I just watched the interview between Martin Bashir and Rob Bell about his new book Love Wins. While watching the interview, I was struck by how aggressive Bashir was with his line of questioning and how negatively Bell came off. The following question came to mind: What does Bashir, Bell, and a bad interview bode for believers bent on blessing the world by “bringing heaven here?”
First, its rather odd that Bell’s message is portrayed in such a negative way considering the general outlook on conservative Christianity is a negative one. Bell’s theology is certainly not the same as the fundamentalism that is so often implicitly denounced in the media, yet Bell’s attempt to express a loving message did not seem to “win” in this interview. Indeed, this seems like a no-win situation for Christianity: tell people they are going to hell and people will be upset or tell people they will not go to hell and people will…still be upset.
Does this mean that no matter what form the gospel takes, so many people will still find it offensive? And how is it that the Good News is simultaneously “good” and “offensive?” The second question is less troubling than it first appears. The simultaneous presence of goodness and offensiveness is only odd if we think that people have some innate sense of what ought to palatable, i.e., if people have some innate sense of what good is.¹ The offense that was generated by Martin Luther King Junior’s public life might serve as a reasonable and relatively recent counter-example to that claim. The first question, however, is a bit more important and bit more troubling.
Originally, it seems like Jesus’ message was ethically offensive. Jesus’ conception of “the good” and “the right” endangered conventional norms and values. Jesus anticipated offensive and conflict: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Borg suggests that the following verse, which includes a description of a “generational divide” that will occur once Jesus’ message is heard is a representation of the old-conventional-parent-generation conflicting with new-subversive-child-generation.² In addition to the socio-ethical offensiveness of the gospel, it is also offensive on an individual level. Indeed, it is offensive to the individual itself. Bohnhoeffer captures this point, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” What could be more offensive than a command that calls us to annihilate ourselves?
Fast forward about 1800 years (probably less), and we begin to see that Christianity became offensive in yet another way (prior to that Christianity took a “new layer” of political offensiveness by challenging the lordship of Caesar). Soren Kierkegaard possessed both insight and foresight when he described the relationship between Christianity and the modern man. For S.K., the Christian message was epistemically offensive. “Offended reason” was a seemingly common theme that ran throughout his works (e.g., Fear and Trembling and Philosophical Fragments). One passage in particular in The Sickness Unto Death stands out:
But can anyone comprehend this Christian doctrine? By no means – this too is Christian, and so is an offense. It must be believed. Comprehension is counterminuous with man’s relationship to the human, but faith is man’s relation to the divine.
Bashir, overall, seemed mostly concerned about the epistemic justification of Bell’s claims (“that doesn’t make sense” and “why this source and not that source”). He begins his interview with a very Humean version of the problem of evil. His skepticism is representative of the epistemically offended culture: Immaterial afterlife in the age of materialism? Benevolent deity in an age of earthquakes and terrorism? “Nonsense!” says the hearers of this gospel. Bell’s new book makes things worse for Christianity in terms of epistemic justifiability (even though I think I agree with the premise of his book). Perhaps Bashir is thinking to himself, “Now these jokers can’t even make up their mind as to what non-sense they should be duped by.”
But if am a believer (a lover) bent on blessing others by bringing heaven here, how should I respond to this (relatively) new offensive aspect of the gospel? Perhaps the way Jesus responded to the ethical offensiveness of his message is instructive. Jesus’ responded with, what seems to be, unflinching steadfastness to the integrity of the message he brought.
We see this in Luke (paraphrased):
Jesus: Come follow me.
Offended one: Let me go and say goodbye to my family.
Jesus: Nah, you’re not ready. Peace out.
Can you imagine the shock of this potential disciple? Can you imagine the offense? Jesus’ command was an affront to his person-hood. His relationship with his family was likely integral to his identity, his very self-hood, yet Jesus, offensively, says, “Die to yourself, and follow me.”
To clarify, I don’t think Bell is abandoning the Gospel with his new book, yet it remains offensive. So, the question of how to deal with this offense is important for both of us.
If Jesus responds to the ethical offense of the gospel by clinging to the integrity of the message, perhaps I should respond to the epistemic offense of the gospel by clinging to the integrity of the message. Instead of making the gospel epistemologically palatable, I will preach the offensive message of epistemic humility. Instead of altering the message that saved me, I will keep it in tact with the hope that this message can save others. Instead of cowering behind insecurity, I will remember the strength through Christ that was promised to me.
Grant me the wisdom and strength, good God, to love You and Others (who bear Your image) in this new way: a way that understands the offensive nature of Your message, and yet out of love, seeks to bring the joy to others that You have brought to me.
1. Given this example, how is it that intuition plays such an important role in ethics?
2. I wonder if there is any connection between this observation and Jesus’ remark, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”