This chapter has one of the best takes on the prodigal son I have read…
End of discussion.
Okay…enough Rob Bell formatting. But the point remains…I had to read this chapter again. What made his take on this well known story so good was his focus on the stories of each of the characters and how those stories related to each other. If I didn’t know any better, I would bet Bell had studied narrative therapy. Narrative therapy is about how we define ourselves by the stories we believe are key to our lives. We all have stories that run through our minds about who we are and how people relate to us. They can be positive or negative but either way they are powerful. The goal of narrative therapy is to take someone who has problems or issues, see how the underlying story that runs through their head is exacerbating or influencing the problem and help that person rewrite their story in a new, positive and powerful way.
Bell points out that each son had a story in their head about the Father. The younger son’s story that runs through his head about his Father says that once you lose your worth you are no longer a son. You might be taken back as a slave but never as a son. The older son’s story believes that he has to slave away through his obedience in order to earn what the Father has. In both cases the Father is telling them another story. He is redefining their story about who the Father is through his actions and words. He is not a task master. He is good and kind and loving and mercifully unfair. The question is, whose story are they going to believe…the one in their head or the one the Father shows them and tells them?
So the question comes to each of us…will we trust our version of the story we have in our minds about God or will we trust God’s version? For example, if you grew up in legalism, will you accept that even if God shows you it is a false narrative? Or will you trust God enough to replace that broken story with one that is whole? Good stuff.
The only thing I thought was lacking about this chapter were a few of the implications about heaven and hell and God that he drew from this text. His point is that the older brother was living in his own sort of hell even in the midst of a party for his brother. “We’re at the party, but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both at the party.” (p.176) As far as I can tell Jesus didn’t have that in mind (not that I am smart enough to figure that out…just giving my opinion) but Bell sure finds it there. He is trying to avoid the heaven is here and hell is there teaching (see middle of p.177). Instead he is saying that they can and do exist right in the middle of each other based on which narrative we choose to engage in and perpetuate. But then he goes right on to say that if you choose God and his love or refuse his love it will take people in two different directions. How can it be both ways? Am I missing something?
There is a certain irony here because Bell’s point is that we have to let the story shape our view of the Father and yet he is taking the story and forcing it into his own preconceived ideas and application of what heaven and hell are all about when that is not at all the context of the story or the point Jesus was making. It is kind of like the last chapter where he made such a big deal out of Jesus and the rock in Exodus 17…it is a stretch at best. Things get taught that were never intended by the text. I have done that myself before…that is why I am decent at spotting it when it happens 😉 What is even more ironic is that he mentions people do this very thing, “We shape our God and then our God shapes us. A distorted understanding of God, clung to with white knuckles and fierce determination, can leave a person outside the party…” (p.183).
Now, about God, he paints the picture that God is either a radical and reactive guy who is loving of you one moment but if you don’t jump through certain hoops he will destroy you or that God is a God of love and mercy. Period. So God is either a father who would be arrested for abuse in our society or God doesn’t really ever have wrath and sin has no penalty, even though elsewhere he admits that is not really the case.
It seems like much of my disagreement in this book with Bell is when he puts something out there in a very profound way, even an objectionable way and then hedges back against it as if that is not really what he was teaching. It gets messy at times.
Last, Bell offers a needed corrective to our view of God when it comes to salvation. Some Christians seem to teach that sin brings about God’s wrath and so it sounds almost like Jesus came to rescue us from God. (see p.173-175, 182ff). We need Luke 15 to help shape our view of who God is, how accepting he is of those who turn to him, and the value he sees in us, even in our sin. That really is good news!