Rob Bell, Evangelicals, and Simplistic Narratives

For those inside of or familiar with the evangelical Christian culture, Rob Bell has been a bit of a pariah lately.  After publishing his book Love Wins which challenged the idea of hell, he came under a storm of criticism from major evangelical leaders such as John Piper.  Recently with him receiving his own show on Oprah’s channel, he has been criticized again by evangelicals. Read more about it here.

Whether or not you agree with Rob Bell’s assertions, I am interested in getting to the bottom of the criticism against him.  Why did many influential evangelicals have such an angry reaction towards him more so than other theologians/pastors they may disagree with?   I believe this has to do with how Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and his ideas attack the simplistic narrative that many evangelicals create.

The simplistic narrative of salvation is damnation is this: if you accept Jesus you live in heaven for all eternity.  If you reject Jesus and don’t believe in Him you will be tortured forever in Hell.  It’s a simple matter of good and evil.  Good is rewarded forever and evil is punished forever.

However, Rob Bell challenged that narrative by arguing that the idea of a place of eternal torment is not only unBiblical but downright disturbing.  After all, one cannot both be called a loving perfect God and yet torture people for eternity for a lifetime of sins.  This simply does not make sense.  This idea by itself was not enough to bring down the wrath upon Rob Bell.  After all, many believe in annihilationism, the belief that the “wicked” will simply be killed in the lake of fire, not tortured forever.  However, Rob Bell took it a step further into uncertain territory.  He presents the position of universalism, the idea of the complete reconciliation of humanity to God.  Rob Bell did not espouse this view himself.  In fact, he says he is not a universalist, but he does say it is a positive view, and that we have to trust God will make the best decision for all people.  He also argues that for many people, hell is on earth through horrifying circumstances or cruel people.  In many ways, we create our own hell when we prop up or support systems that are based on something else other than love.

Whenever a straightforward idea is challenged, people often become angry.  After all, there is a strong belief in many circles that true truth is simple.  CS Lewis was opposed to that idea of truth being “simple.”  He talks in Mere Christianity how even the most seemingly simple chair is made up of endlessly complex components and the same can be said of truth.  Truth is always complex.  Evangelicals acknowledge this as well, if not in word, then in practice.  For example, many evangelicals shy away from the use of fire and brimstone sermons.  In theory, they should be effective, as the two choices are accept Jesus or burn forever.  Yet, many don’t use them anymore even if they still believe in eternal torment.  That is because they realized that such sermons only create religions of fear and drive people away rather than lead them to God.   Yet the idea itself remains or slightly changes.  For example, the fire and brimstone has toned down in recent years when mainline Protestant pastors speak about hell and has become more of a place of complete separation from God.

I am a firm believer in the idea that narratives reign much more strongly in people’s minds than doctrines. If a Calvinist and an Arminian share the same narrative on God’s love or salvation/damnation, they will likely get along better even though their doctrines are different.  When you challenge someone’s narrative that they use to guide themselves, it tends to make them very angry.

You can see this with Jesus as well.  He challenged the Jew’s narrative not only of who they expected the Messiah to be but also their narrative of Jewish supremacy.  He regularly uplifted the one’s Jews considered lower than dogs and then criticized what they considered to be true piety constantly.  Ultimately this led to the Pharisees and other groups becoming very angry with Jesus.

This is why those who challenge narratives, especially when you have a high profile position, should be prepared for the anger that follows.





Trailer Park Boys: Why We Cheer for Petty Thieves

Trailer Park Boys is an interesting phenomenon.  Canada is an often ignored place in the US, yet the popularity of Bubbles, Ricky, and Julian has exploded in the states in recent years.  The show’s premise is fairly basic, it’s about a group of petty criminals who live in a trailer park and engage in various get rich quick schemes that involve thievery and marijuana.  Most of the law figures in the show are either drunks, perverts, or incompetent such as Mr Lahey and the various cops in the series.  Inevitably, the boys end up going back to jail at the end of every season as Julian the leader of the group allows his ambitions to get the better of him.

It seems a bit odd that a country that appreciates hard work and independence would cheer for a group that refuses to get a honest job and instead indulge in various law breaking schemes.  In most stories, the roles would be reversed.  It would be the cops and trailer park supervisor Mr Lahey who would be the heroes and the boys would be the wacky villains.  Yet, when you examine some of the thematic elements of Trailer Park Boys, it becomes obvious why we cheer for the boys.

First is the strong sense of community and family in Trailer Park Boys.  The boys don’t ever plan to move out of Sunnyvale Trailer Park, and despite the often antagonism between various characters, they are all part of one big family, even the idiotic Corey and Trevor and the perpetually drunk Mr Lahey and his lover Randy who refuses to wear a shirt and eats way too many cheeseburgers.  They have a funny sense of neighborly love for each other that many Americans lack and secretly desire.  So many of us are in our own little worlds that we lack a real sense of a community.

Also, on some level I believe we appreciate and respect tenacious bandits.  There are bountiful movies about chivalrous bandits pulling off sophisticated heists.  While the boys are not necessarily chivalrous and their tools unsophisticated, they are certainly tenacious and their actions don’t seem to be particularly hurtful.  At best, their actions are hilarious and par for the course.  It’s even more hilarious seeing the boys justify their actions through such twisted logic as, “As long as you take something to the side of the road, it’s junk and that means you can take it and it’s not stealing.”  On some level, we can appreciate small time crime as long as it isn’t immensely vile.

Third, there is something to be said for protagonist centered morality.  We often tend to give the main characters more of a pass when it comes to moral misgivings because they are the main characters. We relate with them on a deeper level and we automatically assume in many cases that they are doing the right thing simply because of their status in a story.  The same principle applies to the boys.

Third, the Trailer Park Boys appeal to our desires to live uninhibited and fun lives.  The boys do not allow conventions to get in the way of how they want to live their lives.  Even when they are in jail, Julian keeps up on his readings and Ricky starts hockey teams.  The boys are independent and don’t allow authorities to determine how they live their lives.  Even Bubbles, who is the most moral of the bunch and most likely to try to stay on the right side of the law, lives an uninhibited life of getting high in the streets and play space with his buddies.  Bubble’s kitties are free range kittens who are allowed to roam free throughout the Trailer Park, and that type of desire to live an independent, hilarious, and bizarre life deeply appeals to us.

Comedy is a powerful tool that allows us to laugh at the absurd and topics that would normally fill us with depression.  Yet, it can also appeal to our basic desires for independence and community.  It is easy to see why Americans cheer for the boys and their bizarre schemes.

Of course, any discussion of Trailer Park Boys would be intellectually dishonest if it didn’t discuss the downside of all this.  The boys never truly profit from their ventures, and their chaotic life in and out of jail prevents them from having settled lives.  In addition, the rather ludicrous gun fights where no one ever dies is unfortunate for more reasons for one.  That being said, the series is obviously not taking itself seriously, so such absurdities can be forgiven.

But perhaps it is none of these elements which drive people to cheer for the boys, but rather it is the boys themselves.  Ricky’s loveable idiocy and sayings, Julian’s over the top schemes, and Bubble’s love for his kitties are certainly endearing and can easily draw us into cheering for them.

Or perhaps it is all because of that one song written by Bubbles:

Kitties are so nice.

Kitties are so nice.

Take em down spin em around and tickle their bellies

Not once but twice!