“Bell often talks about the current moment as a “historic” opportunity for the creation of a new kind of church, one geared toward young people who aren’t inspired by the old evangelicalism. Nowadays, he often describes “Love Wins” as a strategic project, designed to make Christianity more inviting to people who might reject it out of repugnance for the doctrine of Hell. When Bell talks this way, he can sound an awful lot like the theological liberals of the twentieth century: scholarly reformers, idealistic but slightly smug, who were shown up by the preachers they derided as “extreme fundamentalists.” Given the recent history of mainline Protestants, it’s unclear that a more liberal theology would be healthy for the evangelical movement. Many of the most vibrant churches in America today are Pentecostal or charismatic; they emphasize ecstatic, sensual experiences like speaking in tongues and faith healing. Throughout American history, the most successful church movements have been not the ones that kept up with contemporary culture but the ones that were confident enough to tug hard against it.

“From a certain evangelical perspective, Bell’s life can look like a cautionary tale: his desire to question the doctrine of Hell led to his departure from the church he built. And maybe, like many other theological liberals in recent decades, he will drift out of the Christian church altogether and become merely one more mildly spiritual Californian, content to find moments of grace and joy in his everyday life; certainly, that’s what many of his detractors expect. But it’s also possible that his new life will end up strengthening many of his old convictions. Before, he was a dissenter in evangelical West Michigan. Now he is a lifelong believer in secular Southern California. And, in that world, his faith may seem more distinctive—and more important—than his doubts.”

 

(Kelefa Sanneh, “The Hell-Raiser,”  The New Yorker, p 56, Nov. 26, 2012)

A Secular Take on a Former Megachurch Pastor

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