Let’s talk about Practice

I was asked last week just what a practice of Place looks like. What does it consist of? Good question! The honest, straight up answer? I don’t know. You’ve heard me say this before. In fact, at the start of every quarter there’s been a recognition that I won’t know until I start Doing.

Most of what Place means to me could easily be summed up with: going outside and paying attention. I plan to do a lot more of that. To the casual observer this might not be particularly spiritual or religious, but being outside and paying attention is the cornerstone of every indigenous tradition I’ve ever read about, not to mention most shamanic traditions. Prayer, meditation, gratitude – and do it outside. Listen to your surroundings. Start to see yourself as part of the whole, not lord and master over.

I am reading books about the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North West. I have lots of plans: an outside altar, visiting cultural centers on the reservations in the area, going hiking, attending the farmers market (which opens next week) and finding local foods, taking my meditation and offerings practice outside in the mornings.

Also, I am going to explore Shinto, and attend the Shinto shrine that is 2.5 hours north of here.

But as for what my practice has looked like in the last week, I admit that it’s mostly been me sitting in my office, meditating, making kala, and getting back in touch with Kali. I’ve been laid out with a virus and was too exhausted to go outside on the two nice days we had. But the exhaustion will pass and the sun will come out, and when I build the little back yard altar I’ll be sure to post pictures of it!

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The Annunciation

Yesterday was the Feast of the Annunciation, one of my favorite Christian celebrations. I know, I’m not in my Christian quarter anymore, but Mary is a special lady and I wanted to mark this day. Seeing as how I didn’t go to church at all last quarter, I decided to take the kids to the nearby church. I thought maybe, just maybe, there would be some mention of the Holy Mother on her day. Of course there wasn’t.

Botticelli's Annunciation

Two blocks up a busy street from our house is Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. It’s a large (all the churches here seem to be compound sized) and rather attractive brick building. I like that the name is Latin. It’s an ELCA branch of Lutheranism which is the more liberal side of things, meaning LGBT people are welcome. The website said they had an organ and a choir, and I’m such a sucker for liturgy with music that I thought this could be a nice experience.

And it was! If I wanted to attend church, I would unreservedly attend here. Great people, beautiful sanctuary, nice organ and singing. They even had activity bags for the kids to keep them occupied. But I’m not Christian and I find Protestant liturgy so incredibly dull. My son was getting squirrelly during the sermon and I was hungry, so we left about half way through.

There was no mention of the Annunciation, no mention of Mary at all. And to think that Luther himself loved the Blessed Virgin! I should have gone to a Catholic church. My overriding thought was ‘Why do I do this to myself? Why do I keep coming back?’ Obviously I need a musical and liturgical outlet.

——

In addition to a tale of my failed attempt at church, I want to share something that I wrote six years. I was feeling more Christian then, but I think this piece still rings true for me even now. It’s a ‘homily’ I wrote about the Annunciation. I pretty much hate sermons and think that church liturgy is no place for them. But I offer you the following:

Luke 1:26-38 (NIV)

Tomorrow is the Annunciation, the day that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she would be with child, that his name was to be Jesus, and he would be the Son of God. In many ways, this story can be seen as just another hokey tale made up by late-to-the-gospel-game Luke. Perhaps like Dan Brown, Luke was inspired by a previous story and needed to spice up the details so as to avoid possible plagiarism lawsuits.

It can also be seen as a patriarchal takeover of a woman’s body. In some feminist circles this is the most obvious way to interpret this story. A male god decides to reproduce, picks a young virgin, and impregnates her without her consent. Divine Rape, one might say. In this light the Annunciation is another example Christianity’s disdain for women. This viewpoint sees Mary’s unimportance as supported by the lack of any mention of her in the other gospels, with the relatively minor exceptions of the wedding at Cana and at the crucifixion proving the point.

I have come to see this story differently. I think this is one story in which early Christianity’s views on women (radical for their time) remain in Christian heritage. Christianity is not known for its feminist agenda, and while many great spiritual men have exhorted Christians to peace or reminded us of God’s preferential option for the poor, in its early days Christianity had a revolutionary new way of treating women. They were to be treated with all respect, not as property, which was common practice of the day. They were given religious freedoms unheard of in the pagan or Jewish traditions of the time. I think that much of this power was left out or deliberately stripped away as Christianity became codified in the early centuries. But there is no denying that hints remain in the New Testament; women are seen sharing in ministry: as deaconesses, as prophets, as apostles.

The story of the Annunciation is one of these passages that hint at us of early Christianity’s respect for women; it gives us a glimpse of how God interacts in the world, and it provides us with another lens with which to interpret Lent and our lead in to Easter.

While Luke never mentions her age, Mary would have been anywhere from 12 to 15 years of age. She was a virgin, betrothed to Joseph. In some unexpected moment she was found alone – not accompanied by a gaggle of girls or chaperoned by a male family member. In this moment God spoke to Mary through the angel. Like all smart women, she was suspicious of this unfamiliar character.

28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

This interaction is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, the audacity of God to spring this on such a young woman! Hey, guess what! You’re pregnant! Secondly is the amazing fact that God did not speak with her father, her brothers, or Joseph – all the men that in this age can lay claim to her. He went directly to Mary. She was an autonomous being, she was approached as a person of worth.

Mary, however, remained skeptical. 34″How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Mary questioned God. She didn’t run away frightened, she didn’t instantaneously acquiesce. She questioned, and in return Gabriel answered her; she was not smote for unbelief or heresy.

35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God.”

At any point Mary could have run away, or even have said no. God was telling her what was to be, but she could have walked away. Instead, she looked at the mystery of God and accepted: 38″I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

This to me is an example of faith and strength, though not a flashy faith, nor the kind of strength that leaps tall buildings in a single bound. Rather it is an example of what is required in those quiet moments when we have to look at mystery head on and make a choice. Mary could not have fully understood what the consequences of this acceptance were going to be, but she chose anyway. No one made the choice for her. She didn’t run home to ask her parents’ permission, nor her best friends’ opinions. She made a choice for herself. God spoke, she questioned, she listened, she chose. She could have said no. Maybe God approached one or two other women before Mary and they said no. We have no idea, but we know about Mary because she said yes.

Because of this choosing new life sprouted where there shouldn’t have been life. A virgin pregnant is rationally absurd. But with God all things are possible! Through Mary’s choosing, in her yes to God, she allowed something new to grow within her. For this reason this story is a perfect holyday to celebrate in the midst of Lent. We are in the full flush of spring. The rains are nourishing the plants; the sun is restoring the earth and all that dwells in it. Celebrating Lent we are making way for the new growth in our lives, symbolized by Easter and the resurrection of Life. In the meantime, we may have to make a choice, or many choices. Do we say yes to this new growth, whatever it may be? Can we question the choices placed before us with the confidence that we are beloved by God and that there is no wrong answer? Mary’s example to us on this day is not one of meek obedience, simply cowed before an authoritarian god. Her example is one of faith and strength, present even in that which is considered weak. We are all called to meet God, to interact with God, and to participate in the life-giving activity of God.

Let us go forward in faith and embrace whatever new life is growing in us this season.
Amen.

Place – what does that even mean?

Today begins a new quarter! Hurray! Or hwre, as they say in Welsh. When I started this project I fully expected to be in Wales, exploring the green hills and red kites and Welsh mythology. Wales is a beautiful, powerful place; I miss it. Instead, I’m back in the US, in Washington state.

Place may seem like a strange choice for a religion blog. There’s no religion called Place. What does that even mean?

I put it last in my year-long exploration of the traditions that have informed my own personal beliefs and practices, because Place was the first ‘religion’ that I knew. Place, Land, Home – it can be called any of these things. In my testimony I talked about how I was raised secular, but I left out the specificity of being born and raised in Alaska. I don’t even know how I begin talking about the imprint Alaska has made on me. How to explain the sense of place and land to some one who didn’t grow up with that, or find it later in life?

Let me try.

The household I grew up in didn’t talk about things (still doesn’t). Almost everything was assumed, picked up through observing, or just discovered on one’s own. What I learned from my father, who was also born and raised in Alaska, was that the nearest thing to a god in his life was Alaska: its waters, its mountains, its communities, its resources. We were pretty subsistence-based. We went fishing all summer, catching so much salmon that I actually used to complain about having salmon AGAIN for dinner. We went berry picking. My father went hunting. Our freezer was stocked and our family fed and housed by the work of his hands. He built many of the houses we lived in. He told a few stories about spending summers camped out on Shelter Island fishing with his dad and brother. My dad knows all the waterways and islands and history of SE Alaska, like other people know freeways and commute times.

Place was also important to my mother, who raised me with Australian children’s books and music. I knew where her homeland was. I grew up with an understanding of just how big this world is, how diverse it geography and its creatures.

But there was something of the sacred in the way my father related – still relates – to the land. It’s not a tree-hugging reverence, but rather a respect for the forces at play in the land and weather and currents. It was an understanding of conservation and preservation, but not environmentalism. We take care of the land not because it is sacred and should be outside of our touch, because that land takes care of us, by housing us and feeding us.

I think there are many people in other lands that can relate to this. I’ve mostly found that people with a rural upbringing understand this, but I’ve also found some people with such a deep love of their city that they understand the complicated emotional connection to place as well. For a long time I felt like Juneau was my greatest love, and I kept cheating on hir by moving away. I always expected to move back and raise my children there. I only gave that up six months ago. Juneau is still The Home Land for me.

If this reverence and focal point in life isn’t similar to religion, then my degrees are worthless.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m bent to perceive the religious and/or spiritual in the world around me. Different lands feel different to me. The older and more traveled I become the more I find I am better at listening. Different places ‘speak’ differently, have different things to ‘say,’ and connect with me more personally. Some places want to dump their stories in your lap, others hold their secrets tightly, and sadly, some places are dead – either because that’s just how they are, or because it seems like the humans have stopped listening.

This quarter I’m diving into where I am: Olympia, Washington. I am going to take this spring quarter to explore the Land here: plants, animals, birds, geography. But a place is more than its land, it is also its people and its history. I’ll read up on the history (as told by white folk) and explore the indigenous peoples of the area, their customs, histories, traditions. I have heard that many of the reservations in the area have excellent cultural centers.

As I am as white as they come, racially and culturally, expect some awkward discussions of race. According to the US Census, Juneau’s population is 11.8% Native American or Alaska Native. (In comparison, Olympia is only 1.1% American Indian.) I grew up with Native friends, we learned about the myths and traditions of the indigenous people in school, and I knew people my grandparents’ ages who spoke Tlingit and remembered learning English for the first time. Alaska is a relatively recently settled land and many of the atrocities faced by other Native groups were avoided – however, that is not to say that horrific things didn’t occur and that Alaska has avoided rampant racism and white privilege. Oh no.

Washington also has the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of North America, the official shrine of Shinto outside of Japan. I have long had a fascination with Shinto, so I’ll be exploring a little bit of that too.

What’s exciting about this quarter is that much of what I learn or practice is very hands on – it’s doing, not just believing. And it’s stuff my kids can connect with. My family can attend the Shinto shrine and the cultural centers with me; we can go hiking and exploring together. It’s also spring. The forsythia is blooming yellow outside my window, the sun is getting a little bit warmer, the days are lengthening – let the great exploration begin!

Goodbye Christianity

Today is my last day with Christianity. Sunday, March 25, is the Feast of the Annunciation, one of my favorite feast days in the Christian calendar. Even though it overlaps into my Place quarter, I plan to attend church and write about the day – my last hurrah. For now, I want to sum things up.

This quarter has felt like a disappoint to me. No juicy practice. No experiences that took me deeper into the tradition. I pulled away, farther than ever. I struggled with the desires of my heart. I didn’t write the deep, theological posts I was thinking I’d write during this quarter. And yet, I’ve gained a lot in the last few months.

I’ve seen just how ready I am to let go, to say goodbye to Christianity. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, Christianity is not my story. Well, that’s not entirely true. I have absorbed a lot from the Christian tradition; I’ve taken the best and left the rest, in my opinion. There was much goodness to take away, as both a practitioner and as a theological student. Loyal to the bitter end, I am. Coming to terms with this and seeing the realities of my heart and practice has been priceless.

I’ve also gained more readers this quarter. While Hindu search terms are my biggest draw (not a day passes that someone doesn’t search for Kali or reads my post on her, may it be a blessing to all who seek), my biographical posts have had the most hits.

I was going to list all the things I love and don’t love about Christianity, but… why list what I don’t love? Let’s end with the positive. It’s an election year in the US and what’s bad about Christianity is already on full display!

Things I love about Christianity*: Christmas, the resurrection, the concept that all humans have the spark of the divine within them, communion/the Eucharist, forgiveness, mercy, loving your neighbor as yourself, challenging the Powers That Be, the Virgin Mary, all of the art – classical and devotional – that has sprung up from it, the Incarnation, the rich theological traditions it contains, Quakers, liberation theology, icons, all of the music – from requiems to gospel to simple chants – inspired by it, contemplative prayer, the concept of grace. And many of my favorite friends and family.

A benediction for this ending, and for all who read this:

The LORD bless you and keep you. The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Amen.

 

*Many of these things don’t belong solely to Christianity, I realize, but they are present none-the-less.

 

Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part five

This is the final post in my ‘testimony’ series. (You can follow the links to parts one, two, three, and four.)

My family landed in Wales in the early autumn of 2009. It was a grand adventure. Husband had never been to Wales before; I had been once for three days two years prior. But the gods said go, so we went.

The rational reason for our moving to Wales was that I wanted to be nearer to my adviser and the academic community while working on my PhD. My area of specialty was the Virgin Mary, particularly feminist Mariology, and the woman at this particular university was one of the few people anywhere in the world focusing on this type of work. My topic was Marian co-redemption.

My husband and I love to travel and thought this was a great opportunity to explore someplace new. We went over on my student visa and our child was small enough not to be disrupted either in his social life or his schooling. But really we went because we felt ‘called.’

After getting settled, into house, into routine, I started work on my degree in earnest. I had an office which I shared at the top of the religions building. I worked in the mornings and my husband cared for our son, and then we would switch in the afternoons.

I began making some friends. It turned out that there were three other Feri practitioners in Wales (one student, one almost initiate and one Reclaiming Feri initiate). All were within an hour’s drive and one lived two blocks from me. Introductions were made by mutual acquaintances online. My first autumn there I had what was my first ‘definitive’ experience with the gods.

I started to sing with the Church of Wales chapel choir. Even though I was more personally identified with Feri at this point I still kept a toe in the Christian world.

But our time in Wales was our time in the desert. It was our crucible. The university I was a part of was merging with other universities and my department was gutted. My adviser was fired two weeks after I arrived. In the spring I lost my office and had no where to work or store my books. First the library, then my kitchen table. I transferred schools to follow my adviser. I ended up at a much better department at university in London, but there was no way our family could afford to move there, so I may as well have been back in the States doing the degree!

We had very few friends. The community we were in was not the best fit for us. This is not to say that it isn’t lovely and the people wonderful. It was a mutual ill-fit and an acknowledgement that Americans don’t easily fit into the British social scene, that Americans don’t have an easy place in a community carved up by Welsh-English divides, and that a family isn’t a good fit for a university culture. My husband and I spent A LOT of time together. Many of our weaknesses were brought the forefront. Our first summer there was particularly difficult. But by not having any other distractions we were forced to deal with things. We were made stronger as a unit.

My husband started his own business right before we moved. Building up his skills, clientele, and confidence while in a new country after having just endured a very expensive move meant we were barely scraping by financially. That was stressful.

And I got pregnant with our second child. One more complication in the mix!

My academic work was slowing down. My enthusiasm for the work was waning. I was tired of reading anti-feminist treatises – both ancient and modern. I was feeling more and more distant from the Virgin Mary. She wasn’t the focus of my devotion anymore. I wasn’t enjoying singing at the church and I particularly didn’t care for all the Lord-ly, kingly, martial language employed by the Bible readings. I felt really disconnected from all things Christian. Personally, I had given up on the term. I don’t know when it occurred but at some point during that first year in Wales I gave up using that term as a personal identifier. But my academic work was firmly and fully embedded in the Christian tradition.

Deep in winter, fully into my second year in Wales and hugely pregnant I started to wrestle with the idea of quitting my PhD program. The work that had seemed so important, the work that kept getting unexpected assistance when it got stuck, the work that had seemed so vibrant to me, went cold. I thought that perhaps this work had just been the ploy to get us to Wales, to force us into the verdant desert. I did a tarot reading about my degree. That reading revealed that for the sake of my greater spiritual growth I would indeed quit my program.

Now, I not only had to come to terms with shedding an old outdated self-identifier (Christian), but I had to wrestle with the idea of letting go of my PhD program. I have wanted a PhD since I was 12. I don’t know who I was trying to impress, but all these years I’ve felt I’ve had to prove something. To some one. Probably myself. What would I do if I didn’t keep going in academia? Would I ‘just’ be a stay-at-home mother? Oh, there was some internalized anti-feminist thinking I needed to unravel!

I spent a lot of time in meditation in the last weeks of my pregnancy. Our family life mirrored the pregnancy in many ways. Late in our second autumn my husband’s business began to take off. We were wrestling with the big challenges in our relationship and life together. We had little to do except ask the big questions and stew in the confusion.

Then the baby was born. It was a beautiful birth – a safe, healthy and peaceful home birth (a million thanks to the NHS). Spring was spent adjusting to this new addition to the family; I had to physically recover. And figure out what to do next.

And really, this leads me up to my first post for this blog. If not a Christian, what is my practice? If not a grad student, what is my work? This blog has helped me immensely with both of these questions.

The Virgin Mary will always have a place of honor in my home. I feel like she was the vehicle for a stronger divine voice (oh Mary, you are so often the vessel for other divine voices) that has been leading all these years. She was the way I could enter more fully into the Christian tradition, and it was through her that I heard the voice of the Great Mother for so long.

Looking back there was no single point where I decided once for all ‘I am not a Christian.’ It’s been a slow, but not unsurprising, reveal. In some ways it was like being in a quiet, safe relationship (Christianity), developing some new friends (feminism and Paganism) and after a while realizing that I’ve been in love with someone else for a long time (witchcraft).

I spent fifteen years in the wrong shoes. I am grateful I had shoes at all for the journey. I’ve learned a lot from Christianity – language, stories, myth, theological tools and insights, personal practices, such as prayer, contemplation, compassion, discernment, textual analysis, etc. But the shoes never fit quite right and I never thought to exchange them for a new pair. But now I’ve taken that old pair and retired them. I’ve got new shoes on. I need to break them in – or they need to break me in. But they fit better and I’m excited to climb the rest of the way up this mountain.

Why I Am Not A Christian

Reflections on Bertrand Russell’s speech from 1927. (Read the essay online here.)

This is the only essay of his I’ve read. I recommend it. It’s short, amusing and to the point. Many of the arguments he raises are still being raised by those in the New Atheism movement. I want to use this post to talk very briefly about Russell’s essay, even more briefly about the New Atheism movement, and about why I, Niki, am not a Christian.

We begin with Russell’s essay. It’s hard to deny most of his points: that many of the arguments made for Christianity just don’t hold water. Morally, the world will not fall apart if we’re not Christian. Plenty of moral people exist in other religions and no religion at all. No one can prove the existence of God in any scientific way. The argument from design is not compelling. Christ is a fascinating character, but equally problematic. I love the discussion of the fig tree story in the New Testament – Jesus passes by a fig tree, it isn’t bearing fruit and Jesus is hungry, Jesus angrily curses the fig tree to never ever bear fruit. Dude, what did that fig tree ever do to you? Jesus could stand to work on some anger management issues.

Like the ‘New Atheists’, Russell believes that only science is the way forward; science, along with “knowledge, kindness and courage.” I can support these things, and I think most people of faith can too. As great as the essay is I find that he raises up intelligence as a sort of God-like entity. And this is one of my main critiques of the New Atheism: that science becomes godlike. It is raised above all things. Our intelligence is trusted as the single most guide. I love science but it is a tool, not a god, not the end all and be all of wisdom.

Another of my issues with New Atheism is that science and religion (or faith, because often people of no particular organized ideology get thrown into the cart here) are not incompatible. There often is conflict between the two, but science and religion are not inherently opposed, nor is it a zero sum game where only one can stand victorious.

I have read some essays by the handful of (privileged, white, male) New Atheist writers, but I have not read their books. I do not want to as I find their tone smug and belittling. And yes, there has been legitimate critique of the movement as anti-feminist (this Ms blog post on the topic is a great place to start). I find that the writers in this movement are as closed-minded as the people the critique.

One of my biggest concerns is that many of the arguments laid against belief by atheists are actually quite specific to the Abrahamic faiths. Many of the things they don’t agree with or like are things I don’t agree with or like! When the average atheist is talking about why they don’t like God, I have to ask them which God. The Judeo-Christian monotheistic idea of and personality attributed to God is usually discussed as if it is the only one. I don’t believe in that God either. Millions and millions of people don’t believe in that God. So we all have something in common there.

I don’t want to spend too much more time on New Atheism. It’s been a few years since I followed the movement with any regularity; I’m sure I’m out of touch already on the subject. I will stand with them in support for a secular government and public arena, but I don’t support a religion-free world. I’m a big fan of religion. I like it. And there that is.

As for why I am not a Christian, the simplest answer is this: it isn’t my story. I’ve said that before, but it feels more and more true with each passing day. There is much I love about the Christian story: the Annunciation, the Resurrection, even the story of the Crucifixion. Jesus is a great and divine person. I support the social justice aspects of the Christian message. But Yahweh is not my god. I don’t believe that Yahweh is the Great Ground of Being, who created the whole universe. I do not want to bad mouth a god, from a spiritual point of view, nor do I want to bad mouth anyone else’s god, so I’ll stop there. While I love and respect the Jewish tradition, I do not see how the god of one group of people could be the god of all. I do not see how there could be now or have been then a Chosen People. How could one tiny tribe be chosen among all the tribes in the world? It doesn’t make sense intellectually, nor from a position of faith. I fully believe that Yahweh chose the Jewish people – but that is their story, not mine. I cannot be a Christian because so much of the Christian story and symbolism is dependent on Jewish symbols and stories.

I want to pause here and admit that I fear talking about the above because I am afraid people will assume I am anti-Semitic. I reject Yahweh, but I see that from a monotheist view-point it could be construed that I reject God entirely or people who believe in Yahweh. From a polytheist view-point, which is how I see the world now, I don’t reject God, just that specific god as mine, as the One God.

There are many other intellectual reasons for my moving away from the Christian faith – issues with politics, the roles of and beliefs about women, the body and sex, systematic examples of hypocrisy and domination of the weak and vulnerable by those in power. We can pick up any newspaper and find numerous reasons why the Christian tradition leaves a lot to be desired. But I know that those things are not the entirety of the Christian tradition. There are many beautiful and helpful parts too.

What it comes down to is personal experience. I am not a Christian because my deepest spiritual experiences have never been in church or with or about Jesus. My deepest spiritual experiences were in the wilderness, alone in prayer, or in decidedly pagan space.

It’s taken me a long time to let go of the Christian label. I wanted to fit in. I wanted all that was best about it, but I found that I couldn’t reconcile all the pieces. I have a great love in my heart for the tradition, as I do for the Jewish tradition. I still cannot read or watch people like Pat Robertson or Rick Santorum because their views hurt my heart. Physically, it hurts me to see their distortions of something I find meaningful and beautiful at its best.

But when we get down to the core of who I am, I am not a Christian. And there that is.

 

Love Wins

My beloved former college roommate (mentioned here) encouraged me to read Rob Bell‘s book, Love Wins. I’d heard about it. Apparently it pissed off a lot of Evangelicals. My ears usually perk up when American Evangelicals get all worked up over something. Seeing as how this book was published by Harper One and not his usual Zondervan, I’m guessing Bell has annoyed more than a few establishment Christians.

I first heard about Rob Bell three years ago when I was visiting family in Australia. One set of family over there are evangelical Christians (I believe little e, as opposed to big E). They spent 15 years in Ethiopia as missionaries and are still heavily involved in world missions. One night my husband, infant son and I stayed the night with them as we passed through Canberra on our way to Sydney. ‘Have you heard about this guy, Rob Bell? He’s a film maker,’ asked my cousin, Ro. I had not and I admit I was expecting something incredibly schlockey. Some bad, trying to be cool, ‘let’s save souls’ kind of film.

Boy, was I wrong.

Rob Bell made a bunch of short films, each centering on a one word idea. We watched one called Breath and I was blown away. It was beautifully made and resonated with me. In fact, when I got back to the US I ordered a copy of Breath for a friend and ordered She, as I was interested in how Bell would approach woman. I thought it was great.

So when I picked up Love Wins I knew it would be worth reading. Let’s get to reviewing it, shall we?

I think the first thing I need to get out of the way is: OMG Rob Bell’s writing style makes me want to punch him. It is written like he speaks. Which might sound great if read aloud, and it makes the book, all 200 pages of it, easy to read in one afternoon (if you don’t have small children), but it REEKS of smug, hipster sermons. I pretty much hate sermons in general, but smug, hipster sermons – like I said – make me want to punch things.

Style aside, the second thing I need to get out of the way is that when I closed this book I did so with a resounding YES. YES!! THIS! I still don’t want to be a Christian, but I feel like Bell and I have more in common than we don’t. If this could be the future of American Evangelical Christianity, then, folks, we will be ok.

The book is primarily concerned with the concept of hell. How can a loving god condemn people to hell? What does it mean to be ‘saved’?

When talking about a hypothetical person and whether or not he was saved Bell says:

Some believe that he would have had to say a specific prater. Christians don’t agree on exactly what this prater is, but for many the essential idea is that the only way to get into heaven is to pray at some point in your life, asking God to forgive you and telling God that you accept Jesus, you believe Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for your sins, and you want to go to heaven when you die. Some call this “accepting Christ,” other call it the “sinner’s prayer,” and still others call it “getting saved,” being “born again,” or being “converted.” (pg 5)

This is all part of what is called a ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’ Except, as Bell points out, “the phrase ‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible.” (p 10)

Bell talks about what the Bible says about who gets in to heaven – and it’s clear that there is no formula. He also talks about the when of heaven. This part really interested me, as I have long thought that ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ – heaven is now, just like hell is now. Eternity permeates all things. Eternity is all time and therefore is now, and the past, and the future, and mostly just now. For many of the people to whom horrific and unspeakable things occur, for people who live in fear daily, the idea of eternal flames might actually be more comforting than this world. I believe that redemption happens daily, all around us, in every moment – it doesn’t wait for Judgment Day. Just like hell exists on earth thanks to the reality of sin – systemic and personal, institutional and the kind of evil that gets headlines in news programs that want to scare you. And Bell thinks so too.

Bell lists out all of the places that hell is talked about in the Bible. There aren’t many of them. Gehenna is one of the words that’s often used to describe hell. Apparently it means a garbage heap, the kind that gets burned. Gehenna was actually a garbage dump. This is the first time I’ve heard of this. I find it sad that one image is what has been run with to create an entire ideology of an eternal burning hell.

All of this smacks of what is called Universal Redemption – the idea that eventually everyone goes to heaven. That we all get saved. I believe this, in as much as I believe in a concept of heaven and being saved. Bell got heat for this, even distancing himself from the phrasing. But as he points out, the Christian tradition “is, after all, a wide stream we’re swimming in.” (p 110) I think people often forget this. The media is dominated with blowhards who think their way is the ONLY way, their Christianity is the ONLY way to be Christan. But Christianity is a living, breathing religion. It has changed and shifted, expanded and contracted over the ages. It is shaped by time and place and the people who live it.

(This also makes me believe in a God who changes too. I think the idea of a God who NEVER changes is bad theology, but that’s a topic for another time.)

I do have criticisms of Bell’s occasional discussion of pagan religion (ancient, but still) and his understanding of sacrifice. It smacks of history learned via a conservative Christian lens (Bell attended Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, so his evangelical cred is rock solid). Frankly, it’s pretty offensive. “Do you ever strangle a bird and then place it on a rock for good luck?” (pg 123)

Um, no. No one I know does that. The people that I know that offer animal sacrifice do it as an offering. Not a bribe. Not a superstition. An offering. A gift from one being to another.

“Just the thought of such practices and rituals is repulsive. So primitive and barbaric.” (ibid) I sometimes offer up part of the chicken I’ve cooked. How is eating an animal carcass less barbaric and repulsive? I hope Bell is a vegan because his logic in this section sucks. Just because my hands aren’t bloodied by killing the chicken (or the cow for the hamburger or the pig for the bacon) doesn’t make me any less complicit in animal sacrifice (which is what we omnivores are involved in every time we eat animal flesh, as they sacrifice their lives so that I may eat and live). Later on Bell talks about the sacrifice of death for the living (pgs 130-131). But he’s caught up in some outdated understanding of ancient pagan traditions.

Getting back to the main concept of who is saved and who isn’t, Bell has this to say:

And then there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumptio that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.

As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneast, saing that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true. What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation. (p 155)

Sounds like Bell has been influenced by Process Theology. To which I say, RIGHT ON.

I also really loved his discussion of the story of the Prodigal Son. Bell discusses this in terms of the stories we tell ourselves about situations. We get caught up in our story, never questioning our version. I know I’ve done it, and it’s often what keeps me separate from the love of others or the embrace of a community.

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Having written the above I decided to go and read the reviews of others. I particularly liked this summation of Bell’s ideas on heaven:

His argument progresses to this: Because heaven will eventually come to earth, if we’re to take heaven seriously, we must take the suffering that exists in the world seriously now. Therefore, we are called to participate “now in the life of the age to come. That’s what happens when the future is dragged into the present” (p. 45). In light of this, humanity’s role within creation is redefined so that we are not so much stewards as we are God’s partners, “participating in the ongoing creation and joy of the world” (p. 180), and engaging in creating a new social order with Jesus (p. 77). This language of partnering and participating is frequently applied by Bell to causes of social justice. (From Blogging Theologically)

Reviews take issue with his exegesis or his translation of certain words (I have never been a serious biblical studies student, nor do I know Greek, my emphasis has been systematic theology, religious history and feminist critique). But reviewers, and many Christians it seems, are unwilling to embrace a God that embraces everyone.

Many of the reviews I read raise good points about Bell’s selective use of quotes from the Bible and some of his flawed logic. It’s true. This is not an academic book. It is clearly meant to get people who don’t really want to be Christians to shout YES after they’ve finished it. (Hey, it worked!) This book will likely  frustrate a theologically minded reader, and not just because Bell seems to hate full sentences and margins. But I still think it’s aimed at the best that Christianity has to offer.

Ultimately this book flips the bird to the loud, angry Us vs Them, Evangelical Christians. I’m ok with that. And I still want to buy a copy for my in-laws.

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For more links to reviews of this book, see this website. For a thoughtful Pagan review of the book by John Franc, please click here.