Does God Let His Kids Lie About Him? A Thought (or Two) on the Enns/Bell Interview

enns

Look that face. What a friendly-looking dude. You almost hate disagreeing with him. Almost. 😉

Does God let his kids lie about him? That’s the question I found myself asking after reading this interview of Pete Enns by Rob Bell. Enns has a new book on the Bible coming out, and it promises to be the new progressive-Evangelical handbook for scrapping your old doctrine of Scripture, so, of course, Bell pulled him onto the blog to chat. Unsurprisingly the issue of ancient science and Old Testament violence came up.  I’ll quote Enns said about it at length, because why not?:

OK, so can we focus on one specific issue here that troubles a lot of people? In your book you do a spectacular job of explaining those violent passages in the Old Testament. Can you give my readers a bit on that?

I spend a chapter on in my book on God’s commend to the Israelites to exterminate every Canaanite man, woman, and child and take over their land. This is the go-to example many point to of God acting more like Megatron than a God of love. 

This is a huge issue that has bothered people ever since there’s been a Bible. It’s nothing new. It’s hard to find Christians or Jews that don’t have at least some problem with this. When we hear of modern genocides, where perpetrators claim that God is on their side, we just call that ethnic cleansing at the hands of crazy people. So how can Christians say God opposes genocide today when he commanded it yesterday? That’s what we call a real theological problem.

Well, that and the fact that Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and “my kingdom is not of this world” rather than “Let’s kill all the Gentiles [Romans] and take back our land.” So, on top of the moral problem, Jesus doesn’t seem to be on the same page with what God says in the Old Testament. 

This issue is involved enough that you can’t Tweet an answer. You really need to walk through the paces of discovering the Bible’s ancient voice. We take a step back and try to understand the Israelites as ancient people with ancient ways of thinking. They weren’t like the “nice Christians” we meet at church picnics and who listen to gospel quartets.

The Israelites lived at a rough time, the Iron Age, when nations fought tooth and nail over land and resources and the gods fought right along side of them, leading the charge

The nations that won had the mightier gods, and victory (slaughter, pillaging) gave gods honor. Losing meant your god was either a wimp or he was mad at your people for some reason and wanted to teach them a lesson in obedience. 

The Israelites were part of this ancient Iron Age world of warring, land acquisition, and destroying the enemy. They fit right in, and to expect their God-talk to be on a totally different page is to start off on the wrong foot. 

We shouldn’t cheer the Israelites and emulate them, which is what Christians with a violent streak throughout history have done—Spanish conquerors of the “West Indies” or European settlers of “America” treat the “new world” like it was Canaan and take over. And neither can we sidestep or minimize the violence, which is another strategy Christians have had for handling these passages.

They are what they are, and the Bible looks the way it does because God lets his children tell the story

Children tell stories of their parents from their point of view as children, which is not the whole story. Think of boys bragging about their dads on the playground. I loved my father and I defended his honor. He was a mighty man who could lift heavy objects, was a sharpshooter, brilliantly smart, and as strong as any man anywhere. 

Not everything I said about my dad was fully and objectively true, but this is how I saw my father, a description born of love, from my youthful perspective, that followed the “rules of the playground.” 

Eventually, looking back from a later vantage point, I realized how much my dad-talk actually limited my father, but that was how we talked and I wasn’t able, obviously, to take a step back and tell my father’s story some other way. 

And even if I could, if I had said things back then like how hard he worked to support us, how he stayed up when I was throwing up at night, and how he never missed my Little League games, I wouldn’t have gotten across to the other guys how awesome my dad was, how much better he was than all the others.

The Israelites described God according to their “rules,” how they and the people around them understood gods in general. And here’s a huge lesson in there for us today. 

We always perceive God from our vantage point, according to ways of thinking we aren’t even aware of most of the time. In these stories, the Bible gives us a glimpse of ancient Israelites doing that very same thing. 

So, when we read these stories, we don’t read them as absolute rules to live by or the final word about what God is like. Christians believe that in the Gospels, we get a deeper understanding about God from Jesus. The Gospels don’t allow us to remain where the Iron Age Israelites were in their understanding of God.

In other words, the Bible isn’t a rulebook for Christian living. It is a narrative that has movement and a trajectory. 

And while we’re at it, archaeologists are about as sure as you can be that the mass extermination of Canaanites that the Bible talks about didn’t happen—which is good news, I think. This helps us see these stories are stories that tell us how the ancient Israelites, at least at some point in their history, understood God.

And that, I realize, is a very long answer, but it’s as short as I can make it.

Alright, there’s a lot going on in there, some of it good and some of it bad. It’s kind of a variation on the Jesus-Tea-Strainer theme we’ve chatted about before. But like I said, the main question I’m left with is, “Does God allow his kids to lie about him?” Because that’s the basic thrust of Enns’ answer, right? The Israelites are young kids, excited about their dad, who told tall, pretty violent, tales about him in terms their kid conceptions of reality could grasp. And God looked on smilingly, letting it go because they meant well.

Now, to some degree I go along with a theology of accommodation in revelation. Most Reformed do. Calvin used to say that God used a sort of baby-talk to tell his children about himself, using terms they would understand to communicate. Bavinck developed this way of thinking at length. Isn’t what Enns saying kind of like that? Kind of, but where they part ways is the issue of truth. Does divine accommodation mean that well-meaning lies are okay about God? Calvin, Bavinck, and most of the Christian tradition would probably say no.

Indeed, looking at the thrust of the Old Testament revelation, God doesn’t seem to take lying about him too well. What are the first few commands?

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:1-7)

So:

  1. Don’t worship other gods.
  2. Don’t make idols or false representations of me.
  3. Don’t misuse my name and cheapen it.

Well, it seems to me that making up stories about God, saying he did a bunch of stuff he didn’t really do, like commanding a bunch of stuff he would never command because it’s clearly abhorrent to him, would probably fall afoul of 2 and 3, don’t you think? I mean, if Enns’ reading of the New Testament is right, and Jesus really is uber-pacifistic to the degree that all judgment or violence is just completely foreign to the nature of God, then these stories aren’t just tall tales, but pretty big whoppers. In fact, they’d seem to be blasphemous.

Now that would be odd wouldn’t it? For God to deliver commands to us about not falsely representing him and taking his name in vain, through narratives that falsely represent him and take his name in vain? What kind of confusing father is that? A little exaggeration here and there is one thing, but to fundamentally miss a key component like that is kind of a big deal. I mean, especially when God seems particularly picky about the “no false images” thing (Ex. 32-33).

In fact, in his helpful little work Against the Gods, John D. Currid has argued that when the OT picks up images from the surrounding culture, there’s usually a polemical edge. In other words, the OT revelation is often-times taking up cultural ideas and then subverting them, or explicitly opposing them through ironic use. I’m not that convinced, then, that God would inspire, or semi-inspire, or even simply ‘tolerate’ texts remaining in Scripture, his covenant documents, that grossly misrepresent him to his covenant people, the nations, and future generations of believers. It’s not just about inerrancy, but about having a trustworthy God. Accommodation is one thing, but if your accommodation includes aggressive falsehood, it’s actually not accommodation but misrepresentation.

Beyond that, the issue of culture and chronological snobbery pops up again. Enns makes the point that we always view God from our vantage point, thinking of God in terms that our culture finds amenable and understandable. But if that’s the case, then shouldn’t we slow the train down on judging the stories the Israelites told? Shouldn’t we be careful about our own modern, therapeutic ideas of parenting, democracy and such creeping in to our theology? Why is our culture’s judgment about the divine, or violence, or whatever, obviously more trustworthy? Because it’s ours? I don’t think Enns wants to go there.

Finally, yes, the passages in question can be pretty troubling. Still, I think there are answers that are helpful. I’ve got my own article on the issue of the conquest of the Canaanites trying to treat the issue in historical and theological context. But again, I’d point people to the work of Paul Copan in Is God a Moral Monster?or this helpful piece by Alastair Roberts. I’d also argue that even if Jesus does point us to a pacifistic ethic (which I doubt), there are ways of relating the Old and New Testaments in such a fashion that you don’t have to argue the OT was false in certain ways.

Because I’m lazy, I’ll quote myself from a post on a related subject:

So what do we say instead? I…would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.

Well, there’s more to say, but I suppose I’ll end my ramble here. Do I think God accommodates himself to be understood by his children? Yup. Do I think that includes lies about him? Nope. And neither should you.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. I like Pete Enns. He seems like a fun guy and I’d love to consume a sandwich and beverage with him at some point. So, though we disagree, please don’t be a jerk in the comments.

On Why Bell Is No Barth Or Lewis: A Question of Consistency and Theological Trajectory

Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, and Rob Bell.

All three of those men held/hold views on things like Scripture, the afterlife, and so forth, that as a decently conservative Evangelical I would deem wrong and, at times, quite unhelpful. (Although, to be clear, I think Lewis is very misunderstood and badly appropriated w/ respect to his views on the afterlife in The Great Divorce and atonement in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.) Still, for some reason, my reaction to the three, in many ways mirroring that of most contemporary Evangelicals, is quite different.

Rob BellOf non-canonical authors, few rival Lewis’ impact on my own thought. His apologetic and fictional works were deeply formative for me, though I’ve since moved on from my early, nearly-slavish following of his theology. Barth, for me, is a towering figure whose every sentence (at least the fraction that I’ve read), ought to be considered quite carefully. Even when I find him wrong, even terribly wrong, it doesn’t put me off from reading him one bit, or drive me to see him as, well, a false teacher, or what-have-you. And yet, when I get to Rob Bell, a man whose early books I used to love, whose sermons I used to podcast, and whose style I wanted to emulate when I was younger–I think of him now and all of these flashing red lights start going off. I know I’m not the only one.

Since people have been questioning Evangelicalism’s apparently inconsistent approach to theological diversity of late, I was prompted to ask myself “What’s going on? Is there some double-standard at work here?” I mean, clearly, I’m aware of Lewis’ and Barth’s theological views on Scripture and so forth. Am I just being inconsistent, then? Is this a reflection of an Evangelicalism that’s tightened up its ship too much? A narrowing of my own horizons? Or is it something else?

While I don’t think I can speak to the rest of Evangelicalism, I did have a few quick thoughts about my own differing attitudes towards Bell as opposed to Barth and Lewis, which may be helpful in thinking through an approach towards differing theological sources. To be clear, this is not an in-depth theological analysis of their varying theologies. (Although, I do think that a study of that sort would probably reveal larger differences between them than has been claimed of late.) Think of it more as an exploration in intellectual disposition.

So then, first Barth, then Lewis.

barthBarth is Barth

 Were someone to ask me about different approach towards Barth and Bell, my initial instinct is to say something along the lines of, “Dude, Barth is Barth. He can kinda say what he wants.” Now, that’s not exactly true, but it reflects what I think is the first difference between the two, and that is, I know he’s done the work.

Looking at the Church Dogmatics sitting there on my shelf, I know that I can pick a page at random and Barth will give me some lengthy digression on the minute implications of any adopted doctrine, plus the history of its development from the Fathers onward, as well as extensive interaction with contemporary witnesses. When he differs from the tradition, even widely, you can sense the requisite respect for his theological and spiritual elders present. What’s more, though Barth can, at times, be a bit rough with this theological opponents (natural theology anybody?), I mostly get the impression he’s done the work required to understand them, explain them properly, and then come to the conclusion he has.

While I won’t go into detail here, this is not what I get from Bell. That could be an unfair impression, or simple elitism, but, I doubt it.

The second big factor at play, and I think this might be the bigger issue for me, is that Barth’s trajectory was from liberal to conservative, not the other way around. I look at where Barth started–a young pastor heavily influenced by Kant, Schleiermacher, Hermann, and so forth, who then, after engaging in actual pastoral ministry, and a sort of rediscovery of the Reformers, moves in a more Evangelical and Orthodox direction, against the theological tide, and I see a different situation going on. While some would say he never fully moved past those mistakes, Barth’s Neo-Orthodox theology of Scripture is an improvement in his case, not a regression.

Related to this is the issue of expectations. I already know Barth as a Neo-Orthodox, not classically-Evangelical theologian, so I expect some divergences and am not the least bit shocked when I find them. Incidentally, I think this might explain part of why can expect Evangelicals to keep reading Marilynne Robinson after her rather flip comments about abortion and gay marriage.

With Bell on the other hand, we have a movement that is, on the whole, in a liberalizing direction. Even when Barth and Bell materially end up in the same neighborhood, it’s sort of like two travelers heading in opposite directions meeting at a way station–Bell got there by leaving behind what I consider to be a more biblical orthodoxy Barth was striving towards.

Again, with Bell, there’s the issue of expectations. As a putatively Evangelical pastor, I naturally expect something else and so become alarmed when I don’t hear it. There is a sense of theological betrayal with Bell. There’s an element of “Well, you should know better. You’ve been on this from the inside and now you’re moving on to something defective.” What’s more, it seems indicative of a troubling, faltering theological sensibility. There’s a sense of, “I don’t know what off direction you’re going to go next, but I can’t imagine its very good.” Barth seemed to get better as he went on.

LewisLewis the Apologist

 Well, what about Lewis? Again, apart from the material differences in their theology, Lewis is, in many ways, quite similar to Barth. For one thing, the personal trajectory issue was from atheist professor to broadly Orthodox apologist. That counts for a lot. What’s more, Lewis was not a pastor, nor a professional theologian in the church. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for his words. He was. And at the same time, he made it clear a number of times that he wasn’t an appointed teacher of the church and therefore, open to correction. (As a side-note: one of the things that I wonder about in our contemporary context is how many writers with no theological training, or churchly office are operating as teachers in the church, with no apparent accountability structure for them other than a drop in readership. And even that’s not guaranteed when a teacher goes off the rails, because usually that sells better. But I digress.)

The second factor, and this might be more the issue with Lewis, is his mode and tone. In relation to his context, Lewis was staunchly conservative theologically-speaking. His aim was never to reinvent Christianity, nor present things in such a way that he was unveiling some great truth hidden under some ugly fundamentalism.  It was to present people with mere Christianity, as it had been taught in the Church for millenia. In fact, most of Lewis’ critical jabs at the Church, at least his own, were aimed at the soggy liberalisms the Anglican communion was finding itself mired in, by engaging in the kind of chronological snobbery that rejects orthodoxy for “progress.”

Incidentally, this is another similarity I see him sharing with Barth. Both were spiritually and theologically counter-cultural in a way that pushed against the cultural capitulation they saw their national churches engaged in. In keeping with that that spirit, Lewis aimed his polemical guns outwards at the big issues of scientism, relativism, and so forth, in defense of the gospel the old teachers had always proclaimed.

In reading Bell’s oeuvre, especially his last work (reviewed as charitably as possible here), the direction and thrust all pushes a different way. While Bell and Lewis are both trying to reach the lost, Bell does so more by softening, modifying, or chucking traditional doctrine and less by pushing back on cultural pretensions that make them difficult for postmoderns. I mean, that’s kind of the approach on display in his conversation with Andrew Wilson on same-sex marriage, which is sort of a natural outflow of the approach to God, revelation, and culture in the last couple of his works. It’s not so much a defense of the “truth once for all delivered to the saints”. but an invitation to the “truth sadly covered over and mucked up by the religious”–until now, that is.

The Upshot

Now, please don’t take this as an exercise in “farewelling” Rob Bell all over again, or an expression of animosity on my part. It’s not. In fact, if I ran into him on the street, he’d probably get a smile, a “hello”, and an invitation to coffee or dinner. As I noted the other day, one of the main things we ought to do for those we consider to be drifting theologically is pray for them,

All the same, it seems fruitful to attempt to give an accounting for one’s own theological proclivities and affinities. Andrew Wilson did something of the sort the other day when he spoke of affinities due to key issues in theological battle-lines, and while I largely agreed, I also think the issues of trajectory and tone have a big role to play in my approach to these three thinkers.

Well, that’s enough of my rambling. What say you?

Soli Deo Gloria

CaPC Podcast: Rob Bell Gets an Oprah Show

Rob Bell

“Captivating stuff”–Bell on this Podcast

So, I was on the Christ and Pop Culture Podcast again this week. If you haven’t already done so, go ahead and subscribe to it iTunes. Though I’m not on it every time, it’s always good stuff.

On this episode “Managing Editor Alan Noble is joined by staff writers Derek RishmawyKevin McLenithan andWade Bearden to discuss hoping for the best from Rob Bell’s new show, whether Christian films as a genre are a bad idea, and if moviegoers are starting to favor storytelling over special effects.”

I’m the point guy on the Rob Bell getting a TV Show on Oprah Winfrey Network thing. I’ll say that I may have been a bit cranky as I recorded.

So, you can go listen to that here: CLICK ON THIS LINK.

Beyond that, you can go read my review of Rob Bell’s last book:

So does God keep up with the modern world? Bell thinks so, and I’m inclined to agree. The question remains how does God do so? Is it by trading in our rusty old concept of God, and wheeling out the new, shiny one, finely-tuned to fit postmodern sensibilities, that Bell presents us with?

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s by dusting off the broad tradition of reflection about God’s self-revelation we find in the Fathers, the Medieval Doctors, and Reformation scholars who gave us a God both “with” and “above,” both “for” and, yes, complexly “against,” both “ahead” and yet “before.” Just a thought.

Also, this is the excerpt from the interview with Rob Bell and Oprah that increased my sense of dread about the show:

Oprah: What is the soul?
Bell: It’s the thing that keeps telling you there’s more.

Oprah: Your definition of God?
Bell: Like a song you hear in another room, and you think, “wow, that sounds beautiful but I can only hear a little bit.”

Oprah: What does prayer mean to you?
Bell: Prayer to me is usually one word, which is, “Yes. I’m open. What’s next?” That’s what it is.

Oprah: What’s the lesson that’s taken you longest to learn?
Bell: There’s nothing to prove … All that’s left to do is enjoy.

Oprah: What do you know for sure?
Bell: That you can say “yes” to this moment, and you can experience a joy that can’t be put into words.

Oprah: The world needs…
Bell: … All of us to wake up.

Oprah: I believe…
Bell: … That we’re all going to be fine.

So, there you go.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rob Bell Makes the Oprah Line-up (CaPC)

oprah-and-rob-bell-are-hanging-outEckhart Tolle.

Rhonda Byrne.

Elizabeth Gilbert.

…Rob Bell? Yes, the moment has arrived. After telling us to learn from Tolle about ‘The Power of Now’, encouraging us to unlock ‘The Secret’ Byrne, and exhorting us to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, Oprah has added Rob Bell to the list of must-read spiritual gurus. This month the media giant picked Bell’s recent offering What We Talk About When We Talk About God as her ‘Super Soulful Book of the Month’, saying:

Pastor Rob Bell is shaking up the way we think about God and religion. I love his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne). When I first started reading it, I was highlighting my favorite passages, but then I realized—what’s the point? I’ve marked every page! It just wowed me. In the book, Bell explains that God is and always has been with us, for us, and ahead of us—and then explores how we can really absorb this knowledge into our everyday lives to become more connected to spirit.

So, having reviewed the book for Christ and Pop Culture, I have three basic thoughts on this.

You can read those thoughts at…Christ and Pop Culture. (Click on this one.)

(Also, yes, I know, sorry for 2 articles is one day, but honestly, no editorial control here.)

 

Somebody Stop Me If I Start Doing This (A Thought on Blogging)

In a fascinating recent blog post on Rob Bell and the nature of advertising rhetoric, Alastair Roberts managed to describe one of my least favorite styles of blogging:

If you read many blogs, especially from a certain brand of progressive evangelical, you will notice similar styles of writing and thinking in operation. Sentences are brief, there are numerous single sentence paragraphs, sentences in bold, or fragmented statements. Anecdotes and engaging narratives are consistently employed. Rhetorical questions, potent images, and controlling metaphors are used extensively. Such writing typically persuades by getting the reader to feel something. The responses to such pieces are almost always emotive and affirming, very seldom critical (and critical responses are hardly ever interacted with carefully).

Now, to my mind there’s nothing inherently wrong with narratives with emotional hooks, bolding and italicizing things occasionally, metaphors, potent images, rhetorical questions, and so forth. All of them have their place at that right time and the right moment. Indeed, some writers could stand to use a little more of that. (Although, let’s be honest, the UNDERLINE, BOLD, AND ITALICIZE EVERYTHING INCESSANTLY THING IS KIND OF ANNOYING AND CHEAP.)  Scripture itself is soaked in varying modes of discourse, especially narrative and potent image. That said, the over-saturation of these modes of communication in blogs of this sort is kind of like the difference between a packet of Sweet & Low saccharine or a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee; one seems like a counterfeit designed to mask the quality of the substance, while the other enhances it.

Roberts goes on:

In an age dominated by advertising and the manipulation of feelings for the purpose of persuasion, the proliferation of conversational and self-revelatory styles of discourse, designed to capture people’s feelings, where logical argumentation once prevailed, shouldn’t surprise us. Where persuasion occurs through feeling, truth becomes bound up in the authentic communication of the ‘self’ and its passion, rather than in the more objective criteria of traditional discourses, where truth was tested by realities and practices outside of ourselves. This is truth in the mode of sharing one’s personal ‘sacred story’.

It is for this reason that narrative, anecdote, metaphor, and potent images are so important for such approaches. All of these are non-argumentative ways of drawing and inviting you, the reader, into the feelings of the text. They also serve as ways of avoiding direct ideological confrontation and engagement. By couching what would otherwise have to be presented as a theological argument in an impressionistic narrative they make it very difficult to frame disagreements. The most effective communicators of this type tend to be those who elicit and direct feelings most consistently. It can almost be as hard to have reasonable argument with such people than it would be to argue with an advert.

While Roberts might be guilty of over-privileging rational, logical modes of reasoning and argumentation in his criticism, there is a real danger when the church over-corrects and plays into the postmodern fragmentation and evasion of thought. Testimony is an inherently biblical mode of discourse, but testimony is susceptible to cross-examination. Biblical testimony is not intended to subvert the intellect, but engage it, as well as the more affective dimensions of our souls. Paul gave his own testimony to be sure, creatively used potent imagery, and so forth, but then gave a sustained biblical argument that can be followed, disputed, and wrestled with. (cf. Galatians)

Alright, this whole thing was quick and off-the-cuff. The point is, if ya’ll spot me drifting into land of advert blogging, you have my permission to call me out.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rob Bell At the Areopagus (CaPC Feature)

Seth T. Hahne is the man.

Seth T. Hahne is the man.

Paul’s debate with the philosophers at the Areopagus remains a favorite story of mine. The Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in Athens was the cultural and intellectual center of the ancient world, so when the apostle Paul was asked to speak there on this strange new teaching about “Jesus” and “the Resurrection”, he spoke with great erudition and made an appeal for the Gospel tailored to his ‘religious’ but intellectually skeptical audience.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God is Rob Bell’s Areopagus speech.

You can read the rest of my feature review of his book HERE at Christ and Pop Culture.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. It’s why I haven’t written anything this week and might not write much else.

So Rob Bell Wrote Another Book About God — Some Thoughts Before Actually Reading It

Rob BellA couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a little book about Heaven, Hell, and all that God stuff. You might have heard of it. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it–he didn’t say anything new. (Or necessarily very good. I’ll be honest, even though I was a Bell fan in college, I was pretty disappointed with that last one.)  In any case, it kicked off a little bit of a crap-storm in the Evangelical world. Well, actually, it was the online theological storm of the century. There were pre-emptive tweets by Evangelical megastars, negative reviews, glowing recommendations, counter-reviews, charges of heresy, charges of heresy-hunting, gangs roaming the internet with clubs watching for signs of dissent or support, refugee camps, and basically all that is unholy in the blogosphere.

At the same time, some good conversations and decent theology got out too.

Now, thankfully this all went down before I had a blog up and running. Given the amount of Facebook conversations I was involved in during that whole imbroglio, I praise God that in his providence that he spared me from my own immaturity. It seems though, that Rob Bell has written another book. It’s about God, or at least, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Well, here’s the trailer:

Before I read it, or anybody else reads it, or writes a review, or tweets some 140-character gem and the whole blogging world explodes with outrage and applause, I have a few thoughts to offer up to the online world, both within my own Reformedish tribe, as well as those outside it:

1. Calm Down – First things first–calm down. Whoever you are, turn it down a notch. If you’re a Bell fan, slow your roll. No, he’s not going to unveil the secrets of the universe. It’s not revolutionary or visionary. He’s probably just written down something somebody else has written in a printed blog format

with

oddly-spaced lines that

emphasize some

point

that you’ve never heard of because you’re not reading

academically-hip

theological literature

like he

does.

If you’re a Bell critic, especially if you’re Reformed, calm down. Realize that if you really believe the confessions, none of what he writes means God isn’t actually sovereign, won’t take care of his church, or that the whole church will drift into heresy and death because of it. Yes, given the last book, you will probably not like a lot of this one. Yes, many people will read it and agree to propositions about and perceptions of God you find to be unworthy and un-scriptural. Yes, you might have plenty of correcting to do. But once again, this has been the situation of the Church for the last 2,000 years. It will survive one book.

In fact, just take a minute to recover by reading Romans 9 or some of the Institutes. There. Feel better?

Okay, let’s move on.

2. Read First, Shoot Later (Or, Don’t Shoot, Pray Before You Write) – This one’s mostly for critics–read the book before you say anything super-critical about it. Seriously. It doesn’t help to declaim something as full of heresy and beyond the pale if you’ve never read the dang thing. Also, when you do read it, do it with the spirit of generosity, trying your best to love your neighbor as yourself, reading as sympathetically as you’d like to be read. Don’t caricature or misquote, or uncharitably misrepresent. You might still find a whole bunch of stuff you don’t like–stuff that troubles and disturbs you so that you feel the need to correct in print. That’s fine. I believe firmly that any publicly-promulgated doctrine or false teaching needs to be corrected publicly for the health and life the church. Jesus and the apostles hated heresy, so if there is any, by all means, declaim away. That said, remember that it needs to be done in a spirit of love and with the integrity that flows from the Gospel. Our polemics may be passionate, but they should always be principled and never be putrid.  Truth cannot be championed by dishonesty, and especially if you’re a pastor, remember that you’re setting an example for your hearer/readers. The way you react often sets the tone for your people, as well as the watching world. As the old hymn goes, they will know us by our love. Love doesn’t exclude disagreement and confrontation, but it should change the way it goes down. Pray before you hit ‘publish’ on that blog.

3. Try to Understand the Other Team – I hate to call them teams, but yes, in issues like this, realistically the theological spectrum ends up splitting into opposing teams who drive the conversation, with some people trying to occupy the center but usually leaning one way more than the other. I’ll just say that both sides need to strive to understand the other’s concerns. For instance, if you read Love Wins and you didn’t for an instant sympathize with the criticisms that Bell was launching against some traditional doctrines, I’m just going hazard a guess that you’re probably not an effective evangelist, because he was hitting at legitimate (or at least common) theological and cultural concerns. I’m not saying he gave the right answers, but if you can’t understand why those answers resonated with so many in our culture, then you’re not going to be able to thoughtfully and compassionately provide the answers you deem to be the biblical ones with any kind of charity or grace to those without as clear of a theological vision as you. At the other end of things, if you were a Bell fan and you absolutely loved the book, and were unable to see the criticisms as anything more than insecure heresy-hunting conducted by narrow-minded gate-keepers, then I’d hazard a guess that you might be suffering from a sort of reverse-theological boundary keeping, which immediately privileges anything deemed to be “unorthodox” by the Evangelical majority. If you can’t see why more thoughtful, sensitive believers of a more “conservative” bent might have felt attacked or caricatured in that book, you probably won’t be someone who can graciously and thoughtfully correct them on what you deem to be their theological deficiencies.

4. Criticism Is Not Inherently Narrow-minded Oppression – Expanding on that last point, realize that we wouldn’t have half of the New Testament if the apostles like Paul, John, or Peter weren’t passionate about correcting errors both in doctrine and practice. Colossians is an attack on syncretistic theology of a Jewish-Hellenistic sort that threatened to lead the Colossian believers back into a beggarly superstition, trusting in various intermediaries instead of the supremacy of Christ. Galatians combats the Judaizing failure to recognize the eschatological shift in redemptive-history brought about by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection due to nationalistic self-righteousness, which threatened to split the community between Gentiles and Jews. John combats love-denying proto-Gnosticism that, again, tears at community. The list could easily go on. The NT authors pursued public false teaching with passion because they knew that there was a real link-up between sound doctrine and a life-giving love of God in their flocks. The point is, Bell fans need to realize that when he writes a book publicly expounding a theological position that sets itself in direct, or even tacit, opposition to a large portion of the theological populace, criticizing and writing it off, it is not unreasonable to expect some push-back–not because his theology is necessarily heretical. It might not be. But even if it is merely perceived as such, understand that it might be very real, pastoral concern that drives the criticism, not personal animosity or jealousy. Because he’s a teacher, even if he’s just “asking questions”, (there’s a way of “asking questions” that’s really answering them), every public word is held to account. (James 3) My point is, not every criticism is narrow-minded oppression of theological diversity, but might be real pastoral accountability being exercised, even if you think it’s mistaken.

5. Cling to What is Good, Hate What is Evil – Depending on which translation you use, Romans 12:9 might place the “hate what is evil” or the “cling to what is good” first. In this case, as a word to the initially apprehensive, I would say go in with an attitude that seeks to learn or discern whatever good you can from the book before you find the less-than-good. Of course, be like the Bereans and test everything against the scriptures. (Acts 17:11) If you find something in there that doesn’t line up, reject it. That’s a given. Still, it bears repeating that before you go hunting for everything that’s wrong with it, try to find the good you can affirm on the basis of God’s self-revelation in Christ and the scriptures. If for no other reason than to be able to have a fruitful conversation with someone who actually enjoyed the book, you need to be able to affirm the good before you move to critique the bad.

I don’t expect that this is the only thing I’ll say on the whole issue. I might even write one of those critical or, I wish, glowing reviews. (I’d love to love this book.) But for now, before I’ve read a single word, here’s what I’ve got to say. I pray it blesses God’s church, bringing more light than heat.

Soli Deo Gloria