2011 News Highlights

2011 News Highlights

POLITICS

Protesters descended on cities across the country to make their cases for the preservation or elimination of federal programs.

1. In politics, the battle over the federal budget raged all year.  Lisa Sharon Harper offered thoughts on a Christian approach to it,  others debated whether or not to lift the federal debt ceiling, and former New Jersey Secretary of State Rev. De Forest Soaries offered his thoughts on a potential deal, which some described as a Satan Sandwich.  As a  government shutdown loomed, a congressional “super-committee” failed to compromise, and the battle rages on.

Sparks flew with Herman Cain on the campaign trail. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

2. The 2012 presidential race heated up and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain briefly emerged as a Republican dark horse. We looked at his viability, asked if his candidacy was good for Americarealized he wouldn’t be easily written off, and lamented the scandal about which he may or may not have sung as he exited the race. Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann speculated that blacks may have been better off under slavery and Larycia A. Hawkins offered the congresswoman a bit of advice. Texas governor Rick Perry limped along, but it seems his ‘Rainbow Right‘ coalition didn’t help him much, and fleeting front-runners Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were such long shots that they had nary a mention here until now.

3. Meanwhile, the Tea Party partied on and we talked to African Americans about the movement. First singer, author, and activist Loyd Marcus assured us that there are black Tea Partiers, then Tea Party activist Jesse Lee Peterson threatened to protest the NAACP’s annual convention and Hilary O. Shelton responded. Finally, LaVonne Neff reminded us that Tea Partiers need government programs too.

The Occupy Movement spread across the country.

4. From the other end of the political spectrum, the “Occupy” movement emerged and encamped across the country, but we asked: Is it too white and is it time for churches to take up the cause?

5. According to members of the Religion Newswriters Association, the biggest religion story of the year was the faith response to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Here at UrbanFaith, Todd Burke pondered what the terrorist’s death says about America.

INTERNATIONAL

Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.

In international news, 1.) dictators Kim Jong-Il and Moammar Gadhafi died. UrbanFaith editorial director Ed Gilbreath provocatively asked if Ghadhafi was a martyr and Helen Lee, daughter of a North Korean refugee, shared her thoughts on what it means to love an enemy like Jong-Il. 2.) The Arab Spring captured our attention and historian Kurt Werthmuller offered lessons from the revolution. We covered 3.) various crisis in Africa, including those in  SomaliaUganda, Malawi, and Sudan, and 4.) we wondered if race played a role in the London riots that preceded the European financial crisis. Finally, 5.) DeVona Alleyne reminded us that real persecution is that which is faced by believers like Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death for his faith.

CULTURE & SOCIETY

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened in August.

On the cultural front, 1.) the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial finally opened, though not without controversy and not without delay.  2.) Historian Charles Marsh reflected on the death of Civil Rights icon and pastor Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. 3.) Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs’ also died this year and Jelani Greenridge meditated on the entrepreneur’s wisdom. 4.) The nation solemnly observed the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and dedicated a memorial at the World Trade Center site, as the war in Iraq that those attacks spurred finally came to an end. 5.) The 150th anniversary of Civil War went largely unnoticed, but not by us. And sadly, 6.) legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired amidst a scandal over assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged pedophilia. Wil LaViest, Julian DeShazier, and I responded to the horrific news.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

After 25 years Oprah Winfrey says goodbye to her talk show.

1.) In arts and entertainment, Oprah Winfrey ended her talk show after 25 years and we revisited the “Church of Oprah.” No need to fear a loss of black media power, however because 2.)  Forbes named Tyler Perry the richest man in Hollywood. We covered elements of his media empire here, here, here, and here. 3.) The Help opened in cinemas amidst plenty of debate about its merits or lack thereof. 4.) Controversial Gospel music crossover success stories like that of Tonéx got Jelani Greenridge thinking and we mourned the death of cross-over artist Jessy Dixon. 5.) Lastly, BET’s successful relaunch of The Game deserves a mention, even though our commentator didn’t care much for the values of the show (or lack thereof).

CHURCH & FAITH

Bishop Eddie Long and Rev. Bernice King before she left his church.

In church and faith news, 1.) Bishop Eddie Long agreed to a financial settlement with four young men who accused him of sexual misconduct, Bernice King left his church in the aftermath, questions continued to swirl about the allegations, but Long didn’t step down from the pulpit until his wife filed for divorce this month. In better news, 2.) The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported that the black church is bucking a wider trend toward congregational decline, and 3.) the Southern Baptists got serious about diversity with the election of  Rev. Fred Luter as their first African American vice president. We also reported on other denominations that are pursuing diversity. 4.) Pastor Rob Bell stirred up a theological hornet’s nest with his latest book and conservative authors responded. 5.) Finally, Rev. Zachery Tims met an untimely death in a New York City hotel room.

What do you think?

What stories did we miss? Which ones will you remember? What do you think will top the news in 2012?

Raising Hell

Raising Hell

ERASING HELL: Francis Chan is the latest Christian author to take on the topic of man's eternal destiny.

“Hell’s a-Poppin'” is how the headline began on a Publishers Weekly article yesterday about best-selling author and pastor Francis Chan‘s new book, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity and the Things We Make Up. It’s no wonder, given months of public discussion about the topic generated by publication of Rob Bell‘s controversial new release, Love Wins.

David C. Cook is so confident about the potential marketability of Erasing Hell, it has committed to a 250,000 unit initial print run, “a six-figure marketing budget, and a simultaneous audio release from Oasis Audio,” Publishers Weekly reported.

God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins will debut in July, even though its author, Chrisitianity Today senior managing editor Mark Galli already reviewed Love Wins for his magazine. Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) by Brian Jones and Is Hell for Real? Or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? a compilation by Tim Keller, Albert Mohler and others are also scheduled for summer 2011 release, Publishers Weekly reported.

Dr. Brian Bantum, an associate professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University, is reticent about the current public obsession with hell. Bantum shared these thoughts by email this afternoon:

“In many ways the attempts to revisit the question of hell have been refreshing. Refreshing in the sense that Christians are being confronted by the wonder and transcendence of God in such a way that we believers become displaced or our misplacement is revealed. That is, these discussions have surfaced Christians’ not so uncommon tendency to turn God’s grace towards us into judgment upon others.

“But at the same time I worry that the outrage over Rob Bell and others so often seems to be more intense and vehement than reactions to the many injustices that plague our society. I worry that we do not acknowledge how hell is not a distant reality for some, how the existence of some is marked by perpetual exploitation and suffering that points not to their ‘choice’ for or against God, but of the exercise of power, greed and dehumanization. In this way, I am grieved that some become so incensed over articulating the mystery of a life after death while being so unconcerned with the lives God places before us in this world.”

Harvard professor Robert D. Putman and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell reported in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us that Americans’ doctrinal commitments are weakening and that a growing number of Christians don’t believe that God will send their non-Christian friends and relatives to hell.

Given this climate, do you think the focus on hell and the afterlife is a distraction from the suffering that exists in our world? Or is it a necessary response to the doubts raised by Bell, and the culture at large, regarding man’s eternal destiny?

Rob Bell’s Burning Questions

Rob Bell’s Burning Questions

Without a doubt, one of the top religion stories of the past month has been the release of Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The big question that most inquiring minds have wanted to know is: Has Bell officially departed the ranks of solid Christian orthodoxy and gone all universalist on us? Prior to the book’s release, many were convinced he had — and they let him hear about it.

In my previous post regarding Bell, I stated that it is important to think about both the intended audience for the book as well as the opportunity this presents for us to act Christianly in the context where disagreements and passion merge around very important issues of Christian belief. Now that the book is out, we can identify the primary audience and I can try to make the most of this opportunity to live out the second greatest commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself” — Matt. 22:39) while writing a review with affirmations and critiques.

Bell (left) describes his audience in the preface: “I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’ ” Both the beginning and end of the book make it clear that Bell wants people to come to Christ and to the church, especially those who are turned off by a version of the gospel that states that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” Later he similarly states regarding the way that some present the gospel as a rescue project:

God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.

Bell correctly identifies the truth that many people within the church and without have questions about how to understand the gospel as good news, and how to understand the character of God in relationship to salvation and judgment if Scripture tells us that God is truly loving. While Bell is primarily concerned about those “turned off” by traditional presentations of the gospel (or, in my view, bad presentations of the traditional gospel that seem so focused on the specter of God’s judgment that it puts it in tension with His love), all of the questions he asks in the book are raised by many Christians, including a number here where I teach.

Were I a betting man, I would wager that even a strong Calvinist who bows before God’s sovereignty wonders about how they will finally understand the economy of God’s justice when we get to the other side. If we surveyed the people in the pews regarding what they know about our eternal destiny and what they wonder about or hope for, chances are we would find that people at least wonder about those who seemed to live like Christians but either never confessed Christ or never heard of him. Even if they believe that after the final judgment there will be a final separation between believers and unbelievers, they wonder about who will be the surprises in the population of God’s consummated kingdom.

What of heaven, hell, and final judgment? Love Wins presents a challenge for this reviewer: on the one hand, Bell is pastor and not an academic theologian, and the book is not written like a scholarly treatise, though it does wade into that realm briefly at times. On the other, Bell pastors a church of 10,000 and has influence on many thousands more, so he has a tremendous burden of responsibility because of his platform. He cannot say, “I am a pastor, and not a theologian” because his preaching and writing frames the Bible reading and theological reflection for many; this is part of his job as a teaching pastor. Now, some affirmation and critique.

Getting What We Want

Bell states correctly that throughout the history of the church there has been a range of belief regarding the final destiny of unbelievers, from the traditional view to positions such as a limited duration of judgment that either ends with annihilation of those outside the kingdom or a second chance to be reconciled to God, to the view that ultimately all humans will be reconciled to God in the end. While there is much discussion today and more adherents to the latter views, Bell is quite wrong to suggest that anything other than the belief in eternal conscious punishment was the dominant view for at least the first 19 centuries of the church. The consensus was that there is a final judgment followed by some unending experience of separation. There were notable exceptions (Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Clement of Alexandria), but they are in the great minority, and Origen’s views are condemned at the 5th ecumenical council in A.D. 553.

Regarding heaven and hell, Bell rightly states that there is a present experience of eternal life (John 3:16 and 5:24 tells us eternal life begins at conversion), but the future reference of life beyond (whether we used the word “heaven” or “eternal life”) is prominent in the New Testament. I think Bell wants to get past the idea that salvation is only about our future experience, to which I heartily say “Amen,” but we need not swap one overemphasis for another. The same is true regarding hell. Yes, life apart from God’s design can be “hellish” in the present, but the warnings about hell and judgment have in view a future experience of existence (or “non-life”) apart from God.

What about Bell and the universalism question? He has stated that he is not a universalist, and while there are passages that suggest he leans in that direction, his emphasis on human freedom does not allow him to clearly conclude that all people will be reconciled to God. As many have already stated about the book, Bell’s view on hell is like that of C.S. Lewis (not a surprise: he directs readers to Lewis’ Great Divorce in the back of the book): people get what they want.

Explaining Heaven and Hell

One more important critique: When talking about the cross, Bell refers to the range of metaphors used to discuss how salvation works for us: ransom, sacrifice, redemption, etc. He seems to be suggesting that blood sacrifice is only a metaphor borrowed from the ancient context. I think this is an error, because Christ is the culmination of the entire history of Israel with its priestly system that includes sacrifice, and it is hard to make full sense of Christ’s work if we only regard sacrifice as a symbol. Christ cannot be our priest and lamb who reconciles us to God without sacrifice as a reality that also has symbolic import. We need to talk about more than sacrifice, but not less. If it doesn’t resonate with modern ears, then the pastor’s task is to explain how it all works.

Books & Culture editor John Wilson’s Wall Street Journal article on the book reminds us that in the last few decades, there hasn’t been much of an emphasis on sin and hell in evangelical circles. In that light, Bell’s book is a catalyst for addressing what is likely a problem even in churches most conservative on this issue: the ability of those other than the leadership to not only confess beliefs about sin and hell, God’s love and justice, but also to actually be able to understand and explain it. I wonder how many in the pews can help their skeptical friends understand how God is truly loving yet also just in the final judgment as well as what exactly the Bible means when it talks about hell as a place of eternal punishment. Even the most ardent critic should see this as an opportunity to bring to light biblical teaching about the seriousness, darkness, and malevolence of sin with its consequences and God’s nature as truly loving, holy, and just.

Is Bell off the reservation? No. Is C.S. Lewis or Richard John Neuhaus? (On the latter, see this article from First Things.) Bell is right to tell us that love wins, but we need to be clear that so do God’s holiness and justice. God’s nature isn’t only love.

Does this debate matter? Yes it does. While it is not the most pressing issue for those in urban contexts (issues of immediate justice have as much or greater import to many in our cities or underserved areas), it is important because we need to constantly think about how we can better seek to understand the God we worship and the gospel we proclaim. We all tell some gospel story in the church, and we can always refine and deepen how we speak and live out a faithful witness.

Is the Rob Bell Drama Really About  White Colonialism?

Is the Rob Bell Drama Really About White Colonialism?

Now here’s a really interesting take on the whole Rob Bell-Love Wins-universalism fiasco from hip-hop/freestyle theologian Drew Hart. He writes:

“Younger, fresher expressions of church are “emerging” and are winning over many from white America. Simultaneously, the old guard is losing relevance and feels threatened. Rather than working together as the Church, imperial and colonial instincts have kicked in as folks gaze upon all the religious authority that could be attained. Domination over American Christian theological direction has quietly been the real story & narrative when you stop and read between the lines.”

Read the full post at Drew Hart’s blog