When I was asked to guest blog for Darkwood Brew during this journey through Rob Bell’s most recent book Love Wins, my initial reaction was “Sure.” When I picked up the book and read the full title Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, I thought “Who cares?”
You see I am Jewish* and I have never fully understood the obsession that some Christians have with what happens after you die. That’s because in Judaism, we don’t have set teachings about this topic. Typically in the Jewish community, our focus is on doing in the “here and now” rather than on believing in the “then and there.”
So once I actually read the first couple of chapters of Rob Bell’s book, I was struck by how much of what he was suggesting was compatible with what I believe as a Jew. Not the Jesus-is-divine-and-the-ultimate-source-of-salvation part, but the way he embraced questioning and discussion, his insistence that there was more to consider about the text than just the words on the page, and the suggestion that just believing is not enough to make the world a better place- rather, you might need to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty-are all very Jewish ideas, which shouldn’t be so surprising considering Jesus was Jewish.** The idea (the term is tikkun olam, literally “world repair”) that we are partners with G-d and have a responsibility to create the conditions which will repair our broken world and usher in the Messianic Age is a powerful concept in Jewish thought and one which has had a great personal influence on how I understand the world and my role in it. So reading Bell’s interpretation of how Jesus understands heaven (as living out your faith to the fullest through your actions in right now) didn’t seem as radical to my Jewish eyes as I gather it may seem to some of Bell’s Protestant- especially more theologically conservative- contemporaries.
What did leave me a bit confused and slightly unsettled in reading the first two chapters of this book was Bell’s reluctance to fully commit to exploring Jesus’ Jewishness and drawing a clear distinction between Jewish and Christian belief. I appreciate that Rob Bell was trying to put Jesus into his historical context in a way that is palatable to a general audience, especially a more conservative Christian general audience, but I found it rather annoying and almost disrespectful to sprinkle in a few Jewish terms like olam habah without fully giving space to what that means in a Jewish context and without explaining some of the basics of first-century Judaism (which, while related, is not the same as the Judaism you’ll find being practiced today at your local synagogue). From my perspective, the danger of not doing this is twofold: 1) It can reinforce the idea of Christian supercessionism (basically, that Judaism just existed to give birth to Christianity and that Judaism is no longer relevant since Christianity has fulfilled G-d’s covenant with his people through the resurrection of Jesus); and 2) it can lead to an oversimplified view of the extremely diverse and complex Jewish (and Roman) society that Jesus inhabited and this, in turn, can cause a very narrow and inaccurate understanding of Judaism. I know that improving Jewish-Christian relations is not the goal of this book, but it seems if Rob Bell is going to argue that we all have a responsibility in creating the conditions for G-d’s kingdom through our actions right here and now, that more fully explaining the Jewish context of which Jesus was a part so as to stop the promulgation of years of anti-Jewish teachings and misunderstanding might be a good start. In fairness, I am still reading the remaining chapters of the book, so he perhaps he does more of this in subsequent chapters (fingers crossed).
As an interfaith practicioner*** by trade, I must say that I found the first couple chapters of this book to be very fascinating to consider from an interfaith (among different religions and belief systems) and an intrafaith (within the same religion or belief system) perspectives. I’ll contemplate that more in my future posts. Til then, thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to your takes on these chapters…
*Disclaimer: I am not here to represent Judaism, Jews, scholars on Judaism, or the Jewish community, I just represent Beth Katz. I know, bummer, right? But fear not, if you in fact are looking for resources on any of the aforementioned topics, I suggest visiting myjewishlearning.com.
**Unless you believe as my friend Laura’s mom does that Jesus was born Catholic, but that is really another topic to tackle at a future time. However, I suggest you read Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew if you are having any doubts about the Jewishness of Jesus.
*** “A what?” you might ask. You are not the first person to react this way. Basically, it means that I spend my days (and some nights) working to grow understanding, respect and relationships among people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures through creative online and community programming and good old-fashioned face-to-face conversations. Intrigued? Visit projectinterfaith.org to learn more.