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As with most end-of-year seasons with “top 10 lists” and retrospectives of “the best” and “the worst” lists I am doing my reflection on what I am bringing into the new year (and hopefully leaving behind).  As I often do at Christmas time, I begin reflecting on what the new year will hold by reflecting on poetry and essays that have inspired and challenged me through the years. One favorite poem is TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi.  It is a stark, beautiful poem that Eliot supposedly began thinking about as an undergraduate and then published in 1927.  Yet nearly 100 years later it still holds so much power even today.  I love its use of the Magi from the East searching for truth who leave behind their “summer palaces on slopes” with “silken girls bringing sherbet” as place holders for the modern condition: people surrounded by so many distractions and abundance yet still lacking contentment since we are perpetually searching for something deeper than the bland surface-deep life we find ourselves in.  As the Magi eventually find their world turned upside down by finding a birth that is “hard and bitter agony” like death, we too are called by Eliot to see that the only path to life will be through the death of that will holds us back from the deeper life we are called to.  This year I am challenged again by those amazing last lines:

We returned to our places, these
Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their
gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I am left wondering this question as we turn the page on 2014 and turn our faces toward 2015:

What alien gods are we still clutching and refuse to let go of?

Are we still “at ease” in our current life or have we become “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” and if the latter is true, what will we do about it?

Perhaps this new year we can all put down those alien gods and old dispensations once and for all.

(If you are not familiar with the poem, here it is:)

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed,
refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and
grumbling
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high
prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a
temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with
vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for
pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so
we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment
too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I
remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their
gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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This was an interesting year for music. Such a mix of older artists returning to the stage with surprising releases and newer artists trying out new colors and textures in interesting ways. I will admit that I didn’t dive too deep into the music scene this year and will probably be playing catch up throughout 2015 with music that I missed along the way. The list below represents music that touched me, got a lot of play time in the car, caused my daughters to dance and laugh, and asked big questions for me that I need to pray and reflect on. So this list – like other so-called ‘top’ lists I have published – is not framed around music that was the most novel, unique or even expertly executed and produced. Nope, this is my list of music that marked my year in the good and the bad and set the tone along the way:

Awesome Mix #1 – Guardians of the Galaxy (various artists)

I start with this unabashed marketing tie-in to a superhero movie that recycles 70’s AM radio singles to underscore this: sometimes you just need a fun mix tape at just the right time to get the world singing together. One of the best excuses for a soundtrack since “Saturday Night Fever”, Awesome Mix #1 hits all the right summer fun beats: kitschy through and through, pop filled yet pulling some B-side and deep cut moves in flow and timing that is a master class in great mix tapes. More than a few times this summer I pulled up to traffic lights and heard “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” blaring from the car next to me and my first thought wasn’t “why aren’t they discovering new music?” No, sometimes recycling is good for the musical environment and having another generation singing the Runaway’s “Cherry Bomb” is something we should all celebrate. I mean, honestly… tell me you don’t dance around and sing into an alien lizard when Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” comes on?

Ryan Adams (Ryan Adams)

I have been waiting for Ryan Adams to come back ever since “Gold” and to hear the opening strains of the lead track “Gimme Something Good” I breathed a sigh of collective relief and joy. When his first solo album “Heartbreaker” was released I couldn’t believe the depth and genius of this then 25 year old. After now over a decade of all-too-typical dives into darkness with drugs, alcohol and lame vanity projects Adams seems to have kissed and made up with his muse again because his latest is a return to form in big ways. Strong tracks stem to stern with solid production that like a good Merlot breathes and deepens with repeated listens. There is still a wink in his musical eye of mischief yet tempered with some hard earned wisdom in the humility training camp and he has stewarded it well on this release. “Gimme Something Good” and “Kim” are standouts to be sure and I for one am just glad to have the Ryan Adams of “Come Pick Me Up” back in the saddle.

Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone (Lucinda Williams)

“You do not know what wars are going on/down there the spirit meets the bone” At 62 Lucinda Williams is in the pantheon of great artists who offers us a textbook for aging into wisdom without forsaking the kick, punch and bite of a serious badass. Released without much fanfare Williams double album walks with the listener along a spiritual pub crawl of honky tonk bars, late night street corners where buskers gather to play their hearts out and settling us into a pew for contemplative prayer as to the meaning of life and the hope and joy of being human while a gospel choir sings in the fellowship hall. Some tracks are weaker links in the chain which is to be expected for a 20 song offering, but Williams’ journey from her 2011 “Blessed” release (which was one of my top picks that year) to this one seems to be so rich in spiritual depth as to make me ask “what is this women drinking and where can I found that fountain?”

Songs of Innocence (U2)

OK… OK… before I get the “you are such the fanboy” comment string rolling on the blog (which I am… guilty as charged) hear me out. Rarely does a band who has been recording for 30 years venture into the risks that U2 has been willing to weather. One of the biggest risks for a band that has launched a distinctive and unique “sound” which spawned numerous lookalike and soundalike bands over the years (I am of the camp that U2 essential created contemporary worship bands like DCB and Hillsong) is to know when to move on and when to ‘own’ their distinctiveness regardless of sounding like… well… themselves. Songs of Innocence is one of U2’s distinctively U2 albums yet distilled and perfected over years (it is the longest gestating album they have put out). Strip away all the Apple iTunes not-so-free download media splash and you have one of the most enjoyable, singable and spiritually thoughtful albums of 2014. Reflecting on their youth in 1970s Dublin while most bands are trying to be like younger bands of today, U2 overs a great addition to their canon and only whets my appetite for the companion release Songs of Experience which should come out in the new year.

St. Vincent (St. Vincent)

I will be honest… it took me a while to become a St. Vincent fan. At first Annie Clark’s career came off a little bit like a gimmick or novelty act like her former band The Polyphonic Spree did. Sure, all the jumping around in choir robes was fun and all but I never really saw the genius of her work until her 2012 release with David Byrne Love This Giant and some of her side work with Sufjan Stevens and as part of Back’s Record Club project when she covered “Need You Tonight” by INXS (which is simply stunning). This year’s self-titled release is a move toward a muscular, confident sound that is not reclining at all. At once challenging Shirley Bassey (“Prince Johnny”) and The Talking Heads (“Digital Witness”) her use of brass arrangements with a lo-fi aesthetic is both precision cut in tone yet breathes and flows without effort making for a great album through and through. Just her confessional “I Prefer Your Love” alone with the refrain “I prefer your love/to Jesus” sung to a Sinead O’Connor ‘Nothing Compares 2 You’ vibe is worthy of a sea of think pieces on how pop music continues to ask religion to be a better suitor.

Black Messiah (D’Angelo and the Vanguard)

Where St. Vincent’s “I Prefer Your Love” takes issue with religion for being a poor suitor, D’Angleo’s “1,000 Deaths” gives voice to the chaos and confusion of faith communities remaining silent while continued violence occurs in our streets. In their review of the album, Pitchfork called Black Messiah “a study in controlled chaos” and I think they are simply missing the point. Nothing in this album has been left for chance nor is anything allowed to run amuck without D’Angelo controlling its direction both lyrically and sonically. Akin to the wall of sound in John Coltrane’s 17 minute “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” Black Messiah requires a disciplined and repeated listening to get at the layers found in this great album and it is certainly worth the 14 year wait. Deep jazz and R&B influences coupled with its laser focus on racial tensions make this both the most timeless and timely sounding release of the year and I hope that it gets the broader audience in the new year.

1989 (Taylor Swift)

As much as highbrow magazines like The New Yorker and Slate might despise Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” for painting the Big Apple as not being as bookish as they might like…guess what? Its a city of 8.5 million people and many of them loved this album and are not hoping for a Woody Allen retrospective. This. album. is. amazing. Crafted to pop perfection thanks to Max Martin and Shellback (Swedish producers channeling Scandinavian pop circa A-ha and ABBA) it is simply a great example of a party guest to knows when to laugh at the right jokes and not to over stay her welcome. Each song is a mini moment that is breezy, simple, clean cut and right made to blast out of your car speakers. True, you get no cool kid points for playing Taylor Swift while making artisanal candles from Yak lard with Fremont hipsters nor sullen contemplatives who can only find community in dark coffee shops, but this album was never for that market share. It is not an album that gets that the brokenness of our social networks, the economic stress on the backs of people, the disease and sorrow that is in our world today but it is also not that album. But it is an album that causes people to sway a bit whether they want to or not, sing along a bit and that might not be so bad. Even Yak lard candle makers need a pop song from time to time.

Passerby (Luluc)

I owe Jeffrey Overstreet a solid for recommending this album to me. One of those releases that I would have surely overlooked. Cutting a singer-songwriter vibe of whispers from the Sub Pop stable that gave us Fleet Foxes, Luluc’s commentary of lost friends and loved ones is backed by light Hammond B-organs and acoustic guitar strumming bringing Nick Drake back to life for the Instragram era. The songs are simple on first listen – laments in loneliness and the desire for reconnection – but the album begins to work its magic with a longer listening session where you will find the faces of those you haven’t seen in years come flashing across your mind and the desire for an unhurried life causing you to take a detour off the highway to more pastoral surroundings. Get some postcards, brew some coffee, put on Passerby and write some “thinking of you” notes… this is the magic that music like Luluc is putting out can do.

Notable mentions (all strong releases worth a listen or two or ten):

Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
Hozier – Hozier
My Brightest Diamond – This Is My Hand
The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams

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Wendell Berry is often thought of as a poet who frames the hunger for deep community in an accelerated age. His agrarian calling in both his poetry and novels is more than compelling – it is prophetic. At Christmas time I love going back to one of his poems from his 1978 collection of Sabbath poems:

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

Instead of “I’m the king of the world if I win, and a failure if I lose,” and the crushing pressure that entails, the spiritually rewired athlete’s internal logic is this: I’m a child of God; that’s my primary identity.  God loves me regardless of what happens in this competition.  God has given me these talents, these amazing gifts, and it’s my responsibility to use them as best I can, to perform and succeed to the utmost of my ability.  But it’s not for personal glory, or to feed my towering ego.  Rather, every burst of speed and power is a testament to a higher power whose love transcends any kind of earhtyly success.  The competitive results are not part of that higher reality.  But the effort is.  The leap toward perfection of effort, a kinetic hymn, is a connection to God.  It’s sacred, the way prayer is sacred.  And at the same time it is exquisitely concrete.  It has mass, speed, position, trajectory, in the now of a throw or a catch or a weight that needs to be lifted.  It’s where physics meets the soul.”  – J.C Hertz, Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of Crossfit and the Primal Future of Fitness (New York, NY: Crown, 2014) 248

This month marks my two year journey with Crossfit. It has been quite a ride to say the least. I have always been a pretty active person though never someone who would be seen as having ‘athlete’ as an identifier. No, I bought into the world of ‘working out’ in my adult life which is to say I viewed exercise akin to exorcism: something you do to prevent bad things from happening like death or weight gain. While I was a cross country runner and swimmer in high school, I just never saw myself as athletic. Being a bookworm seemed to be a different and distinct role to play in “The Breakfast Club” and for the most part I was fine with that. So I dabbled with various gym memberships in my late 20’s and ran miles on treadmills, went to occasional classes, read “Born to Run” and thought the key was going barefoot and took up more recreational running including running a couple of half marathons. But I was never an athlete, I was ‘working out’ and ‘exercising’. Into my 40’s in addition to the typical ‘life is busy’ mantra I started having knee problems resulting in a torn meniscus which sidelined me from running for a while.

At this point let me say out loud that I ‘get’ all the push back from folks who both hate the ‘Crossfitters won’t shut up about Crossfit’ meme as well as the argument that it is simply one form of fitness among many. Akin to different favorite hymns at Christmas time there are many, many wonderful ways that adults are finding new levels of fitness: adult crew teams, running groups, yoga and ultra trail running have their adherents and I am not part of those groups but also celebrate them from afar. But something clicked with my journey into a Crossfit box that somehow just made sense in ways I am still trying to put together. Like the line from the block quote I started with from JC Hertz’s wonderful book, there is something in me that was search for a ‘kinetic hymn’ – a way to sing praise with all that I am, to abandon myself and still strive for reaching for yet another horizon. About 6 months into my time with the community of Stoneway Crossfit I realized that part of what was missing was that I was eternally frustrated with ‘exercise’ and ‘working out’ for the simple fact that it wasn’t what we were put on the earth to with our bodies. No, as in all things of excellence it can’t merely be a sidelined aspect of my life. If it is to be transformative then that mean it effects everything. I was not to be ‘working out’ for a fear of death nor ‘exercising’ some demons of fat from my body. No, what I woke to was that I was an athlete who needed to train. I eat food for the sake of performance not sitting around worrying about what calorie count it has. I look at excellence and mental toughness in a new way in all aspects of my life but in a wholistic way. It is hard to get your mouth around the word ‘athlete’ without seemed incredibly pretentious especially as a rather out-of-shape male approaching 50 like a bullet from a gun. But when I made the mental shift and realized that I was an athlete who was training, setting goals, reaching for more as the singing of a ‘kinetic hymn’ then I forgot about the grind of lifting weights, running, rowing, etc. Everyday has become a liturgy of sorts, a lectionary of movements that are about liberation, freedom, and sanctification of the body, mind and soul.

As I sit back now after my two years I am thankful for this kinetic hymn I am still learning to sing and for the choir of other athletes at Stoneway CF as well as other Crossfit boxes around the world I have stepped into and been welcomed, challenged, and confirmed as an athlete who is training and transforming all the time.

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These are difficult times. Yes, all times have their difficulties but there is something particularly barren about this point in time. Perhaps we have over-tilled the soils of culture, churning and digging for some novel experience or quick fix to deep despair to the point that the soil has finally begun to give out. The fruit born in our culture doesn’t seem to captivate the prophetic imagination as it did. We have assessment of what is wrong. But what is the way forward? The dry, harsh winds continue to rip the topsoil of the past away exposing the violence, anger and ultimately fear that no longer be contained. How much longer before people simply lay down in the dirt and cease trying? There has to be another way.

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I have had a slow start with Advent this year. Perhaps it is the cycle of my life at present with my work load increasing in administrative demands, my daughters becoming teenagers and asking different questions that rightly demand deeper and most engaged conversations about faith, and the world weariness of seeing violence, anger, torment in our city streets as racial reconciliation and economic justice ring like bells from God’s cathedral calling people back to the heart of worship and away from the idols of our age.

This week I felt myself waking up to all the voices screaming for justice and realized that to be the Church will demand so much more than commentary.

We are in a season of action pure and simple.

And this is perhaps what awakened me to the advent reality in a new way: new birth is not about commentary apart from embodied action. The cry of the Christ child demands to be heard, to be nourished, to be held, to be kept warm, to be loved with abandon.

This newborn child is not to be merely stared at as a beatific vision akin to a revisionist Italian canvas capturing a fictive moment of stillness and tranquility.

No, the cry of the Christ child is a demand to be heard, to be cared for, to be fed, to be held, to be loved.

The incarnate God is not merely born to us but is awake and crying… Emmanuel is alive and kicking. We need to respond and not merely stare.

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There is that moment at the beginning of the academic year when the professor comes into the classroom, sets down his or her stack of papers and books, moves to the podium and begins class.   It is a very mundane moment in many ways.  Students chatter away, texting friends, drinking expensive espresso drinks in shimmering travel mugs with café logos you don’t get the reference to and you move your papers around, look at the technology that surrounds you more and more each year and take a deep breath as you launch into your ‘welcome’ speech.

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Yet as a faculty member those few seconds between setting down my briefcase and books and when I turn to face my new class and begin to speak is a sacred moment like no other.  Something happens in those brief moments that I wish I could explain to my students but I don’t think they would understand. Perhaps I sell them short in this.  I don’t know.   It is a strange rush of anxiety (“Is this class really going to come together?”) a thrill of introducing new students to material you hold so dear (“Can’t wait to read that passage to them”) and the look of strangers meeting in blank gaze who will become people who you will care about in ways that as a teacher who sees hundreds of students a year is always surprising.

This strange ability to not only care but deeply love these students is always a shock to me.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is.

This infinite capacity of the human heart to allow people you meet through the medium of an ancient text in the context of this artificial arena of the mind called a university classroom to touch you, hurt you, stir you to wonder, to break your heart and to awaken memories of when you also first heard a philosophical argument, a Chilean poem, a Shakespearean sonnet, a rising note borne on the bow of a cellist breathing life into Bach across the centuries or the darken light of a Dutch master whose subject is an aged women inclining her head over the Scriptures with such gentle purpose that angels seem to brush wingtips across the oils on the canvas in your midst is awe-inspiring to be sure.

And in those moments that appear and disappear oh-so-fleetingly over the weeks of a term will flame up unannounced like a roman candle in a subterranean cave – so sudden and crisp as to blind you before giving way to sight.  Yet they happen again and again – sometimes only a flickering flame on a wet match of a poorly thought out question, or sometimes akin to a signal flare of desperation as the student is grasping for anything to support not only their understanding of the subject in the churning sea  of material they are glupping down, but some buoyancy for their very soul.

In such moments something more than learning happens or mastery of material.  In such moments whether they are but a whisper or akin to Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yap from the rooftops of the world’ show us to be human at long last.  These moments allow us to step away from the world that swirls around us, the technology that blinds and deafen us to ourselves and the humanity of others, the self-consciousness and obsession with our own needs and problems and even separated from the so-called security of that which we put our trust in more than God which is the artifice of our public self.  Like the striking of high C to blast apart a wine glass from across the room, these moments explode with the tinkling of glass upon the floor as we open ourselves up to one another in the space of a question, a point of clarification, a nob of the head in agreement, a glance at the art on the screen with unveiled eyes and the sigh of resignation that what had been held as true in small or large ways is now forever changed.

When I stand at the podium on Monday, setting down my books and rustling papers to mask that breath I draw in deeply before I speak, this is what is rushing through my head.  That something more sacred than learning will happen in spite of my best efforts as a professor and the material I put before us.  No, what will happen is the parting of a sea that separates human from human and human from the God of the universe.

What happens is holy.

What happens is redemptive.

What happens is more than I could have ever planned and if I am not careful midst all the papers and exams and small group exercises I could miss it.

In that breath there is always the option to just say “no… I can’t do this again.  The price is too high.”  The option to walk away, to drive away, to fly away is always there for student and professor alike.

But on Monday I plan to draw my breath, look into the eyes of my students, and welcome them to this moment together.  It will be probably fairly anticlimactic for some – course assignments will be discussed, the texts we will read, who the authors are, when the midterm and final will be.  But these furrows into the soil that will seem mundane are the channel markers of Grace in ways none of us can expect.  I know this because this isn’t new to me.  I have seen Grace show up again and again which is why I know how vulnerable and painful this journey will be for some.

But I will draw that breath again as I have many times before.

And I will say the word that I am finding is a much deeper well than I could have imagined.

I will say…

“Welcome”

Either you only follow tweets for TMZ.com or ESPN Sportscenter or live under a rock away from the din and clang of the blogosphere if you haven’t heard the rumblings about Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) which will hit bookstores on March 29th.  For those following the flurry of activity, the basic issue that arose this weekend started when Justin Taylor posted a blog posting entitled Rob Bell: Universalist?  and later John Piper, the grandfather of neo-Calvinism, Synod of Dort extreme sport TULIP revivalism mentor for Mark Driscoll, and author of Desiring God, offered a rather snarky and damning (pun intended) tweet that simply read “Farewell Rob Bell” in relation to claims that Bell’s new book espoused a universalist view of salvation and Bell has finally been shown to be in league with the devil.   There have been claims from neo-Calvinists for a while that Bell and his NOOMA videos were merely drawing people away from orthodox Christian faith.  Swords began to rattle and the blogosphere exploded.  As reported in Christianity Today’s blog this weekend, Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday… that is the top 10 trending of ALL Tweets globally. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor’s blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers’ personal pages. The article had about 680 comments as of this morning.  Taylor, who is a VP for Crossway Books which publishes some of Piper’s work, has since revised his article, softening the blows he delivered originally including aligning the fate and character of Bell with II Corinthians 11: 14-15 –  “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” [to be expected, this is from the ESV which is the authorized version of neo-Calvinist Piper fanboys (yes… boys) everywhere since, as we have been told, other translations such as the ill-fated TNIV are too “gender-inclusive” and leading to the feminization of the Bible].  As many have pointed out, Bell’s book has yet to be released and these comments are coming from people who have either only seen the book jacket copy or a promotional video that Harper Collins has begun to circulate in promotion of the book.  In short, the blogosphere is offering a premonition of things to come akin to the movie “Minority Report” where people are charged and convicted of crimes they haven’t committed but *might* in the future – taking them out now will save collateral damage.

Some passing thoughts on this bit of cyber rumbling:

1. At its most base level, these type of fist fights in Christianity only serve to remind the world that Christians are seriously wounded, angry people with too much time on their hands to muse about this stuff, are more interested in winning fights on grounds of certainty rather than faith (the fate of souls can be known with certainty?!) and seeming lack of critical faculties in regard to self-reflection so as to see how much damage this type of snarking does in the name of Christ.

2. As Scot McKnight recently noted in a recent Christianity Today blog, this type of activity serves the book publishers best – in this case Crossway and Harper Collins are the winner –  as the church burns itself to the ground and should be a warning to leaders who choose flippancy rather than true compassion and reconciliation as their response in the very public age of social networking:

I’ve not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue … today … and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP’s book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke — and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity’s provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

3. I will ‘out myself’ as someone who respects what Rob has done, how he thinks, and frankly his deep and abiding concern for the well-being of all people who Christ died for – and I do mean *all* people as testified to in Romans 5:18.  True, I don’t find all his theology to be my cup of tea, but that is what makes him real to me… Rob actually has the humility to say he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to offer a one-stop shopping for everything.  Quite refreshing actually.  I will certainly read the book and look forward to seeing what Rob actually says… not what people who haven’t even read the book think.

4. On whether universalism is something worth a theological fist fight about, I suppose it matters as far as our dialogues move us toward humility before a God who is as mysterious and unknowing as He is revealed and apprehendable.  As a theologian I work with students who struggle with the final end of things all the time.  As a pastor who has performed many funerals for children, adult suicides, and family members who are atheists and well as asked the ultimate fate of those who don’t profess a faith in Christ nor have prayed the sinner’s prayer per our traditional understanding and therefore I get asked the questions of heaven and hell quite a bit.

Where we put the cross matters…

My short hand answer begins with where we have put the cross in our midst. For many the cross is iconically viewed every Sunday in church sanctuaries as something bolted to the wall at the end of the sanctuary, high above the ground and therefore beyond our grasp:

In this view there is only one way to approach the cross – it is a 2D thing in our 3D world that is unmovable, without blemish, and only reached through our reason since we cannot touch it or experience in any way that is existential.  There is a front door and no back door to this cross and there just one way to get there.

But what if we consider the cross as something that is truly in the center of our lives and not merely bolted to the wall? What if the cross that Christ died on and made the way forward for overturning the pattern of Adam as we hear in Romans 8 actually offers a new way, a new path, a new centerpoint for our lives that is truly 3D and in our midst:

Golgotha was a real place in the three-dimensional world with a cross planted in the midst of everything and in the presence of and for all people (Romans 5:18) that could be approached from all directions for this was a death offered for all the world (John 3:16) and not merely those who find the one aisle or doorway our small tribes might conjure as essential in phrase or practice.  This is a cross that is in the middle of everything we are about and everything God wishes for us.  What a shame to bolt that gift to a wall like a prized trophy head captured and preserved safely above all the muck and mire of real life.

Now, am I advocating for an essential universalism whereby everyone is saved and taken to paradise whether they like it or not?

No.

I stand on the belief that my ability to choose is something God counts as so precious as to give me a choice to love or not and thereby I can opt out of relationship with God, deny the offer of paradise, and build my own Hell whether on earth or in the afterlife akin to Satan’s famous aphorism from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “For it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”  I say this with all the Reformed theology in my bones as one who affirms God’s sovereignty in all things, understands depravity as the result of being deprived of God’s grace in a broken world and twisting that which is good into a disordered and not ordered form of love.  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…

Is there Hell? Scripture and the tradition of the Church says that this is as real as the world in which we live.  In fact, Christ is fairly pointed in declaring that perhaps Hell is already here and we have a chance to do something about it for folks who are living in this very real and not imagined Hell everyday… and not merely blogging about it.  In this regard I believe in Hell because I can see, taste and touch its stench all around me in the lives of the marginalized and down-trodden, the broken hearts and afflicted, the ironic and the nihilistic.  To that end my thoughts on whether Hell is real have more to do with the hope and prayer that by the time we catch up to the action of Revelation 20 that God has already put into play that Hell will be as empty as freakin’ possible and that Satan and all the demons will be left alone and tormented by the reality of a cross that stands in their midst as well… a cross that is not impotently framed on a wall like an IKEA wall hanging but holds the door open for all time so that all who seek entrance to this place of separation have to try and get by it first.

As Scot McKnight wisely stated, this whole cyber spat will probably just blow over by the time we go to work on Monday and that is a shame in some regards since what we believe does matter… and it certainly matters more than making arguments about a book nobody has even read yet.

So… what are your thoughts on all this? Does it matter? Why or why not?