I hope you've enjoyed this idiosyncratic ramble through Rob Bell's Love Wins. This is the last post in this series.
Love Wins ends with a short little chapter entitled "The End is Here." There isn't a whole lot going on in this chapter, it's mainly an invitation to step into the love of God, but the start of the chapter caught my attention.
At the start of the chapter Bell talks about a moment, the moment when he was in elementary school, when he knelt by his bed and said a prayer, his parents alongside, to invite Jesus into his heart:
I told God that I believed that I was a sinner and that Jesus came to save me and I wanted to be a Christian.A lot of evangelical Christians, I'm guessing, have a similar moment in their own biography.
(I don't, incidentally. The Churches of Christ believe that salvation occurs at the moment of baptism. We don't recite prayers "accepting Jesus into our hearts." Mainly because not a single person in the bible was asked to so such a thing or converted in this manner. Not one person, in the entire bible, ever prayed a prayer asking Jesus into his/her heart. So in the Churches of Christ we're a bit flummoxed by the whole "sinner's prayer" routine. We don't understand why evangelicals, people who claim to be especially committed to the bible, do something so unbiblical. Why not just do what they did in the bible? But I digress. Back to Love Wins...)
Why does Bell tell us at the end of the book about his bedside conversion? Particularly when he goes on to highlight everything about that moment that might look forced, naive, simplistic or even wrong:
Now I'm well aware of how shaped I was by my environment, how young and naive I was, and how easy it is to discount emotional religious experiences. With very little effort a person can deconstruct an experience like that by pointing out all of the other things going on in that prayer, like the desire to please one's parents and the power of religion to shape a child. But however helpful that may be, it can easily miss the one thing that can't be denied: What happened that night was real. It meant something significant then and it continues to have profound significance for me. That prayer was a defining moment in my life.The point Bell wants to make is that, despite all this, despite his youth and his theological naivete, there was something of God in this moment.
Still, why is he sharing this? He continues by suggesting that the point in all this is that we shouldn't look back on our earliest understandings of heaven, hell, and salvation with shame or embarrassment. Maybe we got God all wrong when we were younger. But that doesn't mean God wasn't with us all the while. As Bell writes:
As we experience [God's] love, there is a temptation at times to become hostile to our former understandings, feeling embarrassed that we were so "simple" or "naive," or "brainwashed" or whatever terms arise when we haven't come to terms with our own story.I'm not exactly sure what Bell is aiming at with all this. Who his audience might me. But my guess is that he's talking to people who have come to share his vision of God's love and who now, in light of that vision, look back on their past with feelings of remorse and even anger. Perhaps there are scars from a harsh fundamentalist upbringing. Perhaps there is a feeling of being emotionally abused or theologically hoodwinked.
And if that's the case, if that is what Bell is aiming at, then I see his point about coming "to terms with our own story." It's hard to move into a future of love if there's some baggage from the past.
I've been writing at this blog for about five years. And during that time I've had lots of conversations with lots of different people about the life of faith. And one of the things I've learned from all those conversations is this: When it comes to God, more than anything else, people are wrestling with ghosts.
And by that I mean people are wrestling with their past. Their home. Their church. Their early and formative experiences with God. These ghosts are ever present. They haunt every conversation about God, faith, and the church. Nine times out of ten, if someone expresses a view about the church they are talking about a ghost. Some residual hurt that has never healed. Nine time out of ten, if someone expresses a view about God they are talking about a ghost. A parent. A church. A preacher.
Ghosts haunt it all. So much so it's hard sometimes to tell when we are talking theologically or therapeutically. The wounds of the past spill forward into any conversation about the life of faith.
Which is to say, if I'm following correctly, that I agree with Bell on the need to reconcile with our past. Come to some sort of peace. Because if we can't we'll never find grace in all the conversations we have about God, church, and faith. All we'll find, over and over, conversation after conversation, are ghosts.