What Evangelicals Can Learn From Rob Bell (and why they hate him)

holmesbellLetter MMy new favorite podcast – along with Mere Fidelity and The Partially Examined Life – is Pete HolmesYou 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).

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Book Review: The Truth War – By John MacArthur

 

John MacArthur Truth War.pngLetter TThe Truth War is John MacArthur’s account and call-to-arms against what he claims to be the most pressing pitfalls in contemporary theology, specifically, postmodernism and the arrival of the emergent church. Most pointedly it addresses the issue of truth and what we can know concerning scripture, as well as delving into just what it is that is causing so much trouble in today’s churches.

MacArthur begins his book with an expounding of just what it is that ‘truth’ means, how it relates to Christianity, and how it relates to the context of culture. Naturally MacArthur takes a very strong stance on truth, as opposed to the “rejection of every expression of certainty” that he identifies with the postmodern movement. This done he then goes on to explain just how it is that contemporary theology got to the place that it is, giving a brief overview of the progression of philosophers and finally arriving at a critique of those present ‘theologians’ who align themselves with the emergent church, especially Brian McLaren (who is seen as one of the chief leaders of the movement).

The overall theme of the book is one of the need to contend for the faith, to defend the truth, and to assert the truth of Christian doctrine rather than abandoning the hard truths in favor of appealing to the culture and society at large.

It is about exercising Biblical discernment and refusing to give into those who sacrifice truth in order to gain acceptance. The postmodern calls the Christian arrogant for asserting the ability to know any truth with any certainty, instead raising up an idol of uncertainty and ambiguity, removing from Christianity anything that defines it as being separate from the world or even as a religion distinct in itself – preferring to acclimate wherever possible. Since no doctrinal truth can be asserted in these contexts the ‘believer’ (if they can still be called that) is simply encouraged to live the Christian life. A call to salvation and repentance of sins is out the window and yet another works-righteousness heresy is lifted up in its place.

MacArthur presents a call to truth in contemporary churches, especially those who would call themselves evangelical and yet show no discernment in “rightly dividing the word of truth,” but simply roll with the fads. In being just over 200 pages it’s a moderately short, easy read, and gives a good view of the way those in the church see the emergent church movement and why they feel so strongly the need to struggle against it. The goal is not only to enlighten the reader as to the struggle, but to engage them in it, not in arrogance or harshness, but in order to defend the truth of Christ, lest his gospel be stripped of it’s message in favor of yet another form of works-righteousness (at least theoretically, more on that below).

Memorable Quotes:

“Truth never changes with the time, but heresy always does.”

“The belief that no one can really know anything for certain is emerging as virtually the one dogma postmodernists will tolerate. Uncertainty is the new truth. Doubt and skepticism have been canonized as a form of humility. Right and wrong have been redefined in terms of subjective feelings and personal perspectives.”

“The most compelling question in the minds and on the lips of many pastors today is not “What’s true?” but rather “What works?” Evangelicals these days care less about theology than they do about methodology. Truth has taken a backseat to more pragmatic concerns”

“Christians ought to have learned by now that we cannot avoid being an offense to the world and still remain faithful to the gospel. The gospel is inherently offensive. Christ Himself is offensive to all who reject the truth.”

Specific Criticisms

My first few criticisms have less to do with MacArthur’s message and more to do with his presentation. For example while the book is moderately short there are various chapters which could quite simply be removed without the book actually losing anything. At one point MacArthur spends numerous pages discussing the book of Jude, who Jude was, the significance of his name and how it’s translated, and the in’s and out’s of what it is that is going on with Jude that prompted his book. Now, while all this is a good and well and is nice to know, it really doesn’t do much in advancing the theme of the book.

MacArthur’s goal here seems to be to explain why Jude knows what he’s talking about due to the things he’s been through and his relationship to Christ. For somebody who simply accepts that Jude knows what he’s talking about on merit of it being in the Bible, all this isn’t really necessary – still I guess it is useful for those who might need some more convincing.

A similar area which I feel doesn’t do much to advance the books theme is a near chapter-long summary of various early heresies and their histories in the church, specifically Sabellianism and Arianism. While this is all good information in understanding the history of the church and the history of heresy, and why we should fight it, it seems that the same effect could have been accomplished in just a few paragraphs, rather than repeating oneself for pages on end.

The last criticism in this vein is that while there are these two areas which seem side-tangents from the main theme stuck in the middle of the book, the ‘Appendix’ is one of the best chapters in the book and is regulated to being jumbled in after the conclusion. Personally, I’d have much rather had the sections found in the appendix dispersed relevantly throughout the rest of the text.

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Moving on from that, another area which MacArthur may hurt his message is in his harshness; despite his repetitions that the Christian should act gentleness he has a tendency to blast his opposition. This goes along with another criticism, which is his focus on only a few of the emergent church thinkers such as Brian McLaren (with brief mentions of Rob Bell and a few others). I’ve seen this particular facet of the text criticized as bifurcation between orthodoxy and the most radical of the postmoderns (given that there are not only lesser degrees but also diverse types). MacArthur would do better to focus less on individuals and more on the movement as a whole; it’s easy to find a few cringe-worthy individuals in any movement.

My last, and probably biggest complaint with the book is that I don’t think MacArthur has much of an understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of postmodern thought.

One might argue that he is immune to this criticism because of the fact that he is primarily addressing postmodern theology itself and the things which go along with it, rather than the philosophical root of the matter – ie, he’s addressing the problems that it creates in the church, not necessarily the worldview as a whole. This is similar to treating the symptoms rather than illness.

While he does make a few good points against the emergent church and does give a good [albeit extremely superficial] understanding of postmodern theology, I think if he were wanting to write an actual apologetic against it he would do better to attack the root, demonstrating how emergent church theology is ultimately drawn from these faulty premises. If he attacks only the manifestations in theology his opponents can simply disagree with him, for he hasn’t done anything to shake their worldview – if he cuts their root, even if he doesn’t defeat them he’ll at least force them to enter the discussion.

Granted, this entire criticism could be set aside on the argument that that isn’t the audience MacArthur is addressing, that he just wants to give the general populace sufficient reason to reject emergent theology. Personally, I think he could have done both.

Regardless, one gets the impression in reading MacArthur that the only information he has about postmodernism is what he has read from its critics. That may be enough information if your only interest is preaching to the choir, but it fails in the sphere of offering any substantial engagement.

Book Review: Velvet Elvis – By Rob Bell

RobBellVelvetElvis.pngLetter Velvet Elvis is author Rob Bell‘s attempt at bringing Christianity into the modern world. He begins by talking about a painting and noting how if, after this painting had been finished, it would have been a tragedy for the painter to announce that “there was no more need for anyone to paint, because he had just painted the ultimate painting.” He goes on to make the point that we need to be in a constant state of reforming, a constant state of “repainting the Christian faith.” This is because, he says, “the word Christian conjures up all sorts of images that have nothing to do with who Jesus is,” and because while past Christianity might have worked for their parents “or provided meaning when they were growing, but it is no longer relevant. It doesn’t fit. It’s outdated. It doesn’t have anything to say to the world they live in every day. Its not that there isn’t any truth in it… its just that every generation has to ask the difficult questions of what it means to be a Christian here and now…” And so Bell begins his journey into asking questions.

Rather than simply showing the people the correct image of Jesus or educating them on the relevance and applicability of traditional Christianity, Bell suggests that we remold it to suite the present time.

I went into reading this book without a clue who Rob Bell was or what the book might be about, though that the line “You rarely defend things you love” (p27) is in the book was a blatant indication that things were not quite right – after-all, what do you defend if not the things you love?

From reading other reviews it seems that the book is often praised for its fresh approach to Christianity. It is liked because he issues the challenge that one needs to keep digging into the Word, that one needs to continue questioning what is presented to you – on these premises alone one can understand how one can enjoy it on a surface level. Bell wants his readers to question doctrine because while there is truth in the Bible, no dogma can be the full truth, nobody has the be-all end-all absolute truth interpretation of the Word and so he challenges his readers to question those dogmas – the problem here is that that’s almost all he does, challenge the reader to ask questions.

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 doctrines which you can stand behind. Its important to come to conclusions in your beliefs – you question and look into the Word as Bell suggests to see why you believe what you believe, but this is inane unless you actually come to a conclusion (ie, Bell’s process of questioning provides you with the reasons why you will in turn stand behind your doctrine).

Bell attempts to be tolerant to all peoples and in turn denies this aspect of the purpose in his own statements – you don’t question doctrines in order to be tolerant, you question doctrines in order to see why it is that you defend them (ie, why, when it comes to your belief concerning the truth you are intolerant/inflexible in those beliefs).

One cannot only question, one must arrive at conclusions. Doctrine is not in place as a harsh issuer of intolerance and inquisition, its in place to show where previous individuals have gone through the same process and to show the [educated] conclusions they arrived at – they’re there to give you an informed outline to follow (thus why texts such as The Westminster Standards offers in-text citation of scripture, so you’ll know why they concluded what they did). One cannot be wholly tolerant, as G.K. Chesterton notes “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions” (for elaboration, check out his book Orthodoxy). One cannot perpetually question and seek truth, as Mark Twain notes “there are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; that a permanent one is a human impossibility; that as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further” (for elaboration, check out What is Man?).

This where Bell fails, he questions but then proceeds to forget the purpose of questioning… he 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 – however unlike Bell this was not just for the sake of questioning them, but for the sake of learning why they should defend them.

Specific Criticisms

Bell’s theology is at its foremost man-centered and denies really any sovereignty or legitimacy on God’s part, mentioning at one point that “Jesus is God’s way of refusing to give up on his dream for the world” (p157). This makes the fundamental flaw of assuming he ever considered giving up, of assuming he even had a reason to consider giving up. That he’s “refusing to give” up implies that something is not going according to plan, it implies that something is not in his control, essentially denying many of the essential qualities of God (namely his omnipotence and omniscience).

It should be a requirement that anybody wanting to make an argument or prove a point should first be forced to pass a class in basic logic. The entire first half of Bell’s book thrives on false logic, on implementing equivocation (first with ‘faith'(p19) and then with ‘believers'(p20)), creating straw men and taking versus out of context (p42) and with false analogies (ie, that Christianity is like a painting) in order to basically trick the reader into thinking what he’s saying has some validity.

There is little actual meat in Bell’s book. He has few real conclusions apart from that the Christian faith needs to be “repainted”, that doctrine and theology are “servants” (p25) to men and that men need to mold doctrine and theology to suit their current needs – basically, Christ needs to conform to the current world, even to the point of denying the authority of scripture and question the trinity if need-be (p22).

Of course, its only natural that there is little actual substance to the book. After-all, if there was substance to it then Bell might have to defend his ideas, but that would make him too ‘bricky’, as he puts it (even though Paul compares us to bricks (Eph 2:22) being used to build something).

You don’t have to really believe any certain doctrine according to Bell, you just have to be willing to live like Jesus and play on the trampoline – for him the church is the trampoline and the springs are the doctrines. Of course nobody defends a trampoline as Bell would assert, but people will defend their home, they will defend a Temple – and it is a house and a Temple that God calls the church, not a trampoline. We are compared to bricks being used to build a Temple, set on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ as the cornerstone (again, Eph 2:22) – the Bible describes the church just as the brickworld that Bell rallies against. Bell would place the Bible upon a chopping block and cut off anything that anybody might disagree with or that might cause argument, that might cause somebody to have to defend their views.

One final note is his statement of “Hell is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for” (p146) – yet if Christ died for them then they are forgiven and their debt is paid. If they are forgiven and their debt paid then they will not be punished as if they weren’t forgiven or held to the debt as if it weren’t paid, that defeats the whole point. A person cannot say “no, you have not forgiven me”, a person cannot say “no, my debt is not paid”. If you erase a person from a debt to you, even if they don’t accept that you forgave it, you’re not going to make them pay anyway – neither is God. If you forgave a person a trespass against you, even if they don’t accept it, you still forgave them and aren’t going to exact vengeance and justice upon them – neither is God (granted, this is abit of a false analogy in assuming that rejection is even possible). God created everything, God is in control of everything.

I could go on for quite some time giving quotes and rebuttals but I see little point. Suffice to say that it is a sharp departure from any form of orthodox Christianity.

Bell’s error is in his basic premise – Christianity is not comparable to a painting. A painting is meant as a service to its audience, we are meant as servants to God.