Posts tagged ‘Rob Bell’

Must Christianity Change or Die?

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Sometimes, it can feel as though the sky is falling and the bottom is dropping out all at the same time. It seems like I can go barely a day without reading a dire report on church attrition, especially among the younger generation. Between high school and turning 30, 43 percent of once-active young adults stop attending church.[1] As of 2012, almost one-third of young adults were unaffiliated with a religious institution.[2] In one survey, researchers found that nearly one-third of young adults left the Christian faith because of its “negative teachings” related to gays and lesbians.[3]

Such gloomy statistics lead to predictable calls to fix the Church by changing its teachings, lest the next generation, discontent with the Church’s antiquated morals, leave her altogether. Take, for instance, this call from popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans:

Young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people …

Young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness …

The evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and … millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt …

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.[4]

Evans’ last line is striking to me. In response to changing cultural norms, Evans maintains that the Church must change the substance of her message. In the words of the famed Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, “Christianity must change or die.”[5] How must Christianity change? Evans offers some suggestions:

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

Evans’ words here are fascinating – and confusing – to me because, understood one way, they are commendable, orthodox, and necessary. But understood another way, they are deeply troubling. For instance, if a “truce between science and faith” means understanding the respective spheres of each and welcoming scientific discovery while at the same time remaining faithful to Scripture’s narrative, I’m onboard. If, however, it means dumping the historicity of Scripture’s creation account, I’m troubled. If having “our LGBT friends feel truly welcome in our faith communities” means showing love, compassion, and going out of our way to listen and learn from the LGBT community, I’m more than all for it. If it means calling what is sinful, “just,” I’m troubled. Sadly, I can’t help but think that, all too often, it’s the latter understandings of these statements that are insinuated. Otherwise, it is feared, a whole generation of young people will leave the Church.

But is this really the case?

Take Rob Bell. Here is a man who has, at least in part, bought into Spong’s motto, “Christianity must change or die.” In his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell asks candidly, “Can God keep up with the modern world?”[6] He fought to build a community – Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids – that would lead the way in this new Christianity. Until he left. In an interview with Oprah, he says his Sunday mornings are now regularly filled with he and his 13-year-old son surfing.[7] Rob Bell was leading a changed church. But even a changed church wasn’t enough to keep Bell around. And he isn’t the only one.

For decades now, churches that have changed the substance of the Christian faith have not been gaining members, but losing members. And now, even as young people are leaving traditional churches, they are not joining these changed churches. They are leaving altogether.[8]

It would seem that if a church is willing to “get with the times,” so to speak, and embrace our culture’s zeitgeist, its pews should be filled to overflowing with the ranks of the enlightened, all breathing a collective sigh of relief that, finally, the offensive, narrow, bigoted Christianity of yesteryear has been relegated to the scrap heap of history. But this has not happened.

The problem with changing the faith of the Church – even the parts of the faith that are not particularly palpable to our modern ears – is that such changes inevitably displace Christianity’s eschatological hope with an evolutionary drum.

What do I mean?

Whether it’s the so-called “war” between science and faith, or the question of gay marriage, or the role of politics in faith, many Christians have simply traded one side of Rachel Held Evans’ despised culture war for the other. They desire to evolve beyond what they perceive as a restrictive, judgmental, intellectually archaic Christian faith. So they laugh at those who take Genesis’ creation account historically, or cry “bigotry” against those who express concern with gay marriage, or look down on those who argue for a more traditionally moral politics. These are old ways that must be done away with, they think.

But what happens is that they become so animated by grievances from the past and trying to right them right now that they forget about – or at least relegate to the background – any sort of ultimate hope for the future. They wind up fighting for a certain kind of culture rather than finding their hope in a different type of Kingdom. They become so obsessed with what’s next that they forget about what’s last.

When you dispel the Christian faith down to nothing more than a fight for this or that cause célèbre, more often than not, you end up with nothing – or at least with nothing that can’t be found elsewhere. And why would anyone go somewhere for something they can get anywhere? This is why changing Christianity’s substance doesn’t gain people; it only loses them.

So what course of action can a Christian take? In a world full of cultural convolution, Christianity’s answer is elegantly simple: “Stand firm in the faith … Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). Don’t change the faith. Love others. That’s it. And really, who can improve on that? Some things don’t need to change.

_____________________

[1] Melissa Stefan, “Have 8 Million Millennials Really Given Up on Christianity?Christianity Today (5.17.2013).

[2] Vern L. Bengtson, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 148.

[3]A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” Public Religion Research Institute (2.26.2014).

[4] Rachel Held Evans, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” cnn.com (7.27.2013).

[5] John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change Or Die (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999).

[6] Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 8.

[7]Super Soul Sunday: Oprah Goes Soul to Soul with Rob Bell,” Oprah.com.

[8] Rod Dreher, “The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism,” The American Conservative (7.25.2013).

January 19, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Rob Bell and Inerrancy

Rob Bell 2The other day, a friend sent me an article by pastor and provocateur Rob Bell on the subject of inerrancy.  Traditionally, the term “inerrancy” has been defined as the belief that the biblical authors, guided and inspired by God’s Spirit, “are absolutely truthful according to their intended purposes.”[1]  In other words, the biblical authors, under divine inspiration, produced writings that are “without error.”  It is important to clarify that to say the Bible is “without error” does note preclude “a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”[2]  In other words, part of claiming biblical inerrancy is recognizing what does and does not constitute an actual “error.”

Regardless of the specifics concerning what does and does not constitute error, it is clear that “inerrancy” asserts an extraordinarily high view of the nature and reliability of Holy Writ.  Some, however, including Rob Bell, are troubled by such an assertion.

Rob Bell teases out his beef with inerrancy thusly:

My 13 year old son is currently doing an education program that requires him to listen to a certain amount of classical music every day. So on the way to school each morning instead of listening to our usual Blink 182 and rap, he listens to…Mozart. Not his first choice, but just lately he admitted that classical music has grown on him. (How does a parent not smile at that?)

A few questions, then, about Mozart:Did Mozart’s music win?
Would you say that the work of Mozart is on top?
Is Mozart the MVP?
In your estimation, has Mozart prevailed?
Do Mozart’s songs take the cake?

Odd questions, right?
They’re odd because that’s not how you think of Mozart’s music. They’re the wrong categories.

Why?
Because what you do with Mozart’s music is you listen to it and you enjoy it.

Which brings us to inerrancy: it’s not a helpful category. And if you had only ever heard about Mozart as the one who wins, those arguments would probably get in the way of you actually listening to and enjoying Mozart.[3]

So Rob Bell’s problem with inerrancy is that for him it’s not a helpful category.

Though Rob may question the usefulness of the inerrancy “category,” countless followers of Christ have, do, and will continue to find this designation extraordinarily helpful.  Yes, the word “inerrancy” is of fairly recent origin.  But what it denotes – the trustworthiness of Scripture because of divine origin of Scripture – is as old as Christianity itself.  Nichols and Brandt, in their book Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, helpfully sample some patristic evidence that indicates how the early Church saw the divine origin and inspiration of Scripture:

Clement of Rome, writing in 96, exhorted, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit.”  Another Clement, Bishop of Alexandria, declared similarly, “I could produce then thousand Scriptures of which not ‘one tittle will pass away,’ without being fulfilled.  For the mouth of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, has spoken these things.”  As for a statement about the whole Bible, Origen once observed, “For the proof of our statements, we take testimonies from that which is called the Old Testament and that which is called the New – which we believe to be divine writings.”[4]

Jumping ahead to the sixteenth century, Nichols and Brandt note that John Calvin referred to Scripture as “the sure and infallible record,” “the inerring standard,” “the pure Word of God,” “the infallible rule of His Holy Truth,” “free from every stain or defect,” “the inerring certainty,” “the certain and unerring rule,” “unerring light,” “infallible Word of God,” “has nothing belonging to man mixed with it,” “inviolable,” “infallible oracles.”[5]  Whoa.  Calvin leaves no question as to where he stands on inerrancy.

Rob does offer some reasons as to why he believes inerrancy is not a helpful category, the first of which is, “This isn’t a word the Bible uses about itself.”  But this is like saying “Trinity” is not a helpful term to describe God because it is not a term God uses to describe Himself.  Terms can be helpful even when they’re not used in the Bible if these terms describe what the Bible itself teaches.  And the Bible does indeed claim inerrancy for itself.  One need to look no farther than the Word of God’s magnum opus on the Word of God, Psalm 19:  “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).  If the word “perfect” doesn’t include being “without error,” what does it include?

Rob finally plays his hand as to why he is uncomfortable with inerrancy:  “The power of the Bible comes not from avoiding what it is but embracing what it is. Books written by actual, finite, limited, flawed people.”  Rob Bell takes issue with inerrancy because he takes issue with the doctrine of divine inspiration.  He takes issue with what Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John Calvin, and, for that matter, the Bible itself claim about the Bible.  Rather than being a book a written by God using men (cf. 1 Peter 1:21), the Bible for Rob is a book written by men who recount their experiences with God, which, by the way, could be mistaken and wrongheaded.[6]  How do we know if their experiences with God are mistaken and wrongheaded?  Rob answers:  “Central to maturity is discernment, the growing acknowledgement that reality is not as clean and neat and simple as we’d like.”  In other words, it’s up to us to figure out what in the Bible is wrong and what in the Bible is right.  But if our world’s genocides, sexual promiscuity, oppression, economic injustice, and refusal to stand for truth because we’re not even sure of what truth is serve as any indication of our powers of discernment, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, we “have some splainin’ to do.”

Perhaps we’re not as discerning as we think we are.  Perhaps, rather than tooting the horns of our own discernment faculties, we should ask the question of the Psalmist:  “But who can discern their own errors” (Psalm 19:12)?  Our blind spots are bigger and darker than most of us recognize.

I will grant that inerrancy has sometimes all too gleefully been used as a bully club against supposed – and, in some instances, presupposed – heretics.  But I will not give up the word or the doctrine.  For when inerrancy is properly understood, it is not meant as a club, but as a promise.  It is a promise that we can trust this book – even more than we can trust ourselves.  For this book is God’s book.  And I, for one, delight in that promise because I delight in the Lord.


[1] James Voelz, What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World, 2nd ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1995), 239.

[2]Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Article XIII (October 1978).

[3] Rob Bell, “What is the Bible? Part 21: In Air, In Sea,” robbellcom.tumblr.com (12.10.2013)

[4] Stephen Nichols and Eric Brandt, Ancient Word, Changing Worlds (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2009), 78.

[5] Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, 78-79.

[6] Bell writes of the biblical authors in another post, “They had experiences. They told stories.  They did their best to share those stories and put language to those experiences” (“What is the Bible? Part 17: Assumptions and AA Meetings”).

December 16, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Adult Bible Class – God in the Gap

What is hell?  Is it a real place?  Do real people go there?  Find out in this Adult Bible Class from Concordia Lutheran Church.

April 13, 2011 at 11:10 am Leave a comment

Some Thoughts On Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

I was curious, so I checked.  It’s number one in Amazon’s “Religion and Spirituality” section and number three in Amazon’s overall list of the top 100 books.  To say Rob Bell’s newest opus, Love Wins, has made a splash is like saying our recent recession was an economic hiccup.  Both are understated.  Because of its meteoric rise to the top of national book sales, the pastors at Concordia feel it is important to address what Rob teaches in this book.  Here is what you need to know upfront:  Concordia’s pastors do not believe that Love Wins presents true biblical or Christ-centered doctrine.  In fact, we believe it presents false doctrine that is dangerous and confusing, leading people away from Christ rather than toward Him.  If this is all you want or need to know, there is no need to read the balance of this blog.  If you want to know why we believe this book presents false doctrine, read on.

The blogs and reviews of Rob’s new book are legion, and so my goal in this blog is not to try to break through the cacophony of clamor surrounding the book’s release.  That’s a far too ambitious – and, I might add, unrealistic – goal.  But neither do I intend my review to simply be another voice added to the many shouts either celebrating or decrying Rob’s book.  Instead, my review is more of a personal sort.  I am a pastor.  And already, I am receiving questions from people I know and love about Rob’s book.  And I am concerned.  I am concerned about Rob.  I remember him in his earlier years.  To this day, I have never heard a finer sermon on Leviticus 16 than the one he preached.  And the picture he painted of Ephesus, the Roman emperor Domitian, and John’s Revelation still grips me – and gives me hope – every time I think about it.  In fact, I still have a copy of that sermon…on cassette tape!   I’m having a hard time understanding what happened to Rob theologically.  I am concerned about him.  But I am also concerned about the people with whom I am talking.  The people who are questioning.  The people who are confused.  The people who are wondering, “Is this book true?”  If this is you, then I mean this blog for you.  And though my words may be pointed, they are not meant to be vicious.  Rather, they are written in love and a concern for the truth, for “love rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).  And I believe that, finally, the truth will carry the day.  For I, like Rob Bell, believe that love wins.

Deconstructing theology is dangerous business.  And yet, it’s something people – especially so-called “postmodern” thinkers – love to do.  After all, it’s fun to pile on top of certain theological presuppositions and assertions and expose the discontinuities in them, especially if these presuppositions and assertions are widely regarded as traditional and orthodox.  And it is this is this deconstructionist method that Rob employs in Love Wins. Consider this quote:

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.  A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities.  If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we could contact child protective services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good. (pages 173-174)

The logic seems, well, logical enough.  If God loves us and wants salvation for us, how could He abandon his pursuit of us upon our deaths and consign us to eternal torment?  That’s not a loving God!   Therefore, goes Rob’s argument, God must allow people the opportunity to repent (though he never uses the word) even, perhaps, after death.  Or at least that’s what he tantalizingly infers!

But let’s apply Rob’s same deconstructionist enterprise to his own argument.  Rob solves the difficulty of the God who pursues us in the life and judges us in the next by appealing to God’s generous love – a love generous enough to allow for our free will, now on earth and then in eternity:

To reject God’s grace, to turn from God’s love, to resist God’s telling, will lead to misery.  It is a form of punishment, all on its own.

This is an important distinction, because in talking about what God is like, we cannot avoid the realities of God’s very essence, which is love.  It can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality.  Now and then.

We are that free. (page 176)

So, Rob says I am free – free to “trust God’s retelling of my story” (page 173), as he puts it, and free to reject it.  And not only am I free to trust and reject now on earth, but “now and then,” even into eternity.  On the one hand, this is quite an enticing prospect because it allows me to trust in God’s retelling of my story even after I die.  So if I mess it up here, I need not worry.  I get another shot at trusting God on the flipside.  It is important to note that Rob’s concern here is fundamentally a therapeutic utilitarianism.  The kind of God who would do something as psychologically stressful as consigning people to an eternal hell simply won’t work!  Indeed, Rob states this explicitly: “This is the problem with some Gods – you don’t know if they’re good, so why tell others a story that isn’t working for you” (page 181)?  The problem is that Rob’s version of God and the gospel doesn’t work either!  After all, what happens if I mess up on the flipside?  What happens if I trust God’s retelling of my story in this age, but then use the generous freedom that Rob claims love requires to reject God’s retelling of my story in the age to come?  Do I slip the surly bonds of heaven and wind up in a hell of my own making?  And what if I trust in God’s retelling again?  Is it back to heavenly bliss?  And then what if I reject it…again?  And then trust it…again?  Am I stuck in a vicious volley between heaven and hell for all eternity?  That certainly doesn’t sound very “heavenly.”  In fact, that sounds like what I struggle with right now!  That sounds like Paul’s exposition on every Christian’s age old struggle:  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  Where’s the hope in that?

The freedom that love brings is only good if it is exercised with the sovereign prerogative that God has.  In other words, love without God’s sovereign prerogative is impotent.  It cannot do what it desires.  It cannot, to use Rob’s book title, “win.”  And indeed, love that allows this kind of freedom isn’t even really love.  For it simply allows us to do what we please.  Who actually loves like this – even here, even now?  Love demands that when you see a child chasing his ball onto the interstate, you curb his freedom and tug him back.  Love demands that heaven is an age when we are not only free to live with God, but have also been tugged, or, more biblically, “chosen” by God (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14).  Love and freedom are not synonymous nor are they inextricable concomitants of each other.  That is why God does away with people who persistently demand their freedom.  For they cannot demand their freedom to God without demanding their freedom from God.  These are the people who go to hell.

To allow me the eternal freedom to trust or reject God’s retelling of my story is only to allow me the eternal opportunity to make myself unspeakably miserable.  And I’m not sure that’s a good opportunity. Because I already know what I’d choose…again and again and again.  For I’m not truly free.  I’m a slave to sin.  And so I will always choose wrongly.  As the Reformers put it, “We are unable to stop sinning.”  I will always fall for the illusion that freedom from God presents rather than the joy that freedom in Christ brings.  This is why God coopted my slavery to sin and set me free, only to make me a slave again, this time to righteousness – not out of some sort of sinister divinely wrought determinism, but for the sake of Christ:  “Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18).  This is the good news – that God does not leave things up to us.  No, He loves us far too much to do that.  And so He conquers sin, death, and the devil, and gives us His righteousness, apart from and in spite of our terrible choices.

Whatever so-called “problems” and questions Rob Bell may try to solve and answer in his book, he only succeeds in creating more problems and begging more questions.  Not only that, but he finally replaces the good news with something that is neither good, for it leaves us in an eternal state of struggling against our own wills, nor is it news, for this struggle is much older than any twenty-four news cycle.  So, whatever supposed “problems” my “traditional” story of the gospel may have (which I am not convinced there are problems, just paradoxes), this I know:  When it comes to a love that is broad enough to allow me my own, dangerous freedom, “the good news is better than that” (page 191).

March 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm 6 comments


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