Last night Beth and I went to hear Rob Bell preach in Times Square as part of his “The Gods Aren’t Angry” tour.
If you aren’t familiar, Bell is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, a church I used to attend in Michigan, and author of Velvet Elvis and Sex God. V.E. happens to be one of the most encouraging books on faith/Christianity I’ve read. It’s not that it’s revolutionary or dynamically profound, but it is an explanation of the dynamic nature of both the Bible and the Christian faith. It’s also probably the only book I’ve read that encourages people to continually question their faith and the scriptures – go ahead, God can take it and you will grow from your search. This seems pretty simple, but the church has had a hard time letting people think for themselves for, oh, a week or two.
So we went to hear what he had to say.
The message generally surrounded Colossians 1:20 “…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
What was unique, however, was the extent to which Bell led up to this passage in giving a narrative context to the ancient idea of the altar and sacrificing – first to pagan gods and, later, Jehovah. He built the case for the radical nature of the gospel message by putting biblical events in historical context relative to pagan traditions. Again, I don’t know that this is altogether unique, as I’m sure I’ve heard sermons on how God’s calling of Abraham was different from pagan relationships of worshipers to their gods, but the point of why Abraham didn’t seem to bat an eyelash at the idea of roasting his child was lost in so many homilies on Abe’s tremendous faith. Bell points out the cultural history of pagan sacrifice, including child sacrifice, in explaining the poignant nature of what was being symbolically done. Abraham, it was argued, would have been perfectly familiar with the idea the the deity would demand a sacrifice and that it would possibly be his child. Bell reiterates that it is precisely this familiarity that warranted such a dramatic demonstration to Abraham from God. God takes him through an act very similar to the current pagan traditions, right up to the point of committing the sacrificial killing to drive home the point that this was NOT how Jehovah operates. He would provide the sacrifice. You don’t have to live like that any more (relying on pagan sacrifices to please unknown/unanswering gods).
You don’t have to live like that any more.
That eventually became the mantra for the end of the talk – reiterating God’s interruption of the cultural norm to provide for us through Christ’s reconciliation of all things. Bell gave other historical examples that led up to Jesus Christ as the once-for-all sacrifice and how understanding that truth can play out in people’s lives. This is where I think the real appeal and popularity of Bell and his teaching comes in. He gave example after example of what can happen when people live from a standpoint of being at peace (shalom) with God (and everything else, by extension) – people giving generously to meet needs in their communities, people sacrificing to meet needs in impoverished countries, people working within their disciplines to help the poor, the sick, the dying. When you hear actual accounts of people’s lives being changed and their needs being met, you start to get a glimpse of what the kingdom of God is really about. It’s quite appealing, I must say. I have a friend in Michigan who goes to Mars Hill because people he knows working in Africa said this church is making a difference there in people’s lives – not preaching to convert them but feeding them and giving them clean water and helping keep them alive. I get that. That’s what it’s about.
If he’s coming to your town, it’s worth checking out.