Smart people saying smart things

Smart people saying smart things August 23, 2012

Kevin Miller: “Talking to Christians About Hell: It’s Not as Easy as You’d Think”

Experience has shown me that too many Christians have a strong emotional investment in a doctrine of hell they’re unable to articulate, much less defend against rival interpretations. Worse, they’re not even aware such interpretations exist. And then they treat their subjective, ill-informed beliefs about hell as the litmus test for orthodoxy.

For example, another common question I get after someone watches our teaser trailer [for the documentary Hellbound?] is, “Interesting. How does it end?”

… To be a bit more charitable, I realize what people really want to know is, “What’s your position on hell?” Of course, I’m far too cagey to give a direct answer. Instead, I say, “We’re taking a critical look at multiple views on hell in order to provoke informed discussion. I’m not interested in telling viewers what to think. My goal is to help them learn how to think about hell and other contentious theological issues.”

That usually satisfies, but I still get my share of suspicious looks, because deep down what they really want to know is, “Are you one of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’?”

Glennon Melton: “The Talk”

Tomorrow is a big day. Third Grade — wow.

Chase – When I was in third grade, there was a little boy in my class named Adam.

Adam looked a little different and he wore funny clothes and sometimes he even smelled a little bit. Adam didn’t smile. He hung his head low and he never looked at anyone at all. Adam never did his homework. I don’t think his parents reminded him like yours do. The other kids teased Adam a lot. Whenever they did, his head hung lower and lower and lower. I never teased him, but I never told the other kids to stop, either.

And I never talked to Adam, not once. I never invited him to sit next to me at lunch, or to play with me at recess. Instead, he sat and played by himself. He must have been very lonely.

I still think about Adam every day. I wonder if Adam remembers me? Probably not. I bet if I’d asked him to play, just once, he’d still remember me. …

Bruce Reyes-Chow: “The Church’s Doomed Pursuit of the Elusive Young Adult”

I find it interesting that most of the conversations about “reaching young adults” take place among people who are distinctly not young adults. I think it is a way that many of us try to prove that 40 really is the new 20 and extend our youth for as long as we can. Sorry folks, but as we age, our roles and perspectives change. I for one do not regret this, rather I embrace and welcome the roles that I will hold in the future. If we are reach young adults with integrity, then young adults must to be at the table and part of the direction setting in significant ways. Much like we would never plant a Korean American church with a team that was 90-percent non-Korean, we must not try to create relevant young adults ministries by relying on the musings of even the best intentioned 40, 50 and 60 year-olds. For as hip of a 43-year-old as I fool myself into believing I am, I do not and will not experience the world through the eyes of a 20-year-old — and there is nothing I can do to change that. The best thing I can do is to acknowledge this reality and then find the best ways to empower, guide and support that 20-year-old as she/he discovers a place and role in the future of the church. This posture must be taken in all aspects of the journey: planning process, fiscal management, organizational development, etc. if we are to truly create and sustain ministry with and for young adults.

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  • Morilore

    To be a bit more charitable, I realize what people really want to know is, “What’s your position on hell?”

    Either that, or “will watching your documentary provoke unfamiliar thoughts that may cause me salvation anxiety?”

  • The thing about hell…is that if there  WAS a hell, I think we’d be ethically required to be opposed to whatever sort of horrible tyrant consigned anyone there.  I mean– if an eternity of torture exists, whoever sends someone to an eternity of torture is literally the worst possible being of all committing the greatest possible cruelty.

    Now you can wiggle around that; “hey, he didn’t send them there, they sent THEMSELVES there,” but that argument sort of falls apart with like “what about dudes like Buddha who never knew a Jew or a Christian?”

    Or hey, for that matter, if there is a doctrine of Original Sin…what sort of evil being uses collective punishment in perpetuity?  That is some real raw evil.  If a dictator did that I’d be pretty appalled.

  • I get the point of Glennon Melton’s piece, but I can’t escape the idea that she is asking her son to be braver and kinder than she herself was at the same age. I think she was right to talk about how she feels now about not having been nicer to Adam then, but she might then have left t to her son to ask questions or draw his own conclusions.

  • Twig

    Neil Gaiman did hell best, IMO.  That whole book is great.

  • Wingedwyrm

    I think one of the biggest issues with the currently popular concept of Hell is that it is exactly the kind of fly-trap theology that many atheists ascribe to the entirety of Christianity.  I still ascribe this to the majority of Christendom’s view of Christianity.

    Once you believe, even tentatively, that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing being that exists and that not believing so will set you to burn throughout eternity without respite, you’re assailed on along all escape attempts with the fear that you’re right.  It’s like standing still, completely blind, with no handholds, no cane, no hints at all that there’s any floor infront of you, behind you, or to either side and a belief that anywhere you step can only lead you to your death.  How do you take that first step?

    @Twig what Neil Gaiman book are you referring to?

  • Sandman, I imagine.

  • Magic_Cracker

    …what sort of evil being uses collective punishment in perpetuity?

    JHVA-1, that’s who — but fortunately you can be saved or triple your money back!

  • AnonymousSam

    Was that the one where Samael closes Hell, and Heaven takes it over and puts a new angel in charge of making sure the torment and damnation continue?

  • vsm

    That’s the one.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    The concept of Hell used in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series actually based on the Tibetan Buddhist concept of Hell.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that there is a Hell after death, but it’s actually an illusion created by a dead person’s own guilt and shame and self-hatred.  The Book of the Dead advises its readers that if they find themselves in Hell after death, simply let go of all your  guilt/shame/self-hatred and Hell will vanish and you will meet the Boddhisattvas who will guide you to the Realms of Enlightenment.

  • AnonymousSam

    I always wanted to read that.

    That part reminded me of the Coldfire trilogy. It had an interesting premise. Far in the future, Earth’s inhabitants climb aboard ships and set out in search of inhabitable planets. They eventually find the planet of Erna as their ship is running low on fuel and power and set down upon it, discovering it to be seemingly ideal, except for one thing.

    Erna is home to currents of mostly-invisible energy called the fae, which function similarly to how most fantasy novels treat mana. It can be molded to fuel sorcery, but it also has one other significant property: it is highly responsive to human emotions. It can alter probability, or be shaped into the guise of creatures who seemingly give people what they desire, but absorb the vitality of those they draw upon in order to maintain stability, eventually absorbing enough human intellect to evolve from specters into demonic creatures.

    It’s even worse for the religious. Those praying to Christ are beset upon by dozens of Christs, each seemingly genuine, each able to manifest miraculous powers to heal the sick and the injured, each preaching exactly what their petitioners want to hear… and each slowly devouring the life energy of their victims.

    One man learns a lesson from this and strives to put an end to the chaos. He studies religions from Earth and begins writing scripture, tailored specifically to Erna’s environment and the influence of the fae. His theory is that if enough people are taught to envision God in a specific way, their collective hopes and prayers will create a deity who transcends the nature of Erna. This requires that God not perform miracles on demand, or make appearances to his followers, or allow the natural order to be subverted by an errant wish. God must be loving, but strict, aiding only those who deserve it, and subtly at that.

    One of the first actions of the new church is to condemn all sorcery and aberrant behavior, to write Hell into the scriptures, and condemn everyone who transgresses against God to that Hell… including the writer of that scripture.

  • Fusina

     Okay, that is totally cool. I knew I liked Buddhism for more than the awesome meditation stuff.

    Gonna have to read the Sandman books now. Really liked Good Omens and Coraline.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    Another central idea from the Sandman series that Tibetan Buddhism shares is the  belief that all the various gods, demigods, demons, devils, elementals, etc., from all the belief systems in the world truly exist, and they exist because enough people believe in them strongly enough to bring them into being.  This is an extension of the central principal that the Material World is simply an illusion created by all of our minds interacting with each other.

    Douglas Adams also borrowed this idea for his book, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul.  The protagonist creates a “guilt god” that totally kicks ass at the end of the book.

  • Geo X

    The fact that Kevin Miller worked on Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed suggests that he is in a lot of ways a not very smart person, even if he said a reasonably smart thing in this one instance.

  • vsm

    Wikipedia says he was one of the three writers. Not a very impressive credit at all.

  •  “Experience has shown me that too many Christians have a strong emotional
    investment in a doctrine of hell they’re unable to articulate,”

    Being correct can have some pleasure in itself, still Madden online is more popular than crossword puzzles for a reason.  The real joy in knowing the ‘truth’ lies in the sense that believers in the truth have achieved a form of victory. winners need losers to contrast themselves against, and the more losers there are the more exclusive and therefore better one’s own victory is.  Simple as that really. 

  • Tybult

    The other kids teased Adam a lot. Whenever they did, his head hung lower and lower and lower.

    Ow, shit, right in my feels, man.  I’m going to go cry into a beer, now.

  • B

     Fantastic series of books, one of the best I’ve read in terms of making a “bad” character whose motivations were (to me at least) understandable.  Obviously I don’t endorse them, but in so many books, people who do terrible things have no real motive for their actions beyond the boilerplate “he does EVIL things because he’s EVIL.” 

    Also noteworthy because said character actually *did bad things* over the course of the book.  Many books/movies/shows seem make a character and TELL us he’s bad, but never actually SHOW him doing anything especially bad because they don’t want to challenge their audience by making them sympathetic to a character that does bad things.   The Coldfire books, not so much.

    To be pedantic, though, it isn’t the fact that he wrote the scripture that got him condemned to Hell. :-)

  • EllieMurasaki

    The Tibetan Book of the Dead says that there is a Hell after death, but it’s actually an illusion created by a dead person’s own guilt and shame and self-hatred.
    Which is fascinating, but I thought the purpose of belief in a punitive afterlife was to right wrongs that weren’t righted during life. So someone who has no idea that they did wrong, or who doesn’t believe anyone who told them they had, wouldn’t have any guilt or shame or self-hatred about it, which means if they escape punishment in life (as too many of them do, hello rapists, hello exploiters of the poor) then they get away clean. I prefer the idea of no afterlife to this idea. Nobody gets their due reward or punishment, but nobody gets undue reward or punishment either.

  • Julian Elson

    And, just to degrade the level of the conversation slightly, see also the 1990 horror film Jacob’s Ladder: 

    (Specific scene in clip is not horrifying, although it is arguably mildly homoerotic.)

  • Dan Audy

    I’m not certain what the Tibetan Book of the Dead says on the subject but takes on that general theology I’ve seen in the past generally include true understanding the overcomes any delusions or false beliefs so that a large part of what they are feeling guilt and shame over is the fact that in life they failed to recognize the harm they did and now are faced with its true enormity and terribleness as they experience the suffering their victims did.

  • Tom

    I posted this comment on Melton’s blog:

    “Thinking back to my school days upon reading this I really couldn’t
    think of an ‘Adam’, and I think it’s because the picture you paint is
    (perhaps rightly in your case) of a deserving but hard done by victim. I
    think the reality for many schools/the perception of kids is that
    Adam’s can be as annoying, anti-social and nasty as the next kid. My
    only worry is that upon reading this letter kids might see a kid in
    their class and think ‘well, nobody likes him, he smells, he always
    keeps his head down… but he’s not Adam because he always says weird
    things/he once hit another kid/he was hostile to my pity so he’s not
    like Adam who was a “good kid”‘
    Maybe it’s just because I wasn’t in with the popular kids (i.e. the
    nasty ones) but I don’t really remember many people being outcasts for
    looking different/smelling etc without the kids justifying this to
    themselves using other reasons – even if it was just some stupid rumor.”

    I have some problems with her letter – I think any Adam who doesn’t come across as the perfect little martyr, as in her description, could be perceived as deserving isolation or ridicule.  Lets face it – every kid at some point gives other people a reason to resent them… even the nicest kid can be a dick sometimes.

    Maybe it’s the fact that she’s talking to her kid and the kid version of me is just too different.  I guess there were kids at my school who could have done with the Adam talk as it stands, but lets face it – they were the popular kids… i.e. the jerks… i.e. the bullies.  The rest of us already knew from a young age that picking on a saint-like unfortunate was a douchebag thing to do, either that or we were Adams ourselves.

    I hope her kid isn’t one of these popular jerks – but then you never know.  A lot of those kids at my school had similar Disney style ‘perfect families’…

  • Tonio

    In another thread I mentioned a teacher’s observation that I was very physically awkward and lacked basic social skills. I probably wasn’t an Adam because occasionally I would lash out when my tolerance for taunting and teasing had been used up. I was probably thinking that this would scare off not only the teasers but anyone else thinking of teasing me. 

    I’ve been told that they merely wanted a reaction and that by not ignoring them, I was giving them what they wanted. But if I did that I would have felt like a chump who lets people walk all over him. Plus, they shouldn’t have wanted to get a reaction from me in the first place. That desire doesn’t make sense on any level – if you don’t like someone, the logical thing to do is to leave him or her alone. 

    I remember playing volleyball in ninth grade and doing badly, with the ball hitting me on the head at one point. After that, any time I messed up a shot, one girl would say that the ball hit one of my nerves. Even typing this I still feel the same anger and shame that I felt 30 years ago. I don’t know if she had any idea how bad she made me feel, partly about myself and partly about the world seeming like a hostile place. Even the reasonable suggestion that people do all sorts of dumb and insensitive things at that age would seem like my hurt was being minimized.

  • redsixwing

    Oh little fishies, do I love the Coldfire Trilogy. <3 Yes, to the showing a truly monstrous character, who is still relatable, even likeable – even, in some cases, right.  Gives me shivers.

    Relevant spoilers ROT13'd below.

    V ybirq gung jura $Cebgntbavfg npghnyyl qbrf gnxr n gevc guebhtu Uryy, vg – orvat rvgure n irel ovt snr-pbafgehpg vgfrys, be fbzrguvat irel fvzvyne – ortvaf gb funcr vgfrys gb uvz, engure guna vgf npghny vaunovgnag.

    Naq V ybir gjvpr uvf vagrenpgvba jvgu Xneevy va gung nep.


    I usually read that trilogy about once a year, and one of these times, I'm tempted to blog some analysis of it, but I always realize as I get into it again exactly how much time that would take (and how little time I generally have, in winter, which is always when I end up reading it). Still, the conceptual richness in those books is a delight.

  • Kitiara Uth Matar

    Okay, Kevin Miller* may be a nice guy and I appreciate what he’s trying to do.

    But if you actually read this entire post there, two thoughts arise:

    1.) No matter what his views, if he talks to people the way he writes about talking to people, then he is a pretty good example of why Nobody Likes Theologians.

    ‘”Oh, really?” I answered…’

    Ugh. Want to convince me, in the space of a half-second, to hate you with the fury of a thousand suns? Easy: Respond to something I say with “Oh, really?” Extra suns’ fury if you do it with raised eyebrows and a pointing finger.

    2.) Keep reading the whole thing: In what way is Mr. Miller not a Mansplainer? I say this as someone who probably would get along with him very well, but admit it: If he were arguing for a position fewer people on this thread didn’t agree with, we’d have his number pretty immediately.

    I mean look:

    ““Furthermore, if you’re as avid a Bible reader as you seem to be, surely
    you realize the Bible contains three sets of texts: those that seem to
    teach eternal torment, those that appear to teach annihilation and those
    that suggest all people will ultimately be reconciled to God. So even
    if you prioritize one set of texts, you still have to interpret the
    other two in a way that neither negates them nor explains them away. Of
    course, you’ll also need to explain why someone who disagrees with you
    would go to hell for rejecting what appears to be an entirely subjective

    I mean, I sort of doubt Mr. Miller actually talks this way aloud. But if he comes close, then that is exactly the sort of windy didacticism that *defines* Mansplaining.

    “Of course”? Man, that’s almost as bad as “Oh, really?”

    *Btw, are people surnamed ‘Miller’ *required* to become clergy or theologians?

  • redsixwing

    That sort of windy didacticism -is-  ‘splaining, you’re right.

    He’s even painting himself as the misunderstood and blown-off aggressor. I’d want to watch his film trailer, but I seriously doubt I could take the ‘splaining without getting annoyed.

  • Tonio

    I’ve never heard of Rob Bell or Love Wins, and I don’t know how many people haven’t either, but I think it’s a mistake for Miller to assume that either of these are common knowledge. 

    didacticism alone isn’t Mansplaining. Here’s the best definition I’ve encountered: 

    Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate “facts” about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.

    Bonus points if he is explaining how you are wrong about something being sexist!

    Think about the men you know. Do any of them display that delightful mixture of privilege and ignorance that leads to condescending, inaccurate explanations, delivered with the rock-solid conviction of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation?

    That dude is a mansplainer

    I would agree that folks like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher argue against religion in ways that resemble Mansplaining. The key difference is that atheism is still publicly unacceptable and that while many atheists have privilege from other personal characteristics, they’re still on the losing end of privilege when it comes to religious matters.

  • Tonio

    Yes, I would label what Miller is doing as ‘spalining instead of Mansplaining, because of the extra layers involved with the latter. 

  • Tonio

    I would amend my post to say that I’ve heard about Bell or his book, it didn’t stick in my memory.

  • I think the reality for many schools/the perception of kids is that Adam’s can be as annoying, anti-social and nasty as the next kid.

     Wow, really?

    I wish I had gone to your school, where everyone who was reviled had done something antisocial and nasty.

    There were several of us who were hated because we had been abused at home and had just learned to take it at school, too.  We kept our heads down (literally and figuratively) and when the bullies wanted to beat us up (physically or verbally), we just took it. And no, no adults ever intervened, either.  This was the 1970s.  Occasionally one of the teachers would give us the “can’t we all just get along” speech and then nothing would come of it.

    Now, it’s possible that I did something terrible to another kid and just don’t remember, but since I was terrified of them, I never actually interacted much with them.  I may have just looked to them like a good victim.

  • AnonymousSam

    It hasn’t changed one bit in the forty years since then, either, except now they don’t bother giving that speech. In many schools, teachers are instructed not to acknowledge bullying or classroom disruptions at all unless it breaks out into an actual fight, in which case, they should punish both parties equally regardless of who started it.

  • Tricksterson

    It’s well intentioned and an example of the better angels of Christianity but reads as if written by Stuart Smalley.

  • Erna is home to currents of mostly-invisible energy called the fae,
    which function similarly to how most fantasy novels treat mana. It can
    be molded to fuel sorcery, but it also has one other significant
    property: it is highly responsive to human emotions. It can alter
    probability, or be shaped into the guise of creatures who seemingly
    give people what they desire, but absorb the vitality of those they draw
    upon in order to maintain stability, eventually absorbing enough human
    intellect to evolve from specters into demonic creatures.

    Sounds kind of like how the Warp functions in Warhammer 40,000. It’s basically a hyperspace dimension composed of psychic energy that reflects emotions from realspace, giving form to entities of various dispositions and power – most notably the four Chaos Gods which embody rage, despair, hedonism, and hope.

    The last one is probably the most dangerous of the four.

  • Isabel C.

    I also am not a fan of saying that you’re morally obligated to be friends with, or social with, any given person. Particularly not to girls.

    Stopping other kids from teasing–via talking to teachers or whatever? Sure. Not teasing yourself? Absolutely.

    But if you don’t like someone’s company, you don’t like someone’s company. And having just spent three days on Scalzi’s blog explaining that no, girls don’t owe guys “a chance” and we don’t owe them conversation and so on and so forth, I’m a bit prickly on this issue. If you’re not into spending time with someone, that doesn’t make you a bad person, and I think that’s a pretty important message too.

    Now, granted, in my experience adults tend to be excluded for good reasons (if sometimes “well, life is unfair” reasons), and maybe not so much with kids, so “give someone a chance” is a little more valid in third grade…but even so, I think it’s important to let kids know that they have the right to choose their friends.

  • Tom

     Sorry, maybe I didn’t explain well – I just mean that from the point of view of the aggressor it’s rarely as simple as ‘that kid’s different, get him’ even if the reality is that it’s that simple.  Kids know all about bad guys and good guys and that it’s bad guys who pick on people for no reason, so to stop themselves being bad guys they invent all kinds of reasons – even if they are bullshit reasons.

    My point being that even after ‘the talk’ I think it would be fairly easy for kids to go to school and pick on someone who doesn’t deserve it, since the reality of most humans is that they are more complex than Adam, the tailor-made martyr/victim.