OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

The Gods Aren't Angry

This is the title of Rob Bell’s second tour film (the first being ‘Everything is Spiritual’) recorded live at one of the presentations. He speaks for 90 minutes, entirely without notes (there was no evidence of an autocue), and presents a message which is revolutionary, but without any appeals for salvation, healing, or much of the paraphernalia associated with some kinds of religious meeting. Very refreshing. I enjoyed it very much, and wanted to provide some sort of synopsis/review for the OST site. Especially as I have been encouraged to revisit Bell’s first book (‘Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith’) through mention of it in a recent review of a chapter in The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World by Mark Driscoll (pastor of a different Mars Hill church).

Sometimes it is what Bell doesn’t say which is as striking as what he says. To begin a talk like this with an account of how religion began amongst cavemen and women is making a polemical statement. He is painting a picture as much as making a serious anthropological point, blending humour, quirkiness and seriousness with a lightness of touch, that you almost don’t realise a polemical point is being made. Why argue about whether a scientific case can be made out for a literal interpretation of Genesis when more telling accounts of how religion has been practised are at hand?

Whatever Bell really believes about the origins of humanity and religion, he is highly knowledgeable about ancient religions and their deities, whose names he is able to rattle off fluently. The background he paints is one of appeasement of the deities by sacrifices - and the sense of an ever increasing need for sacrifices, with the creation of priestly castes to handle the sacrifices. Enter the Mosaic code and Levitical offerings - in which sacrifices were limited in their extent, and revolutionary things were said about God - such as the possibility of his people enjoying the shalom of his presence. Switch to today’s western, success-orientated, achievement-driven culture, and Bell asks whether we are so far removed from the mindset of having to appease deities (or ‘powers’), with ever increasing sacrifices. We have our own gods, whose function seems to be always to demand more of us, and never be entirely satisfied.

Where did the Levitical code and its sacrifices fit into this picture? Bell suggests, aided by reference to OT and NT (Psalm 50 and Hebrews in particular), that YHWH was never appeased or placated by the offerings of the OT sacrificial system, and that their function was quite other - to provide a way in which he could be known and experienced amongst his people, but working through a religious culture with which they were familiar. Why, Bell asks, did Abraham never question God’s command to sacrifice Isaac? Because this was how the gods were understood in those days - it would not have been an outrageous command. The OT sacrificial system was provisional and temporary in the sense that it worked through a religious mindset infused with the necessity of appeasement of God through violence.

It’s obvious where Bell is taking this, and he makes it more or less explicit without once mentioning the words ‘penal substitution’. Jesus came to put an end to the OT sacrifices, not as the supreme sacrifice which appeased an angry deity, but as one on whom the violence fell that underlay the OT sacrificial system and all religious systems based on sacrifice. Jesus modelled non-violence in his death as in his life. In doing so, he gave the complete revelation of what God had always wanted.

To summarise, as I understand it, religion tends to give expression to drives within us, projecting onto ‘the gods’ demands and requirements which arise from guilt, fear and a sense of need to appease or placate them by a kind of religious plea-bargaining. Jesus came to halt entirely this religious compulsion, and to expose on the cross the violence underlying it. In so doing, he showed us what God is really like, and how he wants us to serve him and relate to him.

Does such a view fit with the historical realist interpretation of the scriptures so valued by the OST site and its adherents? There is certainly a strong case to be made for it, given that before Jesus, violence seemed to be as endemic to Israel as it was to the entire Middle East, with religion at its heart. Following the coming of Jesus, the people of God abjured violence, and in subsequent times violent means to ends have been felt to be a falling away from the faith, rather than a particularly justifiable part of it.

At any rate, Bell makes as good a case for the non-violent atonement in the sweep of religious history as any that I have seen, and provides some remarkable lenses with which to view the history of God’s people in the OT, and the Levitical sacrifices especially. No wonder the first teaching series preached at Mars Hill (Bible) Church was on Leviticus.

The presentation does not content itself with anthropology and theological theory alone, however. It is larded with examples from Bell’s considerable (considering his age) pastoral experience in the church he pastors. God is to be found in works of forgiveness, compassion and generosity. This is a good emphasis, in times where often God is presented as being in ‘powerful’ meetings. Bell makes no appeals for salvation or prayer for healing or miracles. The set is bare and minimalist, with only a stark representation of an altar as a stage prop. The presentation finishes with Bell’s typical self-effacing blend of exhortation and benediction. Some of his views will urge the audience back to the scriptures for further exploration. Whatever your opinion of him and the message, we have modelled for us a quite different way of doing the faith than we have been used to. I personally like it, and can see why it appeals to people in an age increasingly jaded with the unreality of religious razzmatazz. And I’m getting a lot more out of ‘Velvet Elvis’ than I did the first time round.

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Comments

Re: The Gods Aren't Angry

 Peter

A very interesting report

"To summarise, as I understand it, religion tends to give expression to drives within us, projecting onto ‘the gods’ demands and requirements which arise from guilt, fear and a sense of need to appease or placate them by a kind of religious plea-bargaining. Jesus came to halt entirely this religious compulsion, and to expose on the cross the violence underlying it. In so doing, he showed us what God is really like, and how he wants us to serve him and relate to him"

I would slightly expand your a picture of pre-axial religion by ascribing to it two overriding concerns

1. propitiation of the Gods to assuage their anger at perceived human offences.

2. manipulation of the Gods to get them to give their human clients something the latter want (prosperity, success in war, long life, children, good crops etc).

Blood sacrifice was one way of achieving these ends but not the only way. Among the Jews God could be propitiated by agreeing to follow his commands in ritual and social life and, above all, loyalty while eschewing any human sacrifice- thus the contract between God and Moses.

Jesus, you say, came to halt this compulsion. My take on that is as follows.

If you view Jesus’ death on the cross as the assuagement of God’s anger, in the way the penal substitution theory requires, then it seems to be little advance on the demands of the Angry Gods. If on the other hand you say that God needs no propitiation, that he forgives us in the same way he commands us to forgive those who offend us, that is a big advance on 1 above- but it is then necessary to see the crucifixion in some other light (why did Jesus have to die?).

Jesus also rejects the manipulation of God. He is not simply to be the mechanism for the provision of human goods (as in the Mosaic contract). In some versions of Christianity, especially Gnosticism, human goods are totally devalued and this goes along with a view of Jesus as not really being human. Orthodoxy has maintained a more ambiguous stance in which the things we as humans desire are good but chronically prone to lead us in ungodly directions. They are thus not simply to be suppressed but are the raw material for our path to becoming perfect, like our heavenly Father. What that means in practice is of course very difficult to articulate and even more difficult to do.

 Paul

Re: The Gods Aren't Angry

Paul - I’m simply trying to summarise what Rob Bell was saying, and maybe to suggest one or two logical conclusions. Actually there is a great deal that Bell does not say. For instance, he doesn’t suggest, as you do, that the Mosaic covenant was an attempt to manipulate God - to obtain his good favour, or ‘human goods’ as you put it. Actually the opposite - he suggests that the purpose of the covenant was not to placate or assuage God, but to use the forms of contemporary religious practice to convey something quite different about himself to his people. (Actually even this is my interpretation - it seems to be assumed by Bell - but he doesn’t quite say it. But he does say that the covenant was doing something quite different from other religions).

As far as what I personally might say about penal substitution - I think it comes in different forms, and can be given very nuanced interpretation, so that it need not mean the assuagement of God’s anger. (I don’t think God was pouring out his anger on Jesus, instead of Israel, or us, for instance. I do think God was bearing the consequences of sin in himself). In the non-violent atonement view, as outlined by Bell, God is not inflicting punishment on anybody, but a human system based on violence is being inflicted on Jesus - who is also bringing a definitive end to that kind of system as a way of approaching God. But again, Bell doesn’t spell things out quite so explicitly - you are left to deduce that. What he is moving away from is the need to think of the death of Jesus as part of some mechanism of punishment and propitiation. (I think!).

Re: The Gods Aren't Angry

I have to agree that Rob Bell did a great job on this tour!  I saw him speak live in San Fransisco.  It was perhaps the most compelling 90 minutes spent exploring the story of the Scriptures in my life.  He brought clairity to the confusing, while leaving you with questions to ponder.  It was truly a great experience. 

Kurt (http://groansfromwithin.blogspot.com/)

Re: The Gods Aren't Angry

Fascinating, Peter. Thanks.

It sounds like Bell owes something to James Allison, with his merging of Rene Girard and Margaret Baker?

He seems to be a great speaker, presentation-wise.

Re: The Gods Aren't Angry

Quote: “…a message which is revolutionary, but without any appeals for salvation, healing, or much of the paraphernalia associated with some kinds of religious meeting. Very refreshing. I enjoyed it very much…”

…God is presented as being in ‘powerful’ meetings. Bell makes no appeals for salvation or prayer for healing or miracles.”

Maybe you could comment on why you think this is so refreshing?

Kurt

Re: The Gods Aren't Angry

Kurt - well maybe I could, but first maybe you could comment on this question: do you or don’t you live in the ghetto? The photo of you on your blog is very scary.

Re: The Gods Aren't Angry

lol… Everything in that post actually happened in my neighborhood! So, I guess it’s up to the reader to decide if it’s “ghetto” enough. :)

Kurt
www.kurtjohnson.info

Re: The Gods Aren't Angry

Kurt, let me take a stab at your question, as to why ’ without any appeals for salvation, healing, or much of the paraphernalia associated with some kinds of religious meeting’, we find it very refreshing.

Postmodern’s are very suspicious and leary about spiritual absolutes. Anything that smacks of marketing or salesmenship is shunned and disregarded as being not genuine. The institutional church has lost its respect for many unfortunately.

I have not read anything of Rob Bell’s books, so I cannot claim to understand him thoroughly, but of what I am percieving, he is a very ariticulate and charismatic preacher/ teacher. It seems that he has very intentionally attempted to ‘sell’ himself without all the symbols and icons of the Christian church. I sense this is done in order to be relevant to a community that has largely rejected the institutional church.

Instead it appears that his approach has been one of rationale and reason, rather than persuasion or salesmanship. Rather he is appealing to listeners to examine the scriptures for themselves, unpacking the aspects of scripture that we tend to gloss over because they seem to contradict or misalign the message of the church.

More and more I am seeing various Christian leaders and ministries take an approach that appeals to the common needs of humanity, without specifically speaking the name of Jesus Christ. It is very similar to the approach that Francis Schaeffer took, by engaging students/ others where there were at, desseminating their beliefs and then persenting the gospel message. He was able to expose their weaknesses in order to make room for Jesus Chrit. In some respect I suspect Rob Bell is doing something similar.

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