An Update

Hey readers! Just a quick update to let you all know why I haven’t posted in about a week. Well, I’m pregnant! And dealing with LOTS of all day morning sickness! Yay! So…it might be hit and miss for a little bit here. Should be back up and running normally soon. Thanks for your patience. 🙂

Sex God, part 5 (Chapter 1: God Wears Lipstick)

Well, I was going to stop for the night but I kept reading and just couldn’t. Oh my goodness, Mr. Bell.

p20 – Bell writes that Jesus talks about “what happens when a woman, an image-bearer, a carrier of the divine spark, becomes a ‘that’.” Interesting, I think to myself, what will Bell say? He brings up an example from Matthew when Jesus says that “‘anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'” Maybe I’m being too picky, here, but it seems like this passage has nothing to do with turning a woman into a “that.” This looks like it has more to do with adultery than anything else. After all, turning a woman into a “that” has nothing to do with adultery…right? Maybe it does? But Bell doesn’t make the connection. I think that’s his job, not mine.

p20 – Okay…we get a Monty Python reference yet. Cool, maybe…except that it makes no sense here. He explains that the “‘if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away'” passage from Matthew is a metaphor…that Jesus is using the “‘it’s merely a flesh wound’ picture here to point us to something else.” The problem is, in Monty Python, the exact opposite picture is being painted than what Bell says Jesus is painting. Jesus is not saying to gouge out our eyes, Bell says, but he is speaking in metaphor. The picture painted in the Monty Python scene is the opposite: LOTS of blood. The joke is that it’s not very much. I have no idea what the connection is between what Jesus says and the Monty Python quote. In a way, who cares. It’s a passing comment. At the same time, it shows that Bell is willing to use whatever he wants, despite the meaning of the thing, to elicit a response. He’s reactionary, not responsible. Maybe he thinks they’re both metaphors? That’s all I’ve got.

Sex God, part 4 (Chapter One: God Wears Lipstick)

p18 – This chapter starts out with a historical letter from one of the British soldiers who liberated the concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. It is difficult to comment on this section because in no way would I want my comments to be read as about that historical time. My comments are about Bell’s interpretation…and he quickly writes something simply confusing.

p19 – Bell writes that “a concentration camp is designed to strip people of their humanity.” Then he writes, “it’s anti-human.” I don’t know whether I agree or disagree with the second of these statements. I haven’t thought about it, but I am inclined to agree. The first of these statements, though, is simply not careful enough. To claim that something was designed for a certain purpose implies knowledge about the intentions of its creator. I don’t know what the intentions of the creator of the concentration camps were, but I also have no indication that Bell knows. He makes a HUGE claim without citing any evidence. Again, this is sloppy and verging on the edge of being dangerous. At any rate, it is irresponsible. With great power (which Bell has) comes great responsibility (something that he seems to wield carelessly).

p19 – “And in the Scriptures, anything that’s anti-human is anti-God.” The problem is, the phrase “anti-human” is nowhere in the Scriptures. I’m not exactly sure what Bell means by it, in fact. This isn’t exactly a big deal, except that he labels it as a scriptural idea. To me, “anti-human” sounds like a humanistic idea. There are surely overlaps between humanistic ideas and ideas we find in scripture, but there are also important differences.

p19 and 20 – Bell tries to set up the distinction between people and not people by pointing out that people are created in God’s image and nothing else is, and also by pointing out examples in which people are regarded as things when we, who are empathetic, understand that they should, in fact, be regarded as the people. Bell again seems to blur the line between empirical evidence and truth. One is gathered through observation and the other is received through revelation. One says something about my perception of the world and may or may not have anything to do with things in themselves, and the other (revelation) is a bridge between us and God and because it partakes of God’s vantage point, says something about things in reality, and in this case, something pretty deep about reality, how God made people. Both avenues are fine to use and explore, but Bell leaves the lines blurred so both types of proof seem to stand on the same ground when they most certainly do not. This is dangerous: it leads me to think my perceptions and feelings about things hit on something true (they may or may not) and places the Bible on the same level as “how I feel about it.” Careful.

A Disclaimer

Even though I refer to Rob Bell sometimes by name in my posts, I want to make it clear (since I realized that it may not be clear) that I have nothing against him as a person! I don’t know him, and even if I did, only God is his judge, not me. Perhaps I should be more careful in how I toss around his name. So far I’ve done it mostly for convenience.

I’m not dealing with Rob Bell, or whatever author’s book I’m writing about. I’m dealing with the ideas. Just as Jesus turns over the tables in the temple but does not turn over the money changers, I think we should turn over certain ideas, especially ones that are honeyed up enough to trick all but the most suspicious or careful of readers. This is the responsibility of whoever can do it. It’s for the good of everyone.

So, please give me grace as you read my posts if I’m clumsy and don’t make the distinction between my judgement of a person (not what I intend) and the judgement of an idea (certainly what I intend). I’m attacking ideas for the good of people, not the people who wrote those ideas.

Sex God, part 3

Okay, so Bell is starting to get to what I think will become the central point of the book. Not sure why he talked about all the OT stuff first. But, I’ll go ahead and start looking at specifics….

p11 – Jacob makes a stone pillar and Bell imagines Jacob telling his son that the pillar isn’t the point; it points to something else, namely, the time God spoke to him. So, “this is actually about that.” In the next few pages he draws the connection between the altar and other memorials. So:

p12 – Bell saved the first trophy he ever won, even though its all broken and cheap. It’s not about this (the inherent value of the trophy) but about that (what it reminds him of). He also lists “velvet paintings” here, probably as a harkening back to his book Velvet Elvis, which I read like 10 years ago. (Wow, time flies!) Then:

p13 – On the next page, Bell lists things that are about other things: how we feel about our bodies, control in relationships, and so on. He leaves the reader to make the connection between the object used as a reminder of something and this list. I think if I try really hard I can make up a connection that is something like: the list contains things that look like one thing, but actually are something else…though he doesn’t explain the second part. I guess the reader is supposed to do the work of getting from here to there. Now, I don’t really trust Bell, so I’m disinclined to use my logic to make sense of what he’s saying instead of letting him explain it. If he doesn’t explain it, I have no reason to think it’s there. Readers often are generous, especially with popular authors they like…so, probably a reader will suspend judgement here and try to see what he’s saying. But…it would have been a lot safer and more above board if he laid out his logic. After all, if it’s clear and reasonable, why wouldn’t he give his argument? The person who poetically leaves out an argument in a piece of work that is not poetry is, perhaps, doing something suspicious. Not necessarily. But, not certainly not. Then, he continues in the same vein:

p14 – And he expands his examples. A guy “needs” to have a girl, proven by the fact that when he breaks up with one girl he immediately starts dating another; and moving onto the next page…

p15 – a couple who live together and are not married fight over how to cut a tomato and it’s really about their fear of commitment because both’s parents divorced at an early age and before cutting the tomato the topic of marriage had just come up, which they’re interested in, but scared of. Bell reminds us, “this is really about that.” Okay, I’m tracking. The couple’s fighting isn’t about the seeming culprit (the tomato cutting style) but about their parents’ divorces, and so on. Apparently everything “is always about something else.” Yes, perhaps…not necessarily, but yes, things that appear simple and disconnected are often complex and are always connected to other things. I think everyone would agree. Unfortunately, that’s the problem. Bell uses empirical evidence to prove the main point of his book, which I will put in bold letters because it’s probably his thesis: “You can’t talk about sexuality without talking about how we were made. And that will inevitable lead you to who made us. At some point you have to talk about God.”

Woa, dude. Woa. These are new concepts that appear to follow from the arguments you just made…but in no way do they actually do that. New concepts are introduced here: how we were made (isn’t made a word that implied intentionality? That’s new), who made us (what? someone made us?), God (which one, an Ancient Near East God, or Jacob’s God?). Is Bell assuming his readers are Christians? I guess we’ll find out.

The larger issue at stake, though, is the yawning lacuna (hello SAT word) of logic between his examples and his thesis. Bell’s thesis is that something is always about something else. I’m guessing that his logic here is that since God is the most foundational something else then eventually everything, including sexuality, will lead back to God. Fine, if you believe that God made us. Then, yes, our sexuality has something the do with the one who invented it. BUT, Bell doesn’t prove this philosophically or biblically. He just states it on the strength of examples that often this points to that. I think I might call this “emotional logic.” Bell gives examples that we get emotionally, having perhaps experienced them, then he brings in something else entirely and says, “Yo! This is like that other thing!” Because our emotions are jumping around in waves of ecstatic understanding we joyfully shout back, “Yes! You are brilliantly revealing the nature of the universe!” I’m sorry if this sounds sarcastic…but it actually is a pretty good account of what my emotions did as I read the last few pages. I had to be careful and use my rational soul (sorry, just an Aristotle joke)…my, mind, that is, to figure out what was actually going on..that is, if Bell’s arguments are meant to be believed and followed by thinking creatures who seek truth, rather than create an emotional mob who follow his words thoughtlessly. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, we will assume he does not intend to do the latter. In that case, he’s in trouble.

Bell uses empirical examples to prove a metaphysical point. These examples may be invented, but either way, they are data points meant to reveal a fact about the fundamental nature of the universe, in this case, our sexuality and who made us, namely, God. A good scientist knows (and by looking to the world for evidence and extrapolating from it something about the nature of the universe, Bell is doing science) that data points do not equal evidence. They merely equal probability. Unfortunately, theology does something different. Theology also includes faith. The leap Bell makes at the end is a move of faith, not science, and therefore breaks with and departs from the foundation he has built in the preceding five pages…but not obviously enough that he clearly does not intend to use these previous pages as the proof for his move at the end. Bell gives us examples of things from life, explains that they usually (no, he does not specify sometimes…”this is really about that” is an unbounded statement), that they always have something to do with something else, and then says that therefore sexuality has to do with God. Wait…but proof or even information that God exists, that he made us, and that we have any information about this (from the Bible, or something else) is not included at all in any of the statements that Bell has made up to this point.

Bell has not proven that this is really about that, except in a few cases, and even then he has not proven it, but given us several possibly fabricated examples in which that might be the case. He lets our emotions carry his argument because “yeah, I’ve been in a similar situation! That’s really how it was!” To use these examples to convince us that dealing with our sexuality means that we must deal with God, who made us, is emotional manipulation.

There is no proof in Bell’s introduction. To move forward with him we must either 1) agree with his thesis because he already believe it or 2) have been emotionally manipulated into believing that the words on these pages lead from one to another in any reasonable way.

In the end, Bell’s introduction throws up all sorts of unconnected but emotionally charged ideas luring the unsuspecting reader into joyous agreement with ideas. After all, they do feel pretty great.

Sex God, part 2

Well, hello again! I’m continuing to read Sex God, by Rob Bell. Pick up a copy and read it with me, why don’t you. 🙂

p11 – “People at this time believed the gods resided in religious places….” Great that he cites proof for this huge statement about ALL the peoples of the Ancient Near East! Unfortunately, he cites 6 examples from 1 Kings…not exactly a firm case for a historic fact about every single people group of a very diverse area. I think pretty much every historian out there would find fault with this. Then again, Bell isn’t doing history. Then again, he’s talking like he is by making claims about the Ancient Near East, a historical phrase never mentioned in the Bible. He’s using history to prove theology, and doing it pretty clumsily…if it should ever be done at all.

p11 – Bell writes that God speaking to Jacob in the desert shows us that God “doesn’t need temples and holy sites and rituals.” So…what’s up with God later telling Moses and the folks he was leading through the desert to create a temple? He gave really specific instructions for how to make it and all the stuff that was supposed to go in it, and exactly how to use them. In the New Testament, and even in parts of the Old, we find out that the temple and its accoutrements (priests included) weren’t the end all be all: God was. So, yes, Bell’s right that this God seems to be about something bigger than just one place (as he tells us that the Ancient Near East gods were). But, Bell’s statement about God not needing temples, holy sites, and rituals is troublingly simplistic and leaves the reader who’s done some Old Testament reading wondering: What on earth was God doing when he told the Israelites to make a temple, holy sites (at least one), and rituals? Bell isn’t exactly wrong, but he’s sloppy enough in how he’s right (especially because he’s talking about the OT here) that what he said could easily lead to something like Marcionism, a classic Christian heresy. Careful, Bell, these are deep things you’re talking about, so perhaps it would be better to not say them at all (lots of them are unnecessary to your main point) or treat them more carefully.

p11 – Jacob marries, reconciles with Esau, and “stopped pretending to be someone he’s not.” Okay, maybe I’m reading this book all wrong. Does it have anything to do with the biblical text? I don’t see a spot in the text that says, “Jacob stopped pretending to be someone he’s not.” Bell seems to just claim it, and that’s a pretty big claim. That’s fine if he wants to make claims, as long as he either backs them up by showing how he got there or telling us he’s going to make claims and we can learn something from them but we should understand that in no way do they exegete the text, that is, they may or may not have anything to do with the text at all. My best guess so far is that Bell is wanting to make some points and is using the Bible, not maliciously necessarily, but not carefully, reverently, or in submission to it. Whether or not that’s fine is one question. But, he should at least make it clear that that’s what he’s doing. Not to do so leaves open the possibility that people who haven’t deeply studied the Bible (probably his book’s audience) will think the Bible is saying stuff that in fact Rob Bell alone is saying. Whether or not he’s right about the points he’s making about life, he needs to make it clear whether he’s saying “the Bible says” or whether he’s saying “I’m saying.” One requires a very different sort of proof and attention than the other.

Okay folks, in an effort to keep posts short and manageable, I’m ending here! More soon. 🙂

Sex God, post 1

Awkward title, right? 

Since starting the book Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality by Rob Bell gave me the idea to write this blog, it’s the one I’ll talk about first. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, mostly because of the shocking (gasp!) title, but also because Rob Bell has a lot of influence in many strains of modern Christianity and I think it’s important to engage with his thoughts. Here we go!

p10 – Bell says that the “custom in the ancient Near East at that time was for the father to give his blessing to his firstborn son before he passed away.” He then says that this was a “symbolic gesture loaded with significance.” A symbolic gesture? That’s a BIG claim. If it’s only a symbolic gesture, why doesn’t Jacob give the same symbolic gesture to Esau and bless him with the same blessing he gave Jacob? Why the big deal? Also, we need to read “blessing” in the context of the rest of the Old Testament, and even the New Testament if we want to. A blessing is often considered to have real power behind it; something real is given. For Bell to state, in one sentence with no further explanation, that a blessing is merely symbolic is like someone saying that the Lord’s supper is merely symbolic: whether or not that’s what you believe, you need to understand that that’s not a simple issue in Christendom. Bell offhandedly tosses out something deep and important that resonates throughout the Old and New Testaments. Too bad for his readers. It’s really their loss. 

p10 – Bell claims that “Jacob’s lie is a serious offense against the family, against Isaac, and ultimately against Esau.” The biblical text says nothing like this. The only good/bad qualification that appears at all is that Esau gives up his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Later, this example is used to chastise those who, like Esau, give up something lasting and better for something immediate and shallow. Jacob is a trickster, something that is never directly criticized (and may even be mildly praised) in the Bible. If anything, Esau is the one at fault here according to the Biblical text, not Jacob…or his mother Rebekah, who actually was the mastermind behind the whole thing, and whom Bell fails to mention at all. 

p10-11 – Bell frequently sites Ancient Near East custom. First of all, there isn’t one Ancient Near East (ANE) custom. There were lots of of customs associated with different people groups. Furthermore, part of the point of the story of the Israelites in the Old Testament is that they break away from the customs around them, slowly at first, but more over time. They fail at this frequently, but that seems to be their general or intended direction. To say that Isaac is just following an ANE custom is adding information to the story that we don’t have. As one professor at Duke has said, just read the words that are there. That’s your safest and best way to an understanding of the passage you’re reading. This passage does not say “as was the custom” or anything like that. Oh yeah, and he didn’t cite any research about this. It’s just a claim about the whole Ancient Near East, and a really unnecessary one. Thanks, Rob Bell, thanks.

Ok…that’s a long enough post. Be back soon!