I just watched the interview between Martin Bashir and Rob Bell about his new book Love Wins. Love Wins is “ignighting a theological firestorm” because one of the central claims of the book conflicts with, what has come to be seen as, a central view to the Christian faith: that it is necessary to believe in Jesus to “go to heaven.”
While watching the interview, I was struck by how aggressive Bashir was with his line of questioning, and how negatively Bell came off. Its rather odd that Bell’s message is portrayed in such a negative way considering the general outlook on conservative Christianity is a negative one. Bell’s theology is certainly not the same as the fundamentalism that seems to be so often implicitly denounced in the media, yet Bell’s attempt to express a loving message did not seem to “win” in this interview. Indeed, this seems like a no-win situation for Christianity: tell people they are going to hell and people will be upset or tell people they will not go to hell and people will…still be upset. The following question came to mind: What does Bashir, Bell, and a bad interview bode for believers bent on blessing the world by, in Bell’s words, “bringing heaven here”?
Does this mean that no matter what form Christianity takes, so many people will still find it offensive? And how is it that the supposedly Good News of the gospel is simultaneously “good” and “offensive?” The second question is less troubling than it first appears. The simultaneous presence of goodness and offensiveness is only odd if we think that people have some innate sense of what ought to palatable, i.e., if people have some innate sense of what good is.¹ The offense that was generated by Martin Luther King Junior’s public life might serve as a reasonable and relatively recent counter-example to that claim. The first question, however, is a bit more important and bit more troubling.
Offense has perhaps always been integral to the Christian message. Originally, it seems like Jesus’ message was ethically offensive. Jesus’ conception of “the good” and “the right” endangered ancient near-eastern conventional norms and values. Jesus anticipated offensive and conflict: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Marcus Borg, a Jesus scholar and member of the Jesus seminar, suggests that the following verse, which includes a description of a “generational divide” that will occur once Jesus’ message is heard is a representation of the old-conventional-parent-generation conflicting with new-subversive-child-generation.² In addition to the socio-ethical offensiveness of the gospel, it is also offensive on an individual level. Indeed, it is offensive to the individual itself. Bohnhoeffer, a German theologian who also, interestingly, tried to assassinate Hitler, captures this point, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” What could be more offensive than a command that calls us to annihilate ourselves?
Fast forward about 1800 years (probably less), and we begin to see that Christianity became offensive in yet another way (prior to that Christianity took a “new layer” of political offensiveness by challenging the lordship of Caesar). Soren Kierkegaard possessed both insight and foresight when he described the current and future relationship between Christianity and the modern man. For S.K., the Christian message was epistemically offensive. “Offended reason” was a seemingly common theme that ran throughout his works (e.g., in Fear and Trembling and Philosophical Fragments). One passage in particular in The Sickness Unto Death stands out:
But can anyone comprehend this Christian doctrine? By no means – this too is Christian, and so is an offense. It must be believed. Comprehension is counterminuous with man’s relationship to the human, but faith is man’s relation to the divine.
Bashir, overall, seemed mostly concerned about the epistemic justification of Bell’s claims (“that doesn’t make sense” and “why this source and not that source”). He begins his interview with a very Humean version of the problem of evil (“So which is it: God does not care about the Japanese earthquake victims or God cannot care about the Japanese earthquake victims?”). His skepticism is representative of an epistemically offended culture: Immaterial afterlife in the age of materialism? Benevolent deity in an age of earthquakes and terrorism? “Nonsense!” says the hearers of this gospel. Bell’s new book makes things worse for Christianity in terms of epistemic justifiability (even though I think I agree with the premise of his book). Perhaps Bashir is thinking to himself, “Now these jokers can’t even make up their mind as to what non-sense they should be duped by.”
Is Kierkegaard right about the epistemically offensive nature of Christianity? Should we change the name of the world’s biggest religion from “Christianity” to “Offensivanity?” What about his response to the irrationality of Christian doctrine, which, essentially, seems to be this: “Its irrational. So what?”
1. Given this example, how is it that intuition plays such an important role in ethics?
2. I wonder if there is any connection between this observation and Jesus’ remark, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”