looking for.

I just finished watching the movie "The Social Network," which was thought-provoking for a variety of reasons. Firstly, and I'll come back to this point, my absolute favorite character was the protagonist, which is an oddity for me. Usually I hate the protagonist or at least have a profound lack of caring for them.

Secondly, the movie lacked any sort of moral lesson. It was about events that happened, and then it ended. There was no preachy character, no didactic message implicit in the film, it just was, and when it ended my response was "huh. that just happened." It felt very subdued, very real, as opposed to the drama movies tend to be (and rightly so in most cases).

All real, of course, except for the protagonist. He was the detached anti-hero, the one that came out on top, and he was so smart he silenced every person in the film, riddled with flaws as he was. I liked him precisely for this reason, he was a tragic character.

Brilliant, the youngest billionaire in the world, and his character in the movie was still so empty. It ended with him attempting, once again, to simply establish a connection with a person. He was so alone.

He had gotten everything he ever wanted, surrounded himself with people, was rich beyond his wildest dreams, was at the center of a brilliant creation, had defeated all of his enemies, and still, he had failed at his goal.

He was still alone.

When all of our efforts toward a thing gives us the opposite result, we begin to ask ourselves, "what kind of a screwed up world is this, and what am I doing wrong?"

"Does God hates me?"

"Is everyone really out to defeat me?"

"Is there a point to any of this?"

A point indeed.

A teacher that lived twenty centuries ago had some crazy ideas about life and what would fix this problem people have been having for many centuries before he showed up.

He seemed to think it would be a good idea to give everything we have away, to live as though everyone is more important than we are, to give without thought of reward, and to devote ourselves to loving other people so completely that we'd die for them.

Die for them, and live for them.

It makes a weird kind of sense, right? If all of our efforts to create a meaningful life for ourselves fails, why not just start creating lives for other people? Why not put all of our restless energy, all of our frustration and anger into giving things away, doing crazy, counter-intuitive things that make no sense but we know do in some backwards, weird, upside down way?

Why not get creative? Why not stop caring that you can't seem to get people to listen to you and start listening to them? Or start taking the initiative with people that just don't like you instead of avoiding them out of self-preservation? Why not seek out destructive elements to one's own ego if you're going to run into them anyway and choose to learn when it happens instead of becoming frustrated?

Why not make others more important than yourself?

Why not choose to die for something instead of live for nothing?

This teacher, named Jesus, seemed to think you'd find the meaning of life by giving a homeless person a cup of water. He chose to die instead of be silenced, and he died at the hands of a broken system motivated by religious appeasement and systems of power.

And he did not yield to it, he simply proclaimed that death would be defeated, and then showed up miraculously a few days after he'd been killed to prove it.

They were powerless before his counter-intuitive actions.

This story has a point. Miraculous things happen when we choose to die. Dying isn't just about ceasing to live this life, it's about allowing your ego to be killed, choosing to give your life away, to lose yourself in others, to listen to others instead of choosing to not care, to give your time, your energy, and your life all away. To hit rock bottom, to lose all of your caring for yourself and what benefits you, to die.

And maybe when we choose to live in death, we'll find what we're looking for.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sudden Inspiration: Dissonance

I wrote a post a while back on this blog called "Virginity." That post nearly ended the journey that this blog has been since I started it almost a year ago. I was told to stop writing, that my philosophizing and thinking were dangerous, and some people decided to believe things about me that weren't true without asking me about them.

What's funny about this is how common it is to the human experience.

Some people are assuming things about Rob Bell's new book a month before it's even out, and they're hysterically proclaiming the same things they have been since his "Velvet Elvis" came out years ago. Some say he's a heretic, some say he's a universalist, some say he's a revolutionary. Regardless, people are reflecting who they are out into the world and awaiting a response.

They are proving they exist.

This blog is a method of proving that I exist, because I live in a world where comfort is valued over authenticity, loudness is valued over clarity, and speed is valued over truth. This may not be the case for the entirety of the world, but for my environment, it certainly is. So I feel out of step, and so I come here and I write. To express myself, to be authentic and say what I think is true as clearly as possible.

For a long time I wrote angrily and allowed my passions to guide my words. The problem with that was that I would come back to my posts 3 months later and want to wipe them off the internet, because I thought they were worthless. Furthermore, I didn't benefit anyone by doing that, I only created more of the wrong kind of dissonance, more of the chaos and the misunderstanding and the promotion of ignorance through emotion.

Some people are very liberal, some people are very conservative. Regardless, they all believe they are right, and they all are out to benefit the people they find to be worthy, and they are all trying to prove they exist. Their expression is their way of shining, of being alive, of being with people, of throwing themselves out there, saying "I'm here. I want to connect. Someone read. Someone respond. Someone pay attention, I have important things to say."

To express oneself well, to write or speak or create art so people will see and want to see more, one must rise above their own perspective. I am convinced, through my interactions with people, that some never will. This is not because they can not, but because they will not. Maybe they are too afraid, too broken, too angry, or maybe they just don't care. There is certainly no shortage of apathetic people anymore.

Being united by a common enemy is easy. It comes as naturally as breathing, because humans are meant to stand against something. We don't really know what, so we might try and figure out intellectually what is true and apply logic as our weapon, or we might simply react out of passion or whimsy to what we like and dislike. Maybe some are simply out for themselves, and it works for what they want to do. Maybe some hate themselves, and they've made that work, somehow. But regardless, we stand on something, even if it's in reaction.

The problem with declaring a person your enemy is that to truly oppose a person, you must make them a demon. They must no longer be human, but a force, a moustache twirling evilly intentioned monster out to do the world harm. To appear more reasonable, you can pay lip service and give the benefit of the doubt to them (and indeed, most charismatic leaders of militant forces do just that), but ultimately you oppose them because they are doing something evil.

So maybe some people are monsters. The problem is, to be human is to have some good and some evil in you at all times. To begin ignoring a person's intentions is to stop treating them like they're human, and it is ultimately a loss of perspective. No one is completely a monster, and no one is completely an angel.

I've kept writing here because I began the journey toward not allowing my personal feelings to dictate how and whether I write. I sat out on the driveway of my friends' house one day after realizing that my two biggest desires, marriage and writing, could not coexist, and I simply shut down. I swear to you, I was so overloaded with emotion and so unable to process what had happened that I simply left for a while.

Rebooted. Restarted myself. Dropped everything I could out of who I was and came back.

The spark was still there when I came back. I write because if I don't, I will lose myself. I try to gain perspective, listen to what people have to say, and write about universal human experiences because that is what matters. I admit to my faults at every turn because they are true, and no matter how frustrating they are, I cannot be who I am not.

The angry writers, the people with presuppositions that have no fact behind them, the people that use logic and faith and philosophy and a lot of other good things as weapons, those that can't stop fighting because they'll die without something to oppose, and everything else that gets in the way of perspective, of the truth that Is, regardless of anything else, are all a fact of life.

No one's got this game right, which is why criticism is at once so important and so completely irrelevant. One must walk the line between ego attack and ad hominem to be truly beneficial in the art of criticism, and unfortunately, everyone falls too far on one side or the other most of the time.

I am inspired by the right kind of dissonance, the kind that stands as a harmony with everyone that is yelling that they exist. The people that live this way do so out of choice, and their emotions and logic never quite align with the truth of the way they choose to live, because it's so contrary to our impulse to protect ourselves and to fight to survive. They are not threatened by criticism, by anger, by threats, or by death. They are who they are quietly, confidently, and their strength is usually not recognized because it's not obvious in any way. They find the truth in every person, in every philosophy, in every religion, in every position, because everyone's trying to make some sense out of life, and everyone has a piece of God in them.

This is such a weird way to live because it's upside down from the power seeking norm, and it can never fully align with any philosophy, any emotion, any lifestyle, because it's being in harmony with oneself, and what makes one human.

I am still a Christian because Christ is the only example I can find of a person that could have possibly done this perfectly, and I believe he did and still does, for completely unprovable reasons. The fusion of God with humanity saw completion in him, and in light of that, I simply cannot be the angry person I was anymore, nor can I sit around upset because of philosophies or theologians that spout rage and ignorance. I can no longer be completely offended by opposition and personal attack because I understand it, because it is unimportant in light of what is true about it, what I can learn, and mostly because I have lost the ability to care about it through many circumstances, which I am thankful for.

I am a poor example of the dissonant and objective person, as this post probably indicates, but it is what I aspire to be.