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.