Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Slow Down Your Neighbors: Universalism, Semiotics, and Rob Bell

The semiotics of sitcoms - there's a blog post there.

This one pastor chappie, Rob Bell, has been causing a ruckus in the Christian blogosphere with his new book, Love Wins. In it, I'm told, he argues that there is no such thing as eternal damnation, but after death non-Christians will still have the opportunity to repent, and, faced with direct and immediate evidence of eternal life in ever-loving God, they all will. It's a position known as universalism: everyone gets saved. And it's a position excoriated by conservative evangelicals, among whose numbers Rob Bell has been pleased to rank for the duration of his career.

Now the evangelicals are not happy with Mr. Bell. In this 10,000-word takedown, one such Christian calls the book inaccurate, indefensible, naive, muddled, blasphemous, and – horror of horrors! - liberal. In many mainstream Christian circles, it seems, there is no greater insult than the l-word. (No, the other one.) (No, the other one.) (No, the other other one.) Dearly beloved leader of the free peoples of Shorelandia John Shore has written several articles in response to readers asking questions like “Is the Devil Making Me Believe in a 'Liberal' God Who Isn't the True God?”, “Does the Holy Spirit Vote Republican?”, and, in 2008, “Will God Forgive Me if I Don't Vote for McCain?”.

The assumption that Christianity and conservatism go together like Charlie Sheen and incoherent bragging has always baffled me. To me it's self-evident that, in the words of another dearly beloved leader of the free peoples, Stephen Colbert, “reality has a well-known liberal bias”. And maybe my third-world upbringing gave me too much of an affinity with Liberation Theology, the Latin American Christian movement of the 1970s that condemned oppression and gave a theological voice to the poor, but it's equally self-evident that God has a liberal bias.

I could proof-text this. I could point to Old Testament passages that demand welfare provision for poor and vulnerable groups in society; to the Psalms' many strong words about God's hatred of injustice and concern for the oppressed; to the way Jesus hung out with people on the lowest social rung, and told people to pay their taxes and keep church and state separate; even to the passage in Acts where the early Christians practiced – yes, they did – communism. But proof-texting is a peculiarly evangelical tactic, and so, having availed myself of a rhetorical device of which Cicero would be proud, I will move on.

The problem with proof-texting – the problem with conservative and evangelical Christianity as a whole, really – is that it privileges one's own reading of the text, to the exclusion of all others. To return to that gargantuan panning of Love Wins, you'll notice a severe insistence that “[b]oth sides [of the universalism debate] cannot be right”, and a constant appeal to both traditional Christian orthodoxy and what the Bible “clearly” says. If you can't understand why “it's tradition, so it must be right” is a specious argument, you're clearly not cut out for critical thinking; but it's the appeal to Biblical authority that bothers me more.

I know that I have been steeped in semiotics for some months now, and that it is a difficult and obscure field, but I really think more conservatives need to engage with it on a fundamental level. I've talked before about my uncertainty as to whether any text, the Bible included, has meaning independent of what we read into it; in fact, I'm rather hoping to make this the topic of my prospective post-graduate studies; and I believe that all interpretive truth-claims need to be approached with a healthy barrel of skepticism. A poem doesn't 'mean' one single thing; its meaning lies in the tension and harmony of all the different interpretations that can possibly be laid on it by its readers. The same is true of all writing. Even something most people would consider should be unambiguous, such as a legal document, bears this multitude of meaning – that's what lawyers do all day. When I consider the interpretive ambiguity of a sign that reads



it seems completely absurd to claim any single “correct” interpretation of a text as dense, complex, even perhaps self-contradictory as the Bible.

Whether that leaves us in a chaotic, Crowleyesque free-for-all of wanton eisegesis, I'm neither sufficiently advanced in my hermeneutic studies nor intellectually arrogant enough to judge. However, in the absence of external referents, I maintain my skepticism toward interpretive absolutism; and I ask, along with arguably the world's first semiotician, “What is truth?”


  1. I got to the part where you said you could prove it with biblical text, and then you proceeded to act like you were to good to actually quote a passage.... Thats when I stopped reading, I dont need your uninformed opinion to add to all the others the media is throwing at us. I'll stick to people who present verifiable facts. Thank you.

  2. So you missed the part where that entire paragraph was composed of links to the relevant passages on Bible Gateway, and then featured a self-deprecating joke about the rhetorical technique I was employing? Keep honing those reading comprehension skills, buddy!

  3. Thank you for a beautiful post. Not only is your writing delightful, your points are spot on. Beautifully done. I'll be back (from Shorelandia) to read more. :)

  4. Thank *you*, Mindy. Don't you ever get tired of being the internet's friendliest commenter? :P

  5. Sadly Rob Bell has made an attempt to contend with the will of God, and recreate in his own mind, the will of man and not God. We do not understand God, therefore all questions of sorts such as: would an all loving God create an eternal hell? Are off limits.

    "As the heavens are higher then the earth, so are my ways higher then your ways and my thoughts then your thoughts.” –Isaiah 55:9

    “All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him “What have you done?” –Daniel 4:35

    Furthermore, read the book of Jude. I pray that God will lead you to a clear understanding of what is happening. Universalism can disguise itself as love all it wants, but is quite possibly the most cunning system satan himself has ever cooked up. Universalism opens the door to living life outside of the ten commandments amongst everything else Jesus talked about, because of the simple fact that we will all be saved.

    This is clearly not the case.

    “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ only Sovereign and Lord.” -Jude 1:4

    “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
    “Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in your name?”
    “And I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.” -Matthew 7:21-23

    “Enter through the narrow gate. For wise is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” –Matthew 7:13

    “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” -Jude 1:7

    “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage –with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn from the truth and turn aside to myths.” -2nd Timothy 4:2-4

    “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, this is the second death.” –Revelation 21:8

  6. Great blog. I'm discovering universalism atm, and for me i think it seems plausable. I'm a gay and a pastors son. I've grown up with a loving godly family. How could what I'm taught in my church that i am damned to hell because i'm not the elect suffice. I often say to my parents (who don't know my sexuality) that they shouldn't have had children with the fear that your child would not be the elect. The elect, the idea of the elect is against the love of God. Love wins!

    1. Thank you for commenting. I hope one day you'll be able to come out to your parents and be accepted by them. No matter what happens, there are *tons* of us out here, gay and straight and everything else, who believe that love absolutely, definitely wins.