Alienating Atonement and the Theater of Hell

Sinner, This Is Your Life

This is an image I have heard innumerable times: You have died. You are greeted by an angel, and told that you will be shown your life. You are seated in a movie theater, and are shown your entire life, from birth – every good and bad thing you ever did. Every secret thing, including every secret thought. Maybe the other people in your life are there too, in the movie theater, watching.

The idea is that you will be horrified, and humiliated, and embarrassed. You will feel intense shame and guilt for all you have ever done. You will understand how awful you truly are, in that moment – how unworthy and utterly in need of salvation you are, miserable worm.

Then you are judged based on what the movie showed. If you died without Jesus in your life, you are sentenced to Hell, and in this imaginary situation, it is well-deserved. You nod your head, tearful, understanding God’s transcendent justice in sentencing you to an eternity of torment.

Theologian, Here Is My Finger

The above is a horrifying view of the atonement. It is an expression of one of the worst threads of Christian theology – the idea that shaming and guilt-tripping, teaching people how awful and irredeemable they are, is the best way to bring them to God. As an inheritor of the Reformation, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I realize that this criticism is squarely pointed at my own tradition, such as it is. Luther and Calvin and many who came after went to great lengths to describe what miserable worms we all are.

The basic message is that the at-one-ment with God is achieved because God pinches His Divine Nose and grudgingly accepts your miserable soul, solely because he was first able to contrive a situation where his own self could be tortured to death on a cross as compensation for the whole affair.

What if God Isn’t a Vindictive Jerk?

When I think about being in the audience in this humiliating theater, watching someone singled out and shamed by a bullying God, I feel deep sympathy. What a horrible situation to be in. Anyone who has ever been mocked, or bullied, or singled out for abuse, or humiliated can surely empathize with this situation.

I was recently listening to a sermon that described just this scene, the one referenced in the pages from a Chick tract above. I felt not only sympathy for the person afflicted by this view of God, but anger at the God who would do this. This would be despicable behavior from a human being – from God it is categorically irredemptive.

Imagine, rather than the terror of being truly known by God and others that haunts some of us (maybe many of us?), there was a similar scene. You are loving invited to a theater where your life is shown on the screen – in all of it’s mess and beauty, loss and triumph. It is the great story told by your time in the world, with all the laughs and cheers and tears and even regret. And through it all, there is the loving presence of those who love you, of a God who loves you, who see you for who you are and love all of you. What you went through life fearing, and protecting yourself from, happens, and it is a time of joy and radical acceptance. You are where you are meant to be, and you are who you were meant to be all along.

One might even go so far as to call that atonement.

Works in Progress

I have way too many irons in the fire. I have a lot of things to work on (in addition to, you know, work) – far too many to actually finish any of them. As a friend reminded me recently, finishing things is a skill. I have that skill, but I need to sharpen it. Sometimes it helps to write everything out – and who knows? Maybe something here will be of interest to a reader. So, in no particular order:

Servants of the Secret Fire

Yes, this is a fantasy hearbreaker. A Tolkien-esque one no less! Until Cubicle 7 put out The One Ring, I was working on a system that actually reflected Middle-Earth. When TOR came out, I really felt that they did a good job at my task, so I let it languish.

The system as it is still has some interesting things about it. I wrote a post about attribute decay, for example, that is part of SotSF, and there are other elements in there that I like. But, an obvious problem: I do not work for Cubicle 7, which currently has the right to publish a RPG based on Middle-Earth. So whatever I do to complete this project would just be for me, for groups I game with, or maybe to release out into the world for free.

Simplified D&D

Years ago – eight years ago now? – before 5th edition existed for D&D, I hacked 4th Edition in order to run a game for a group that wanted to play D&D but wasn’t interested in learning a lot of rules. Or, in some cases, any rules. Though that hack was designed with 4th Ed in mind, I could definitely adapt it to 5th Ed. It’s even something I’m still interested in playing and running.

Rewilding the Bible

One of my problems is that I am interested in too many things. Scattered. But one thing I’m interested in is rewilding, and more than that, the idea that for the most part our civilization is not a good idea, certainly not in the long term, and that some other way of life is probably the way to go.

There are plenty of other people who know a lot more about this, who are working to learn self-sufficiency, and becoming ungovernable, and training in prehistoric survival skills. I’m not very good at any of these things, yet.

I have noticed, though, that I know more about the Bible than other people who are interested in rewilding. What I would like to do is to create a resource, probably the length of a short book, that looks at passages in the Bible that reflect this worldview. There is actually plenty there. And based on the reception of a recent sermon, I think there are people who might be able to hear what I have to say.

95 Tweets Expanded

A few years ago, two friends of mine and I assembled 95 Tweets, our homage to Luther’s 95 theses, all arguing against the idea of a Hell of eternal conscious torment. Even from a purely Christian standpoint, even from a literalist, the arguments for Hell are incredibly week, and the counter-arguments kind of overwhelming. So we overwhelmed, with 95 tweets.

The problem is that, with a barrage like that, there’s no point at which to engage. Even if someone wanted to argue a contrary position (and I know many do) it’s hard to get a hand-hold. So, I feel like I need to expand the ideas and claims that we made in the 95 Tweets. Part of what makes me hesitant is that there is already a lot out there about this issue, and I need to make sure that what I would contribute would be worthwhile, and not just replicating someone else’s work.

5E Setting: Dragonblade

I started a D&D 5E game set in what I’m not calling Tianxia, but that was just called Dragonblade at the time. It’s a south and east Asian mashup in the way that a lot of fantasy settings are a north and western Europe mashup, primarily drawing on Japanese, Chinese and Indian history and mythology. It’s fun, and I’ve posted a bit of my work on this blog before. It’s also the result of my frustrations with other attempts to do the same thing. Does that make it a hearbreaker? Sort of. Oh well. I think it’s a cool setting, and I’ve run the first part of a game in it. My rule is that I design settings that I would be excited to play in, and this one fits the bill.

5E Setting: Twilight of the Gods

I recently completed a long-term campaign called Twilight of the Gods. The setting is mythic Scandinavia, and beyond that, Europe and the wider world. The setting takes Ragnarok literally, and a campaign set in it will begin when Ragnarok is just about to. The advantage here is that the setting is actually slightly simpler than the base setting for 5th Edition. I’ve also already put in a lot of the work already, having run a full campaign.

5E Setting: Alaam

This is a cool setting that I’ve sketched out, but in which I have yet to run a campaign. It is inspired by the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights as well as aspects of Islamic mythology, blended with Dungeons & Dragons of course. It has a monotheistic religion, and godlike genies ruling a realm of raw and exaggerated elements, and other coolness. Less developed than Dragonblade or Twilight of the Gods, but still really cool.

This Blog

I’ve been blogging since 2006, and have carried over two other incarnations of my blog to this site. So, if you want, there are 11 years of my writing to choose from. Can’t recommend it all, though.

I’ve been working to be more consistent in writing, and I’ve found some cool connections on Reddit, as well as continued connections through social media. I’m trying to build up weekly, ideally daily, writing discipline. I’m not there yet, but it’s a vehicle for sharpening my skills. It always has been.

#95Tweets Against Hell Compiled

As promised, here are all of our 95 tweets, categorized by the kind of argument they are making – ethical, theological and biblical, in that order. (I’ve gone through each of them and updated some of them from our first version) What it boils down to is that there is no ethical justification for Hell whatsoever, no good theological reason to posit a doctrine of Hell, and there are literally hundreds of Biblical passages that do not support an eternal Hell of conscious torment. Given enough time and dedication, we probably could have assembled 190 tweets, or theses, against a doctrine of eternal Hell.

We did not even scratch the surface of the ethical, theological and interpretive work done to contend against the doctrine of eternal Hell. What we did is draw from our own thoughts as well as places where arguments accumulate, particularly debates around the issue of Hell, and some of the books we have read and are reading.

Obviously, we are hearkening back to Luther’s 95 Theses. We have no expectation that our tweets will have anywhere near that impact. On the other hand, the doctrine of Hell is far worse than indulgences could possibly be. We want to fire the equivalent of grape-shot into the doctrine of Hell and sink it forever, so that no one ever has to feel it is necessary to believe in Hell ever again. Over-ambitions, we know, but it’s a start.

 

Ethical/rational

#95Tweets E1: Eternal Hell is not in any way just (restorative) – it eternally severs relationship and eternally prevents redemption

#95Tweets E2: Eternal Hell is the teaching that there are people and things that can never be redeemed, even by God

#95Tweets E3: Eternal Hell is retribution made infinite, and is therefore even less noble than vengeance

#95Tweets E4: Eternal Hell lacks the sole moral underpinning of punishment, which is correction

#95Tweets E5: Eternal Hell is beyond disproportionate – eternal Hell cannot be an earned punishment, no matter what a finite being does

#95Tweets E6: Humans perpetrate horrific, incomprehensible evil – eternal Hell is infinitely worse than any human (finite) evil

#95Tweets E7: Punishment in an eternal Hell would even be unfair to Hitler, who committed incomprehensibly evil but finite crimes

#95Tweets E8: With the effects of poor information, bias, culture, neurobiology, psychology and so on, we do not make free decisions

#95Tweets E9: This amounts to a situation where human fallibility, not even human misdeeds, can result in eternal torture in Hell

#95Tweets E10: As eternal Hell is traditionally understood, mental illness could easily be an absolute bar from salvation

#95Tweets E11: Fear of (eternal) punishment is the most brutal, crass and callous way to seek to encourage good

#95Tweets E12: Fear of punishment is not effective in encouraging good, it only prevents overt misdeeds while being watched

#95Tweets E13: Whatever happens after death, there is no concrete evidence whatsoever that anything like Hell exists

#95Tweets E14: Eternal Hell is the worst possible story ending – for the vast majority, the end is an infinite and insurmountable tragedy

#95Tweets E15: It is morally untenable to expect any person of conscience to enjoy Heaven knowing that others are in Hell

#95Tweets E16: Eternal Hell makes Heaven look a lot like North Korea – worship the ruler or else, and ignore the suffering around you

#95Tweets E17: Believers in eternal Hell must either be hypocritical, saying they believe but not behaving as if they do (1/2)

#95Tweets E18: Or believers in eternal Hell must be callous, understanding the infinite stakes but not caring proportionally (2/2)

#95Tweets E19: The doctrine of eternal Hell encourages either hypocrisy or callousness by necessity

#95Tweets E20: A reasonable person’s response to any possibility of eternal torture in Hell would be constant panic and desperation

#95Tweets E21: A doctrine of annihilation is morally preferable to eternal torture by every conceivable measure

#95Tweets E22: A doctrine of universalism is morally preferable to annihilation, if God is both powerful enough to save and also good

#95Tweets E23: Since Aristotle, we have a strong case that good is not good simply because God says it is

#95Tweets E24: For God’s actions to be good, they must actually be good, not just called good; eternal Hell could only be “good” by fiat

#95Tweets E25: The only crime that might justly warrant a punishment of eternal torture would be…eternally torturing people

#95Tweets E26: Yesterday, about 150,000 human beings died. In traditional Hell theology, we must conclude that the majority are in Hell

#95Tweets E27: Given that being in Hell is to burn, and scream, and beg, and weep for eternity, 1 human being in this condition is too many

#95Tweets E28: If eternal Hell and Heaven both exist, no person of conscience could be at peace in Heaven

#95Tweets #Ethics: For all of these reasons and more, eternal Hell is an ethically unjustifiable belief.

 

Theological

#95Tweets T1: Eliminating a doctrine of eternal Hell does not mean eliminating justice, judgement, punishment, sin

#95Tweets T2: Eternal Hell is entirely unnecessary to any traditional view of salvation, no matter how exclusivist

#95Tweets T3: Eternal Hell does nothing whatsoever to glorify God, unless the powerful torturing the weak is glorious

#95Tweets T4: Eternal Hell is about vindication of an exclusive, violent orthodoxy even at an infinite cost to those left out

#95Tweets T5: Eternal Hell renders God’s love meaningless – no definition of love could include allowing infinite torture

#95Tweets T6: Eternal Hell renders God’s justice meaningless, as eternal punishment cannot be just by any definition

#95Tweets T7: Eternal Hell renders God’s mercy meaningless – eternal punishment which will never abate. Couldn’t be less merciful

#95Tweets T8: Eternal Hell renders God’s sovereignty meaningless. If God is good, God is impotent to save the vast majority of humans

#95Tweets T9: Eternal Hell renders God’s power meaningless, since God’s plan to restore all creation can be foiled by human sin

#95Tweets T10: Eternal Hell renders God’s omniscience meaningless, since God just can’t figure out how to save most people

#95Tweets T11: Eternal Hell renders God’s holiness meaningless, given that evil and sin and torture would be eternal as God is eternal

#95Tweets T12: Eternal Hell teaches of a God with finite patience but an infinite capacity for violence and retribution

#95Tweets T13: Rather than a “day of wrath”, Eternal Hell means that a trillion trillion trillion days of wrath are just the beginning

#95Tweets T14: Eternal Hell means that whatever else God is, God cannot be good by any reasonable definition of the word

#95Tweets T15: Eternal Hell annihilates meaning of all kinds – what is the point of doing anything but fearing eternal torture?

#95Tweets T16: Eternal Hell means we know God primarily as monster – monstrous judge, monstrous father, monstrous creator, etc.

#95Tweets T17: Eternal Hell is far beyond even the most evil we could visit upon any children – and are we not God’s children?

#95Tweets T18: Eternal Hell cedes eternal victory to sin, evil and suffering. God, and goodness, fail utterly for most

#95Tweets T19: In contrast to scripture, Eternal Hell promises eternity to unrepentant sinners

#95Tweets T20: Eternal Hell ascribes infinitude, eternity and finality to pain, horror, despair and terror

#95Tweets T21: A doctrine of eternal Hell puts torture at the heart of the Gospel. God is the tormentor

#95Tweets T22: Eternal Hell makes a mystery of horrific evil – it is beyond comprehension, rather than limited and destined for defeat

#95Tweets T23: Eternal Hell teaches of a God who is incapable of empathy – an image of God the callous sociopath

#95Tweets T24: Eternal Hell ascribes to human sin the power to overwhelm and defeat Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection

#95Tweets T25: If there is an Eternal Hell Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection accomplish nothing definitive

#95Tweets T26: Eternal Hell breaks God’s covenants – ex: it is infinitely worse than a second Flood

#95Tweets T27: Eternal Hell means that God calls “good” a creation in which flawed beings can err so greatly they are tortured forever

#95Tweets T28: Eternal Hell means, in justification theology, that First Adam’s sin is more powerful than Second Adam’s obedience

#95Tweets T29: Apparently Jesus descended to Hell, as in the Apostle’s Creed, but left it intact, only saving himself – cowardly

#95Tweets T30: Eternal Hell, if you believe in the Devil, ascribes to him victory in the vast majority of human souls

#95Tweets T31: Eternal life contrasted with annihilation more fully fits the themes and teachings of both the Old and New Testament

#95Tweets #Theology: For these reasons and more, eternal Hell is an unnecessary, horrifying and destructive theology.

 

Biblical

#95Tweets B1: The overwhelming majority of Bible verses support some form of annihilation; more support universalism than eternal Hell

#95Tweets B2: Gen 3:19: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, not dust to eternal conscious torment. Death, not eternity, is our default end

#95Tweets B3: The Bible never mentions Hell in the original languages. We (mis)translate Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna as “Hell”

#95Tweets B4: Sheol, the realm of the dead in the OT, is nothing at all like Hell, but is clearly where they thought the dead went

#95Tweets B5: Tartarus, sometimes translated as “Hell”, is a prison holding the Greek titans after the Olympian gods defeated them

#95Tweets B6: Gehenna, or Ge-Hinnom, translated “Hell”, was the smoldering garbage-dump in a valley outside Jerusalem

#95Tweets B7: Hades, translated as “Hell”, is imported from Greek mythology, and is simply the realm of the dead, or the god of death

#95Tweets B8: Hades, while still not Hell, is thrown into the lake of fire and destroyed at the climax of the book of Revelation

#95Tweets B9: Genesis and the Gospels compare Satan/sin to a croucher or devourer, never an eternal torturer

#95Tweets B10: In Job, Satan is clearly an ally of God, or at least a colleague, and is busy going to and fro, not torturing anyone

#95Tweets B11: In 1 Samuel 28, “Sheol”, elsewhere translated as “Hell”, is apparently where the prophet Samuel is. Prophets in Hell?

#95Tweets B12: Psalm 139 – God is everywhere, even Sheol, elsewhere translated as “Hell.” No eternal separation

#95Tweets B13: In Psalms, sin = death, perish, consume, destroy – examples are Psalm 5:5-6, Psalm 37:38 – no eternal torture

#95Tweets B14: Sin = death in the Prophets: Jer 12:3, Isa 1:28; 33:12, Ezek 18:4, Nahum 1:2-13, Zeph 1:14-18, Mal 4:1-3

#95Tweets B15: Isaiah 25:6-9, God swallows up death forever, and everyone rejoices. Except the billions screaming in Hell, right? No

#95Tweets B16: The NT dichotomy is clearly between life and death – Luke 20:34-38, John 3:16; 6:48-58, Rom 6:23

#95Tweets B17: Matt 7:21-23 Jesus contrasts those who enter into his kingdom and who do not – no eternal torment mentioned

#95Tweets B18: Matthew 10:28 Jesus threatens Satan’s power to destroy, not eternally torture

#95Tweets B19: In Matthew 24:36-51 the sinner is cut to pieces, destroyed, not tortured for eternity

#95Tweets B20: Mtt 18:34; Luk 12:58-59 Jesus implies that the unreconciled receive finite, proportional punishment

#95Tweets B21: The rich man & Lazarus is not literal – if literal, then all in Heaven will hear people begging in Hell for all eternity

#95Tweets B22: Sin in John = death, die, perish – John 6:50, 8:51, 10:28, 12:25 – no eternal torture

#95Tweets B23: Sin = death – examples are Matt 3:10 and 13:40, and then Luke 9:25, and Acts 3:23

#95Tweets B24: Rom 2:7, 1 Cor 14, 2 Tim 1:10 – the NT message from start to finish is rescue from destruction, not eternal torture

#95Tweets B25: Paul says nothing about Hell – kind of a big thing to omit from every single letter, but he did not believe in an eternal Hell

#95Tweets B26: Romans 6:23 Paul says the wages of sin is “death”, not “eternal conscious torment” – an important distinction

#95Tweets B27: In 1 Corinthians 15:22 the grammar and context are clear that all are made alive in Christ

#95Tweets B28: Galatians 6:7-8 – Paul is pretty clear that there is destruction or eternal life, not eternal conscious torment

#95Tweets B29: Phil. 2:9-11 says every knee will bend and tongue confess, not that most knees and tongues will be tortured forever

#95Tweets B30: Col 1:18-20 – God reconciles with all creation through Christ…or fails miserably to do so if eternal Hell exists

#95Tweets B32: More in the Epistles – 1 Cor 1:18, 2 Cor 4:3, Phil 3:19, Thess 5:3, Heb 10:27, 10:39, 12:29 – still no torment

#95Tweets B33: And more – James 1:15, 4:12-14, 5:20; 2 Peter 2:6, 2:10-12, 3:7 and 10 – sin = death and destruction; not torment

#95Tweets B34: The Bible writers’ worldview does not have a place for the default immortality of a disembodied “soul”

#95Tweets B35: The NT culminates in a new Heaven and new earth where there is no longer suffering – where is the torture exactly?

#95Tweets B36: Almost every verse (all but maybe 2) taken to refer to “Hell” talks of destruction very clearly, and not of eternal torment at all

#95Tweets #Bible: For all of these reasons and many more, the Bible clearly does not teach a Hell of eternal torment.

 

The Tweeting-Room Floor

Those are all the tweets as we posted them, put back in their categories. What follows is what we called “The Tweeting-Room Floor” – ones that we cut for various reasons. One of the challenges, particularly in the Biblical section, was combining texts and arguments so that we could be more efficient. Taking each passage that we wanted to use individually, we could easily have had 95 tweets based only on Bible verses.

Some were cut because they were weak, or weaker than ones nearby, or could be combined, or didn’t fit with our ultimate plan for putting them out there. If you would like to argue some of these, and we’re sure many of you will, please stick to the ones listed above.

In the Epistles, sin = death and destruction, not eternal torment – Rom 1:32, 2:12, 6:23, 9:22 – no eternal torment (1/3)

Nor can we account for those who hear a ‘false’ Gospel, or who unknowingly have wrong beliefs or practices

Eternal Hell is far worse than the worst human calamities: the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Soviet labor camps, etc.

With a doctrine of eternal Hell we cannot really account for those born before Jesus

Eternal Hell cannot really account for those who never hear the Gospel, which is almost entirely an accident of birth

This means that a vast number of people supposedly tormented in Hell were doomed at random

There is nothing in the mostly-apocryphal story of Satan to explain how he would become such an avid torturer

Jude 1:6-11 “everlasting” is defined as “until final judgement”; then sinners compared to animals who simply perish (1/3)

Jude continues 12-13 with imagery of emptiness, futility, twice dead, fruitlessness, etc. Not eternal torment (2/3)

Jude 1:7 compares fate of sinners to Sodom and Gomorrah – no eternal torment, just destruction (3/3)

Eternal Hell makes all of God’s talk of salvation in the OT into nonsense at best, lies at worst

Adam and Eve are not warned about Hell – seems like a big deal, and something they’d want to warn us about

Neither Sheol, Tartarus, Gehenna, or Hades are the Hell of popular imagination and theology

Jesus uses the example of the tower of Siloam in Luke 13:3-5 – the example is of perishing, not torment

“Hel” in Norse mythology, presides over a realm of the same name, and receives a portion of the dead

In the Gospel of John 10:24-30, God’s judgement looks like death rather than life – not eternal torment

At least 18,250,365 human beings sent to be tortured for eternity in a single year – the pop. of Shanghai or Mozambique (in the years since we first posted, I actually forgot where we got this number, so I cut it and replaced it)

Conclusion

We’ve already said a lot. If we were convinced that the doctrine of eternal Hell was necessary to Christianity, or even strongly supported, then we would have to become misotheists. We cannot possibly worship a God who permits an eternal realm of torment to exist, and would actually have to do all we could to undermine belief in that God.

Fortunately, the doctrine of Hell is merely an infection, albeit one that has been spreading corruption throughout the Body of Christ for a long time. It is indefensible on ethical, theological and Biblical grounds, and it is time to lance the wound and heal. There is no Hell, no good that comes from teaching a Hell of eternal conscious torment, and a great deal of evil that comes from it.

There. Is. No. Hell.

Thank God, and good riddance.

#95Tweets Against Hell

Image result for 95 theses

For my purposes, Hell = a place, or condition, of eternal conscious torment. 

A few years ago, we posted #95Tweets Against Hell through Two Friars and a Fool. Since then, TFF has gone into what looks like semi-retirement as Aric, Nick and I have moved on to other projects and other phases of our lives, but I am still proud of the work that went into the 95 Tweets, and I think maybe it is time to post them again. We got some response last time, but what I really want to do is to provide resources for people who are presented with a theology of Hell, who understand intuitively or in an incomplete sense that it doesn’t make sense, is possibly even evil, and is certainly counterproductive, but they haven’t done the nerdy homework on the issue.

Well, we have. Big, big nerds. So, today, I’m going to start reposting our 95 tweets, with the  hashtag #95Tweets, through my Twitter account @AndAFool. You can follow the account or the hashtag, and then when I’m done posting all 95 of them, I’ll repost all of them to this blog for reference.

As before, I welcome discussion, even argument. I think that the theology of a Hell of eternal conscious torment is morally bankrupt, theologically unjustifiable, and is not taught by the Bible even if one takes a relatively literalist view. In fact, the longest section of tweets against Hell comes from the Bible, and we had to cram references together to limit it to only 95 total tweets. It could have easily been 200 tweets, but we like the 95 for obvious reasons.

The tweets will once again come in three sections, just like last time – ethical and philosophical arguments against Hell, theological arguments against Hell, and finally Biblical arguments against Hell. They’ll be marked out for reference, since 95 is a LOT of tweets on the same topic, with #E for ethical/philosophical arguments, #T for theological, and #B for biblical.

So, enjoy. I know I will.

Here’s a link to follow the hashtag on Twitter.

Here is all of my nonsense on Twitter as @AndAFool.

Here’s a picture of Mary punching the Devil in the face.

Image result for punching the devil in the face

What Happened to Donald Miller?

Image result for storybrand

Before I start this, I want to be clear: I respect Donald Miller, for the value of his past work alone if nothing else. My ruminations here on what has happened to him are likely going to involve a little bit of poking fun at him, and marketing gurus in general, and the whole cosmos of productivity experts and business advice and 6 steps to make your branding more effective and crap I’m already bored.

Years ago, Donald Miller was a quirky and engaging writer who wrote a couple of books about theology that were unlike other books. One of them was even made into a movie. He made a big impact in the world of semi-progressive or progressive-leaning Evangelicalism, it seemed, and in the emerging emergent church, and in my own thinking as well. I encountered his books in seminary in the late aughts (or as some like to say, the naughties), and they presented me with some thoughts and ideas that I hadn’t seen before. I’ve actually only read three of his books: Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What, and A Million Miles In A Thousand Years. In brief, the first two are about theology and the last one is about stories, including one’s life story, and the third was definitely a turn toward inspirational writing rather than thought-provoking writing, at least in my view.

But he was an interesting voice saying interesting things in the area of theology – an area where a surprisingly small number of interesting things are said. Almost all theology is just rewording past theology. Miller did some of that, but his oblique approach and awkward courage made him stand out.

Fast-forward a few years after I read A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, and there is StoryBrand, which is what Donald Miller does not. StoryBrand is a marketing and branding that, if I’m honest, is the same as every other marketing and branding company. Telling you how to tweak your homepage to get more clicks, and how to write a welcome email that increases your sales, or how to get your employees to work together a little bit better. And if there is something that is more boring, derivative, and banal than most theology, it has to be business advice. It’s even worse than self-help because it isn’t about people, as much as marketing gurus say it is – it is about making incrementally more money than your competitors.

Image result for sad celebration

Yaaay. Incrementally more money than my competitors.

So what happened, from my point of view, is an interesting person with interesting things to say about questions that matter seems to have morphed into a banal person who says derivative things about questions that do not matter in the slightest on any grand scale. StoryBrand isn’t about serving the common good or making the world better. It is just about taking whatever widget you sell and helping you rearrange your words and images to sell slightly more widgets.

I would still recommend reading Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What and even A Million Miles In A Thousand Years – in that order of priority, actually. But I wouldn’t recommend StoryBrand, and I honestly don’t know what happened to Donald Miller. Did he sell out? Was he pierced by cold iron? Is he a pod person?

It’s just sad, when someone doing genuine good in the world just seems to give up and instead does some crap that earns more money. Am I jealous? No. I’d like to have met past Donald Miller, but from what I can tell, that guy’s long gone.

A General Theory of Love

I actually don’t recall when I first read this book – probably a few years after it was first published in 2001. I am certain that the science that this text draws upon has moved forward leaps and bounds from when this book was published, but what is cutting-edge about it is not the neuroscience it is rooted in (which I think is still quite valid) but rather the ‘general theory’ itself.

One of the reasons I remain a religious person is the experience, now and then, of convergence between what I learn about scientific discovery, and what I learn about people, and what I learn about God. For a long time now, my focus in religious life has been in cultivating wisdom. I think that we come to know God through wisdom, and that we come to know ourselves and our world by the same means. The same tool-box works for all of the above.

At least, I hope it does.

In A General Theory of Love, three mental health professionals with three different backgrounds present their convergent theory about how to help people. In brief, their theory draws on the fact that our brains have a section called the limbic system that is kind of what makes us mammals. We have a reptilian brain that handles our reflexes and some initial fight-or-flight responses, composed of things that reptiles also have in their brains. Then we have a mammalian layer that handles some of our social functioning and emotional life and instinctual care-taking behaviors called the limbic system. Last, we have the cortex, the top part of the brain that makes us people, which handles our thoughts and guilt and abstract reasoning and other fun things.

What the Theory of Love says is that the most important thing in a helping professional is their healthy limbic system. That if the helping professional is centered and responsive and loving, their limic system will talk to the patient’s limbic system and re-orient it over time toward mental and behavioral health. Our limbic system is the part of the brain that talks to other brains without us knowing it, picking up on subtle clues and body language and voice modulation, and it has some helpful mirror neurons. The limbic system is why emotions are contagious, whether positive or negative.

The big insight in this theory is that the important aspect of a helping professional is not their specific theoretical background or clinical training, though these things are helpful. Rather, what is key is a relationship with the person being helped which will enable the healthier limbic system to re-train the hurting one – and that this will happen almost entirely unconsciously.

Even since I read this book years ago, this has become the core of how I go about trying to help people, whether as a pastor or as a friend. It is my theoretical approach and methodology, and part of what I like about it is that it is paradoxically a non-method. The only thing I have to do is to build rapport, and care about the person, and remain self-aware with good boundaries in place. And then gradually, over time, the other person’s brain can learn from my brain. I just listen, and talk, and care – three things I’m at least OK at.

So we get back to the wisdom, because what I see as the way to become better as a helping professional is to grow in wisdom. I am probably not going to go back to graduate school and seek clinical training – I’d love to, actually, and it has been recommended to me, but I just can’t afford it. On the other hand, I hear loud and clear the admonitions that all clergy should hear that we must not “play doctor”, meaning behave as if we are clinicians. We are not. We are not psychotherapists or social workers or counselors. We take a few classes in pastoral counseling in Seminary, perhaps, but we are not qualified to do that work.

But, as clergy, as religious people in general, I think we are very much in the wisdom business. We are in the love business. We are in the listening business. And this theory of helping others that is laid out in A General Theory of Love fits very well with my other training, in theology and in contemplative practices, in ethics and, yes, in pastoral counseling. And so far, it has served me well. It feels like something that should be true about the world – love should heal. And my experience has been that it does.

Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard-Merritt

Parts of this book were a little bit hard to read – but there are some stories that I’m just not going to tell because the people involved aren’t dead yet. When I am old, I will enjoy telling all the stories. In the meantime, I read other people’s stories. Carol’s story is evocatively written, moving, and sometimes quite surprising. Her prose is, as always, intelligent and approachable, and periodically poetic. Each chapter ends with thoughtful exercises that take the things Carol is writing about and makes them into concrete practices.

Anyone who knows me can probably tell you that I don’t usually read memoirs, as a general rule. Maybe it’s jealousy, since I haven’t lived an interesting life and don’t think anyone would want to ready my memoir. I’m neither old nor important, so it hardly seems like the time. While Healing Spiritual Wounds is not a memoir as such, it is framed as a reflection on Carol’s own life and experience that unfolds to include what she has learned on her journey that might be helpful to others.

The way that Carol writes is a sort of gestalt – you have to read through the whole book to get it. It isn’t one that is easy to review in the future by skimming notes or main topics, because it moves around in time and flows along the lines of Carol’s recollections from various parts of her life – as an adolescent, as a student at Moody Bible Institute, as a full-time pastor in the D.C. area, and so on. That’s why it isn’t a memoir, though it draws on memoir – the text follows the process of healing, drawn from Carol’s experiences of healing and then abstracted out a step in the hope that she can help others heal.

This book is therapeutic – I bet it was therapeutic to write, and it is intended as therapeutic, as a vehicle for healing. In my own case, my wounds are different. I don’t share the story of needing to recover from trauma at the hands of conservative Christianity that so many others have, a fact for which I am thankful. I still got a lot from reading Carol’s book – it was therapeutic to read. And from what I know of healing, I think that this book could indeed prove therapeutic to a wide variety of people in addition to its intended audience of people harmed by their religious past. Even if you are not seeking healing from spiritual wounds, Carol is an excellent writer, and in her story you might find healing for other wounds as well. Even if you aren’t looking for help in healing, Healing Spiritual Wounds is a well-written and thoughtful book that approaches painful experiences with grace, whether Carol’s experiences or your own.

(I know that I’m supposed to refer to authors by their last name, but Carol is my buddy. Don’t hold it against her.)

Buy Carol’s book.

Seriously, buy it.