My new favorite podcast – along with Mere Fidelity and The Partially Examined Life – is Pete Holmes‘ You Made It Weird. It’s an absolutely fabulous podcast, where comedian Pete Holmes just sits down and talks with a guest for two or three hours (usually on the topics of comedy, relationships, and God).
A few years ago he had an episode with Rob Bell, and it got me to thinking about what makes Mr. Bell so likable and helpful to so many. There is a message that Bell is sending that many identify with, and it’s a message that the evangelical community – so often the target of his critique – can and should learn from.
Mr. Bell is offering a valid critique of evangelicalism that evangelicals shouldn’t ignore. He is identifying some real problems in some traditional forms of Christianity. There is no shame or compromise in admitting that, because agreeing that the problems are real doesn’t mean evangelicals also have to agree with all of Bell’s solution to those problems.
By and large, evangelicals can learn from Bell’s exploration of the problems, but it’s his solutions to them that make them hate him (and in turn, make them ignore an otherwise valid critique).
What Evangelicals Can Learn
In the past Rob Bell has been one of the people that I’ve fumed against the most openly, and often without the proper amount of thought for how such treatments must seem to miss the point for those who like him, and must seem to be examples of the very things they dislike about institutional Christianity so much.
Here are three areas where evangelicals across the board should pay attention (and if you’re already working towards these goals, more power to you):
1) It’s ok to have questions (and sometimes the Bible doesn’t have answers)
In the intro to Holmes’ show he comments on that one of the things he loves the most about Rob bell is how he isn’t bothered by all the hangups Holmes had growing up in church. This is indeed a wonderful thing for someone to experience. Working where I do I often have people air their doubts and questions and sins at me, thinking that this will drive me away or confound me, and when it doesn’t – so I like to think – it opens up a true pathway for a relationship in which I can share the faith.
One of the key themes in Rob Bell’s work is that it’s ok to have questions. As he says in Velvet Elvis, “every generation has to ask the difficult questions of what it means to be a Christian here and now.”
People have doubts, they have questions, and Bell is great about making sure that people know this is ok. Bell is great at communicating the fact that having a doubt or a question doesn’t make you a heretic. Too often he sees churches labeling those who raise difficult questions as outsiders or heretic and dismissing them, heaping all of the judgement on them and refusing to deal with their own issues.
Bell wants to push back against the tendency to try and boil the Bible down to a book of answers, a mere compilation of ‘what am I supposed to do or think about xyz?’
So Bell works to make room for questions, to make room for doubt, to make room for the full spectrum of human emotion.
In his writings Bell talks about how doing this should make us more tolerant. This isn’t a perspective that I understood for the longest time, but the point seems to be essentially this: when you realize how many questions you have yourself – or at the very least, had yourself – and how you had to work through those questions (perhaps not always fully), you naturally extend grace to those around you who are still working through those questions.
It is the same dynamic that is at play in the fact that our being forgiven should make us more forgiving towards others.
So far as all this goes, Bell is prodding at a weakness in much of evangelicalism that needs to be prodded. The church needs to be open to the doubts and questions of its people, it needs to more tolerant of those who are working through these questions, and it needs to avoid the temptation to uphold a sort of Christianized stoicism, as if Spock or the Jedi were the true models of the faith.
This is all the more true because the Bible doesn’t always wrap it’s truths up with a tidy bow. The Scriptures often leave truths in tension with one another, and it doesn’t always offer straightforward answers to the questions we have (or at least, not the sort of answers we want). All of this should be taken into account as we cultivate relationships with our brothers and sisters in the faith.
2) God is in the darkness
One key area where this lack of straight-forward answers comes into play is in the fact that God is in the darkness; Job learned this well.
Bell notes that too often in contemporary Christianity God is seen as only being there for the good things, for the blessings. He is a God who is with us in the good times, but who we can’t reconcile with the bad times. Stereotypical Christianity has God show up in the good stuff, but then we don’t know what to do about the bad stuff.
There is according to Bell this false impression that Christianity doesn’t really address the darkness and God being present in the darkness. Many people honestly don’t know what to do about the bad stuff, we need to reckon with that failure of ours.
Bell wants to make it clear to Christians that God is actually in all of this, in all parts of our lives, the good and the bad. It’s not merely that God shows up in all the good stuff, rather, a uniqueness of Christianity is that it tells a story about a God who comes in and “enters into the worst possible stuff without really any answers and just sorta hangs there, literally.” Bell wants to point the lack of resolution that is often present in this, to the fact that often it is simply true that God is with us in our sufferings.
Thus, Christians should work harder to make it known that theirs is not just a faith of the good life; their is a faith of God in the trenches.
3) Christianity should be about a vision of life that is so compelling that people are drawn to it.
A final area where contemporary Christianity can learn from Bell is in realizing that Christianity is supposed to offer a vision of life that is so compelling that people are drawn to it. This was the case throughout the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, and it was the case in the early church as well. A key draw for early pagans was the fact that the Christians took care not only of their own people but all people. Ancient Israel was supposed to be a city on a hill that drew in the nations around it; it continuously failed in this mission, but that’s what it was supposed to do and that’s what we’re supposed to being doing now.
Thus Bell wants to push back against the overbearing legalism – what is so often referred to as puritanism – that plagues the church. This is embodied in those who use the faith as an excuse to air their own pride and judgmental attitudes, creating at atmosphere built on self-righteousness and a disdain for all those outside the faith, an atmosphere which outsiders look at and are forced to say “I want no part of that”; not because they want to keep their sin, but because the Christians are behaving so badly.
Christians often say that the hatred they receive from outsiders is a proof that they are right; too often, however, they are hated because they are jerks, not because they’re being faithful to the Word. Those are two very different things and too many Christians can’t tell the difference.
Why they hate him…
1) While it’s ok to have questions, the Bible often does in fact have answers (and that matters)
As stated, in the intro to Holmes’ show he comments on that one of the things he loves the most about Rob bell is how he isn’t bothered by all the hangups Holmes had growing up in church. One of the key issues for his critics is that this lack of hangups doesn’t comes because he’s thought through them and resolved them or because he’s settled into the tension that the Scriptures often leave, but because he just doesn’t care, because he’s indifferent to whether there are any resolutions and indifferent to what resolutions anybody comes to.
This has given away a strong impression – captured so well by the Babylon Bee – that Rob Bell is the theological equivalent of a politician like Sean Spicer, constantly squirming around to avoid the obvious implications of his views.
When asked why he so often avoids giving answers, the answer Bell gave is that he wants to focus on the fact that “we’re in this, we have each other, we have this moment.” We have an abiding sense that in spite of all this insanity we’ll be ok. Again, he wants to avoid the tendency toward boiling the faith down to textbook key, providing rote answers to our inquiries.
While that attitude is all well and good, and while we Christians can say wholeheartedly that it is ok to have questions and ok to have doubts, the Bible does often in fact have answers.
In a way, Bell actually provides one of these answers without realizing it when he says that God “enters into the worst possible stuff without really any answers and just sorta hangs there, literally.”
The fact that God is and has entered into the darkness IS the answer!
As Edward Welch puts it in his book Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness: “Instead of teaching us how to identify the causes of suffering, Scripture directs us to the God who knows all things and is fully trustworthy. In other words, Scripture doesn’t give us knowledge so that we will have intellectual mastery of certain events; it gives us knowledge so that we would know and trust God.”
Welch’s point is in essence the orthodox evangelical version of Bell’s point. The issue is that Bell makes the first part of the point – that God is with us in the darkness – but then just leaves it at that. He fails apply that truth as the answer the question being asked, and fails to utilize that truth for the edification of his listeners.
Thus, when many evangelicals hear that many people don’t see how Christianity handles God in the darkness they want to say “That’s because nobody’s ever told you what Christianity really is! Christianity has been right there speaking to the darkness and God in it all along!”
Mr. Bell’s solution is to say there are no answers, the Christian solution is to say that God being with us is the answer.
If we’re saying that God doesn’t resolve all the tension for us, that’s true. If we’re saying we have no answers for anything, that’s simply untrue. The Bible offers many answers to many questions, and when it does so we should acknowledge that.
Yes, many people are still working through those questions and still have doubts and will continue to have questions and doubts, but the best approach is not to merely stop as saying “that’s ok.” Rather, we say “that’s ok” and then say “let’s search the Scriptures together, it may be a long process, but sanctification takes a lifetime; we may not arrive a clear-cut answer, but we’ll learn much along the way.”
The issue here then is that Bell seems to question just for the sake of questioning. He forgets the purpose of questioning.
Bell criticizes the idea of standing behind and defending a set of convictions and in doing so fails to realize that the people defending ideas are the ones who used to stand in his place, questioning the dogmas – not just for the sake of questioning them, but for the sake of learning why or whether they should defend them.
A dichotomy is thus created, for though it is important to ask questions and learn for oneself why the doctrines you follow are as they are, it is equally important to actually arrive at truths which you can stand behind. That this standing should be ever tentative, ever open to correction or to new insight, is true. We should avoid blind dogmaticism, yet Bell doesn’t merely avoid blind dogmaticism, rather he swings the pendulum fullscale in the opposite direction.
2) A lack of understanding for why people hold their convictions
Along the same lines, Bell often seems to ignore the reason why many people hold their convictions. He seems to assume that if somebody has a strongly held belief that they’re willing to defend that they must be simple-minded, they must be defending something they’ve never questioned, simply repeating what they’ve been told.
Moreover, Bell seems to have trouble believing that somebody would believe something because it’s in the Bible.
This is expressed well in Bell’s discussion of hell in this podcast. He ponders why so many people believe in hell, and the best he can fathom is that they feel a natural need for retribution against the worst types of evil – against the murderers, against the Hitlers. It doesn’t seem relevant to him that they might just believe it because it’s what the Scripture clearly teaches.
In short, he seems to make light of everything many evangelicals hold dear, dismissing them as immature for having the gall to actually believe and stand by the thing they say to be the Word of God.
3) Moving from tolerance to indulgence and liberalism
As stated already, tolerance is a great thing. When we see how little we know and ponder how many questions and doubts we have had or currently have, that should give us grace and tolerance towards those who are still working through their faith or have views different from ours.
Where Bell goes awry is in that he seems to move from tolerance of different views to an indulgence and liberalism towards all views; he moves from saying “that view is different what I believe Scripture to teach, but I’m going to extend grace (especially if its’ a contested doctrine)” to saying “it doesn’t really matter what you believe; you have your views and I have mine.”
Tolerance, properly defined, is a forbearance given to something that you know or have reason to believe to be wrong. It is not a mere concession to the opposing position.
Bell moves from tolerance to what seems to be a wholesale acceptance, refusing to challenge anything he disagrees with or to defend even the most core of his beliefs. This is because as he says “You rarely defend things you love.”
Yet what do you defend if not the things you love? As Chesterton again says: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
4) An often pointed lack of understanding regarding Scripture
As a final point, Bell often seems to display a basic lack of understanding for even the most basic points in Scripture, especially when it’s convenient for his viewpoint.
An example of this is that Bell thinks that Christ was killed for his ideas on justice. The ancient world was just so fed up with progressive views on culture, for his hanging out with the prostitutes and tax-collectors, for his calls for reform, that they had him killed.
In short, Bell expresses the belief that Christ was killed for his good deeds, missing the perpetual assertion by his enemies that it was for his blasphemy that they were killing him, for his claiming to be God, in short, for his doctrine. It was his good deeds that staved off his executioners for so long.
We need tolerance, we need forebearance with our neighbors and with our fellow Christians, we need an atmosphere where questions can be asked without fear of being cast out and labeled a heretic, we need to know that God is in the darkness, we need to realize when we’re being hated for being jerks rather than for upholding the faith, and we need to be offering a vision of life that is compelling.
At the same time, we need to know that we don’t question just for the sake of questioning, and we don’t practice tolerance out of indifference. We should work together to discern the truths of Scripture, truths that we can stand behind and defend because they are truths concerning the God we love and we want to keep his name from being tarnished. Again, this standing should be ever tentative, ever open to correction or to new insight, ever graceful and patient to our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree.