Should I not be concerned?

Should I not be concerned? March 2, 2011

Or we could look at it this way. What we’re really talking about here in our dispute with Team Hell isn’t just “What about Gandhi?” — it’s also “What about Ninevah?

Scores of evangelical pastors and authors have condemned Rob Bell for asking “Will billions and billions of people burn forever in Hell?” and for expressing discomfort at the idea.

But Bell’s question echoes this earlier question:

And should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

That question — the last words, the punchline of the book of Jonah — is nearly identical in substance to Bell’s question, but the tone is much angrier. That makes sense. Bell is a step removed from the subject. He’s asking, “Just what kind of cruel God do you think God is?” The latter question is more direct, more personal. It is God Almighty saying, “Just what kind of cruel God do you think I am?

I bring up the book of Jonah here because its place in the Bible provides one of the clearest examples of another dynamic that frustrates any attempt at a conversation between Team Love and Team Hell.

Jonah is a polemic — a guided missile of a story in which the author takes aim at the opposing point of view with the intent to destroy it utterly. It’s a brutal piece of work. The author wasn’t trying to present a civil, charitable, fair-minded assessment of the opposing viewpoint. The author, rather, was trying to ridicule that view out of existence, to burn it down and salt the earth and dance on the ashes and laugh.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The opposing point of view survived this broadside. It can be found in books of the Bible written after Jonah just as much as in books of the Bible written before this diatribe. And it lives on today in streams of Judaism and Christianity and Islam — among every tradition that regards the book of Jonah as a sacred text, you can find factions or schools of thought in which the very ideas that book attacks are still embraced.

There are two layers of conflict here and both create barriers to a meaningful conversation.

First there is the conflict between the opposing views portrayed in the book of Jonah. And then there is the unspoken conflict over the existence of that conflict.

What does it mean when we say that Jonah is a polemic? It means that we are encountering two opposite points of view — two contradictory ideas. The one pole of this polemic is the author’s own position — for whom the author of Jonah, stacking the deck, has humbly enlisted God Almighty to be the spokesperson. The opposing pole is the position the book was written to attack — the “Who cares if Ninevites die? They’re $#@& Ninevites!” position for which the author, stacking the deck again, has made the bumbling, chauvinist titular antihero the spokesman.

What is at stake in this argument is what it means to be God’s chosen or God’s children — the saved, the elect, the faithful, the righteous, the RTCs, the “few select people” Bell talks about.

For the character Jonah, this chosen-ness, this election and being one of the saved, means that he will be raised up to “possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen.” That which now belongs to the unchosen, unsaved wicked nations will one day be given to him and people like him.

For the author of Jonah it means something very different. For the author of Jonah what it means to be chosen or elect or saved is to be called to participate in a divine plan by which “all other peoples may seek the Lord — even all the Gentiles.”

Huge difference between those polar opposite view points. That’s the first layer of conflict.

The second layer of conflict has to do with the inconvenient fact that “the authority of scripture” can be cited in support of both of these incompatible views. The conflict here isn’t over how to reconcile or choose between such competing views, but rather over whether or not the Bible ever presents opposing points of view at all. On one side of this conflict you have those who read this sprawling anthology of dozens of separate books written over hundreds of years and find in it arguments and disagreements and contentious disputes. On the other side you have those who assert that it is 100-percent unified and consistent, start to finish, Genesis to Revelation.

This aspect of the conflict is particularly confusing because it’s never wholly acknowledged. Someone like a Rob Bell will say that when the Bible presents us with these disputes and these contradictory ideas, we should look at the larger context of the character of God as revealed through Jesus Christ, making Jesus the standard by which we choose what side of the argument to embrace. But the other side doesn’t know what to make of that. They don’t see any need for such a standard for deciding between competing viewpoints because they don’t believe that the authoritative scriptures include any such competing views. If the Bible were like that, how would it serve the function they rely on it to serve as the “paper pope” (in N.T. Wright’s term) the ultimate arbiter of all disputes in the church? If those same disputes can be found within the Bible itself, then how could we use the Bible to resolve them?

This second level of conflict — this dispute over whether or not the scriptures include disputes — frustrates many attempts to discuss the sorts of questions that people like Bell are trying to discuss.

The concordance-driven proof-texting that provides Team Hell with its emphatic certainty is based on that premise of a 100-percent unified, consistent and never contradictory Bible. But because the Bible isn’t like that — because it does contain multiple points of view, endorsing or seeming to endorse different ideas in different passages — this proof-texting approach is bound to lead one astray.

Look again at the summaries above of the utterly incompatible ideas debated in the book of Jonah. Does being chosen/elect/saved mean that the righteous few who remain faithful will be given “the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen”? Or does it mean that they have been given the privilege and duty of participating in the redemption by which “all other peoples may seek the Lord — even all the Gentiles”? It cannot mean both. If one answer is true, the other cannot be true.

But a proof-texting reader can find verses that support both of those ideas. Those summaries of those irreconcilable views are, in fact, citing scripture.

And I’m not  just citing different verses to support the two different ideas — I’m citing a single passage of scripture. Both summaries come from the very same words of the very same verse.

Open an English translation of the Christian Bible and turn to the final chapter of the book of Amos. There, in Amos 9:11-12, the King James Version reads like this:

In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up the ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen.

Now flip over to the New Testament, to the book of Acts, and read along (Acts 15:15-17) as James, the brother of Jesus, reads from this same passage in Amos:

And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles.

Same proof-text, opposite meanings.

As it happens, thanks to the pliability of a written language that didn’t include vowels, both of these readings are valid translations of whatever it was that Amos wrote. Plug in one set of vowels and you get a promise that the chosen people will one day “possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen.” Plug in a different set of vowels and you get a promise that God will work through the chosen people “that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles.”

Plugging in both sets of vowels is not an option. You can’t read this passage both ways.

You have to choose.

Pick one.

Which do you prefer? How should you decide?

Some Christians will say that they don’t need to decide. They’ll shrug off the example here, or that of the book of Jonah, as some kind of liberal/intellectual/seminary trickery and insist again that the Bible never confronts us with such decisions. There’s no need to choose sides, they say, because there’s only one side, the Bible’s side, and the only choice you have to worry about is whether or not you’re going to submit to the Bible’s authority. The paper pope will sort everything out for us.

What that means in practice, interestingly, tends to be that they choose Jonah’s side — that they long for the destruction of Ninevah and the glorious day when they, the select few, are granted the spoils of Edom and of all the heathen. The suggestion that this might not happen, as we just saw with the response to Bell’s video, makes them very angry. “Yes, angry enough to die.”

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  • Anonymous

    That’s why God, in His infinite wisdom and glory, created screen captures right after Satan created trolls.

  • Anonymous

    I know what it is, but possibly only because I know what it is (Doctor Science uses it as an LJ icon). Unless you’ve changed it since you posted this, in which case I know what your new avatar is.

  • Anonymous

    Hi, Mercury/Ellie! I can hear you now, and thanks to many others who can, I now know what that avatar is. I’ve seen it before lots of times, but I never paid much attention to it.

  • Anonymous

    testing …

  • Sgt. Pepper’s

    You certainly won’t be on your Pat Malone there Jason

  • The tags for blockquote are the same, just substituting “blockquote” for “i”.

  • Anonymous

    Also testing. And for what it’s worth, I think I might like threaded comments myself. I certainly know I like not having to deal with paginated comments. I have always wanted to be an active member of the commentariat here, but could never quite seem to figure out how to keep up without spending, like, all day refreshing the page.

  • Anonymous

    I also use a screen reader. And noticed those same accessibility quirks. It’s nothing I can’t manage, and I think I prefer this kind of threaded comments to what LJ uses, where I can’t automatically expand the threads by default.

  • Anonymous Al

    I agree that you need to refresh quite often in order to keep up with the comments here, and pagination can sometimes be annoying. However, I believe it’s vastly superior to a threaded system, at least in such a large community. It makes catching up almost impossible, since there’s no easy way to immediately see unread comments. You need to scroll through everything all over again. Then, there’s the fact that different threads are interwoven in ways that are only really possible with flat comments.

  • Anonymous

    This is true. I don’t know. I mean, I wasn’t really keeping up so well on the old site. Now at least I have new and different ways to not keep up?

  • Anonymous

    I do most of my Slactktivist reading on trains on my mobile phone, and it seems to be displaying the posts in chronological order with no threading. Which, given that we already seem to be giving up the notion of quoting what we are replying to, is making the following of conversations VERY hard.

  • Anonymous

    He’s also known as “Trololo Man” on the interwebs.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm. I’ve actually not turned off my “send to email” and since I have my email set up to thread all messages from one source with the same subject line into one long conversation (Gmail does it, how Hotmail has that option as well), I can actually read all the comments whether nested in side-threads or not. So long as it’s less than 50 or 100–not sure the number yet–comments since the last time I read it. After that it breaks the email. :P I can control the font that way too (I agree that the Typepad font is easier on my eyes).

    Still like the format on the old blog better, but I suppose I’ll live. And yes please, let’s have a check-in thread!

    (Everybody knows that Nicolae found out that you can change your display name to whatever you want, even if your Disqus account name is taken, right? So Raj and Mink and all, you can still show up as yourselves even if you had to sign up with Disqus as something strange and eldritch.)

  • Anonymous

    On the bright side, maybe having Slacktivist on a religious site will mean fewer people who come along going, “Fred must be an atheist in disguise, he is far too logical/kind/intelligent/whatever to be Christian!”

    Also, even if the community is more religious, and not always atheist-friendly, I don’t think the community here will ever be anti-atheist, or even marginalizing the atheists here. I hope, anyway. It really wouldn’t be the same without the diversity of opinions, and that’s only possible if we’re all friendly to each other.

  • More specific thinking on “Gehenna” here:

    one interesting point this author brings up is that according to historian Josephus, the Jewish dead from the seige of Rome were put literally in the Valley of Gehenna…. (I’ll need to study this more before I fully believe that this is historical) …but if it were, then Jesus may have almost literally been warning of Gehenna as a historical event and Judgement.

  • Hi Kit. I’m a member of h2g2, a community which is currently run by the BBC and is going independent. We’ll be facing a lot of upheaval, and moving to a new system. It has been suggested that we implement “Like” buttons, and there’s been a fair bit of debate about that. Would you mind if I quoted your post over there?


  • You can sign in with Google ID, because Google ID is a form of OpenID. If you don’t see a specific option to use Google ID, pick OpenID and then use as your OpenID.


  • Hi Jason,

    I hate threaded comments because:

    A: New posts can turn up throughout the thread, so I need to rescan the entire thread to see whether anything new has been said.
    B: If you turn them off, the conversation becomes unreadable, because people haven’t indicated who they’re replying to or why.
    C: Natural human conversation is linear, not threaded. And it’s nice to read about several things at once.
    D: They subdivide the community.


  • On the bright side, maybe having Slacktivist on a religious site will mean fewer people who come along going, “Fred must be an atheist in disguise, he is far too logical/kind/intelligent/whatever to be Christian!”

    Yes, because the place is less welcoming to atheists in general.

    I bet it’s proportionally more welcoming to the kind of Christian who will come in here and tell Fred that Religion: UR DOIN IT RONG.

    (Huh. Someone can prove me wrong, I hope, but if my memory serves us, our track record for converting That Sort of Christian into the sort of decent human being you can have a conversation with is a lot better than our track record of converting That Sort of Atheist into the sort of decent human being who doesn’t feel the need to chime in once a day to tell us that we’re all stupid, deluded, or mentally ill for believing in an invisible sky daddy)

  • Anonymous

    Newest at the top? Oh, that’s hideous.

  • Anonymous

    Weighing in as someone who tried to believe for a long time and simply couldn’t-I don’t think you can always choose what to believe. I have often wished I had any kind of faith but have slowly come to accept myself as default-agnostic because I simply can’t.

  • Mark Z.

    I tried to post this already so it might double-post, but: Here is a script to de-thread the comments, if anyone would like to try it.

  • Haven’t tried it in firefox, but it does not appear to work with Chromium.

  • hi

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