My family is staying at my wife’s cousin Kent’s ranch in Texas. Kent has the kind of library you might expect from a Lutheran pastor including quite a selection of Henri Nouwen books. I grabbed Creative Ministry and started flipping through last night. Then it hit me: Nouwen was the one who first made me a “heretic.”
Long before Rob Bell got big, I was an emotionally troubled 24-year old kid in Toledo, Ohio who stumbled into the mostly lesbian congregation of Central Avenue United Methodist Church. There was a Bible study offered for people who were struggling with depression. It was based on Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved. It was through that Bible study in the safe shared vulnerability of a circle of fragile, rejected people that I got saved for the fourth and (thus far) final time.
Nouwen’s central claim in the book is that our fallen human condition results from our failure to recognize (in a holistic and not just cognitive propositional way) how much God loves us. To Nouwen, accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ amounts to embracing God’s love as the basis for our identity. Prior to our liberation, we are imprisoned by the need to prove our worth to others (what I have come to call self-justification) which either causes us to despair and fall into depression or to take refuge in a nihilistic hedonism or to develop an artificial shell of self-assurance that makes us cold, ungracious people.
Nouwen’s gospel was the first viable alternative I had found to the predominant evangelical gospel I was raised with: that God is (literally) mad as hell at humanity and will spare you from His wrath if you somehow prove to Him that you believe that Jesus “died for your sins” and/or that He’s the “Lord of your life” (depending on which Romans verse you give the most weight to). God’s primary concern is not reaching out to us in love but defending His honor which is the underlying purpose of His grace. For many of my teenage and young adult years, I assumed that this was the only possible gospel and the reason I couldn’t accept it was because I was a sinful rebel who would repent when it finally made sense to me, which I begged God to help me with.
Nouwen gave me a positive alternative to the wrath-centered gospel which basically involved a shift from understanding salvation as God’s change of mind about whether or not to punish me to viewing salvation as my liberation from a self-imprisoning state of mind which was punishment enough in itself. I really think this distinction is the major fault-line in the present American evangelical identity crisis, which is not really a debate between those who defend the doctrine of hell and those who reject it, but between those who need for hell to be God’s juridical punishment and those who see it as a self-imposed eternal exile that we choose when we refuse God’s advances.
After reading Nouwen, I got further corrupted by John Wesley, Karl Barth, Gustavo Gutierrez, Elsa Tamez, and Jurgen Moltmann, among many others. But Nouwen is probably the reason why when I read Rob Bell’s infamous “heretical” work Love Wins, I said, “Yeah, I already knew that.”
What makes Nouwen an especially insidious “heretic” is that the Christlike gentleness of his nature oozes out over all of his writing. He’s basically about as opposite you could be from Mark Driscoll and still be a man. So if you’re trying to come up with a personal blacklist of writers who might corrupt you from the dominant gospel of pop-evangelicalism, then definitely put Nouwen’s name on that list. If on the other hand, you’ve come to a point where what you learned in Sunday school just doesn’t add up for you and you’re starving for an account of the gospel that really is good enough news to give your life to spreading it, then definitely check out Life of the Beloved, the Wounded Healer, Return of the Prodigal Son, Reaching Out, and Creative Ministry (which I’ll probably blog about tomorrow), or anything else with Nouwen’s name on it.