Monthly Archives: March 2011

Lenten Ideas for the Relatively Uninspired

Ash Wednesday, dear friends, is upon us!

Lent, oddly enough, is perhaps my favorite season in the church calendar.  The prayer, the fasting, the careful examination of self and society, the repentance and discipline . . . it’s my cup of tea, really.  I’m kind of depressing that way.

There are lots of different disciplines and practices a person can take up for Lent (a good list is here).  But in the post I wanted to talk specifically about fasting.

Usually we associate fasting with food.  One year I gave up coffee, for example.  Another year I gave up junk food.  This is the kind of fasting most deeply rooted in church tradition, and I think it’s an important one.  But I think the practice of fasting can be expanded a little.  Fasting, I think, is not as much about food as it is about consumption.  In the early days of the Church, most Christians really only “consumed” food.  But in 21st century America, we consume a lot more than that.  We consume all sorts of things–in fact, so much so that many theologians fear that a “consumptive” mentality is threatening the way we even think about religion, relationships, and the gospel itself.

For example, left to my own devices I spend an enormous amount of time on the internet, mainly reading blogs.  I read The Daily Dish for the news, and then look at Facebook and Twitter to see if anyone’s posted anything cool, then look at various religious and news blogs.  When I’m bored, this is what I do.  I read far more in one day than I’ll ever be able to really digest.  I am (to use a very old word) a glutton when it comes to information.

So for Lent this year, I am giving up blogs, Twitter, and online news websites.  Basically any kind of text-based online media is being cut out.  This will cut out an enormous chunk of time from my day.  Probably 2-3 hours.  I know, it’s crazy.

That’s the really intimidating thing about this: all the free time.  I can’t bear the thought of being alone with nothing to distract me.

The fear of loneliness is common to all people in all times, I think.  But we Millennials are unique in our ability to distract ourselves from this loneliness.  And we owe that to the internet.  We spend vast quantities of time online . . . and for what?  To what end?

So, here is my proposition to my peers (and any other internet addicts, for that matter): stop using the internet as a distraction during Lent.  Use the free time to practice some kind of discipline.  This will look different for different people, but here’s three more possibilities to get you started:

  • For the social network addict: use Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else you use to keep in touch only once a day, and limit your time.  Say, “I’m only giving myself one Facebook visit per day, and I’ll only be on it for twenty minutes.”  Trust me, nobody needs more than twenty minutes a day on Facebook: the rest of that time, you’re just distracting yourself for something else.  Now, what will you fill that time with?  Here’s an idea:  we all have people we’d like to have closer friendships with, but instead of engaging them we just comment on their statuses every once in a while.  How about a phone call instead?  Or better yet, a coffee date?  For Lent this year, swap lots of superficial interactions for a few, longer, more engaging ones.  You’ll be glad you did.
  • For the entertainment addict: Swear off YouTube, Reddit, StumbleUpon, or whatever your poison is, and take up something with more depth.  Instead of an hour every day checking out the coolest memes on Reddit, how about getting together a bunch of friends for a movie night once a week?  Find a friend with a Netflix account, get some popcorns, and make one night a week about enjoying a good movie with some good friends.  I promise, you’ll enjoy that so much more.
  • For the music addict: It’s pretty simple.  Stop torrenting, downloading, and otherwise consuming music.  Stop bringing your iPod with you everywhere, and learn to live with silence.  And better yet, use that time to actually learn to play that guitar, you know, the one still in it’s case underneath all your dirty laundry?  Or how about something entirely new?  How about learning to play the banjo, or piano?  In short, become a producer, rather than a consumer, of music.  That could be fun, eh?
  • For the information addict like me: give up on blogs and the news, and read a freaking book.  There’s lots of great ones out there: pick a classic.  Pick a long one, a good project.  You’ve got forty days, and that’s a long time when you’re not keeping up with twenty blogs a day.

Alright, that’s four ideas.  Anybody else got any good ones?  What should you be consuming less of this Lent?  And how are you going to use all that extra time you’ll have freed up?


To the Young, Restless, and Reformed: An Open Letter

Dear Young, Restless, and Reformed:

We need to hash some things out.  See, I was trying to avoid this conversation, I really was, because so often these kinds of things degenerate into arguments that are frankly repellent and repulsive, especially to non-believers, but it seems that there are too many of you to ignore.  You have most of the big-name pastors (Piper, MacArthur, Driscoll) and have a lot of influence in the evangelical world, of which I consider myself, in some strange way, to be a member.  So we should really talk.

I want to start out by saying that I admire your enthusiasm and your passion.  You’re good people, by and large.  I rarely meet one of you whom I don’t genuinely like.  You have a love for the Scriptures that I envy, and I wish I could quote Scripture as readily as you do when entering into a theological discussion.  And I wish I were as passionate about evangelism as you, too.  But in all of that, I have a word of rebuke, and, I think, of encouragement.

First, the rebuke:

You’re very proud.

I say this, I hope you understand, not in condemnation.  We are all proud at times, and perhaps I should take a good look at the log in my own eye before I point out the speck in yours.  The things is, I think most of you know that you’re proud.  You say this among yourselves in private, or to those you trust.  “My biggest struggle is pride,” you’ll say.  I’ve heard this a lot.  John Piper took a sabbatical this year, in part, to deal with pride.  Mark Driscoll struggles with pride.  In fact, I know that you struggle with pride because you are always talking about humility.  It’s one of your favorite topics.

And still you struggle.  And I’m wondering if you’ve stopped to consider whether there might be some deeper emotional logic behind this fact.  Because from my perspective, it makes perfect sense that you’d be dealing with pride.  You see, I think there is a certain amount of theo-logic behind this tendency of yours.

Let me back up for a second.

Can we just acknowledge this together?  The world is a confusing place.

It’s big, it’s complex, there’s  a lot going on, there’s a lot to learn.  You might even call it chaotic: at first or second glance, it seems random, meaningless, and even cruel.  All kinds of things happen that we don’t understand.  That’s stressful.  Yet we humans are, by nature, meaning-making creatures.  We are trying to figure it all out!  And that’s an enormous task.

Religion is one of the ways that we make meaning out of the world.  One thing that all religions do is order the universe.  This, in the face of a chaotic reality, is a very comforting thing.  We are comfortable with order.  We are not comfortable with chaos.  We want to make sense of things.

This would all be well and good if we agreed about what meaning can be made out of the world.  But we don’t.  In fact, far from it.  Some of us are Christians, some Hindus, some Muslims, some Buddhists, and some are non-believers.  And there are myriad other religions, other worldviews besides the ones I’ve just mentioned.  And even within Christianity there are differences.  There are Orthodox and Catholics and Protestants and Copts and Abyssinians.  And within Protestantism, there are even more differences!  There are Lutherans and Anglicans and Presbyterians and evangelicals and Quakers and Mennonites.  And just look at evangelicalism!  There are charismatics and cessationists, liberals and fundamentalists, Calvinists and Arminians, and, yes, universalists, inclusivists, exclusivists, and all kinds of in-betweenists.

In light of this diversity, can we acknowledge something else together?  The Bible is a confusing book.

A reader who comes to the Bible for the first time, without any kind of prior knowledge, is likely to be very confused.  There’s a lot of strange stories about people who lived a long time ago.  There is a God who wrestles people and appears in bushes or as three strangers.  There is a great deal about a guy named Jesus.  There are a lot of letters to some churches by a guy named Paul, and some letters after that acknowledging that much of what Paul said can be confusing.  There is a vision at the end.  There is a lot of song lyrics, and some poetry, and some ancient erotica (seriously, what is that doing there?).  There are lots of people predicting the future: sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong.

We approach the Bible in a very similar way that we approach the world: we both inherit and construct a system of meaning within it.  We, inevitably, interpret. And that is a very dangerous task.

With most other texts, interpretation is really quite harmless.  I don’t care much what sense you made out of Ulysses or Catch-22, to be honest.  But the thing about religion, and about worldviews in general, is that is makes a certain claim on us at an existential level.  It demands attention, and action.  It is of the utmost importance.  There is much at stake.  So we cling to our religion, to our doctrine, to the way we view the world, in spite of the very real possibility that, well, we might be wrong.  And, from a purely demographic point of view, we very likely are.

But we don’t like to admit that possibility, and frankly, deep down, we feel threatened by those with whom we disagree.  Don’t think I didn’t notice how in a tizzy you all were about Rob Bell’s new book.  For many of you, the video was a confirmation of what you had always suspected: Rob Bell is a heretic.  Universalism is heresy, and Rob Bell must be a universalist, so he’s a heretic.

Are you so quick to condemn?  Is it your place to judge?  Who gave you the authority to deem some to be orthodox and others to be heretics?  Many, many Christians throughout the history of the Church have believed that, in some way, God will bring all of Creation into God’s Kingdom.  Conversely, believe it or not, that doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that you hold so dear—the one that you scorn Bell for not holding to—is a relative newcomer on the theological scene.  Bell seems to love God and the Scriptures as much as you do.  Why is he instantly an outsider if you happen to disagree?  Why not listen to what he has to say?  Is he that much of a threat to you?

You worship the same God, yet you would cast him out of your circle at the first sign of dissenting opinion.  This is hardly the treatment demanded of you by Jesus, or the Scriptures.

My suggestion is that the vehemence, anger, and frankly, hatred of your response (and you can rationalize it all you want, but I know hatred when I see it) indicates that something is deeply wrong with your perspective.  So, here is my message to you Reformed kids, or at least, the ones who struggle with pride so much:

Believe in God, not in your understanding of God.

Many of you, I think, believe more in your doctrines about God than in the true God, whom those doctrines are provisional statements about.

Trust the Bible, not your interpretation of it.

I know this is hard for you folks, saying that you may be wrong.  You, more than most, I think, are prone to an immense amount of existential anxiety—a certain gnawing fear of where you stand in the world—and doctrines that are very concrete and specific give you an incredible amount of comfort.  Being ‘right’ means that you know where you stand, and this knowledge, in a confusing and chaotic world, seems crucial to survival.

But certainty, especially of the theological variety, can be the most unforgiving of idols. As soon as we reduce God and God’s ways to a set of propositional truths about God, we stop worshipping God altogether.  We worship doctrine instead, and doctrines are as unworthy of our worship as any Asherah pole or image of Baal.

What’s worse, we become . . . proud. If we alone have the right doctrine, we alone the right understanding, then really, how silly or misguided or in error are those people who think otherwise?  Right?  I mean, how could they even believe anything else?  After all, we so obviously have the right answer . . .

You see what I mean?  It is your certainty—really, your almost cavalier cocksureness about what is true doctrine—that leads you to prideful thinking.

And now, the encouragement:

Friends, what you must recover is a deep, abiding sense of wonder at God’s mystery.  It is only in the eschaton, at the end of days, that we will know fully, even as we are fully known.  Until then, all our doctrines—whether that be universalism or cessationism or penal substitutionary atonement or anything else—are “best guesses”.  They are thoughtful reflections and meditations on Scripture, tradition, and our own experiences.

Please, please understand that God is a mystery to be encountered, and encountered in the Person of Christ, not a doctrine to explain.  Because of their provisional nature, because they arise out of this encounter, our words about this God—our theologies—must be brought forward with open hands.  They must be offered, not wielded.

True humility emanates naturally from acceptance of this fact.  We. Do. Not. Know.  God alone is Truth.

You want to be humble?  Give glory, then, to the One who is revealed not in human words, but in human form; not in what we say about God, but in what God says about us; not in the wood and clay of human doctrines, but in our own encounter with the great mystery of a human Person—that is, Jesus Christ our Lord!

It is when, and only when, we encounter this God that we can experience true humility.  For before this peculiar, mysterious God, all our words, all our doctrines become but stammers and stutters in the presence of the One Who is Holy.  In the presence of the Living God, all must fall silent.

Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters.  May God grant you an assurance of God’s love today, tomorrow, and the next day, too.  May you forever grapple with God’s mysterious presence.

Your friend,

Michael Zosel

Rob Bell Reax

If you haven’t heard already, Rob Bell has a new book coming out.  It’s called Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Here’s the promo video which is compelling in its own right:

The video, as you can probably infer, is rather provocative, especially because it seems to lean toward (gasp!) universalism, the doctrine of universal salvation.

From the publisher:

An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

Now, the book hasn’t come out yet, and so no one (except those chosen few with an advance copy) can really read the whole thing until the end of March.  But the video above has got the Christian blogosphere all atwitter.  The whole story on Christianity Today’s blog here.

My own thoughts are forthcoming, but the reactions from different voices have been . . . interesting.  Some selections, for your reading pleasure.

It all started with Justin Taylor, who blogs at The Gospel Coalition.

John Piper once wisely wrote, “Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but they will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.”

It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.

But it is better for those teaching false doctrine to put their cards on the table (a la Brian McLaren) rather than remaining studiously ambiguous in terminology.

So on that level, I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay his cards on the table about  universalism. It seems that this is not  just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

John Piper himself tweeted a link to the above post with a simple (even dismissive), “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  Hey, that rhymes!

Here’s Trevin Wax:

I pray that Rob will once again preach the glories of the God who truly loves, the God who upholds his own glory at all costs, the God who loves us despite our sin, the God who takes on flesh and dies for us in order that we might find eternal satisfaction in him. In the words of Tim Stoner, Holy love wins:

Kevin DeYoung:

As to the former question, it doesn’t matter if it’s meant to be promotional, devotional, or confrontational, the fact is he’s teaching. And false teaching of this depth and breadth needs to be addressed. This is not a conflict of personalities or an intramural turf war. This is about the gospel–what it means, what it accomplished, and what’s at stake if we do not believe its good news.

I know many young evangelicals barely have any stomach for controversy, let alone strong words about a serious topic. But if there is no way to be simultaneously bold and humble; if there is no way to be a gentle, caring person while still speaking in clear tones about hurtful error; if there is no way to correct those who oppose sound doctrine without being a moral monster; if there’s no way to love truth and grace at the same time, then there’s no way to be a biblical Christian. Judgmentalism is a sin and Calvinists can be jerks. But not every judgment is sinful and not every truth is cruel just because Reformed people teach it.

And as to the latter question, if Bell ends up espousing a traditional view of hell, the wrath of God, and penal substitution, that would mean McLaren’s blurb was misleading, the publisher’s description was misleading, and Bell’s video was misleading. Love Wins can be the second coming of Jonathan Edwards and it still doesn’t change that what was communicated in the video was untrue to the Scriptures, inconsistent with historic orthodoxy, belittling of the cross, deceiving to unbelievers, and a tragic distortion of God’s character.

Naturally, the backlash on the Reformed side provoked a number of thoughts from other bloggers who are, perhaps, a bit less dogmatic.

Here’s David Sessions:

I really have heard it all from these people when it comes to their assurance of the authority of scripture, but they can’t escape the reality that there are many things, including hell, on which the Bible is thoroughly inconclusive. As Jason Boyett explained today, you can’t draw any clear idea about hell from scripture without exegetical gymnastics. And on issues like this, you’d think people as deeply committed to self-examination and humility as Piper and Company ostensibly are would give other Christians some room for error. Especially, especially when those Christians are—like, God help us, all Christians should be—hoping people don’t have to burn in an eternal fire.

Jason Boyett (read the whole thing!):

But here’s where Taylor’s and Piper’s responses annoy and frustrate me: They are so absolutely certain that they are right. Because Rob Bell seems to be indicating that hell might not be a place of eternal suffering — or might not exist at all in the way traditional Christianity thinks of it — then they say he is flat-out wrong. Dangerously wrong. False-doctrine wrong. Opposing-the-Gospel wrong. But you know what? The Bible is really squishy on the subject of hell. The everlasting-torment hell of Dante and Jonathan Edwards doesn’t exist at all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about hell a lot, but sometimes in ways that a reasonable person could interpret metaphorically (like when he calls it Gehenna, after a real-life burning trash heap outside Jerusalem). And for centuries, some Christians have tried to make the case that, when Paul says Christ died for all, he really meant it. Not some. All.

No, universalism isn’t an orthodox Christian position. Hell is. But are we not willing to admit that, maybe, over the years, we could have gotten something wrong? Is it so wrong to maybe hope that everyone gets saved? That hell doesn’t exist? Because I totally hope that to be the case.

And my personal favorite, Jeff Keuss:

To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

In other news, I’m a huge nerd.  More thoughts on all this forthcoming.