Passover starts tonight! And, it’s Holy Week for the world’s 2 billion Christians!
ReadTheSpirit has an amazing lineup of stories this week criss-crossing between the two traditions and raising the most provocative questions in religion today. Stay tuned all week, because Passover seders are supposed to spark spirited discussions. And Holy Week is the time, each year, when Christians reconsider the central memories of their religious tradition as well.
(Scroll to the end today for links to more fascinating stories. And, “Recommend” via Facebook, below.)
TODAY WE START WITH NEWSWEEK’S LISA MILLER …
… TALKING ABOUT HER RESEARCH ON HEAVEN …
… AND HER WIDELY WATCHED ENCOUNTER WITH ROB BELL
FIRST, we are recommending that readers planning ahead for small-group discussions this spring and summer buy equal copies of both 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. Have half your group read one book; half read the other one. You will have no shortage of discussion, we guarantee! Also, invite friends to read our stories this week and, by Friday, those friends will be urging you to get that discussion group organized!
Who are Rob Bell and Lisa Miller?
Both are popular authors writing about religion via Harper publishing house. Here’s the most important distinction: Rob Bell is an evangelist; Lisa Miller is a journalist. She’s documenting what Americans actually believe and practice concerning heaven; he’s preaching one particular interpretation of the afterlife. He’s evangelical Christian and has touched off a firestorm for trying to expand evangelical views of heaven. She’s Reform Jewish and is drawing an audience of Americans who want someone to acknowledge that millions of us already have expansive views of the afterlife.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There are easy-to-navigate links at the end of today’s story to read all 4 parts in this series.
Highlights of our new interview with Lisa Miller:
DAVID: You’re part of the hottest news story emerging in mainline religion this spring. Rob Bell caused a firestorm among conservative evangelicals for expanding the possibility of who gets into heaven. You’re a journalist and you’ve reported on the large numbers of Americans who already think that heaven is a bigger place than clergy have told them in the past. So, you and Rob held a dialogue in New York City. Tell us your impressions of that event.
LISA: We were ready for a big event—but I was surprised at how big this event turned out to be. We were in a space near Central Park and I arrived an hour early to get ready. I was astonished to see the long line of people waiting to get inside. By the time we started, the place was packed to the rafters.
DAVID: Who were these folks?
LISA: Most of them were young evangelical Christians. I would say most of them seemed dissatisfied with the way evangelicals have been talking about God and heaven. These people were looking for something more inclusive and warm than the religion they were given from their parents’ and grandparents’ era. I knew there were a lot of religiously dissatisfied people out there, but I hadn’t fully seen this phenomenon unfold in this way until that night.
DAVID: What did you want to ask Rob that night? Your viewpoints are similar in some ways—but very different in many respects.
LISA: My line of questioning that night, based on my own book about heaven, was about how we describe heaven and who gets in. Conservative Christians are angry with Rob Bell because they teach that Jesus is the only way and the only truth. Rob’s new book is saying: Well, yes, that’s true—but not in the way you think. Rob has a very expansive view of heaven. And, he says people don’t really go to hell except hells of their own making.
DAVID: Don’t you agree that what Rob is saying has been coming from lots of other Christian writers for some time now? Rob’s not the first one to say this.
LISA: Yes, this controversy is a little bit one sided. The people who are angry about Bell are the people on the most conservative side of the Christian map in America. A lot of people in that cohort are angry because they don’t believe that salvation is this warm and fuzzy story that includes lots of people. For them, salvation is a story about believing in Jesus and believing in certain specific things in the Bible. There are those who do that right and get to go to heaven; and there are those who don’t do it in their specific way—and they don’t get in. They wind up in hell.
Yes, long before Rob Bell’s new book, others have taken a more expansive view of heaven. I argued that night in New York that his expansive view of heaven is something that’s been talked about in mainstream Protestantism for a long time. More than that, there are mystical views of heaven from the medieval era of Christianity that are much more expansive than what most contemporary, conservative Christians believe.
In a way, this whole controversy surrounding Bell is a labeling controversy. Conservative evangelicals are mad that Rob Bell calls himself a conservative evangelical—yet he doesn’t believe precisely the same things they do.
DAVID: I agree with you. What’s more—and we said this in our March 14 story about Rob’s new book: Anyone who isn’t a Christian will find Rob’s new book profoundly Christian. In his book, Rob says that anyone who winds up in his bigger new vision of heaven still gets there because of Jesus. People may not know that this all happens through Jesus, but in Rob’s view of the cosmos, salvation still is all about Jesus.
LISA: That night in New York, I told Rob that it offends me that he thinks Jesus is still the only mechanism for getting into heaven. This whole thing may be mysterious, as Rob describes it, but he says it still involves Jesus in his view. For me, as a Jew, that means Rob thinks that Jesus is going to get my Jewish relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust into heaven. As a Jew, I don’t want that kind of inclusiveness. I don’t want him to tell me that, whether I know it or not, salvation is all about Jesus. Just as you’re saying, David, people who are not Christian who read his book are going to find that it’s still a very Christian vision—whatever the evangelicals are saying about it.
Backstage as I was talking to Rob, I actually said to him: You know, Mormons get into trouble with people of other faiths for doing what you’re describing here. They claim they’re helping to get people into heaven on their terms.
DAVID: What did Rob say to the comparison between his views and the LDS church?
LISA: He didn’t really respond. To be compared to a Mormon seemed silly to him—not relevant, he said. But to an outsider like myself, it’s the same thing: Mormons are trying to baptize the souls of my relatives who died in the Holocaust. And that’s offensive to me as Jew. Jesus doesn’t have to be the way to heaven for us. That’s a very difficult problem that Rob doesn’t fully untangle in his book. I think he has not sufficiently wrestled with Buddhist or Hindu or Jewish or atheist perspectives on these issues.
WRESTLING WITH HEAVEN AND WHO CONTROLS THE RIGHT WAY
DAVID: He’s inviting people to a huge Christian party in the afterlife that not everyone wants to attend.
LISA: Exactly, just as you’re saying. In the end, I don’t want to go to Rob Bell’s Christian party. Why can’t I go to my own party? That’s the problem. This cuts to the very issue that comes up a lot these days in interfaith conversation, whether it’s Tony Blair’s or Eboo Patel’s or Karen Armstrong’s version of it. Most of these efforts ignore religion’s exclusivist claims. In the conservative trenches of almost every religion, it’s my way—or the highway. That’s a very difficult issue to discuss because we all want to learn about each other’s faiths and get along. That’s the godly thing to do, right? But in the basements of our faiths are words, creeds and doctrines that say: This is the way, the only way and the other ways don’t work. What do we do with those claims? I don’t have the answer, but I do know that it’s important not to try to bury those claims. Exclusivist claims are so serious that they can make people kill each other.
DAVID: I agree. I don’t think Rob comes to terms with that enormous challenge. It’s not enough to say: Oh, Jesus makes it all right in the end.
But, having said all of this, let’s turn now to talk in defense of Rob’s work—and in defense of reading both of your books in a discussion group. 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.
Links to 4-Part series on Heaven, Hell, Lisa, Jamie & 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: The “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold talks about her call for a “God Upgrade” and the religious transformation that’s pushing millions away from congregations.
Part 4: Completing the circle, Rabbi Korngold talks about her encounter with Rob Bell in Boulder, Colorado, and how she sees all these voices connecting in a national conversation.
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.
WHY PUBLISH ABOUT RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY: We recently interviewed Stuart Matlins, a leader in both Jewish and Christian publishing, about how he sees the horizon.
We want our international conversation to continue
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.