Brought up in an Evangelical-Reformed church, in the nineties of South African youth culture, with the quasi-charismatic youth revivals running high, as a young theological student Universalism had the meaning that everyone was going to heaven… or maybe it rather had the meaning that no one was going to hell. This was a doctrine to be feared, some had to go to hell to legitimize the God we prayed to (if you find yourself within this approach, and distance yourself from fundamentalism, wouldn’t you please leave a better understanding in the comment section).

Universalism knocked on my door thanks to our Western linear approach to time. Thing is that I believed that the Jews of the Old Testament was children of God, a.k.a children of Abraham. Then Jesus came, and you had to become a Christian. But this 19/20 year old wannabee theologian started wondering: when did it change? I mean, at which stage did you move from being a Jew going to heaven to being a Jew going to hell? Well, my evangelical-reformed-quasi-charismatic-semi-fundamentalist theology could probably answer it, but it needed to much of metaphysical ideas, and so much of psychological presuppositions (such as whether someone “really” believed, “really” regretted his/her sins etc) that it didn’t really help me.

One sentence I read today brought this question up again. It talked about the “train going to hell”, the train that was going to Auschwitz, carrying Jews. The hell that it was talking about was the hell of Auschwitz, a hell that made Dante’s Purgatory look like children’s party. The question I wondered about was whether my theology should say that this train was also leading to the metaphysical hell that Dante wrote about, since everyone on the train was Jews, and wouldn’t convert before they were killed.

Anyhow, how would they have converted, since the only Christians they would have had contact with after getting on that train was Nazi Germans, probably Lutheran, from the tradition that talked about Sola Gratia and Sola Fidei more than anyone. Am I willing to also say that those Lutherans would go to the metaphysical place called heaven as well while their Jewish victims go the Dante’s hell?

I don’t think Universalism is the answer, so please don’t quote me for saying so. But I do think the system that I had (and whether this was an accurate understanding of Reformed doctrine is highly debateble) wasn’t addequate, and that it has to be modified. This is some of the questions that we really need to look at somewhat more seriously.

I actually attended TGIF this morning, how I got out of bed I do not know, but I did it. Michael Neumann form Hatfield Christian Church was speaking on spiritual formation… well, actually more like on a narrative approach to scripture, the spiritual formation would come in two weeks time in part two I guess. What he did was to describe the two streams in Christianity (more like protestant Christianity actually) to be Evangelicalism and Liberalism; Evangelicalism rearrange verses in the Bible to fit there picture, and Liberalism throw out of the Bible that which do not fit there picture. Well, I guess you could argue the descriptions and labels, but few who actually follow the theological conversation would deny the fact that there is a deep division between at least two major streams of Protestant Christianity, and that a major reason for this division is how we approach scripture (although deeper reasons have been identified by many).

The attempt to bridge this divide is becoming more and more popular, with Christians on both sides realizing that we need a unified witness if we are to have any impact on the world, and sometimes also that this is simply not in line with the Jesus-tradition, no matter which way you look at it. I guess it’s also the result of a generation less troubled by dogma, maybe also the fruit of a couple of decades of ecumenical work on an international level. Whatever the reasons may be, if you follow the conversation, you would probably also agree that for a large part (fundamentalists excluded) attempting to bridge these divides is becoming very important.

Also, the use of narrative as a category for reading the Bible in order to bridge this divide is becoming popular. The idea is basically that by using narrative as category we can get away from the literal and dogmatic approach of reading scripture, but still read all of scripture on the same level, and thus not succumb to the feared pitfalls of historical criticism (an approach which in various ways attempted to discover the traditions behind passages, the development of the Bible on a human level, and various other things).

But as Neumann began giving his summary of the story of the Bible, I heard basically evangelical doctrine being described: creation, fall, redemption on the cross, a second coming, and God being there throughout this all. Not that this is necessarily bad, but just seem to again proof that we cannot that easily escape where we come from. Although he use the “new” language of narrative, the underlying theology is still mainly within the Evangelical framework, still a way of approaching it with which I’m much more comfortable.

The discussion afterwards again established this, it was not about bridging the theological canyon, but about bridging the gap between Evangelical (not in the recent American definition of it, but in the classical Reformation definition) and this new narrative approach. No one even though about the “Liberals”, who in any case throw out half of scripture, so this cannot even be considered.

I like Micheal’s answer when I portrayed this problem to him, talking about a communal conversation, in which others must also take part to sketch a holistic picture, but admitting that he come from he certain side of the story, which deeply influenced how he now see the story. And then he had to ask how I would summarize the narrative, since I also like the category of narrative, now that will require much more thought, but I’ll make an attempt in the next few weeks.

Just maybe a last thought. How should these divides be described? Liberal and conservative? Evangelical and liberal? Fundamental and critical? A lot of ways can be considered, but at the moment I think systematic and historical might help us. On the one had the systematic tradition, which remain in line with the church theological tradition, attempting to clarify whichever tradition you are part of or a new time. But I’m less sure whether the systematic label is the right one than the historical one. The historical approach: coming out of the historical work of the Von Rad, Bultmann and Schweizers of the past 200 years or so, rereading scripture while attempting to reconstruct the history within which it came into being, and then attempting to reconstruct theology from that.

Obviously this do not take the Orthodox tradition into account, probably not the Catholic tradition either, but it might be another way of looking at the current affairs in Protestant circles.

One of the things in life which I was introduced to much too late, was Cinema Nouveau. But as of late, I’m becoming a fan. I first saw the preview for Jesus Camp while watching 11th hour. Jesus Camp is a documentary on a

You will find very little critique on what is going on in the film, and are left to figure out your thoughts on the stuff by yourself, a good thing I think. It portrays kids “talking in languages”, point out how these people put the kids on extreme guilt trips regarding sin(1), also the believe that America is the chosen nation of God, and in one interview the senior pastor claim that when the Evangelicals vote, they determine the election. Actually, a major theme in the film is the fundamentalist reaction to American politics, and the Bush administration(2). They are portrayed as supporting the war(3), creationism, against public schools, animal rights movements, and considering global warming to be just a political issue.

What got me is that you get to see how much these ideas have infiltrated the thinking in our own churches. See for example the magical approach used to prayer before they start the camp, where every chair and piece of equipment are prayed for individually, as if this will give more credibility to your prayer, God will be forced to listen, of the devil to stay away? (I have previously written some thoughts on this here).

Or what about the concept of sin being some form of supernatural cause of evil, especially when believers are not faithful. This is not the idea that our sin cause evil (that when we do bad things, we cause bad things to happen, when I don’t feed the poor, they remain hungry), rather that when sinning it opens some supernatural door for evil to enter the country.

The film has caused some controversy after being released (it’s been some time before it hit South Africa), many evangelicals not liking it, saying that Pentecostalism is portrayed in a negative light. Personally, although I have seen forms of evangelicalism with which I am much more comfortable, I’ve also seen things much worse than what get portrayed. And I personally wonder how big the difference in the end will be between Muslim and Christian fundamentalism, do we really want Christians willing to kill those they differ with?  Maybe we already have that in certain parts of the fundamentalist movement?

If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, take the time, see it, and think about it.

Maybe a last thing. I have used fundamentalism, evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in a way that it might sound as if these terms are synonymous, which they are not. Maybe it’s when all these terms come together that you find what is portrayed in the film, since each of them occur in other forms as well.

(1) see the one scene where the kids are crying, and the pastor say stuff like staying in the boiling pot a little longer etc

(2) especially the supreme judge theme running throughout the film, and the prayer for the election of a conservative supreme judge

(3) see for example the one kid shown wearing a “my dad is in the army” shirt, not that this is that big a deal, but a number of small detail are pointed to throughout the film.