Dead & Company, Cincinnati, 2016-6-16


You want to see & hear what I partook in last night?  Here’s a link to the recap, setlist, and audience recording of the show.

My memories of the show:

  • Mayer was great.  His vocals were great.  He played “Jerry-style”–the pins-and-needles major key arpeggios and modal stuff, always bending up to the major instead of the minor (which is more SRV), but on the jams–especially Viola Lee Blues, where he played an old SG–he played more of the SRV-shaped stuff I’m used to hearing from him.
  • Weir is a hoss.  He’s sixty-eight years old, and he stood toe-to-toe with John Mayer for 3 hours 40 minutes.
  • Kreutzmann and Hart are amazing, too.  Drums > Space > Viola Lee redux was awesome, even though it felt like they kept trying to dovetail into a different song.
  • Maybe it was just the adrenalin of being at the show, but I remember EVERY song being tight and excellent.
  • The jams and dovetailing were not super-smooth or telepathic.  There were a half-dozen or so clunky moments where one song was finished and they wanted to go somewhere else, but didn’t quite know how to get there smoothly.
  • Two disappointments:
    • FIRST, they didn’t play any of the rare gems (although the triumphal Box of Rain was amazing.)  I didn’t expect Dark Star, but a St Stephen? Or Scarlet > Fire.  Or Playing in the Band. Or (dare I dream it?) a Terrapin Station.
    • SECOND, Oteil Burbridge is an incredible bass player, and he brought a lot of energy and personality even without taking the microphone.  But I’d really love to see Phil Lesh.
  • The highlight of the night, and one of the greatest musical experiences of my life, was Jack Straw.  The vocals (Weir and Mayer) were smooth and strong, and the jams at the end were simply furious.

It was the perfect evening with my beautiful daughter, and the best Father’s Day gift ever.

Oh, and I got a really cool t-shirt.  I haven’t worn tie-dye since the 7th grade.

On Monogamy and Sexuality


A question for “Ask Science Mike“:

I have a question about monogamy and sexuality.

There appear to be many reasons that monogamy is preferable to promiscuity. Families are more likely to be stable, which makes society more likely to be stable. Sexually transmitted diseases. Strengthening commitment between partners. Plus there’s that whole, “thou shalt not commit adultery” thing, which–even with the differences between ancient Israel and the modern West–still holds a great deal of authority and brings numerous benefits.

But monogamy does not appear to be natural. I’m an evangelical Christian, married, heterosexual, fifty-something-white-guy.  From experience and observation, it’s clear that most heterosexual males are naturally interested in more than one partner–biological imperative, whatever.

But for a variety of reasons, I and many people like me don’t seek out or cultivate opportunities to be with other partners. Christianity teaches me that my desire for other partners is from the ego / flesh, is sinful, etc. In addition to wanting stable families and stable societies, and to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, etc., I don’t want to betray God that way.

So: the best thing for me and men like me to do is to fight that part of our sexual nature, deny and discipline it.

How then is the opposite argument–“it’s their nature, you can’t fight against or judge acts (to say nothing of judging people) that are according to nature”–used to legitimize same sex attraction? I sense that in some ways, I’m comparing apples and oranges. Help me suss this out.

P in Dallas

Pete Enns on Hermeneutics & the Historical Adam Debate


A follow-up to the Rob Bell / hermeneutics discussion: Peter Enns clearly articulates a bunch of stuff that I’ve been mumbling about for years.

11 recurring mistakes in the debate over the “historical Adam” (reprise)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell, pt 4


In Conclusion:

So what do I think?

I hope the preceding survey, brief as it is, demonstrates that Rob Bell’s approach to the Bible and to biblical authority is not a simple yes/no, does-he-or-doesn’t-he question.

The fact of the matter is: everything Bell does, theologically and hermeneutically, can be found elsewhere in the broad Judeo-Christian tradition.  In the same paragraph, he may meld materials from 19th century Catholic mystics, the nascent Orthodoxy of the 3rd century Desert Fathers and Mothers, rabbinic Judaism, etc.

His approach is eclectic, largely PRE-modern (or at least, the raw materials that he mines are largely premodern), even though he’s sometimes referred to as postmodern.

The thing about him that’s most postmodern is the mixing, the kitbashing (metaphorically, the mixing of pieces from disparate sources, ergo the mixing of techniques from different approaches), that’s postmodern.

The effect is anti-modern, which flies in the face of what passes for modern Evangelical hermeneutics.  In a postmodern world, Evangelicals are exemplars of modernity.  No one clings more stubbornly to the philosophies and theologies of 15th and 16th centuries than “modern” Evangelicals.

So again: what do I think?

We have to realize that the way we Evangelicals were taught to read the Bible is not the only way the Bible has ever been read.  We were taught to read individually (by ourselves, silently, in isolation, asking “what does it mean to me?” or “what is God saying to me?” first).  We were taught to read for historical meaning, authorial intent.  We were taught that the text’s plain meaning (usually = authorial intent) is discernible, and controls our understanding and application of the text.

Understand two things.  FIRST, there are a hundred different philosophical assumptions / conclusions in that single paragraph.  Does “plain meaning” really exist?  Is authorial intention discernible?  Does the priority of reading silently in isolation produce a different reading than reading, say, aloud in a community?  Is there a “historical meaning”?

SECOND, understand that the way we Evangelicals read the Bible is a relatively new way of ingesting the Bible.  Historically, most Christians and the faithful Jews before them did not read or digest the Bible the way we were taught to do.  Arguably, more Christians over the past 2,000 years have read the Bible the way Rob Bell does than have read the Bible the way the modern Evangelical does.

All of which is to say, the fact that Rob Bell is reading the Bible differently from how we were taught to read the Bible doesn’t mean he isn’t taking scripture seriously, or that he disrespects biblical authority.

We can say that his conclusions are wrong.  Or that the ways he’s reading the Bible are wrong.  Or that we hate how politically correct and trendy he is.  But we can’t say that he’s deserted the Bible, or disregards biblical authority.  The fact that he’s reading it differently doesn’t mean he’s denying or rejecting it.

So again: what do I think?

I like Rob Bell.  He’s not only very likable, and a gifted communicator, but I have found healing and direction from his teaching.  I listen judiciously, and occasionally cringe at some of the things he says.  But even then …

Most of the things he does that make me nuts are a reflection of how he understands his calling.  Bell believes he has been called to be a pastor to the pastorless, the spiritual but not religious, the de-churched.

You know about the de-churched?  There are unchurched people who don’t go to church.  But what I’m talking about are the de-churched, people who ran away [or were run off] from the church, screaming in agony, after terrible experiences with abusive church leadership, etc.

It makes me nuts, for example, when he goes out of his way NOT to use the word “God”, preferring to refer to “the Divine,” etc.  But he does this because he has a segment of people who listen to him that shut down when they hear the language of traditional religion, so (rightly or wrongly) he thinks using “the Divine” is more effective.

Same with “faith community” instead of “church.”

He avoids talking about God as “father” for similar reasons.

Bell is like a missionary to post-Christian America.  He’s preaching the gospel to people who would never listen to a more traditional, more recognizable, more Evangelical source. (People who would never listen to ME, for example.)

Don’t compare him to Matt Chandler or Rick Warren.  Compare him with Dr. Phil, or Oprah; they’re closer to what he’s trying to do, and make his Christ-centeredness much more clear.

He’s telling people who would never be caught inside a church about a God who loves them, who wants to be involved in their lives.

He talks about Jesus a LOT: not the caricature, judgmental Jesus who hates everyone who doesn’t vote Republican, but the Jesus who taught people how to treat each other and how to get back to God when they’ve wandered off the path.

He even talks about sin.  And repentance.  (That’s another great sermon, by the way.)  And he talks effectively.  And I pray that God is using him, and making him even more effective, because his listeners are people who aren’t listening to you or me.

May his tribe increase.

“Don’t Be a Donkey!” (a sermon on Psalm 32)


Let me tell you two stories.

Story #1: about eight years ago, I had an infection.  I had a low grade fever that wouldn’t go away.  Being a normal American male, I ignored it, figuring it would go away.

It didn’t go away.

So I took Tylenol and Alieve, and the fever would go down but it soon returned.  I went to the doctor, and she gave me antibiotics.  They knocked the fever down, but it (again) returned.

For about ten weeks, I had a fever that just completely never went away.

Finally, after just short of three months, my doctor sent me to a surgeon who removed some infected scar tissue from my leg.  See, the infection had found a home in that scar tissue on the back of my leg.  I could ignore it, I could even throw medicine at it, but it wouldn’t go away until someone dug it out and removed it.

Story #2: David was the king of the Jews, living in his palace in Jerusalem.  His reign had been one long string of successes.  He was like Midas: everything he touched turned to gold.  God had blessed him over and over and over.

2 Samuel 11 begins: “In the spring of the year, when the kings of the nations went to war…”, David had sent his army out but he himself remained behind.  One evening, out walking on the roof of his palace, he saw a beautiful woman bathing on a neighboring roof.

He was intrigued.

He asked about her and learned that she was the wife of his friend, Uriah.

He was STILL intrigued.  So he sent for her, and when she was brought to him, he had sex with her.  We call that rape, by the way, when a man has sex with a woman who has no power to consent or refuse.

And then he found out she was pregnant.  So he tried to get his friend, her husband Uriah, to be intimate with her so that everyone would think that the baby was Uriah’s.  But Uriah refused.  So David, the king that God had blessed over and over, sent Uriah back to the army, back to the front lines, carrying the orders from David that led to Uriah’s murder.

And David thought: “I’ve covered this up.  No one will ever know.”

And weeks and months passed, until Nathan the prophet came and told David a story; “You are the man.”  And David confessed.  And David repented.  And David wrote:

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them.

When we sin, we can respond to it in one of two ways.

FIRST, we can deny our sin.  We can avoid it or hide it.  What does David say in v. 3?  “When I kept silent …”  He denied his sin, and tried to cover it up.

It’s a very human impulse; we do something that we know is wrong, and we’re embarrassed.  We’re ashamed.  So we hide it, even if hiding it means lying or worse.

David says (vv 3-4):

“When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.”

What does David say happened to him as he hid his sin, focused on keeping it hidden?  His strength drained away, evaporated.  Ever been there?  You’ve done something and you’re hiding it?  Maybe from a parent, or a spouse, someone we don’t want to disappoint, and we know they’ll be disappointed …

What does having a shameful secret do to your relationship with your husband, or your wife?  Or when you were a child: what did having a secret sin do to your relationship with your parents, or others in authority over you?

We see it in Genesis 3; Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree, and when God comes, they hide.  We’re just like that.

Sin breaks our relationships with God and with the people that we’ve sinned against.  It builds a barrier a mile high and a mile wide and a mile deep, and we can’t get through it or tunnel under it, or climb over it.  And we’re the ones who build it, brick-by-brick, walling ourselves off from the one who loves us the most, the one we most need, the only one who can heal us.

The other alternative: we can confess it, and deal with it by bringing it to God.  Fact is that we ARE sinners.  As we admit and accept that fact, climb out of denial, we can begin to heal.

We know we’re sinners.  God knows much more clearly, it’s not like we’re going to shock him.  He not only knows what we did, he also knows the darkness in our hearts that leads to our sins.

Guilt and shame are reflexes that God wired into us to protect us.  When we sin, we feel guilt and shame, and it’s just like feeling pain when you touch something hot.  God designed your system so that you would pull back from something because it’s dangerous.

With physical pain, the reflex is to withdraw, pull back to safety.

With guilt and shame, the reflex is to run to God, turn to him for healing and cleansing.

David says that he confessed his sins to the Lord.  “Confess” means “to agree with someone.”  When we confess our sins to God, we’re agreeing with him about the nature of what we’ve done.  We’re agreeing with him about our motivations, not fooling ourselves or excusing.

Ever gotten a non-apology?  “I’m sorry if you thought I was being disrespectful.”  That’s not confession, confession agrees with God’s perspective on our sin, no rationalizations or excuses, no blaming others, no equivocations.

Notice the benefits that David said he received when he confessed his sin to God:

  • Forgiveness (5): “… you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  God removed the penalty, broke down the barrier.  How does it feel when you’ve been estranged from someone you love, and then they forgive you and receive you with open arms?  That’s the picture.
  • Protection (7):You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.”  In an uncertain, troubled world, God can be your refuge and protector, IF you turn to him.  But you can’t turn to him if you’re hiding some shameful sin.
  • Direction (8-9): “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.”  Vv 8-9 is a different voice than the rest of the psalm; everything else is David, but vv 8-9 is God speaking, promising that if you will give up your pride, he will guide and direct you.

Have you ever been lost, taken the wrong turn?  God’s promise is that he will give you direction, as you turn to him and depend on him.

  • Unfailing love (10): “… the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.”  God’s covenant love refuses to let go.  Fierce, tough, tender; the love of a mother bear for her cubs, “the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God.”

Four takeaways:

FIRST, you ARE going to fail.  The measure of your faith, your ministry, your service to God is not whether or not you fail but how you respond.  Will your failure shatter you?  Keep you running for the next forty years, never to settle and deal and grow?  Or will you be crushed and rebuilt by his grace?  You WILL fail.  Own it.

SECOND: God does his most powerful work in our lives through failures IF we respond to them with humility, repentance, and faith.  When you fail, look at your life and think, what can God build out of even this?

THIRD, the source of your power is God’s presence.  God’s grace gives you entry into that presence; you NEVER earn it, and you never deserve to be there.  Unresolved guilt and shame short-circuit our ability to access God’s grace.

If your prayers are powerless, if your relationship with God is stale and dead; If you have no patience with people, if you’re not able to forgive, …

… could it be because you have unresolved sin standing between you and God?

FOURTH, your secrets–even the shameful ones–lose their power when you drag them into the light.

For many years, the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland OH was known as “the mistake by the lake.”

They built the stadium over a garbage dump, or used garbage from a dump to fill the land–I’ve heard the story both ways.  And when NFL players hated playing on that field, because when they played there, the garbage–glass, masonry, metal–that was buried under the field, under the dirt, would work its way to the surface and cut and scrape the players.

That’s what sin and guilt are like: buried garbage that refuses to stay buried, keeps working its way to the surface.  Like an infection that you’re trying to ignore, but the symptoms keep getting in the way, making you miserable.

God wants your life to be shalom, to be better than it is.  Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Sin in your life–and we ALL sin–will build an impenetrable barrier between you and God, between you and his grace, IF YOU LET IT.  But God will smash that barrier if you let him.

Don’t let guilt drive you away from God.  Turn, confess, repent, receive, and be healed.


What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell, Pt 3


Before leaving behind the topic of midrash and how Bell uses it: if we (Evangelicals) are going to gripe about the “liberties” Bell takes with the text, then we need to hold ourselves and other popular preachers to the same standard.

Are we really willing to restrict ourselves only to the author’s intended meaning when we preach?

The people who complain about Bell on this point are, I think, more offended by the ideological content of his sermons–care for the poor! stop making war! take care of the earth! treat LGBTQ people with dignity! (such controversial topics)–than they are by the way he treats scripture.

So: when you evaluate Bell (or any communicator who rubs you the wrong way), be on your guard that you don’t baptize ideological disagreement and call it “standing for the authority of scripture.”

SECOND, Bell interprets the Bible according to the narrative schema developed by NT Wright and others.  Wright have suggested that the entire Bible be read as a drama where God creates, creation rejects him, God sends Israel to rescue his creation by bringing Messiah into the world.  Various labels for the parts of this story have been used; my favorite is:

  • Creation (Genesis 1-2)
  • Corruption (Genesis 3-11)
  • Covenant (Genesis 12 – Malachi)
  • Christ (the Gospels)
  • Church (the rest of the New Testament)
  • Completion (throughout the New Testament)

Wright refers to his version of this scheme as “a five act play” (he combines Church and Completion, as I recall) that is still being written.

In this scheme, the controlling metaphor for God’s interaction with the world is the Exodus motif.  People are in bondage, oppressed by the sinful systems of the world and by their own sinful choices.  They cry out to God, and the God who hears the cries of the oppressed responds to all who cry out to him.

How does this affect his hermeneutics?  Basically, Bell interprets individual passages by working from the outside inward, from the big story to the individual passage.

This gives a consistency–his critics would say, “sameness”–to his interpretations, because he is bringing up the same things (oppression and God’s response to it) in practically every passage.  But that’s to be expected if Exodus, God’s deliverance of the oppressed, is your controlling metaphor!

Side note: I once went to hear a series of papers on the New Testament written by Carmelite scholars.  I was amazed that, with EVERY PASSAGE THEY DISCUSSED, they somehow read that passage to be about the Eucharist, even passages that I (with a high view of the Lord’s Supper) would never have read that way.  Why did they read them that way?  I suspect it’s because their controlling metaphor for reading the Bible was Eucharist-shaped.

THIRD, Bell is influenced by Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin, specifically de Chardin’s reading of Colossians 1 (the cosmic Christ, in which the entire universe is reconciled to God.)

Most Evangelical eschatology is pessimistic: whether by rapture or by Jesus’ return, we escape a world that is getting worse and worse.  The current creation is rejected by God, burned up or done away with, in favor of a new creation.

But de Chardin, by emphasizing Romans 8 and Colossians 1-2, builds an optimistic eschatology.  All creation is redeemed, the entire universe is reconciled to God through Jesus.  The earthly systems of power and oppression are done away with, and a new era of fellowship with God and with humanity.  This = Revelation 20-21, where the new earth is realized as heaven and the old earth are brought together, God “reconciles” or joins the two realms.

In Colossians 2.8, Paul refers to “the elemental powers.” Pace most readings of 2 Peter 3.10, 12, this term does not refer to the periodic table, the atomic building blocks of the physical universe.  He is referring to godless systems of power, value systems that reject God (e.g., might makes right, security through violence, he who has the gold makes the rules, everyone is in it for themselves.)


Romans 8 and Colossians 1-2 clearly teach that the reconciliation God made through Jesus Christ is not limited to sinful humanity.  This reconciliation is universal.  The term most often used to refer to Jesus as universal reconciler is “cosmic Christ.”  This universal reconciliation is sometimes referred to as “the Omega point,” (de Chardin’s term, I believe), taken from Jesus’ declaration in Revelation that he is the Alpha and Omega (beginner & completer of God’s reconciling of the cosmos.)

I’d intended to make this entire section neutral, but I’ve failed on that point.  Hopefully, the descriptions will be helpful, or at least thought-provoking.


Ok, next post: what I think about Rob Bell’s hermeneutics, and some speculation regarding his motives.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell, pt 2


Pt 2: But is he biblical?

That’s the question.  The answer in short: it depends on how you define “biblical”.

If “biblical” = Evangelical hermeneutics, the author’s historically-determined intention for a passage governing the modern meaning and application, then no, he is not biblical.

Of course, much of popular, Evangelical, “Bible-believing” Christianity is a heckuva lot more about reinforcing and reinterpreting the traditions of American folk religion–moral therapeutic deism, anyone?–than any consciously historical-critical hermeneutic.

Most conservative American Christians are more about reinterpreting “old time religion” and the particulars of their denomination than they are about what the Bible meant when the biblical writers wrote it.

In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to describe (not judge or evaluate) Bell’s approach to scripture.  AFTER the description, I’ll offer some criticism and evaluation.

First, Bell’s approach to scripture is a kind of modern rabbinic midrash.  In his interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (Robcast #100), he talks about how, early in his preaching career, a Jewish Christian in his church came up to him after a sermon and started talking him through how rabbis taught the Torah.

Midrash is a thoroughly Jewish way of approaching the scriptures that goes beyond the text and explores ambiguity in the meanings of stories and words, fills in gaps, builds in multiple directions from a single starting point.

Midrash builds moral and theological lessons on, for example, the multiple meanings of a word, using the word in its context as raw material but not bound by the context.

Midrash is playful.  It can delight in word games.

In midrash, a text is multivalent; it doesn’t have just one point, but can be used and applied in multiple ways.  What controls meaning?  Not the historical meaning of the text, but whether the congregation and the body of teachers judge an approach to be faithful or not.

Bell’s series on Lamentations, linked above, is a beautiful example of midrash.

Another beautiful example of Bell’s midrashing is sermon he podcasted earlier this week, tying Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.22f (“The eye is the lamp of the body”) with passages from Deuteronomy and Proverbs that use the image of a clear / dark eye to refer to generosity or selfishness.  I daresay that most of the preachers I know could remove some of the more politically-correct facets from this sermon and happily preach it in their churches.

(More about Bell’s approach: narrative theology, N.T. Wright, Teilhard de Chardin, and Colossians 1 in the next post.)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell, pt 1


(I was going to name this series “What We Talk About When We Talk About What Rob Bell Talks About,” but it was much longer (and much more meta) of a title than I could handle.)

Pt 1: Introduction

Without a doubt, Rob Bell is one of the most intriguing figures AND one of the most gifted communicators to come out of the fresh voices in Evangelicalism in the aughts, a group that includes Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Francis Chan, Matt Chandler and the other young restless reformed types, Mark Driscoll, etc.

After several years of prodigious production–the Nooma videos, Velvet Elvis, etc., Bell took a series of apparent sidesteps in the late aughts, away from the megachurch he founded, away from the Midwest, to California and a career as a “spiritual teacher” more akin to Dr. Phil than Rick Warren, etc.

Bell’s strengths are many.

First, Bell is an extraordinarily gifted communicator.  If you accept that what he is doing is “preaching,” he may be one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard.

If you want to judge Bell’s preaching, check out the five sermons on Lamentations he podcasted several weeks ago; here’s a link to the first one.  Admittedly I haven’t heard many sermons on Lamentations, but I’m not “damning him with faint praise” if I say that these are the best sermons on Lamentations I’ve ever heard.  They’re some of the best sermons on the Old Testament that I’ve ever heard, period.  This is really good, relevant, biblical (see my analysis below), therapeutic stuff.

Second, Bell’s productivity is staggering.  He releases new material in a torrent.  We’re talking about two or three (or occasionally FIVE) podcasts per week.  Sometimes the podcasts are vaguely spiritual interviews with entertainment figures or self-help authors.  Other times, they’re exegetical studies of Old Testament passages, or Hebrew word studies (he REALLY digs Hebrew).

Bell is constantly producing and refining new material, following the work patterns that a standup comic or essayist might follow.  Which means: he is writing new stuff EVERY DAY.  He is appearing in front of small, low pressure audiences regularly (multiple times per month) (e.g., his residency at LA’s Largo) to work out and develop the new things he’s writing, just like the best comedians develop their new material.

Third, he appears to be incredibly likable.  He’s warm and gentle and self-deprecating.  He is infectiously enthusiastic about EVERYTHING, about EVERYBODY he meets.  He genuinely LOVES talking to people about their books, their ideas, their stories, their lives.

If I had to pick between spending an afternoon with Rob Bell or an afternoon with just about any other current Christian figure, I’d choose to spend the afternoon with Bell.

But is he biblical?

That’s the question.  In short: it depends on how you define “biblical”.  …