Posted by: minnow | March 20, 2011

A Critique of a Critique

Lately the song “What’s the Buzz” from Jesus Christ Superstar has streamed through my head.  Perhaps the firestorm over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins has something to do with it.  You see, over the years I have traveled in some fairly conservative circles.  In those circles Rob Bell has been labeled everything from deceived to a deceiver.  Most agree he is a heretic.  And some go so far as to say he is a blasphemer.

Recently a FB friend posted a review of Bell’s book by Kevin De Young, a Reformed pastor from East Lansing, Michigan.  Like everyone else De Young has a right to his perspective and to defend his faith as he sees fit.  I was not put off by De Young’s review.  He actually kept the snarky comments to a minimum.  My problem was with my friend’s suggestion that De Young had given Bell’s book an even-handed read.  From the title of the review De Young’s position was clear and the slant with which he read Bell’s book, obvious.  Again, I have no problem with De Young or his review except that I hold a different opinion.

Since I have not read Bell’s book, this post is not meant to speak for Bell or his book.  I may seem to speak for both because this post is a commentary on De Young’s post and De Young challenged some positions I hold that Bell also seems to hold.  That said I would like to add, I would be surprised to discover Bell claiming he has all the answers.  One of the most frustrating parts of the criticism aimed at the emerging church is the insistence by its critics that the EC function the same way the “modern” traditional church functions—by providing answers–even if it has to cut and paste or ignore stuff to do it.

When De Young quotes (or paraphrases) Bell, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” And then writes, “So it’s unclear where the sudden agnosticism comes from. Is Bell wrestling with himself? Did a friend or editor ask him to throw in a few caveats? Is he simply inconsistent?” he reveals a mindset that must have answers.  He is uncomfortable with acknowledging the elephant in the room unless every blind man describes it the same way.

Unanswered questions are bad for the business of religion.  Questions which invite people to think, to explore new ways of seeing, to recognize we often must ignore some parts of scripture if we are going to make doctrine out of other parts of scripture, create uncertainty.  And, uncertainty is bad for business.  While postmodern thinking has set religion on its ear, it has not harmed faith.  And that is what modern thinking, AKA traditional Christian thinking that defends its position with 2000 years of orthodoxy (See this post for that debate), has a problem resolving.

When De Young wrote: “Paul pronounces an anathema on those who preach a false gospel (Gal 1:8).” And in not so subtle ways indicated that Bell was guilty of such preaching I wanted to whisper, “Be careful now,” and ask him to define the gospel.  While I have not read Love Wins I have also not read anything Bell has written to suggest or heard Bell ever imply that Jesus is not who He says He is or that Jesus did not live, die, and raise from the dead for the purpose of making a way to the Father.  Even if Bell has made such statements (and I do not believe he has) I am here to say one can reject a traditional interpretation of hell and absolutely affirm the truth about Jesus.  Being saved from ourselves (and each other) is certainly salvation enough.

An often used tactic by critics such as De Young is to apply scripture out of context.  When De Young used II Timothy 1:14 and II Thessalonians 2:15 to suggest we should not question the deposits and traditions of our faith AKA the doctrines we have been taught by men (in this case the hell doctrine) he over steps the circumference of those passages.  His attempt to use scripture to protect a particular interpretation of scripture from the scrutiny of others is an ill-conceived strategy.  The truth is scripture itself instructs us to test the teachings of men, even when they are presented as prophetic (I Thessalonians 5:21, I Corinthians 14:29).

Another problem I have with the kind of critique De Young gave Bell’s book is his underlying message of fear and shame.  Writing which offers the subtle subtext:  Be afraid.  Do not let yourself be deceived by reading this.  Or worse:  You should know better already.  Just believe what we taught you and you will be fine, makes our enemies real people.  The message from De Young is that we should be afraid of Bell and embarrassed if we do not already know the truth–his.  I am not saying you should read this book.  But you do not need to be afraid or ashamed if you want to read it.

I believe we all should know what we believe and why.  We should be certain of our own minds and not simply borrow another person’s theology because it feels safe.

One of the most ironic criticisms of the emerging church is that they are too concerned with being culturally relevant.  As a last thought I want to suggest that culture is a relative term.  Some of us spend a lot of time deciding where we want to live or what schools we want our children to attend.  At least part of those decisions are based on our cultural preferences.  For some being surrounded by like-minded people, people who look, act, and think the way we do is paramount.  Once we are in those environments we spend a whole lot of time and energy trying to fit in and remain a viable part of the community, AKA relevant.

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