Francis Chan, author of Crazy Love, Erasing Hell, and Forgotten God, was the speaker at Fresno Pacific University’s annual Ministry Forum this week. He is an engaging and substantive speaker—1300 pastors, youth and lay leaders of churches and para-church organizations turned out to our Special Events Center to hear him, about double our largest previous crowd. Opinions are mixed on his message. I put out a facebook post on what I was hearing during the first session, and immediately received comments back. Let me take a crack at an appreciation of what he brought to us. Chan mentioned that he has critics. But I found him refreshing theologically and spiritually, and I want to try to put into words why I think he is a voice we should listen to.
The center of Chan’s insights is that God has communicated to us through the Bible, his Word, and that we ought to do what he says. The note I put out on facebook said ‘What is his gift? ‘I read the Bible and say we need to do this!’ A number of times he referred to taking the Bible literally in a simple and direct way. Paul asked others to pray that he would be bold. Chan says he has friends whom he has asked to pray for boldness for him. Paul says he is an apostle by the will of God. Chan asks am I really doing the will of God? Will I do whatever he asks me to do? He spoke of his daughter saying after, if I remember correctly, feeding the poor ‘I feel like we popped out of the Bible.’
Similarly Chan responded to questions about his book on Hell. Rob Bell wrote arguing that “love wins,” with the implication that there may not be a Hell. (Wouldn’t Dante be surprised? To get a quick fix of the controversy see this Time article
and another from Christianity Today.) Chan went back to the Bible. He would like for there not to be a Hell, but throughout the Bible he sees a God who is angry about sin and its destructiveness. We have to take that seriously. It may not make us comfortable, and throughout the day he made consistent references to the beauty and generosity of God’s grace and mercy in our lives. But even so we cannot throw out what we might not like or think right that is in the Word given to us.
This might be simplistic, but it need not be. Chan reads in context and knows that he is following a Jesus whose life and teaching demands a radical discipleship, not a legalistic response with a list of “do”s and “don’t”s. He noted that this kind of following is not comfortable for churches, and friends and family might try to talk us out of what we think God is calling us to as we read the Word.
Let me speak from my work as an historian of the church (there must be a few times when this is useful). Chan’s approach, in its simplicity and directness, is, it seems to me, a gift to the church that has been consistent, if somewhat rare in the church’s history. We see it in St. Anthony, the father of monasticism, who heard the word ‘go sell all you have and come and follow me.” He did. We see it in St. Augustine who heard “take it and read” in the song of children, a strange song he admitted. He took up the Bible and read. There he heard and met God’s grace, the Holy Spirit. We see it in St. Martin who gave half of his cloak to a poor beggar in winter. And we see it in St. Francis who heard “build my church” and began restoring the walls of a church, and who in response to Jesus healing the leper began to do the same with an exuberant embrace of those who were contagious.
These are great figures. Perhaps this gift is not as rare as we think. How many of us know of people in our midst, in our churches, cities, and neighborhoods have responded in this simple and direct manner? I can think of several from multiple denominational homes, though it might embarrass them if I mentioned their names. This gift, like the words of the Word crosses boundaries and binds us together.
In our time of interpretive sophistication when all of can argue about hermeneutics and interpretive method, and are sensitive to the historical context and the difficulties of understanding just what a particular Biblical text might or might not be saying, I found Chan’s talk refreshing. I also found it challenging. When we are open to his kind of reading we don’t know what the consequences might be. I was reminded of what our confessions over time have said, sometimes with the same simplicity that Chan brought us.
Here for example are the first words of the Second Helvetic Confession (1561): “We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures.”
And the current Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith echoes this Reformation confession with an Anabaptist emphasis: “We believe the entire Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit guides the community of faith in the interpretation of Scripture.”
When Chan visited us this week, we were engaging as a community of faith from all part of our city and region in the interpretive task. His is a unique voice and gift. Francis Chan, thank you.