Tag Archives: Sacred Duty

Hell, Here We Go Again

*Originally posted at Sacred Duty, my Chron.com blog

Just when you thought the impassioned discussion about Rob Bell and his theology “about heaven and hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” was going to fade quietly into the distance, several publishers thought it might be a good idea to get everyone riled up again.

Back in March of this year Christian pastor Rob Bell got the whole Evangelical universe into a general freak-out mode when he released a teaser video and then a few weeks later launched his book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven and Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Following the teaser video there was a Twitterverse and blogosphere explosion, resulting in a lot of name calling and back-and-forth. Rob Bell went from hip-young-evangelical-pastor to black-rimmed-glasses-wearing-heretic-evangelical-pariah overnight (read more about When All Hell Breaks Loose in the Evangelical Twitterverse). Then the book came out and the reviews started coming in. Conservative neo-Calvinist Evangelical leaders decried the book’s theology and Scriptural interoperation about heaven and hell and made it clear that a) Bell is a universalist and b) that he is WAY off the track of orthodox Evangelical Christianity.

At the time there were plenty of soul-searching and Scripture-exploring Christians, skeptics and de-churched individuals seeking out the truth, reading the book, perusing the blogs and lamenting the whole “he said…no, she said” environment of the (dialogue, discussion, debate) drag-out fight.

As the religious community and the general public got over the initial news, many thought Bell’s Love Wins was going to recede into the background and that the Evangelical climate would calm. They were wrong. Rushing their tomes to press, influential publishers, teachers and authors are reviving the debate and hitting back at Rob Bell for his proposed hell heresy. The editor for HarperOne, the publishing company behind Love Wins, Mickey Maudlin says he is sad to see no less than six different ripostesbeing penned and printed to counter Bell and his newest book. Of those six I know of three prominent pieces: Waterbrook Multnomah Press’ forthrightly titled Hell, Rob Bell and What Happens When People Die, Mark Galli with his God Wins and Evangelical super-pastor Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell.

With all the publishing publicity the blogs, Tweets, book reviews, videos and articles on Rob Bell and his theology of heaven and hell are starting to pop up yet again. If this were not enough to clue me in to the fact that the debate is really just getting started I received three messages just this last week asking for my perspective on Love Wins, Rob Bell and the whole theological debacle. Certainly, with the ongoing discussion, the staying power of Bell’s book on the bestseller list and the release of several new titles on the topic it is clear that the Evangelical community is in for a protracted review of its doctrines of heaven and hell.

So, religious community and Evangelical universe, brace yourselves for another round of “hell-ish” discussion, because here we go again.

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Texans Love Their Crosses

*This is a repost from my Houston Chronicle Belief Blog – A Sacred Duty 

At a Drops Like Stars event in Tempe, AZ evangelical speaker Rob Bell asked how many people in the crowd were wearing crosses. A little over half the crowd raised their hands. Bell wondered aloud why it is that so many people wear ancient symbols of torture, pain and death such as the cross. It was a fair enough question.

Bell offered the explanation that it has to do with the art of solidarity; that God sent Jesus into the world to scream alongside of us. He says in book form, “This is why for thousands of years Christians have found the cross to be so central to life. It speaks to us of God’s suffering, God’s pain, God’s broken heart. It’s God making the first move and then waiting for our response.” For Bell and, as he argues, many Christians the cross is a symbol of redemption through suffering. Jesus suffering with us, redeeming that suffering and standing in solidarity with all of humanity that screams out in this present darkness.

So the cross serves as a symbol of suffering and pain, but also one of victory and redemption.

Then there are crosses in Texas.

In Texas, crosses are, well, odd and fascinating pieces of art.

Since moving to Texas some ten months ago I’ve seen more crosses than I’ve seen anywhere else in the entire world (albeit I’ve not yet been to the Lithuanian hill of crosses). In every boutique, on living room walls and diamond studded on tee shirts, hats and women’s hand bags there are crosses of varying sizes and carrying assorted messages.

Britannica encyclopedia states that religious iconography, or symbolism, serves religious communities with “basic and often complex artistic forms…to convey religious concepts and…[to represent] religious ideas and events.” As a religious symbol, the cross has remained a strong sign of Christianity throughout the ages conveying the Christian belief in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and testifying to their concept of redemption for humanity through that suffering. The art of the cross is a wide and diverse stream and the cross has been transformed and translated throughout the ages to speak in new ways to new people for various contexts. I’ve experienced this first hand. While traveling around the world my wife and I amassed a diverse array of crosses with a sundry of forms, crafted from a myriad of media and reflecting each culture’s unique take on Jesus and the cross.

In Texas the cross has taken on a whole new form reflecting both Texas’ strong belief in its “Christian heritage” and its rough-and-tumble independence. Thus, in Texan shops and homes you’ll find crosses made out of leather belts replete with belt buckles at the apex, a cross with the state of Texas smack dab in the middle with words like “reign of God,” “LORD God Sabaoth” and other militaristic/kingdom oriented words from Scripture etched into the frame, a cross made from cowboy rope, a cross studded with turquoise or diamonds or the ubiquitous barbed wire and star cross with barbed wire wrapped around a cross of rough wood and christened with a texas star in the middle and a horse shoe to boot

Texas is Texas that’s for sure.

When you meet people and ask where they are from native Texans respond with pride telling you that they are from Houston, Austin, Dallas, Odessa, Lubbock or Midland. For those not from Texas the standard line is, “I’m not from Texas, but I got here as fast I could.” Texans support their respective colleges and universities with unabashed loyalty and a hint of hubris. They believe in the Texas ideal and flirt with secession. The Lone Star Republic still means something to Texans and so the large tri-color flag flies right next to the American flag with patriotic zeal. In Texas, BBQ and Tex-Mex are sacramentally akin to the bread and wine of Christian communion and on Friday the football stadium is church.

Texans garner these attitudes and convictions from a history of rugged independence and pride of roots formed on ranches and fields bringing forth cotton, cattle and oil.

Unsurprisingly, such perspectives find themselves reflected in Texas cross art.

If, in general, the cross is a symbol of suffering and an icon of redemption and victory through pain and death then in Texas the cross serves as a symbol of freedom, ingenuity, rough-and-tumble independence and strength.

When religious scholars and leaders suppose the cross to be a symbol of suffering and by association, a sign of humility, their hypothesis does not stick when reviewing the crosses of Texas.

Every cross in Texas is imposing or impressive or both. In that way they reveal something telling about Texan Christianity, and in some ways, Texan religion in general.

It’s loud, it’s proud and it is undeniably Texan.

This forces us to ask, “what hath the cross of Texas to do with the cross of Golgotha?”

Certainly, Texas crosses acknowledge the suffering, but associate it with their own hard fought road to freedom and glory (notice the rough hewn wood, the dark colors and the barbed wire). More than any other country or cultural context I’ve witnessed, they add a strong dash of pride to their cross. In some way, this pride might even come to overshadow the humble carpenter’s son from Jesus who Christians claim died on a cross almost 2,000 years ago.

In another way, it reminds us that the cross of Texas is less a symbol of a religion and more an icon of a culture – a distinctively Texan culture where every cowboy, rancher, service man or woman, football player, student, oil refiner or engineer is meant to be hard working, independent and faithful to God, family and Texas.

Viewed in such a light it makes perfect sense for every cross to bear a belt buckle, some bling, a little barbed wire or a boot. For more than speaking to God’s suffering and Jesus’ redemption of the world through his own pain and death, the cross in Texas conveys a culture’s pride in fortunes won through blood, sweat and tears and reveals a cultural ideal of faith in God and country.

Therefore, if you visit Texas you will find the cross proudly displayed in homes, in shops, in restaurants, on trucks and in fashion. After all, if Texans brazenly fly their flag they expectedly brandish their cross as well as a sign of what it truly means to be Texan.

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Young Americans Less Religious…For Now

Read the original post at Ken’s Blog for the Houston Chronicle – Sacred Duty

According to a recent Gallup poll, if you were to run into a liberal-independent male doctor from, say, New York who is 29 years old, there is a slightly higher chance that he is an atheist.

Good to know right?

Right.

But what to make of it?

Various news agencies and religious commentators are making different observations concerning the findings of the recent Gallup poll on belief in God. According to their statistical survey, liberals are less likely to believe in God or a supernatural being than conservatives, independents less likely than Republicans or Democrats, people living in the East less than the West, North or South, males less than females, younger people less than older people, postgraduate educated individuals than those with high school or less.

The real “discovery” is, despite the differences, Americans are still fervently full of belief and, by proxy, intensely religious.

For the sake of this article I want to keep this point in mind while focusing on the greatest statistical gap that the Gallup poll recorded – the 10 point difference between 18 to 29 year olds and every other age group. According to the survey done by Gallup, only 84% of Young Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 believe in God or a universal spirit, while among people 30 or older 94% believe.

This may strike many readers as a major generational shift occurring between the Baby Boomers/Generation X and the so-called Millennials (Generation Y) and to a point, it is definitely something that religious leaders and observers should take note of.

However, I think it is important to keep in mind the characteristics of the Millennials when interpreting Gallup’s, and other survey’s, data regarding Generation Y’s belief in God and their subsequent faith and religiosity.

According to a Pew Forum report on Millennials, they are, as a group, generally less interested in money and religion and more concerned with family and friendship. They are comfortable with technology and enjoy communication. They are less defined by racial boundaries and more open to other world views. While they value family they aren’t rushing to the altar, and many of them (nearly 80%) remain single into their late twenties.

What is important to note is that yes, Millennials are less likely to believe in the divine or an ultimate deity and that they are less religious, but that this fact might change in the near future as they grow older, settle down and have a family. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell note in their tome on contemporary religion, American Grace, there is a difference between generational change and lifetime change. What we may be seeing here is a mixture of both. While the Millennials will probably believe less than their parents (Baby Boomers) and their older siblings (Generation X) the difference will not be as striking (10 percentage points) once they grow up a little more.

Many religious statisticians and observers note that belief in God and participation in religion increase once individuals settle down, get married and have a family. Life cycle changes generally trend towards more religiosity as individuals get older. Thus, we can expect that Millennials, currently in the 18-29 range, will be slightly more religious and, by association, more believing in their later years with another decade of growth.

In addition to this sociological progression, there is also an immigrant influx of believing young people from the Southern and Eastern world to consider. As Philip Jenkins notes in his work The Next Christendom, people from Central and South America, Africa and many nations in Asia are much more religious (not just Christian) and that this has major implications for Europe and America as it pertains to immigration of such individuals to the U.S.A. Since they are moving here and the Millennial generation itself seems to be more ethnically diverse and open to other world-views, such an immigration shift may impact Millennial belief patterns.

While I don’t believe there will be a major change in their religious practice or belief in God, I think we have yet to see just how believing and religious the Millennials will be when they are in their 30s and 40s. In the end, I believe that their belief and religiosity will rise a few percentage points and that America will continue, for another generation, to be fervently religious.

Furthermore, it is one thing to discuss the amount of Millennials’ belief and religiosity and another thing entirely to discuss the content of their faith and practice. What we can infer from their general characteristics is that being more open, being better educated, being more ready to communicate and dialogue with others, being more oriented towards the family and being less partisan than generations that came before them the 84% or more of them that do believe and put their belief into practice will be much more open minded when it comes to the religious other. In addition, they will continue to be wary of religion as it is associated with religiously conservative politics (although as they grow older, Millennials may turn out to be more “conservative” politically than they once were given that older family men and women tend to be more conservative in their politics as well).

Rather than being bad news for the future, this may very well come as a “sigh of relief” to many Americans and other, less religious, countries who often associate America’s propensity for religious belief and practice with stubbornness, close-mindedness and ignorance when it comes to the religious other.

For now, Millennials aren’t quite as religious or believing as their generational predecessors, but that may change given time. I’ll get back to you after Gallup releases its statistics from surveys regarding belief in 2021; then we can see if I was right. In the meantime, it is best for the general populous to not pigeonhole this generation of believers and non-believers, we may yet surprise you.

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