Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why I Don't Hate Rob Bell

Last week I read an interesting blog post from Tim Challies, entitled The New Evangelical Virtues (follow the link to read it; it is quite short).  It was written primarily in response to the publication of Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  For those of you who have been living under a rock over the past few weeks, Bell, a pastor at Mars Hill and a leader of what has been called the 'emerging church', an increasingly popular postmodern Christian movement, wrote a book about God's grace and hell, which the day after its release was the fifth most popular book on Amazon and made number two on the New York Times bestseller's list.  

Here is the advertisement for his book:

You can imagine the conservative evangelical response:

Bell's book lit up the blogosphere (I can't believe I just used that word); leading conservative evangelicals have essentially condemned Bell's views as heretical (in some cases, even before reading his book).  This inspired Challies' post, in which he identified what he considers to be the new 'virtues' of evangelicalism: doubt, opaqueness, and a love of asking questions without providing answers.

Clearly, Challies was using the term 'virtue' ironically, and goes on to show how the emerging church is destroying the integrity of scripture.  The comments were even more excoriating, quoting random passages to show the blaphemy of Bell.  I normally don't read Christian blogs, and this is why - I end up embarrased to be a Christian.  The lack of love for people that I tend to find on these blogs (not necessarily in the posts, but among the comments) hurts my soul. 

I am not a real fan of the emerging church, and the few things I have seen of Bell have been underwhelming (although his Everything is Spiritual sermon-lecture was a toure-de-force of memorization, drama and passion, and showed that the man has real talent).  However, Challies' post rubbed me the wrong way, so I wrote a comment on the blog which I wanted to share with you.  My comment was removed from his blog hours after posting.  On asking Mr. Challies why, he said that his moderator was managing the comments section as he has been away, but he trusts his moderator to remove comments that would lead the discussion off topic.  You can judge for yourself whether this comment deserves that fate.

"I have been reflecting on this post all week, and have come to the conclusion that I cannot agree with it. I do not identify with the emerging church, but I think you are ignoring the real virtues from which these vices which you are calling the ‘new virtues’ have emerged. The real virtues which are being espoused by the emerging church are:

1. A love for people - An over-valuing of grace as opposed to justice certainly has good intentions and is even rooted in deep theological reflection (the mystery of the gospel was one of inclusion to the Gentiles, which went against the exclusivist Jew-centric interpretation of the Old Testament). However, the vice that comes from an over-emphasis of love for people is an under-emphasis on love for truth.

2. Academic integrity - there is a real desire to dig into scripture and discover its cultural context. Doing so however results in great complexities that are difficult to work around. Multiple valid yet conflicting interpretations can be made from a set of passages. Rob Bell is a very well-read man, and I think much of the doubt you alluded to can come from this integrity - from the unwillingness to be clear when the evidence shows no clarity. The vices from this are doubt and laziness, as it can become easy to give up and assume there is no answer, or to assume that, because some issues were difficult, they all must be.

3. Humility - A love of people also involves a willingness to dialogue with those of other positions, both within and outside of Christianity. To learn from others and to appreciate the good in other perspectives is a marvellous thing, but it can lead to the vice, again, of doubt and a lack of boldness (so as not to offend).

On the flip side, the more conservative evangelicals have their own virtues and vices:

1. Boldness - preaching the gospel with the confidence granted from the Holy Spirit. But this has its dark side: arrogance, in rudely asserting one’s confidence without taking into account the feelings of others; boldness falsely applied, when one is confident when one should not be; and laziness, when one assumes their confidence is God-inspired without questioning what the passage might mean.

2. Love of truth - but this can just as easily lead to a loss of compassion for people (which I think has been evident in some of the comments on this blog). (Editor's Note: By 'this blog' I am referrring to Challies' blog, and not my own)

3. Clarity in answering questions - but this can come at the cost of love for people, and, ironically, at the cost of truth, when clarity involves oversimplification and a lack of academic integrity.

I think we need to recognize that the virtues of the emerging church, and its corresponding vices, have emerged in part out of a response to the vices that have been fostered by the conservative evangelicals. Both sides need to recognize both their strengths and flaws, if we hope to have any reconciliation among the people of God."


Keith Shields said...

Well said, Matthew. I am sorry to hear that this comment was deleted from the Challies blog. Thank you for being a mediating voice that is not arrogant or rude.

Anonymous said...

Don't feel too bad. Lots of comments are getting deleted over at Challies.com.
His most recent review of the Todd Burpo 'heaven' book had a lot of rampant deleting recently. You won't find a trace of it because they have been deleted! But, David the deleting moderator alludes to them in one or two of his own posts.
He is David from The Thirsty Theologian. "Thirsty" is a site that also likes to reign in debate and is very narrow in what it allows as well. Challies made a very unwise choice in David as his moderator. That guy is a hatchet man and very squeamish with dissent. Challies still likes to hide behind the 'off topic' rule.
Challies's blog used to be fun to read and easy to comment. Now it is just a social cult.
Sorry you got burned over there. Try and post something today and see how quickly it gets taken down. Something dissenting will not be met with an easy hand.
Challies has really changed, he and his blog.
That blog died yesterday and ironically, it died during a review on Heaven of all topics.
Ichabod has occurred on that blog.

Anonymous said...

Another beat down on Bell going on back at Challies. Lovely. Such a savory crowd. Makes us all want to become reformed.

Matthew said...

I do want to say that I have nothing against Challies - I don't know the guy, and I have not spent much time on his blog. I am saddened by his latest posting, in which he is quick to call Bell a 'sinner' and 'criminal'.

That said, to the comments from Anonymous, I was wondering if you have emailed Challies to let him know your concerns? I sent him a respectful email, and his reply was prompt and also respectful. I am sure that if you expressed your concerns compassionately, he would not fail to respond. I don't think he's a bad guy, even if I do disagree with his perspective.

I definitely welcome comments on this blog, and if people disagree, so much the better! So long as their disagreement is respectful. I do not have a blog where I get pasges of comments, unlike Challies, and am curious to see if or how my comment-deletion policy will change in the future, when the number of comments becomes large.

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