About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Hellbound: The Movie (full review)

There is a growing buzz around the new documentary Hellbound: The Movie. Check out the website. It was released in selected North American cinemas a few days ago.

It is a beautifully made and fascinating introduction to a debate within the contemporary church about the nature and duration of hell. But, more than that, it is an invitation for viewers to search their own hearts and consider what they believe, why, and what the implications of it are for how we view God and other human beings; indeed, how we treat other people.

The documentary is not a neutral guide that treats all views as equally plausible. It offers a clear critique of the traditional view of hell as eternal torment and it recommends, at very least, an openness towards universalism as a neglected view within the tradition.

What is especially good is that there is a focus throughout on the here-and-now implications of our views on hell. How should we treat those who disagree with us? How should we handle conflicts? How should we treat evil in society?

The documentary includes interviews with a range of people from street preachers to pastors to theologians to bloggers to philosophers to writers, an exorcist, death metal fans and musicians, and the like.

The movie frames the whole discussion of hell in the context of 9/11 and the cry for justice against overwhelming evil that lies behind the theology of hell. We then embark on a journey through a variety of Christian views on hell and their impact and implications for how we think of God and how we think of (and treat) other people. There are defenders of a wide range of views (though annihilationists were hardly represented so the focus was primarily versions of eternal torment vs. versions of universalism).

The first section sets forth the case for the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment and objections to universalism. Defenders of the trad view included Justin Taylor, Mark Driscoll (he featured a lot in the movie), Kevin DeYoung, Bob Larson (exorcist), Hank Hanegraaff, Mike Bickel, street preachers, and some of those crazy "God hates fags" protestors (they are gob-stoppingly horrific). My fave quote was from exorcist Bob Larson, who says that he believes in eternal hell because: "I believe Jesus and the demons" (emphasis his). (I know I took it out of context so don't quote it but I love the thought of getting one's theology of hell from demons.)

Then we move towards questioning the tradition. The movie explores some reason why traditionalists can be so zealous to resist those who question the mainstream view (on the grounds of both Scripture and tradition) and makes the case that questioning the tradition is a legitimate thing to do. Peter Kreeft (Catholic) Jerry Walls (Methodist) were particularly level-headed representatives who do not embrace universalism (though Kreeft is hopeful and Walls open).

The point was made that appeals to the authority of Scripture often mean the authority of my interpretation of Scripture. If you disagree with my interpretation of the Bible (which is what the Bible "clearly" says) then you are disagreeing with God. But, as Jerry Walls correctly points out (and he himself believes in a version of eternal punishment), the question is not whether we accept or reject the BIble but how we interpret the Bible. How we hold together texts that seem to teach eternal torment, texts that seem to teach annihilation, and texts that appear to affirm universalism. So we need to be more tolerant of each other.

Various interviewees argued that we need to focus less on crossing the doctrinal 't's and dotting the doctrinal 'i's than on living in gospel ways. Openness to others with different views and a willingness to live with tensions and mystery.

I was struck by Chad Holtz (a Luthran pastor who was sacked for becoming a universalist) — he was good. Other interviewees representing alternatives to the mainstream included David Bruce (hollywoodjesus.com). Greg Boyd, William Paul Young (author of The Shack), Sharon Baker, Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer, Robin Parry (me — looking every bit as jet-lagged as I felt when we did the interview), Michael Hardin, Brad Jersak, Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (Canadian Orthodox Monastery), Ron Dart, Jaime Clark-Soles. Some were universalists, some were hopeful, but all were up for discussing the issues with an open mind. (I was struck by the wise insights of Archbishop Puhalo — it must be the long beard.)

There is a good section reinvestigating the hell texts (Dan 12; Isa 66; the Genhenna texts) and the origins of the theology of hell. Brad Jersak is especially good arguing that so-called "eternal conscious torment" texts are actually about the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and not about the afterlife.

Christian Universalism in various different forms — hopeful universalism and more dogmatic versions — is given serious attention. Misunderstandings are cleared up and its alternative visions of hell are explored (justice as restorative as well as/instead of retributive; Hell as painful but not destructive of the person; purificatory, etc.).

Along the way there are some wonderful interview moments. I especially enjoyed some of Kevin Miller's pushing traditionalists to explore their theological positions.

For instance, discussing the use of hell houses in evangelism (on hell houses see here)
Kevin: "Can you imagine Jesus running a hell house?"
Hell house man: "[Pause] . . . That's tricky"
Yes. It is.

Or Kevin discussing with a couple of the crazy "God hates fags" protestors whether God does indeed hate 99.9999999% of the people he created
Kevin: "Do you have children?"
Crazy man: "I have four"
Kevin: "How many of them do you love?"
Crazy man: "exactly the right amount . . ."
Kevin: "How many is that? Give me a number."
Crazy man: "I'm doing the math . . . It's a little difficult. And, of course, it's an irrelevancy because . . .
Kevin: No, it's actually pretty relevant because Jesus told us that God is our Father and he framed the relationship betwen father and children. So, how many of your children do you love?
Crazy man: those who [. . .] obey me.

Watching Calvinist evangelists, pastors, and theologians insisting that God does not love everyone is fascinating. It is hard not to feel embarrased on their behalf . . . but they said it and meant it and are not embarrased so perhaps I should not feel so awkward for them. They are not asking for my pity.

This is a movie that is guaranteed to annoy everyone at some point — the range of views represented is wide — but it will annoy traditionalists more because their views are challenged from all angles: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

I know that I am biased but I thought this film was a very good, provocative discussion generator. It it is not — nor is it intended to be — an attempt to settle the discussion. It raises a whole load of issues and questions and invites viewers to consider and to think again. If it can do that much; if it can open up the discussion and incite Christians on all sides to explore further then it has done its job well.

The hard work is what happens afterwards.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Wisdom from Lucy Peppiatt

In our society we have a strange attitude to our children. On the one hand, we are terribly over-protective and risk averse when it comes to potential physical danger. On the other, we allow them to be exposed to terrible images through films and games and the like, which are shaping who they are in profound ways. I often feel we should exercise more control in the latter and less control in the former.
Lucy Peppiatt, The Disciple: On Becoming Truly Human. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, forthcoming

Good point. It is odd how over-protective we are in some areas and how laissez-faire in others. It says much about our own values.

(Lucy's book is an excellent trinitarian guide to discipleship. Practical theology at its accessible best. It is not about parenting but this little comment just struck a nerve and so I thought I'd share it.)

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Evangelicals and weak views of baptism

It has always seemed to me that evangelicals have a very take-it-or-leave-it approach to baptism. Indeed, so much so that when we preach the gospel the message is reduced to "repent and believe the gospel" and baptism does not so much as get a look in.

I suspect that the reason is that evangelicalism has always been transdenominational and evangelicals from different denoiminations have differing views on whether babies can be baptised. We have decided to set aside such issues for the sake of evangelical unity. As a result you will never hear the likes of Billy Graham say, in NT fashion, "Believe and be baptized."

But because baptism is now politely removed from evangelical understandings of how one responds to the gospel evangelicals struggle to know what to do with it.

Baptists. They're good on baptism, right? Surely if anyone pays it attention it is Baptists, right? Sadly — and I generalize here — the answer is No. Baptists are not that good on baptism. My experience is that baptists share with most evangelicals the idea that becoming a Christian is about repentance and faith. Baptism is about a public declaration of one's faith (hence the emphasis on the place of giving one's testimony at baptism). This confession is an outward symbol of what God has already done in your heart. And it is not just the Baptists who take this approach but all those baptistic Christians who follow in their footsteps (e.g., Pentecostals).

I have no time to make the case now but I think it can be easily demonstrated that this view of baptism is deeply sub-biblical. (David Pawson's book, The Normal Christian Birth, is very good on this point, even though I think that there is more to be said for infant baptism than he allows.) In the NT baptism is about conversion; it is about becoming a Christian; it is about getting saved. Baptism is more than a symbol. It is, to borrow later theological language, a sacrament by which God united us to Christ by his Spirit. Baptism accomplishes that which it symbolizes.

Am I a sacramentalist? Of course I am! I believe in the Holy Spirit and in the teaching of Scripture!

Maybe evangelical Anglicans are better on this front. They do get the idea that one becomes part of the church through baptism, right? Alas, No. In my experience, evangelical Anglicans are often just as weak in their view of baptism as Baptists. Their great fear is "baptismal regeneration" because that would mean that all the babies that got "done" are regenerate even if they have never attended church since, have never believed in God, let alone Jesus, and beat up old ladies. Clearly baptism does not make one a Christian. Repentance and faith do that. So baptism tends to create a bit of confusion and fuzzy thinking amoung some (not all) evangelical Anglicans. NT views have to be watered down to accomodate the problem of over-liberal application of baptism in some quarters.

So it seems to me that both the believer baptisers and the baby baptisers often (not always) seem to water down (excuse the pun) the NT stress on baptism as a sacrament of conversion. This cannot be good.

So we need some good ecumenical theological work to put baptism back at the centre of evangelical understandings of Christian initiation (whether it is babies or believers we are speaking of). We need to be able to create versions of things like Alpha courses that make a big deal about baptism.

Perhaps to pave the way for that we need to get past the "no-go zone" of baptism. Perhaps evangelical paedobaptists need to find theological ways of accommodating the practices of credo-baptists (the historical theological work of David F. Wright is excellent here); likewise, credo-baptists need to find theological ways of acknowledging the legitimacy the practice of baptising babies (the new wave of Baptist theologians, like Steve Holmes, have done good work here). Good things have been happening here, even among evangelical theologians, and I am very hopeful for a renaissance of baptismal theologies (note the plural) among evangelicals.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Fundamentalists — have the courage of your convictions

I have recently been working through Genesis 1 in my devotional times and I have had cause to revisit the ancient cosmology of biblical Israel. No big surprises here but, as is well known, the cosmos of the biblical text is one in which the earth is flat (though, in some versions, circular, like a round table top). Above the earth is a giant, solid dome (the "firmament") that keeps the chaotic waters above the earth at bay. The sun, moon, and stars are located this side of the dome. So during the flood — the only time in the Bible when rain fell from beyond the firmament, through the floodgates of the heavens (rather than from clouds) — we need to understand that the rain came from the other side of the sun, moon, and stars! It was a partial undoing of DAY TWO in Genesis 1.

I wonder why fundamentalists are so keen to believe in a literal seven-day creation and yet do not campaign against space flight (in case someone crashes into the sky-dome and cracks it) or organize recruitment drives for the Flat Earth Society. If you really want to use the Bible to derive cosmology then it seems the way to go.

Of course, fundamentalists realize that such views are simply not live possibilities, even for people with as firm convictions as they have. So they argue that the world in the Bible is not flat but actually spherical (Wow! How could biblical authors know that! Proof of inspiration!) and that the firmament is not a solid sky-dome but something else (what the something else is will vary depending on who you talk to). Alas, the arguments used to support a spherical earth in the Bible don't work while the flat earth case is very strong. The same goes for the sky-dome: the case for a solid dome is very strong (as evangelical scholar Paul Seeley demonstrated some years ago in a couple of articles in the Westminster Theological Journal) and the case against is, at best, weak (despite Greg Beale's attempt to defend it in an otherwise very good article on Temple Cosmology).

So the dilemma remains: if one wants to be a thoroughbred fundamentalist one really ought to believe that the sky is solid (with heaven the other side of it) and that the earth is flat (with Sheol/Hades literally below it). As an aside, I wonder how many fundamentalists would be so keen on "Big Oil" if they thought they might accidentally drill down into Hades!

Speaking for myself, I agree with the likes of Aquinas and Calvin that God accommodated himself in his communications with humanity. Perhaps God was not interested in correcting the ancient science of ancient Israel — he had bigger fish to fry. But I am inclined that God does not merely speak through Genesis 1 (and other biblical texts) in spite of its ancient cosmology but, in fact, precisely in and through it. That opens up a whole interesting conversation ... for another time.