I read the first chapter of Who Really Goes to Hell: The Gospel You've Never Heard by David I Rudel while listening to the free download of Trent Reznor's new project, How to Destroy Angels. It seemed an appropriate soundtrack, given Rudel's penchant for incisive jibes about the things many Christians do (or don't do), but few people are brave enough to really talk about. For example, early in the book he makes the footnoted clarification, "By "most Christians" I mean "the majority of the small number who read the Bible at all."" I appreciate this sort of prophetic witticism (an by "prophetic" I mean someone gifted at giving the people of God a swift-but-much-needed-kick-in-the-pants).
I received the book because I'm a member of the Ooze's Viral Bloggers community. We are sent regular emails with opportunities to read books and blog about them. All we have to do, providing there are any copies left, is indicate we're interested in reviewing, reflecting, or ranting about them. Most of these books take an awfully long time to arrive on my doorstep. I'd guess this delay is due to living in the Great White North, as Stateside bloggers usually have their reviews on books written long before mine.
It creates a bit of a panic in me when I receive these books, as I'm already living a densely packed life. To be honest, after reading the Book of the Shepherd I'd already come to the point of vowing not to request anymore books. I'm not a pastor anymore. I have a lot of cynicism about church in general, though much of my distrust of institutional Christianity is leveled at evangelicals in particular. I don't attend church regularly anymore, and I haven't had an interest in reading the Bible in nearly a year. What reason could I have for reading books that are most often targeted at how to innovate the church?
When I received the email that contained a call for David Rudel's The Gospel You've Never Heard, I was in conversation with Courtney Armstrong about speaking at Camp Evergreen's teen Impact week in August. I'd been reminding her that I wasn't a safe bet as a speaker anymore: anyone who Googles my name will find the endless supply of criticism from right-wing fundamentalist websites railing against me teaching contemplative prayer. Those same sites list me as being a leader of the Emergent church, and that means heresy to some conservative Evangelicals. She laughed it off, because I've been speaking at Evergreen for five years going now, and she's no stranger to controversy herself.
I take my speaking seriously though, and felt that if I was going to have anything worth hearing, I'd need to read something that would challenge me, or at least return me to the conversation of faith. This isn't to say I haven't been engaged in it. I discuss my Christianity with friends regularly. We wrestle through how to live Christ since our faith community's dissolution in the fall of 2008. We lament missing the regular services, but are frustrated in finding a new community to worship with (although I'm feeling pretty good about the Urban Bridge, where we've attended a few times now). I talked about faith with my students at King's, Taylor and Vanguard. But I haven't been rigourously engaged in the conversation of faith.
When I looked over the choices at Viral Bloggers and read the blurb for Rudel's The Gospel You've Never Heard, I was hooked. I was really challenged, and dare I say blessed by Brian McLaren's final book in his New Kind of Christian series, The Last Word and the Word After That, which is about the question of hell and judgment. Growing up a Baptist had me scared of hell, but when I became a Christian I wanted to be more interested in being drawn to heaven. I was never comfortable in fire insurance Christianity - I preached it because it was the party line, but was never comfortable with it. When I read Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?and Brennan Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel, I felt relieved. This was what I'd understood the gospel to be when I heard our camp speaker say "It doesn't matter what you've done, God still loves you."
Some of you might be asking now, "How is this challenging you then?" I'm not convinced it will be challenging me. It might be healing for me: I spent most of my pastoral career being controversial and thinking I was cracked. It's healing to read Christian thinkers who remind me that I wasn't alone in my suspicions about North American evangelicalism. Maybe that sounds like I'm reading only what I want, but I'd reply I'm not currently in "be challenged" mode. I'm healing up. When I'm done doing that, I'll take another crack at reading something I don't agree with.
For now, I'm looking for ways to challenge the campers, and the opening passages of Rudel's The Gospel You've Never Heard certainly feels like it could be that challenge. I'm likely going to be focusing on the life of Christ at Evergreen (radical, I know! But seriously - how many times did you hear the story of Christ's life in church growing up?), and part of Rudel's focus is what Christ had to say about judgment and hell.
But I don't want to gloss the book. I won't internalize it if I do. So I'm going to take it slow, in a devotional way. Rudel uses a lot of Biblical references, and it occurred to me that I could make this a daily reading in this semi-sabbatical month between jobs. And from time to time, I'm sure I'll blog about it.
For now, I'll leave you with my favorite quote from the book so far:
"Similarly, after you read any of these gospels, you are not drawn to go out and save people from eternal torment in hell by teaching them to believe in Christ. You might come away with many ideas, but "I need to go proclaim Jesus to others or else they will go to hell" is certainly not one of them." (12)
It should come as no surprise to some of you that Rudel's The Gospel You've Never Heard is published by Biblical Heresy Press. Their catch phrase is, "The Bible is best read with your own eyes--preferably open." They sound like my kind of people.
If you're interested in coming along for this devotional ride, you can download a PDF or e-reader format of the full-text of Who Really Goes to Hell: The Gospel You've Never Heard from the book's website.