Links to All 4 Parts:
Part 1: Newsweek’s Lisa Miller talks about her encounter with Rob Bell.
Part 2: Newsweek’s Lisa Miller talks about her research on “Heaven” and the transformation taking place in organized religion across America.
Part 3: “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold talks about her call for a “God Upgrade” and the need to reach millions who are alienated from religion.
Part 4: Completing the circle, Rabbi Korngold talks about her encounter with Rob Bell in Boulder, Colorado.
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OUR INTERVIEW WITH
LISA MILLER, PART 2
Part 1 ended with this question:
DAVID: I think Rob really is trying to bust open some of the biases that organized religion has accumulated through the years. And, your own work as a journalist—your own new book on heaven—also tries to break open our assumptions about how people regard heaven, right?
LISA: For people who have been constrained by this very rigid Christian language over the past generation or two, Rob Bell is providing an opening that I think many people are finding very welcome. In my book, I’m also trying to raise some difficult questions about heaven that a lot of people share today.
DAVID: What is this groundswell we’re seeing in new religious expressions? Many of the writers, religious leaders and scholars we’ve interviewed over the past year have talked about this restless transformation; they see it unfolding, too. What’s driving this?
LISA: It comes from a profound dissatisfaction among young people with religion as it stands. Religion, packaged in its current boxes, doesn’t reflect their lives—or most of our lives today. You see it in the polls that talk about the number of people who say they’re unaffiliated, now. That portion of the population—the religiously unaffiliated—is the fastest growing “religious group” in this country.
You also see this showing up in surveys among young evangelicals saying they don’t want their grandparents’ religion. They want to focus on social justice and inclusion. And, you see it in in Reform Judaism where people ware feeling like what we’ve been doing is too rationalistic and scientific. We need to be more checked in to the spiritual and mystical aspects of our religion, which is what the Orthodox do. There is this back and forth flowing of ideas—and the underpinning of this movement is a profound dissatisfaction among young people with our congregations, our religious structures and the ways we do basic things like pray.
DAVID: I agree with you and I see a lot of this fueled by new ways people connect with each other. I’m talking about “new media” here, but I’m not saying that everybody wants religious Facebook groups. What’s really important is the radical transparency and democracy in these new social networks forming through new media. Because of what’s unfolding, people aren’t shy anymore about demanding what they want—and questioning what doesn’t make sense to them. When pollsters ask people to give their religious affiliation, millions of people don’t feel shy about answering: “none.”
‘Why not just blow up what we’ve received?’
LISA: I’m sure technology does have something to do with this. The way people relate to each other is so democratic and so constant now that the structures of church are just too confining for a growing number of people. We’re seeing a kind of impatience with just doing what we’ve been told for generations and singing the same old songs. Why not just blow up what we’ve received as organized religion? Why not start over? In a lot of mainline Christian churches and Reform Jewish congregations, people are stuck with shrinking membership and buildings that their grandparents paid for with the sweat of their labor. Our cities are filled with these architectural monoliths housing teeny tiny drying-up congregations. Nobody seems willing to bite the bullet and say: We don’t need to preserve these huge structures anymore.
Look at the success of the Pentecostal movement over the past century in this country. Doing Shabbat in some huge sanctuary where 20 people are huddled in a gigantic house that seats 2,000—that feels detached from the real world—and that’s what people are rebelling against. They want to feel a connection—a real connection—not isolation.
DAVID: You can’t watch the Arab democracy movement spread across northern Africa and the Middle East and not connect the dots here. Obviously, most of those young men and women in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries are Muslim, but it’s the technology that empowers them and fuels their new vision of a world where everyone can have a “say.” Everyone feels they hold the power in their palm to reach the rest of the world—and it’s true, right? Messages posted from cell phones fueled the Egyptian revolution. So in this new world with the power literally in our palm, why not finally make the prophetic statement that’s been eating at us for years? Makes for real turbulence in organized religion.
LISA: People don’t feel any hesitation about speaking out, anymore. There’s a revolution going on in denominational life across the United States. So, why not get out there and wrestle with this? But what do we do instead? Instead of getting out there and wrestling with them, we tell people: Wait! Wait! Wait! First, we’ve got to pay for the air conditioning system and we have to repair the roof. What Rob Bell is tapping into is this hunger for expressing spirituality.
And it’s broader than the United States. One thing that also astonished me when we met to talk in New York City was all the people in that crowd from Asia, Africa and Latin America. What were they talking about that night among themselves? One thing they were talking about was downloading Rob’s messages. Thousands of his followers do that every week. Wherever they may be in the world, they feel connected to Rob Bell. That’s a very different approach to religious life.
DAVID: Let me point out another example of this—from another interview we recently published in ReadTheSpirit. Dr. Meg Meeker, a best-selling pediatrician and author, writes about how men and women can find true happiness. Now, you might guess that her books would list things like dieting and managing your money. No, Meg starts out by emphasizing the intrinsic value of each human life and spiritual issues like avoiding isolation and loneliness. Her recommended “makeover” actually is a spiritual makeover. I think she’s seeing the same problems emerge in Americans’ lives as we’re describing today.
LISA: I haven’t read Dr. Meeker’s books, but I do think that we are better people if we wrestle with the hard questions in life rather than avoiding them. It’s true that some of the stuff traditional religion gives us is very complicated and difficult—sometimes too complicated. But I do think there are benefits to reading the Bible and trying to understand these ancient things that may seem crazy and even incomprehensible at first. I take my daughter to Hebrew school. We talk about sometimes very difficult things in the parking lot as I pick her up. That’s great, I think. We should have conversations with family and friends about what these traditions mean. It’s useful to wrestle with our traditions.
DAVID: We’ve pointed out that you’re Jewish, but tell us more about your own religious orientation.
LISA: I’m Jewish and my husband is sort of an atheist Catholic. We have a babysitter who’s a very observant Pentecostal. When my daughter goes to Hebrew school, she talks about Moses and Jesus equally. There’s some feeling I’ve heard at temple that this kind of diverse mixture is not OK. But I say: Why not? Some people have bi-racial children. I have a bi-religious child.
HELP FOR SMALL GROUPS DISCUSSING THE HEAVEN BOOKS
DAVID: That’s a great place to repeat the main recommendation we’re making in publishing this interview: We think small groups should buy both your book and Rob Bell’s book—and then spend a month or so in your small group talking about both books. So, Lisa, let me ask you: What do you hope readers will notice as they read your book, Lisa?
LISA: I would say—pay particular attention to my chapter on resurrection, which raises some of the most difficult questions about heaven. If I’ve done my job, this forces people to wrestle with what they really believe. It’s easy to talk about our hopes for heaven. It’s easy for Rob Bell to say: Yeah, sure, everybody gets to heaven through Jesus somehow. But in fact there are some very difficult questions here: Resurrection is about dead bodies coming back to life. It’s very difficult for the mind of a modern person who believes in science to go there. If you’re not going to believe in science, then maybe you can hold to the older beliefs without any difficulty. But there are hard questions here for millions of people, today.
For a person to be honest with herself about what she believes about the afterlife, she has to wrestle with this. Your body was dead and it comes to life again? Is that what you’re saying happened to Jesus? What does that mean? How do you rationalize that in your mind? How do you explain that belief to yourself?
DAVID: I agree. That’s a huge question and it’s guaranteed to spark lots of discussion in study groups. What else do you want to highlight from your book?
LISA: I also hope people will pay attention to the salvation claims I write about in my book. Who gets saved? And what actions cause this? Rob now is saying that God is loving and saves everyone through grace, whether people fully understand how this works or not. But, does it matter what we do in this life? Or doesn’t it matter? The Jewish idea is that you do good things in this world because doing those things helps to connect you with God. Helping old people and giving money to charity—or just being a good and faithful daughter, wife and mother—count with God. It’s important that you live by these laws in this life, I think. But readers should ask the people in their groups: What do you believe about these things in your daily life? Do you act on your beliefs on a daily basis?
Then, a third thing I’d point out is this—if you only read Rob’s book, he doesn’t really address the big question: What does heaven look like? How do you envision heaven? What kind of place is it? Is it filled with other people? Are we recognizable to each other? Is God a distant presence there, or are we all in some kind of communal relationship with God?
DAVID: I helped to produce a documentary film raising that very question with a wide range of people and I agree with you: That’s a huge question. We found that people actually haven’t thought a lot about the specific details of heaven—but they sure do enjoy discussing it. People have big hopes for heaven.
LISA: We’ve gotten so cheesy in our popular ideas about heaven that we tend to represent it as a cross between Disneyland and a beautiful garden. But where is this place? Is it separate from our universe? How do we get there? These are questions that Rob’s book completely leaves aside.
DAVID: Excellent points. You’re helping to make the case here for readers to buy both and discuss both. Anything else to add? I’m assuming that a number of our readers will be bookmarking this interview or printing out these exchanges to help form questions for their small groups.
LISA: Well, I would say that, in the end, Rob doesn’t fully write about justice and I would argue that justice is an essential idea about heaven. At least for Jews, heaven always has been related to justice. In heaven, all that’s wrong—will be made right. Of course, this is a world view that assumes we have enemies and that people are doing very bad things in the world—injustices that someday need to be set right. This relates to a vew of heaven that assumes there are injustices here now.
Rob says that hell is really only the hells of our own making. Through addictions or abusive behavior or other pathways we take away from God—we create our own hells, Rob says. But I would argue that there is a different view of hell that’s very old and is important to talk about: Hell is a place where bad people go in the end. In a biblical sense, hell is where people wind up who have used their lives here to enslave the righteous. In America today, we may think things are bad right now, but really conditions in America are remarkably good compared with much of the world. Here in America it’s hard to envision, sometimes, the evil that bad people can do. We all hope for heaven and it’s difficult sometimes to remember why hell has been there in our religious traditions as a necessary place to ensure justice. We should talk about these ideas.
I do hope that you’re right, David, and people will try to read both books. I think the discussion will be quite interesting.
REMEMBER: Via these links, you can order Rob Bell’s “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” and Lisa Miller’s “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife” from Amazon. Reading both books will spark a spirited small group!
READ OUR 2010 INTERVIEW WITH LISA MILLER: We took an in-depth look at Lisa’s book when the hardback version was published in 2010.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.