Archive for March, 2011


Why I am Proud of My Three Children

March 31, 2011

All I am about to proclaim I have already told my children at one time or other, in one form or other.

But I am saying it here so that it can be instructive and to honor them for what they do and who they are. As much as we are to honor parents, it is equally appropriate to honor children. Allow me the privilege of telling my own kids publicly why I am thrilled to be their father.

First, though they all carry this out differently, they are men and women of peace. I cannot fathom any of the three deliberately causing pain and grief to someone else. They often go out of their way to clarify and rectify supposed hurts and disagreements. Even when they were small children, I never received phone calls from school saying they had been in fights, were unruly in class or talked back to teachers. One of them defines peace actively by seeking out those who have a beef with them to make things right. One of them chooses words very carefully so they won’t be easily misunderstood. One listens very carefully so that the other person will know they have been understood. I am proud of you for being men and women of peace.

Each of them, in their own way, pursues a path of justice. It is hard in the mind to fathom someone being for peace AND justice, but if anyone has accomplished it, it is my three children. One pursues justice by seeking to uncover and expose injustice. Another always runs to the rescue of those who have been hurt, who are in need or who have been victims of injustice. The third likes to weigh in on the Court of Public Opinion to change laws and ideas that victimize people and/or shelter the perpetrators. I am proud of you three for being men and women of Justice.

They all love to laugh. I can sit in my bedroom when they’re telling stories in the Living Room  and pick out who is telling the story by the intensity of the laughter and its duration. All three could be comedy stars if they were inclined. One loves to appreciate the comedy of others and can emulate it word for word. One just likes to laugh like both their grandfathers. One makes adroit statements of wry wit and subtle irony. All three can enjoy a slapstick as easily as a Brian Regan routine. For being men and women of humor, I applaud you.

All of them have made it easy to love them. They are both lovable and loving. Though there were times when they were teenagers that my hugs were not always welcome, they all melt in my arms now when I and their mother embrace them. They love to love and be loved and are not shy in showing and telling about their love. One has gifts and words of affirmation as love languages. Another has quality time and physical affection as love languages. The third has quality time and gifts as the love languages. They all show their love openly, and for this I am proud of them.

They love to learn. Books, movies, shows, plays, music, art and television are all fair game in the Phillips household. Get at the dinner table with these three and they can all hold their own on issues like politics, sports, the Economy, history, geography, world events, relationships, music, entertainment and the latest comedy bits. They entertain and inform as much as they love to be informed. They are all Information Czars and for this I am proud of them.

They all work hard and are known where they are employed as hard workers. I know who you get that from and the tradition is long and Mennonite. I am proud of you for choosing the right parent to emulate in this one.

I love all three of you. But you know that.



The Value of the Book “Love Wins” by Rob Bell

March 23, 2011

Can a book have value, even though most people reading it don’t agree with its philosophy or conclusions?

Can a book have value, even if the writer is flawed in his writing skill, his debating skills and his rhetorical approach?

When people read books they don’t agree with, they react in several ways. First, they don’t recommend that others read the book. Second, they find as many people as possible who also don’t agree with the book and trash it. Third, they refuse to see any value in the individual parts because they reject the book as a whole. This is a dangerous thing to do with books. The most insidious viewpoint to hold onto is one you will never challenge or allow others to challenge. That implies you are not willing to be wrong or to be shown how you are wrong. The greatest false beliefs are those which go unchallenged for a long time.   Truth can always withstand the scrutiny of examination. That’s why the Bible has been around for so long.

Rob Bell is a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is claimed by others, but not by Mr. Bell, that he is part of two movements within Christianity: the Postmodern and the Emerging Church movements. I cannot confirm or deny either of those claims. He has written a book called “Love Wins”, which has been challenged and vilified in many places on the Internet. The book is an examination of the belief in Hell, and in God’s punishment for sin. Here is a good place to start with a critical evaluation of it. Here is a much longer – perhaps more thorough – examination of the book. I expect there will be thousands of such book reviews coming. The book was marketed in a controversial way (as you can see here) and as such was already condemned even before it was published.

I’ll be clear. There is much I don’t like about the book myself. But I will leave the critical examination to others. I want to be that ‘other’ voice in this sea of opinion. I want to list what I believe are the best parts about this book. I do this so that even those who disagree with Rob Bell will stop for just a moment and consider that God may have prompted him to write it. I don’t mean it is inspired or even full of truth. But God can still nudge along someone to write something, even if that person is not completely accurate. Who of us are?

The Most Valuable Parts of the Book, “Love Wins”

1.    He asks great questions. He asks the kind of questions that church leaders hope non-believers never ask. These are thoughtful, direct and well-crafted questions. They are designed to attack the doctrines of hell and God’s wrath in such a way that we have to start from scratch in deciding why we believe the things we do. Here are some examples of the hundreds of questions he asks:

  • Why does God tell us we have to forgive everyone, including our enemies, and then He doesn’t do the same with sinners going to hell?
  • Does God punish people for infinite amount of years with eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?
  • How does a person end up being part of the lucky few who don’t go to hell? Chance? Luck? Random Selection? Being born in the right place at the right time in history in the right family, speaking the right language?
  • Is there no hope for someone who dies and is not a believer?
  • What is the age of accountability? What happens if a person dies a day before that age? Does he go to heaven? What happens if he dies the day after that age? Does he go to hell?
  • What EXACT prayer does one have to pray to get into heaven? What if we get the wording wrong? What about people who have prayed some version of the prayer? Or any prayer? Do they get in for making an effort to talk to God?
  • Is Hell the best God can do with the unbelievers?
  • So does the kind of person you are not really matter as long as you have prayed the right prayer or believed the right things?
  • Can a good person who doesn’t pray the prayer and a bad person who keeps doing bad things after the prayer go to heaven and hell respectively?
  • Do we have to care about this world if it’s just going to be destroyed anyway?
  • What if the only person who ever shared Jesus with you was the man who beat you up every day and then sang hymns while he did it? Do you get to escape hell because the example of a believer was so bad?
  • Can you do anything to receive God’s grace? If you have to believe, is it really grace?
  • What about the guy whose sins were forgiven because of the faith of his friends who let him down through the roof with a rope? Does the faith of someone who knows you count? If it doesn’t, why did Jesus tell him his sins were forgiven?

2.    He Doesn’t Believe Hell is a Single Issue: For instance, there is no doubt that Rob Bell believes in hell. He says it three times in the book that he believes there is a hell. But then he separates the issue. His questions (and perhaps his own struggles) relate to issues like “Who will go to hell” and “how long will hell last?” and “Will God ever give those in hell another chance?” For a long time in the Christian Church, these issues were all wrapped together in one package and we were told that if we mess with one part of the package it spoils the whole lot. But some of the current beliefs in the evangelical church about hell owe more to teachings in Dante’s “Inferno” than the Bible. Bell makes the case that these ideas need to be discussed and challenged.

3.    He Shows us the Value of Dialogue alongside Systematic Theology: Modernists are those who like to have neat and tidy categories for everything. Postmoderns believe that it is always premature to decide on what truth really is until we have all the facts. Since we are never sure we have all the facts, we need to be careful about being overly dogmatic. In this book, his stated intention is to throw open the discussion on hell, heaven and divine punishment so that all the implications and questions can be asked and the answers dissected for accuracy. Most modernists like to have their beliefs wrapped up and decided upon so they are not open to challenge. Debate perhaps, but not challenged. It used to be that several doctrines were considering too sacrosanct to ever question. The doctrine of Atonement (the belief about what happened on the cross to our sin and how it affects us now); the doctrine of the Bible (i.e. whether it is God’s Word or man’s invention); The doctrine of the Trinity (a belief that God is one being in three persons) and the doctrine of the church (i.e. its legitimacy and form). If one questioned or differed on these doctrines, then they could be dismissed as wrong and heretical. Added to that list is the doctrine of Hell. Without a proper understanding of hell, the atonement, the trinity, the church and the Bible, one is considered outside the barriers of good theology. But if you study church history, you’ll come to realize that all these doctrines were debated in their day and survived. The earliest was the Trinity. Then came Atonement. Then the Church (it’s still being debated), and then the Bible. The only one that has not been seriously discussed by the most conservative elements of the church is Hell. Why? It is strongly believed if there is any softening of the position on hell, it will destroy the last reason we do evangelism. After all, if there is no hell, then why witness to someone? Yet, witnessing to people has almost become extinct in today’s church. Few individuals do any evangelism and we still maintain a conservative view on hell. So perhaps Rob Bell’s book will foster enough reaction so his questions will not be swept under the carpet.

4.    The discussion on the word “Eternal”. Bell focuses much of his thesis about hell on the interpretation of one word: aion. It is the word often (though not always) interpreted “eternal”. In John 3:16 when it says those who believe in him will “not perish, but have eternal life”, the Greek word there for eternal is aion. Even though I think he does a less than acceptable job interpreting this word, he does right to question our understanding of it. The primary meaning is not “forever”. It does mean eternal, but not in the sense of time. More in the sense of permanency. Eternal life is also a quality of life and not just a reference point in time. God has eternal life with him and not just in the sense that he is eternal. We can never be eternal like God since we have a beginning point. So, I applaud Rob Bell for bringing this word to our attention. I await better scholars and more able communicators to tackle that word before I feel satisfied what it means.

What I don’t appreciate about the book can be summed up in two ideas.

First, he starts with what he considers the logical end game for God (i.e. God’s love will win everyone over) and then figures out how the Bible can end up there. That is turning the issue on its head. His logic and hermeneutics (the study of how we learn from the Bible) are not skilled and what comes out is a very complicated end-product. Most people reading this book will get lost in the vagaries of the theological machine he is riding.

Second, his Narrative viewpoint is not consistent. Mainly, he interprets the parables of Jesus as if they are part of the story being told by God to man. The Narrative approach believes that we must understand where the story was when Jesus taught and not where it is today. God is not telling the story the same way today. I understand that approach. But then, in a number of places in the book, he stops interpreting narratively and uses different Bible verses as “proof-texts”, reverting back to a modernist way of proving a point. I wish he had stuck with one approach or the other.

By all means, read the book. Tell me what you think.


Before the Review of Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins”

March 16, 2011

Before saying anything else:

I read Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins”. It was mildly entertaining.

I read it all the way through in one day. I have pneumonia and I’m confined to bed.

Rob Bell writes this way

In one line paragraphs.

I haven’t decided if I’m going to review the book. But I am going to review the people reading it.

So, I venture a few glances at all of those who will be criticizing him in the next few weeks, months and years. There are several diverse groups that will not like this book.

1. Modernists: To a post-modern person, a modernist is someone who likes to reduce the complex interactions between men and other men, or God and men, to a system of rules and principles. If you like your theology systematized, neat and tidy and all fitting together, you won’t like this book. It is messy. It careens from stories to scripture to poems to questions back to stories. At the end, you aren’t left with answers but, possibly, with better questions. A modernist hates that approach.

2. Reformed Theologians: The best known of them all, John Piper, said it succinctly: “Farewell Rob Bell.” By that, I assume he means Rob Bell is no longer someone he wants to dialogue with. “Love Wins” takes issue with most of the core beliefs of Calvinism. He strongly disagrees with Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Total Depravity…in fact, there’s not much left of the classic TULIP when Bell is done with them, so you can’t expect a Calvinist to react otherwise. Though, to be honest, the Calvinist will appreciate how much he believes in Unconditional Election and Perseverance of the Saints. In fact, to Rob Bell, the Love of God will eventually win over everyone.

3. Universalists: A universalist believes that everyone will be in heaven, or saved, or both. I have read reviews from three of the country’s most prominent universalists and they all have issues with this book. They think Rob Bell is riding the fence and not taking the inevitable road that all universalists must take. They don’t like the book because it doesn’t draw enough conclusions they can endorse. In many ways, universalists are wonderful Modernists; they like their universalism in neat tidy categories. As I said before, Bell’s book is a messy concoction.

4. Non-believers: I have a feeling that “Love Wins” was written for people who want to follow God but have been turned off by traditional views of hell. Ironically, I don’t think this book will appeal to that group. First, it is not a simple read. In order to turn the doctrine of hell on its head, Bell utilizes some tricky theological and hermeneutical approaches that will confuse a non-believer. Second, many non-believers won’t agree they have the problems with God that Bell thinks they do. Many will end up being confused or angry by the time they finish this.

5. Joe Average Church Attender: As with the non-believer, Joe Church-Attender doesn’t know fancy theological nuances. But he does know some legitimate questions when he sees them. This may be the group that will like this book. People who are tired of poorly drawn answers to deep questions about heaven and hell may gravitate to Bell’s approach to the subject. However, though Joe Average will enjoy Bell’s questions, he may find the book tedious because of its complexity.

6. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (if he were still alive): He would like the book. Why?

One sentence paragraphs.

He invented them.


Tall Skinny Kiwi: “Lets Love Each Other!” (Report from the Earthquake)

March 5, 2011

Tall Skinny Kiwi: “Lets Love Each Other!”: Christian Maori Leader on Christchurch Earthquake.

It is often the case that disaster breaks down common societal walls (such as religious, racial and age) and knits us into a bond of commonality. This happened to our nation on 9-11 and it is happening to believers in New Zealand as they work through the tragedies of the recent earthquake.

Why do you think this happens? Here are my two theories…I am sure there are more:

  • When we face emotional crises bigger than our capacity to handle, we often seek solace and support in others. When the crisis is of national or international scope, we are willing to lay down as many differences as necessary to gain that support.
  • One word: Perspective.

I read a report recently of soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division in Europe during World War 2. In one battle near Solerno, Italy, two units who had been racially segregated were blended together in a vicious and, ultimately, decisive victory. Many of those men, who had grown up hating and ignoring the other race, became lifelong friends, ignoring societal stigmata against such relationships.

So do you have a story that tells of when you overcame barriers in a crisis?


Choose One of these: Pensions, Healthcare, Education

March 4, 2011

I have said this a number of times: Choose one of these three essential services our government helps with:

  • Healthcare (primarily Medicare)
  • Pensions (state and Federal)
  • Education

Unless we raise taxes a huge amount (something the American people will not tolerate) then we can honestly only afford at the most two out of the three. For instance, we can have Healthcare and Pensions but spend nothing on education. Or we can fully fund education and healthcare, but eliminate Social Security and public pensions.

I thought there were few people saying this. But Bill Gates just gave this session at TED2011 in Long Beach:



He says exactly the same thing….Education is not the problem, it is the unrealistic spending we have committed to for pensions and healthcare.

Which one would you get rid of? Healthcare, pensions or Education? Or would you be willing to pay a lot more in taxes to have all three?


An Open Letter to America’s Teachers

March 1, 2011

If America was one of your students, you would keep us after school for a talk. “You’ve been very disrespectful” you would start. And you’d be right. We have spent , as a nation, several years disrespecting your value to us. Some of our people, some with loud mouths and smaller wits, have claimed you work seven hour days.

You would collectively laugh at that notion if you had the strength to do so. You get there before the students arrive and leave long after they leave. On your way home, you get text messages from half a dozen of them, crying the woes about tomorrow’s test or yesterday’s missed assignments. When you get home, your family tells you of the three parents who phoned and the Principal’s secretary who called to remind you of a Senior Prom promotion committee meeting that starts in a half hour. When that meeting ends (it was supposed to be an hour long and creeped along for three), you come home and remember you have to grade yesterday’s quizzes so the football team can know which athletes can still stay on the team.

Our nation claims that you are the reason we can’t balance any of our state budgets. If it wasn’t for your crazy unions and their demands, we could lay off half of you and pay you a third of what you’re getting now. After all, you only work five days a week, seven hours a day and get all summer off. You see cities agreeing to spend a half billion dollars on sports arenas and you had to email your kids’ parents to see if any of them could donate pencils and writing pads for your kids.

All summer off? You would be lucky if you could afford that. Your teaching credential demands you spend half the summer taking Continuing Education credits and the other half of the summer you teach driver’s ed or help with the summer basketball league or the church Vacation Bible School because you had the “free time that no one else had.” And you did it gladly and willingly because even though pundits paint you as heartless, money-grubbing problem-makers, you really do love those kids. You talk to more gang members than the police, more pregnant girls than the clinic, identify learning disabilities before parents, doctors or psychologists do, counsel more broken hearts, encourage more broken dreams and ponder about another broken window in your car.

We haven’t given you a raise in years, we’ve doubled your class size, we’ve eliminated your librarians, nurses, janitors, psychologists, bus drivers, aids, secretaries, vice-principals and sports coaches – and then we tell you it’s your fault our kids aren’t learning. We force you by law to make our kids learn the answers to a test we wrote, that you don’t agree with, instead of the things we originally hired you to teach. Then we encourage charter schools and private schools to cherry-pick the best-performing students, leaving you with, among the remaining students, those who are ready to drop out, who are prepared to knife you, who haven’t spoken ten words of English in their lives –  and then we criticize you when you mutter under your breath.

Yes, Mr. and Ms. Teacher, we as a nation deserve detention. We deserve to be held back another year until we get this right. We deserve the strap and we deserve the report card you would love to give us. But instead, I’m going to give you something.


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