Love Wins: Part 9, Ghosts

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.

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14 thoughts on “Love Wins: Part 9, Ghosts”

  1. True enough -- let go of past hurt and loss, forgive (others and yourself), and move on.  But:  I think this act is more complicated for many people, for a variety of reasons.  In the process of preparing to co-teach my daughter's high school (general/introductory) chemistry co-op class this year, it is becoming painfully self-evident that I am a more global/holistic learner.  Trying to absorb and store unrelated bits of obscure information in my brain is nearly impossible.  So, one of the methods that I intuitively employ for facilitating understanding is making connections to some information already known, and clarifying how this new information "fits" into a larger pattern.  I think this is also how theological knowledge develops (at least for me).  When I hear, read, or experience something new, I search for something I already "know" to evaluate where the new info fits.  Of course, some input does not compute at all, and needs to be rejected!  But that's the way my brain seems to operate...  See how that creates kind of a problem, theologically/spiritually, if the past information is flawed to some extent?  How to purge those files from the archives?  (I think I've kind of re-filed a lot of it under "What Not to Believe/Do."

    Secondly, there is the heart/emotional aspect of theology and faith.  If I hear, read, or experience something that strongly reminds me of a negative bit of information from the past, my reaction tends to be impulsive and emotionally negative.  That, too, I think is a trait of global/holistic learners.  A more sequential/linear (rational/practical) means of learning and looking at the world might make life easier, in terms of jettisoning past baggage and progressing to new and better levels.

    Finally, there is great wisdom in letting go of baggage from the past.  But I think there's some value in remembering what went right, and what went wrong, in order to avoid repeating the same pattern or falling into the same error.  I get a little testy if I intuit that someone is attempting to indoctrinate me or my children with unhealthy theological (mis)information.  While I think there needs to be push-back on such harmful religious influences, I think the more balanced approach would avoid the impulsive and emotionally negative reaction.  D'oh!

    I like Rob Bell for the energy of peace that he exudes in his writing.  I think if you are at peace with God and with yourself, it projects toward and surrounds others.  Rob Bell seems to have that sort of "presence" in his writing.  It is healthy for people like me to surround myself with people like Rob Bell, through what I choose to read and take in (whatsoever things are true, lovely, of good report, etc.).  Thanks, Dr. Beck for your peacemaking contribution to my blog-reading world :-)

  2. I had forgotten about this chapter.  It spoke to me when I first read it, and it brought a renewed sense of peace rereading the quotes above.  I definitely feel naive, and bitter about some of the things I used to believe.  Hard to respond in a healthy manner to others when I'm still bitter.

    As an aside, will you be creating a summary page linking all the articles in this review?  I wanted to link to it.

  3. I appreciate the effort here to analyze this book.  Thank you, Richard.

    I prayed that "sinner's prayer" as a six year-old child.  (Evangelical fundamentalists believe, BTW, that every word in that prayer is based literally on passages from the Bible, and as such the exact wording is critical -- have you never studied the standard Billy Graham sermon?).

    As an adult, I "put away childish things", trying to leave behind the ghosts.  I became a scientist and skeptic.  Only finally, now, am I learning how irrational people are by default, scientists included.  Emotions rule the day in human behavior, not logic.  And when I invaribly must disclose my current thinking to family and friends, I usually have the upper hand rationally.  So the discussions end with the other person telling me that I will never find what it is I am looking for unless I return to "the mind of the child".  Then they quote Jesus ("Let the children come to me, etc....").  Do they mean my ability to reason, or my feelings?

    I don't know.  The ghosts remain, and I have no idea how to "reconcile with my past".  And by your own words above, neither does anyone else.  What does imply about Christianity?  

    You said -- "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......The wounds of the past spill forward into any conversation about the life of faith."

    That means all of the conversations here.  Where's the hope?

    As you conclude : "...if we can't (reconcile with out past) 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".

    Which leads me to believe that before I can reconcile with my fellow humans, or God, I need to find some way to reach back to that child.

  4. I've been reading your posts through a meta-narrative provided by some classic adventure books--True North (sometimes called "The Walden of the North," and Death on the Barrens. Both depict this truth, that when the strictures that bind us to an ordinary life are broken, that we are then opened to--at the least the possibility of--experiencing a transcendent vision of life. Historically, our faith was introduced to the world by persons who were broken and reborn to a transcendent vision of life. And in the lives of many Christians there is such a narrative. Hell and heaven seem to function as symbolic poles highlighting the movement essential to these dramas. And escaping hardship is the the driving motive behind the movement. But then to deal with hardship directly is the quickest way to salvation, whether symbolically as in the case of individual salvation stories, or directly, as the story of the passion shows us--and as Thoreau recommends: "I went to the woods because..."

    The cool thing about extreme adventure stories is that they cut to the marrow as Thoreau's experiment was intended to do--but much more successfully (friends and family in Concord were not going to allow anything extreme...though his trip to Minnesota may have been his undoing, and I am left wondering how extreme hardship did effect Thoreau).

    The two books that foist the meta-narrative on me, interestingly, arrive at different points of view with respect to Christian faith--but in very conventional respects, which suggest that neither author had a view of traditional faith that could allow it to be a "new wine skin" for them. Here's an extended quote from True North:

    "Last night I thought this life was a brutalizing ordeal, a long, long chain of pain... Tonight I think that we have touched the earth's core and found meaning. Whatever it is we sought, we have found. ...

    "Oh, the happiness that fills us is as strong and quiet as Grand River. Just as the river never stops flowing down under the ice, so this ecstasy will flow forever in our hearts, carrying us with it to a limitless sea of hope and understanding and sympathy. In this life where one can conceal nothing, not even from oneself [a life of death-defying hardship and suffering], it seems we have found ourselves out for the first time, found what we really are and what living is. It is like getting to the bottom of things. as though from this starting point we could live true. ..."

    Surely any authentic religious conversion has all of these elements, and even a particularly naive one, such as Bell narrates, can have them, and so be authentic. Interestingly, the quote above is from the author who used a repudiation of traditional Christian faith as the lens for interpreting his experience... For him nature as the final truth was enough. The other author--of Death on the Barrens--was trying to understand the moral dimensions of the experience more than this author, and linked an experience of good and evil to his point of view, in which the ability to transcend oneself in order to be loving in the face of extreme hardship became the determining factor: and the passion narrative became the Pole Star of transcend truth as a result. 

    It would be interesting to think through how such extreme experiences affect the Jamesian categories of religious experience.     

    Nice to have a place to share these thoughts--in the slast so that I can release them and get to work...

    Many thanks, Richard.  

  5. The insight that we are formed by our environment I think is especially powerful. I read Love Wins twice, and I love it, but I wish Rob had emphasized this theme a bit more.  It's the whole free will debate that you have been so helpful with.  We are not free to choose the environment we are born into - nor are we free to be free of an environment as we age.  Our environment(s) form our theology/personality/education/etc.  As we grow, we might be able to take more volition in choosing which environment will most influence us, but we are always influenced by our environment/others. Some influence is good, some bad.  How do we heal?  It's a process of forgiveness, which is best done by being in an environment that emphasizes forgiveness.  Hopefully, that environment is the church as it participates in God's radical, all inclusive forgiveness and love.

  6. Sam, this is going to be a little off point, but I would like to propose that emotions are simply a different kind of logic. They are "quick n dirty" logic rather than slow, careful, and explainable logic. Quick n dirty is wrong more often than slow n clean, but we couldn't do without it considering the thousands of decisions we make every day. Most of the time being sort of right, right now, is more useful than being very right later. 

    I don't know what your family members mean by "return to the mind of a child." But when I think of what Jesus said, I think more about being open rather than thinking we have it all figured out.

  7. Just realized that the overarching Jamesian categories of "tender minded" and tough minded" apply precisely to the differing perspectives offered--as noted above. Faith, clearly, fits the tender minded side. (Another reason to side with Bell, if you think about it.) So James picks this up without breaking stride--pedestrian insights.

    The two sides (tender and tough minded) make up, it seems, something like a Heisenberg's uncertianty principle for religion: what you want to see determines what you do see. And it goes beyond confirmation bias--or perhaps it is a deep instance of that...

    Well, I see I'm reduced to talking with myself. Anyone know a psychologist?

  8. 'Come to some sort of peace.' How do we get this Peace? Jesus said that he will give us Peace that surpasses all understanding. I think what Jesus means is that he is the way, the truth and the life. If we pursue the unconditional Love of Jesus Christ, the Truth of the Word of God we will have Abundant Life that will be filled with Peace..

  9. "Which leads me to believe that before I can reconcile with my fellow humans, or God, I need to find some way to reach back to that child."

    The difference between children and religion is that a child never feels the need to ask, "What must I do for you to love me Daddy?" ... but that is exactly what religion teaches us to ask of God.

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