Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
February 19th, 2015 by Joel Watts

Farewell, Rob Bell

English: Rob Bell at the 2011 Time 100 gala.

English: Rob Bell at the 2011 Time 100 gala. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some time commentator and bear-poker, Drew, is about to have his hopes dashed as his favorite progressive/emergent/universalist, Rob Bell, is now emerging as a Neo-Marcionite Gnostic.

Drew, in a post from last year, noted,

…at least to a degree, Rob is not going to shy away completely from robust Christian themes…

Christian themes should include the entire Canon (both Old and New). Indeed, without the Jewish Scriptures, we do not have a foundation for the New Testament, nor for Christian ethics, doctrine, and witness. I think Drew would agree with me on this.

But Rob Bell has recently turn from Christian themes to something else:

I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,” he said.

There are a few issues here. As you know, I believe in inclusion, not because of some notion of “Jesus was inclusive” or “the wrong side of history” but because of Scripture and Theology. Another issue is proof-texting. I hate proof-texting because it demeans the value of Scripture and spits at the intelligence of the dialogue partners. If the latter is what Bell is getting it, I can completely agree. We cannot simply afford to throw bible verses out as lines in the sand. It doesn’t make sense, creates logical fallacies (or, in this case, a phallacy), and establishes anti-intellectualism as a doctrine.

But, is that really what Rob Bell is getting at?

I think he doesn’t understand nor care to understand either the Old Testament nor Paul’s letters (which include and expound upon the Jewish Scriptures). I think he sees Scripture not as part of the message of Christ, but as a hinderance to the “divine life” Jesus promised (which is more Bellian than Christian).1

Further, Rob Bell seems to suggest the Church is pulling culture down, forgetting that this is not a race (either to the top or the bottom) but that the Church must stand a part from culture. We are the voice of the loyal opposition. We do not let dictates of culture become the voice of the Body of Christ.

There was once a time when the Church challenged society — slavery, gender equality, science. Now, people expect the Church to be complicit with society. If this is your view – regardless of how you feel about particular issues, the you must ask yourself: Are you a Christian?

Are we supposed to let the moral impulses of society shape the Church or, do we allow the progressive revelation of the Church lead us in shaping society (in a non-theocratic way)?

If Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not, then the Church is the Kingdom, and society is not. We cannot judge, nor bend, the Church by society’s expectations. This has never worked well.

If the Church expects to formulate doctrine, ethics, and vision, we must do so based on something besides the ever changing moral dictates of society. If Rob Bell wants to throw away Scripture and rely on his own revelation or feelings (or, dare I say experience (in a non-Outler definition)), then let him, but he is not Christian in any orthodox sense of the word. He is simply someone who uses a Je$us and a Christianity to do what he will.

We, speaking as a United Methodist, will never move forward if we do not learn to rely not upon our own experience (which is what Rob Bell is trying to use) but upon concrete foundational documents. If we build our ethical houses of feelings and subjective views, then it will come tumbling down, destroyed by sheer stupidity.

So, while I have read much of Rob Bell and found that his books have influenced me (particularly, Love Wins), I cannot travel the road with him any longer. With that, I say, farewell, Rob Bell.

  1. This is ironic because the communities producing the New Testament are related. The Jesus of Paul directly influenced the Jesus of Mark, leading the Jesus of the other Gospels and Revelation. Even the Jesus of Thomas is somewhat twinned with the Jesus of the Synoptics. However, the Jesus we have a part from the canon is often a Jesus of ethereal reality, arriving hundreds of years later and in direct opposition to the canonical Jesus.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

40 Responses to “Farewell, Rob Bell”
  1. I’ve always thought his work to be shallow and boring. But after spending many years with the church fathers and mothers, Kierkegaard, and Simone Weil, I guess that’s to be expected.

  2. John Meunier says

    Thanks for posting this. Bell fell off my radar long ago. Hard to stomach Joel Osteen being more respectful of scripture than Bell.

  3. creedpogue says

    Amen

  4. FWIW, you took my comment about Bell out of context. I was attempting to offer an olive branch, but alas, it does seem that he has nuked the fridge. Good thoughts here.

  5. Know More Than I Should says

    Given the statistics, it would appear Rob Bell is correct concerning one point, The traditional Christianity is becoming increasingly irrelevant in post-modern society.

    However, I would suggest the reason has less to do with clinging 2,000-year-old letters than with its:

    1) Bronze Age perspective on everything from morality to science.

    2) Having repeatedly sold its soul for a pieces of silver.

    The above represents a contradiction of being out of this world on the one hand and too much in this world on the other.

    Put into historical perspective, Paul’s 2,000-year-old letters make perfect sense. Jesus was a radical. Paul made Jesus’ extremism palatable to Roman sensibilities.

    Furthermore, Paul serves much the same purpose today. That is perhaps one reason why Paul is still quoted more often in churches than is Jesus.

    It would be truly interesting to see how religion in American life would change if, for example, Bible-believing clergy were only permitted to preach from Jefferson’s Bible!

    • “Paul made Jesus’ extremism palatable to Roman sensibilities.” Really? You do know that Paul was executed by the Romans?

      • Know More Than I Should says

        While history is more than a little murky concerning the death of Paul, Christian tradition suggests Paul’s execution was ordered by Nero around 67 AD. In any case, if Nero was responsible for Paul’s execution, it could not have been after 68 AD — the last year of Nero’s reign.

        It was not until around 312 AD that Constantine had his vision of the conquering cross. Moreover, the commonly accepted 27 books of the New Testament weren’t formalized until the Synod of Hippo in 393 AD.

        Translated into American history, the difference in dates between the Synod of Hippo and the year given for the death of Paul is the same time that has elapsed between today and the last year the French controlled Texas! That was so long ago that it is not even commonly mentioned in American history books.

        Hence, especially given life expectancy in those days, it is highly unlikely the Romans that killed Paul were the same Romans diligently reading the writings of Paul.

  6. Morgan Guyton says

    That’s an awful lot to draw out of one paragraph. This post is full of projection and speculation. None of us should be expected to offer a full-fledged systematic theology of scripture in every paragraph that we write. Talking about quoting 2000 year old letters while ignoring the plain spiritual fruit embodied in front of you is not the same thing as throwing out scripture. It’s taking a step back to ask what we’re doing when we engage in our self-pleasing theological sword-fights that alienate the spiritual but not religious people we love to ridicule. What Bell has stopped doing is appeasing the litmus testers. He’s deliberately speaking a very different language than Christianese. It’s not supposed to speak to me. It’s supposed to speak to people who roll their eyes when they hear Christianese. Part of how Rob Bell earns credibility with his audience is by being farewelled by the orthodoxy police. I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. I haven’t had time to really study it in depth. Honestly I find the guy pretty annoying. But he’s a much more creative evangelist than I’ll ever know how to be. And the mistakes that he’s making are out of a zeal for evangelism. A different and perhaps better way of saying what Rob Bell said here is whoever Paul was talking about in Romans 1 are nothing like the gay Christian people I know who are plainly not “filled with every form of malice and wickedness etc” as a result of their sexuality. Romans 1 tells us what fruit to look for in the lives of those who are living “against nature” and the fruit that it names is quite clear and quite ugly.

    • Morgan, you speaketh with a lot of projection and assumption yourself. You assume I have drawing from one paragraph rather than Bell’s body of work in recent years.

      Your “plain spiritual fruit” is a subjective experience used by those of the opposite of you as well. It is a silly exercise determined only to insure the “you” is the final determining factor of what is fruit and what is rot.

      “spiritual but not religious” – say what?

      litmus test – you mean like what you are doing by suggesting if we have a standard then we must be litmus testers?

      “Christenese” – excuse to make up words

      Since you condemn me from extracting something not there, how do you know Bell is meaning Romans 1? And why in the world are you stuck on Romans 1 when it doesn’t mean what you want it to mean so you can ignore it?

  7. Good stuff here, Joel. As a once enamored fan of Bell’s (and paying for it, gladly at the time), I am today more like John above who said Bell is off my radar. But I did see this and only would note that this is natural telos of progressive Christianity. Eventually it leads to something where everything we “like” or “love” is Jesus which means, essentially, nothing really is. Church discipline, both biblically and historically, demands that followers of Christ guard the doctrine (which I believe is more than rule/liturgy but includes life and how and what we love) handed down to us closely and discipline those who teach falsely. It’s hard to say Rob is a Christian as I see what being a Christian is. It’s not just about having “your best life now” which is what Oprah and he seem to be selling.

  8. Joel, Morgan said nothing inflammatory. If you are going to put your writing out for public consumption you need to grow a thicker skin. One of the reasons people are fleeing the church is because it is not a safe place for people to disagree. If someone disagrees with another they are shouted down. This seems to be your reaction to Morgan’s comments. Please make your blog a safe place for people to discuss and disagree respectfully.

  9. Amen!
    Let me speak as a “simple man” (as if I could do any better): The difference of a thermometer and a thermostat is that the former only absorbs and display the temperature, whereas the latter controls it. The Christian Church, Rod Bell, is called to be a thermostat and what you’ve been teaching is that we should be a thermometer.

    I want you to sit very comfortably and wait until the church becomes irrelevant, because a few others, through history, have been waiting for this for much longer than you so much that they could not have their hopes met during their lifetime. Of course your definition of “relevance” is, as many others who use such a word, “compliance” and “conformity” and “society pleasing” , that is, as long as the church does not comply with untested changes in society the church will be deemed irrelevant! People have been waiting for the demise of the church since the barbarians, among whom Paul was seeking comfort, waited for his demise when they saw a snake hanging down from his arms… then when he shook the “beast” in the fire… he became a god.
    Keep waiting for the demise of the church in the pitfalls of irrelevancy and you will see it shaking the snake of conformity and comfort from her arms down into the eternal fire and then you will see her real glory!

    Well, I warned you! I’d be simple… might I add “preachy”?

  10. I had never even heard of Rob Bell before. The referenced tracks (URL’s) seem to have other people talk about him, but I haven’t seen a reference to direct quotes from him to elicit a description of “progressive/emergent/universalist, Rob Bell, is now emerging as a Neo-Marcionite Gnostic”. Although, I have to say, even if that is a description of him that is correct, what exactly is wrong with that? Not believing word-for-word in creeds? Having questions about OT verses? I don’t get it. Lots of hate and discontent toward him. I’d like to see direct quotes from him that express his hate and discontent for others. Don’t see it. Or did I just overlook it?

  11. The line that says it all, IMO, is this, “letters from 2000 years ago.” No longer is this the revealed will of God, inspired by the Spirit of God and sufficient for life and godliness, but “letters from 2000 years ago.” Wesley called this book the book that would get him to heaven and he’d forsake all others for it.

    • Perhaps he should have said only 7 of 13 letters were written by Paul; and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were actually anonymous. Or is he being crucified for being too academic? So far, I see no justification for calling him Neo-Marcionite Gnostic. Although I kind of like the phrase, myself.

      • When we start critiquing who was or was not the author of our canonical texts, we have already placed ourselves in judgment over it. I’m thankful my Duke Divinity bible teachers instilled in me the maxim, “We got the bible we got. Live under it.” I choose to believe it is ALL the revealed will of God…inspired by the Holy Spirit. Not just letters written by men musing about God and life. That, IMO, is what it means to live by faith rather than sight, and it makes all the difference.

        • Glad you’re happy and satisfied. But no reason for criticizing someone else for their search for “truth”, however that may be defined. But, I should say, I have no problem with your comments. But I am rather surprised at the term used in the original post, “Neo-Marcion Gnostic” since I bet Bell would have exception to it. But as I said, I have no problem being called that, as a joke. But if it is a serious term for Bell, it needs to be backed up with evidence. Unless it is just an exaggerated joke. Which may be the case. it reflects the age old conflict of orthodoxy defining heresy, and disliking academics.

  12. John Wesley was a pioneer who followed neither the rules and traditions of the Church of England nor some Methodist foundational documents, which presumably hadn’t been written in his time. Let’s not stifle the pioneers by trying to keep them in denominational straitjackets. In 100 years time we might be looking back on Bell as a new Wesley, or a new heresiarch (which Wesley is to some). Or maybe he will be forgotten. But let’s not set up a new inquisition to shut him down.

    • Peter, that’s not really the truth at all. Wesley was an Anglican and followed the Anglican Tradition. Further, he gave foundational documents to the american methodists. Let’s not reshape history to suggest Wesley was something he wasn’t or to say Bell is a Wesley (or Luther or Jesus)

      • He didn’t follow the Anglican tradition of only preaching inside parish churches at the invitation of the incumbent. Maybe Bell is more of a Zwingli 😉

        • There is a big difference between going further and ditching the whole thing.

        • God forbid! One Zwingli was more than enough!

        • William Booth ditched the Methodists because he didn’t get along with the college-educated Methodist clergy. Athough he didn’t want to form a church, getting a taste of the power of “general”, changed his mind. I don’t see anyone calling his movement Neo anything. Although maybe that’s because they are right-wing, not left-wing.

    • My only reference to Wesley was to point out a love and reverence for these “letters from 2000 years ago.” That is my only point….Bell’s words reveal a prideful posture towards God’s holy word which I am all too familiar with personally.

    • New Inquisition? That would require Bell being tied to an actual, flesh and blood church, which he isn’t. Histrionics and denominational history invented out of whole cloth is a poor substitute for real critique.

      • Well, of course farewells from Piper and Watts don’t have the same power to destroy the body that the Inquisition had, but at least Piper’s has the power to excommunicate in practice from his tribe of evangelicals.

        • the Watts farewell was an individual parting of the ways… after I have read things. Piper didn’t even read the book

        • Piper hardly speaks for all evangelicals, just the hardcore Neo-Calvies who don’t know any better. It’s a badge of honor to be excommunicated by the pied piper of a movement that mocks the character of God.

  13. I like what you said here Joel. Scripture has to be our foundation for belief. We can strive our best to know what Scripture actually says and means for us today.

    I think real love is telling someone that God so loves them, that he gave his son for them, so that the offer of reconciliation is given to all.

  14. what I think many people fail to recognize, is that Rob Bell is working from a redemptive movement hermeneutic. His broad framework has been redemptive movement, made famous by William Webb. Bell simply applies it to LGBT inclusion, whereas Webb and many others do not. This is framework that hes used for many years, and he is now applying it to the LGBT question. He’s not merely “throwing out the Bible” as many assume–this is my inference of course.

    Also, I think people need to recognize the context in which he said what he said. He is saying that proof text quotes from letters that were written 2000 years ago are not how we should deal with flesh and blood people. A one sentence Bible verse is not a good defense of a traditional view. I don’t think we can read too much more into his statement. To say that he is dismissive and not willing to do his homework on the hermeneutical/interpretive issues, is inconsistent with his career as a preacher. I’m not trying to defend him, but simply saying that given his audience and their hurts, I think his “2000 year” statement demonstrates how many people simply use those verses as weapons rather than trying to get behind the deeper meaning of Scripture, etc., no matter the position one lands on.

    • Kurt, as I said, if this is merely about proof-texting, I’m with him, but in reading Bell and his shifting views on Scripture, I don’t think it merely is.

  15. Lanny Lancaster says

    Christianity without Scripture is not Christianity. Sad to see where the trajectory of Rob Bell’s theology has taken him. He seems to be having a spiritual crisis. Godspeed someone to help him.

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