I saw nuance on the internet last night

March 15, 2011

bible / theology

As you may know, Rob Bell has a new book that just came out. Last night, he did an interview about it that was streamed online. If you are interested, you can watch the whole thing. I thought it was a great interview, and I’m excited about the book (though there are things I disagreed with in the interview, and will be things I disagree with in the book).

There have been a number of really awful, and really beautiful, blog posts and reviews and tweets and whatever else people have decided to say. Probably far more than I’ve ever seen about a book that hadn’t even been released, and of which the vast majority of commentators had read little or nothing. It’s really… depressing, if you sit down and think about it.

But at the moment, I’m not as interested in the book. I’m interested in the event that was streamed last night, and specifically in some of the questions that Rob Bell was asked, and the ways he answered them.

As you may know, the web is often not the most nuanced of environments. One reason is that America is not the most nuanced of environments, especially in these hyper-polarized days. Another, related reason is how easy it is to live in an echo chamber in which you say things to people who agree with you, and they repeat them back to you, and occasionally you argue with people who disagree with you while making the people who agree with you agree with you more than they did before. Yes, it makes about that much sense.1

It is also true, however, that the lack of nuance on the web is far from limited to the web. It is just magnified there. Even those of us who are admitted postmoderns, skeptical of metanarratives and of claims to know absolute truth about things (you’ll remember that the existence of absolute truth is not being questioned; just the claims to know it absolutely); who you might think would maintain nuance better than some, often fail to do so. We fail to hold conflicting ideas in tension, and let them stay there, if one side disagrees with what we’ve already decided is true.

I do it. You probably do it. I see it done on a daily basis. And I think this is a bad thing. Not always, and not in every issue. Some things are not nuanced. But many things are. Many things do deserve to be held in tension.

And this is why I was so pleased during Rob Bell’s event by several of his responses: he was talking about a deeply divisive issue (hell) on which everyone can find someone to disagree with, it was being streamed on the web, and yet he kept the ability, and repeatedly stated his case, for conflicting ideas being held in tension.

Case in point: there’s a question someone in the audience asks at around one hour into the video. It’s a very good question, especially in context of other questions the interviewer asked (I’m paraphrasing here in the question and the answer).


It seems like universalists are trying to reconcile God’s love with God’s wrath. But can God be both loving and just?


Yes. There’s a human longing and desire for God to fix the world, essentially. To say no more greed, no more exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. We can’t have that here… you can’t do that here. Out. You also have this, side-by-side, God’s endless affirmation: God wants everyone to be saved. All peoples will be at the banquet. You have this longing, and a longing for justice, and they sit side by side.

The Western, modern mind loves “are you this or that?” Are you left/right, conservative/liberal. But the Hebrew, biblical mind is okay with both of these being true.

At the end of Revelation is a renewed, restored city where the dwelling of God is with people.. and there are people who are not in it. They are outside. And there’s a gate in the city, but it never shuts. What? This doesn’t get resolved, and it just sits there, and it’s important that we let it sit there.2

Do you see how different that is than most of our conversations around this?

There has been a conversation around hell since the church began, with people on both sides being considered orthodox, and people on both sides being considered heretics (often for reasons unrelated to their beliefs on this). The reason for this is that the Bible isn’t clear. It holds a tension, and if your beliefs stand on one side you will interpret certain passages in certain ways and have to do hermeneutic tricks to get past other passages, and vice versa. This is okay.

There are folks who recognize this, and say “I believe _____ because of these passages, and I realize I have to interpret these other passages in light of these,” but there aren’t too many who will admit that. Most say “I believe ____.” Most people, on both sides of this discussion, think we don’t need to be having the discussion anymore. Liberals because many of them have been universalists, or conditionalists, or some other thing for many decades, and because they have embraced specific methods of interpreting the Bible which they think are clear. Conservatives because they also have embraced specific methods of interpreting the Bible which they think are clear, and they think all orthodox Christians have always been exclusivists (which isn’t true, of course). Far fewer people are willing to say, “I don’t know,” which I think is a far better answer.

I’m of the opinion that we need to have the discussion about hell even now, in 2011, because so few of any tribe hold it with any tension. Karl Barth did, on the (somewhat) liberal side, and C. S. Lewis did, on the (somewhat) conservative side (in Mere Christianity), and they are often used as evidence that the discussion is old, which is true. But most who followed after them have not held tension well. So I’m happy that Rob Bell does, happy that he’s continuing the discussion (whatever specific conclusions he actually comes to, which most of us still don’t know as we haven’t read the whole book), and happy that he did it on the internet.

  1. This is why the web is of questionable benefit for discussion about certain things. When it happens well, it happens really well, and it happens because someone has intentionally designed an environment for it. Yes. Designed. I believe this can become an important task for user experience designers. []
  2. Psalm 22 and Revelation 22 are where he’s getting these thoughts. []