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Rob Bell latest: devil's in the details

I've been fascinated by the Rob Bell no-one-goes-to-hell controversy, and I was particularly captured by this lede from the Associated Press:

When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow's Chapel in Henderson.

The lede just doesn't explain why Holtz would lose his job, at a United Methodist Church no less, for simply voicing support on Facebook for Bell's book. It doesn't say he was preaching that there is no hell, or beating people over head with it, or that he doesn't believe hell is real. It merely quotes Holtz saying he doesn't believe God would subject any of his people to "an eternity of torment."

So I'm left to wonder why he was fired.

The pastor declined to discuss the situation with AP reporter Tom Breen, and I could sense from the start that Breen was writing around some ambiguity in the details. But this paragraph further down in the story casts real doubt on whether Holtz was fired simply because he "lost his old belief in hell."

Church members had also been unhappy with Internet posts about subjects like gay marriage and the mix of religion and patriotism, Holtz said, and the hell post was probably the last straw. Holtz and his family plan to move back to Tennessee, where he'll start a job and maybe plant a church.

Ahhhhhhh. So this was, as I suspected, likely about more than just supporting Rob Bell's view of hell.

It had to be, as the inestimable Ann Rodgers noted in an insightful comment on Sarah Pulliam Bailey's Facebook page:

Polity problem here. Unless there has been a change I don't know about, a United Methodist pastor can't be fired. He or she can only be removed by the bishop, and then is guaranteed another appointment somewhere. I would suspect that if the bishop moved so quickly after these complaints, that there might have been some previous controversy in the congregation.

The Sanctus blog, written by a former United Methodist minister, echoes Rodgers and goes all GetReligion on Breen's story.

Under the normal procedure, Holtz would simply be sent to another church or, if worst came to worst, be given a desk job at the conference office. The fact that he is moving out of state and starting a new church is all the more evidence that this story is about a lot more than a Facebook post.

In short, Holtz couldn't have been fired for supporting Bell's concept of heaven and hell. He likey wouldn't even have fired for his other views. There was a lot more to this story than what simply meets the eye.

That's not necessarily the easiest thing for a reporter to see. After all, Breen is presumably not Methodist and even if he was he likely is unfamiliar with church polity; more importantly, the pastor has refused to speak with him and the subject of the story, Holtz, is the one who gets to frame his leaving the church as a firing.

One thing Breen could have done -- it's something I used to do when I had the time and when I was reporting on a religious issue that I wasn't well-versed in -- was consult with a third-party to see if what Holtz was saying made sense. This could be a Methodist scholar or simply an unassociated Methodist church leader or informed lay person.

That might seem like an unnecessary luxury when on deadline. But it's no less so than double-checking names and titles, even if a little more time-consuming.

IMAGE: A little satire from Collideoscope

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