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

    It is indeed a very adorable bunny! :D Yay icons working.

  • Hey, I’m the token Borg on this board, thank you very much :)

  • Lonespark

    I had that problem too. Also my name. “Princess Bunnikins, Angel of Doom” had too many characters. Boo.

  • Anonymous

    Testing, testing, 1-2-3

  • Anonymous

    If we’re voting on threaded vs flat view, I’ll put in my vote for flat view. I suppose there will be the occasional side-discussion that ends up threaded, but at least for major discussions, I’d like to see them the way they used to be on Typepad.

    Also, does anyone know if there’s an option in the profile to set comments to default to “oldest first” instead of “popular now”? That would be helpful. Save some scrolling, for me.

  • Anonymous

    Yes! I love bunnies. :)

  • Lonespark


    (ach, this is not capslock_atla, self. Behave)

  • Testing, testing, seeing if this is going to work. Resistance is fairly dumb.

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    What do you mean by “open?”

  • Jason

    shameless self promotion…new blog post at the controversial blog which is at the same place its always been:

  • What, I’m the only one of me around?
    I’m … disapponted. I thinnk.

  • And would read them if we asked, I’m sure.

  • Anonymous

    Currently active, being posted to, accumulating discussion. I think.

  • Anonymous

    Test? Somebody stole “BabyRaptor” so I had to add an underscore…I must meet this person and ask them if they got their nickname the same embarrassing way I did. >.>

  • there’s an local option for that, right under the comments box on the right side. (I suspect a lot of people have set it for ‘oldest first’.)

  • That’s okay. At work we have nanny software that blocks blogs, but not most other sites.

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    Given our penchant for multiple tangential discussions in pretty much every thread, I think some form of organizing might help.

    Especially for those of us who can’t get here every day. There have been several times I’ve arrived at a thread late and wanted to post on one topic that got started for a couple pages midway through the thread, but the thread had already moved on to the next subtopic then and I felt really awkward bringing it up 5 pages after the last post about it.

  • Anonymous

    Can I just say yay for threaded comments?

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    See my comment to Laiima. There have been times when I’ve gotten to a comment thread late and wanted to comment on a subtopic that the thread had already moved off from. Threads have been moving so fast lately that I’m actually hoping for a more flexible time frame on when you can post on one tangent or another.

    (of course, it would make it harder to say “see my above comment” when I’m not sure whether it’s above or below this comment depending on who’s viewing, but it’s a trade-off)

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    It’d be nicer if there was a way to tell Disqus to automatically default to that setting rather than have to click it manually each time.

    I’m currently exploring dashboard options.

  • Lonespark

    That sounds to me like a decent middle ground. Like if it’s really just a convo with one other poster, make it a separate thread, but otherwise there usually wouldn’t be a need. Except of course here I am threading things. Ooops.

  • Will Wildman

    Oh, good, avatar selection. Because I really needed another level of distraction built into slacktivist!

    I’m also not so sure about the threaded comment system, nor the Like buttons, but I am very much in favour of the ability to edit comments.

    Maybe when there’s a new LB post we should all just occasionally break out into italics for the heck of it.

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    You could try “Sgt. Pepper’s” and have “Bleeding Hearts Club Band” as the Bio in your profile (Disqus displays your bio right after your name, for some reason).

    It wouldn’t be all the same typeface, though… maybe you could fill your real name as just “.” and have the full name as the Bio?

  • Anonymous

    I can see that using LastPass is going to be a headache with Disqus. As mentioned above, rearranging the comments seems to be necessary on each visit. I hope I’m overlooking some trick.

    On a more general note, the need to register with a third party feels like an abridgment of free association (in the Max Stirner sense) to a small degree. The fact that that third party wants to integrate with my Facepage and demands access for cookies doesn’t help. Perhaps that is my own paranoia and luddism rather than reality.

    None of this is intended as a complaint, mind you. More powerful tools are useful and fun to play with.

  • Anonymous

    This is lovely!
    Happy housewarming!

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    Yeah… I love threaded comments (for reasons I’ve gone into), but I’m definitely squeamish about “Like” buttons.

  • I love the whole single-sign-on thing in principle, but in practice, twitter’s blocked from work. I don’t Facebook, but it’s also blocked from work. And any page which the filter hasn’t categorized is blocked from work. The nice thing about typepad is that everyone knows what kind of site typepad is, so every domain is identified as a blog, and blogs are allowed by default. Hopefully patheos is as well.
    (My own website,, is blocked. But my blog,, is not. Because the word “blog” is magic.)

  • Vixenmage

    …The comment thread is at the top. This is new and scary. (This is cool! I like it!) And I’d meant to change my name to Coyote Sister or something that would be less confusing anyhow. If the names are not entirely snatched up, I may just go back to m’old PPC name, as this one seems to fit oddly.

    Hey, as long as we’re doing shameless self-promotion things, can I link this?

  • Coyote, who fails at internets

    …Okay, so I’m not logged in, and it used my e-mail. My secret identity! Revealed! Oh No! …The link was and I’ll try and figure out why it didn’t log me in.

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    Oops. ^_^;

  • Thalia

    This debate has been going on between myself and my BFF Mark, not really a debate, more of a feeling our way along trying to figure out what is right. It’s like the argument that Judaism has about whether you act like you live in this world, or act like you live in the world to come. Is forgiveness stronger, or do we need to defend ourselves? If our goal is to be righteous, we must ask not just what happens to us, but what happens to them.

  • Anonymous

    Riza icon!

    Err, sorry, she’s one of my favorite characters ever in anything, and it always makes me happy to see other fans of FMA around :).

  • Anonymous

    Hmmm…that could work. There’s a pesky comma but misplaced punctuation might be a small price to pay to keep my handle.

    You’re a very helpful fellow for someone who’s supposed to be the Anti-Christ :)

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    I see a two-headed bison, actually. One blue head and one red.

  • Anonymous

    Agreeing with the Anti-Christ here. It’s also a great way to skip the Doctor Who discussions/flamewars that make you want to tear your eyeballs out. Or hone in on those discussions, if you’re so inclined.

    Also, we can like other people’s comments! Let the witty popularity contest begin!

  • Coyote, who fails at internets

    (Wait, you want actual discussion? But we’re still playing with the new toys!)

    I think it’s both, and it depends. The fact is, even if you’d like to live as though it was the world to come, there’s ways in which you simply can’t. If you don’t defend yourself against an attack, you’re not just allowing yourself to be put in danger, you’re hurting everyone who cares about you, and further on in life, everyone who may depend on you. This is an argument I’ve had with a friend several times, for far more frivolous and less thoughtful reason – but it boils down, I think, to judging the situation on an individual basis and doing what your conscience says – for the most part, anyway. I don’t think it’s an issue that can be put into black and white terms.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry dude, I appear to have liked your pun twice. Once is friendly but twice is coming on a bit strong!

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    Hey, kindness towards one’s fellow humans is evil in the LB!verse, remember? :D

  • Anonymous

    Hah! Yes. I keep thinking and saying “flat view, flat view!” and then going and adding to the threaded comments anyway. It may be the LiveJournaller in me coming out. But yeah, I think a compromise of some sort will eventually be worked out. I hope!!

  • Nicolae Carpathia

    Yeah, Lieutenant Hawkeye is awesome.

  • Anonymous

    Whee! More FMA fans. :)

  • I just love how she was handled as a character; she had her BSOD and moments of doubt and panic, but she never stopped being strong and kicking ass. And I am so happy with the way Arakawa left the relationship between her and Roy ambiguous and out of the manga and didn’t consign her to the ‘girlfriend’ role or anything – and they’re my OTP at that.

    …I should probably take this to my LJ, lol :P. I just really love that series.

  • I, for one, welcome our threaded overlords. It makes the blog look more like the cool kids.

    No sarcasm, there, either — I love comment threading.

  • Anonymous

    Ah, lake shore. At least I was close.

  • And by ‘database’ you mean ‘brain’, y/y? :P.

  • I’m pretty sure threaded commenting is an invention of the Antichrist. (Do you want to fess up, Nicky She’ll-Be-Comin’-Round-The?) This is going to be unpleasant for me.

  • Anonymous

    Er, PPC as in “Protectors of the Plot Continuum” by any chance?

    (Probably not.)

  • In (partial) response to KevinC’s last post on the old blog:

    I can’t speak for Fred obviously, but it still looks to me like you’re reading the Bible in the way Team Hell does, or in a similar manner, except with the view that its assertions are false in every regard instead of true in every regard.

    For example, in the book of Job, you take the killing of his family and the boils as a literal act that we’re supposed to attribute to the character of God (though, it was actually Satan who did the afflicting.) The author of the book of Job obviously could not see into heaven and give an account of a conversation between God and Satan. That’s a framing device, possibly even added later by a different editor, to explain Job’s misfortune. The story of Job a myth (in the sense of a cultural story intended to explain the world).

    It’s making a point that life is unfair, that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. The majority of the text is comprised of opposing viewpoints on why Job is suffering, and in the end, the author gives his viewpoint to God: you’re a mortal, you don’t understand, but God has his reasons. We can’t know them so it’s ours to suck it up and deal. That’s an unpleasant message, but it’s not an unreasonable one to keep in mind. We can’t know why bad things happen to good people or why bad people get away with their crimes, and we are wrong when we assume that suffering is the result of wrongdoing.

  • Anonymous

    Oh very much so. She’s one of the best women characters I know of. :)

  • This is going to be odd.

    Oh, and nice article, Fred.