Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Amazing Grace; Amazing Face

Youth Specialties pulled the article after the first week. It was too controversial, they said, and people (most likely Evangelical youth pastors) found it confounding and probably a bit heretical. Youth Specialties also insisted that they found the same article, by Tony Campolo progeny Bart, to be important and that they believed the article had many good points and would be a bit of a flamethrower for good conversation.

Campolo's article found him decrying a God of judgment, a God that would allow little girls to get raped in a heartless world and then walk away from him and his silence. Campolo was attacking (as he often is found in attacking mode - which is nice to hear every once in a while in a sometimes tepid environment of grassroots white American Evangelicalism - as opposed to, say, Pat Robertson's or James Dobson's attack-mode mass media frenzy) a God who would be silent in such excruciating circumstances, and a people and a theology that would defend such a God. God, in his estimation, cannot be simultaneously all-loving and all-powerful.

Reverend Carlton Pearson (the popular mentor of Bishop T. D. Jakes and "Black son" of Oral Roberts) was sitting in his dining room, watching the news on his large tv with his well-fed daughter on his lap, pondering much the same thing while they showed images of ravished and starving children in Africa. He was also angry at this God. This time, God directly spoke back, the This American Life episode featuring Pearson revealed. God spoke to Pearson and opened his eyes to the fact that Hell is man-made, that humanity was creating the hell of experience in such places as the geographical Rwanda and the just-as-real depths of universal and pervasive loneliness.

They have both come to a similar result, a similar end to a similar plight. The God of judgment is a fake God, a God they will not and cannot believe in any longer. And with that Eternal God of condemnation goes the God of eternal damnation. Hell, to both Carlton Pearson and Bart Campolo, does not exist, except in the hearts, minds and experiences of people while on earth. We have done injustice to God, they both insist, by scaring people to heaven. God must be real, but not the God who would condemn people to hell. Jesus came, they point out, to save the whole world. Add to this universalism Campolo's Open Theology, the idea that God exists fully on our plane of time and can not see (or chooses not to see) the future anymore than you or I.

I could see why Evangelical's feathers were rankled. I felt sorrow reading and listening to both men's reports (although I would fall short of condemning either men to hell). My wife dismissed both as pure rubbish. She's dismissed lesser claims as heresy, as blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.

However, my wife and I read and listen a lot to Bishop N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar. Much like the aforementioned, he de-emphasizes Heaven and Hell to speak about life in the present. Unlike the other two, however, he doesn’t seem to sidestep this image of God. Though neither does he fit the mold of the fire-and-brimstone Jonathan Edwards-type of theologian or church minister. Although Wright doesn't directly answer whether or not he believes in an eternal, all-consuming Hell (he seems to view it as a mystery, an important mystery surely, but not one for the present time), he does not negate it, nor the prospect of an all-powerful and all-loving God co-existing with a suffering world (mp3). Wright, much like his self-described disciple Rob Bell (the popular preacher and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church), believes that the Church of God - through the power of the resurrection of Jesus and the infused power of the living and active Holy Spirit - needs to deliver people from their personal and collective hells-on-earth. To speak and live the resurrection life.

To all this we must add the voice of one more prophet of our age, the great Pigeon John. In an update of "It's the End of the World (And I Feel Fine)" song popularized by REM (among many others), "As We Know It" finds John confronting a "black man on a white horse" who comes down to earth and "look(s) like Avril and Bill Cosby mixed together." Among terrifying pleas and cries, John faces down Jesus in a seemingly irreverential and accusatory, hurtful voice asks:

What up, Jesus, what up my nickel, my man, can I ask you a couple a questions about the whole danged plan? Why the Holocaust, why the slavery, why the Crusades in the name of bravery? Why you let little girls get molested?... If the fall of Adam and Eve is all it took to leave the whole human race lost and shook, that don't make sense, it don't feel right! But I can see your whole face in the moonlight. Dang you look crazy, you make a n**** wanna cry. Looks like you hold the whole ocean in your eye. Are you crying too?...

I'm freaking mad at you... Why ain't you talking? Why don't you answer me?...

Every step you take is a freaking tragedy!...

In his last verse, after the world is taken up and Pigeon John finds himself flying over the clouds, PJ continues to question, only in a softer, sing-songy style,

What up, Jesus? What up my nickel my man? Can I ask you a couple questions about the whole danged plan? Without an answer, you stretch out your hand with the look in your eyes that you understand all the pain, all the loss, all the confusion, all the ups and the downs are now amusing. And I spent all my life rushing and hustling when I could've just been your friend. We're drinking coffee in the sun, the old and young... and it's ok now.

God is often silent when we don't want him to be (witness Job) and much more in-tune with our frustrations and failures than we are (remember, if nothing else, the incarnation?). It seems that often when we do confront the harder questions, we have to re-configure all of truth, instead of letting truth re-configure us. Pigeon John says in one three-and-a-half minute rap-pop song what I wish preachers (of any stripe) would say.


  1. interesting. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Wow. I came here prepared to leave another snarky comment about your taste in music but I am pleasantly surprised by this post instead. Very Good!

  3. wait til sunday for the music diatribes.

    actually, i just coincidentally ran into your "i'm liberal and i don't care if you care or not" post yesterday. and although i may agree with a lot of your points, i would take issue with your universalism.

    but i think there's enough room in heaven for the both of us, bro'.

  4. thank both for the compliments, btw. i'm trying to do more short essays on my blog, but rarely do i get comments on them.

  5. I joke about being a universalist, but I'm really not. Not exactly. Maybe a subject for a future post.

    But keep writing essays like this one and I predict you will be getting many more comments!


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