Thursday, 9 April 2009
Thinking aloud about Rob Bell . . .
Just been reading some of Rob Bell's books in the last couple of weeks, after the clamour of people telling me I should read Velvet Elvis was too much to take any longer and I caved in! I guess Bell provokes one of two responses; lots find him unnerving and think he's one of the more dangerous voices in contemporary evangelicalism; others think that he's nothing short of visionary, re-defining Christianity for the postmodern twenty-first century! I must confess having read Velvet Elvis (2005) and Jesus wants to Save Christians (2008) to being ever so slightly underwhelmed. OK, his books are imaginatively packaged, with their colourfully interleaved pages and Bell's use of short paragraphs and even shorter sentences, they certainly tap-into the contemporary preference for soundbites and instnataneous modes of communication. Before starting Velvet Elvis I'd been forewarned about Bell's two most obviously provocative statements: the one about the hypothetical scenario in which Christians discover that finding the Virgin birth of Jesus wasn't true (p. 26), and the other one about 'Hell being full of forgiven people God loves' (p. 146). To be honest, I'm not sure what he really means by the second statement. Any ideas? As to the first though, this seems to me to be typical of Bell. Clearly being careful not to give the impression that he thinks that the Virgin Birth might be a myth, Bell wonders alound whether it would actually make any difference if belief in the Virgin Birth was jettisoned. Now of course, Bell's aversion to foundationalism or propositional revelation should come as no surprise, since he's trying to recast Christianity in post-modern terms. More worrying to me is his underlying argument that doctrine divides and restricts, doctrines being like bricks that hem people in and keep others out, rather than like a trampoline which gives and adjusts to different circumstances. But doesn't Paul talk about Jesus being our foundation, what's a foundation made of if its not concrete or brick? While I'd want to affirm that the gospel must be presented in terms of narrative, that narrative has to be God cosmic work of redemption, reconciling people to himself and the regenerating of his creation, not the story of my existential engagement with Scripture. Personally, I can't see how you can be a Christian and be unconcerned about doctrine, after all you only have to say the word 'God', and straightaway you've made a theological statement! What do you mean by God? How do you know anything about him? In the end Bell's hermeneutic, seems to owe more to some kind of social Darwinism than the teachings of Jesus. For me the most compelling part of Velvet Elvis was chapter 4, where Bell speaks about his own personal spiritual journey. His argument about Christianity being about more than forgiveness of one's sins, that 'salvation is now' (p. 109), already begun in this present life, rather than at some future time, was the most persuasive part of the book. While I wouldn't want to go as far as Bell, who seems to be suggesting that all Christians should sign up for a programme of therapy or counselling as soon as possible if they want to find inner healing, his call for the Church to recapture the full-orbed nature and extent of the atonement, should be taken very seriously. In this he seems to me to be echoing N. T. Wright, who's new book Justification: God's Plan and Paul's Vision (2009), similarily argues for a much more comprehensive understanding of the doctrine of justifiation. Many will find it difficult to divorce Bell from his Emergent bed-fellows of course; I guess you can tell much by the company a man keeps! The relative ease with which Bell subverts traditional expressions of Christianity must be a very real concern. Bell's method of interpreting Scripture clearly has the potential to cause havoc, especially among those who buy into the whole re-packaging Christian for postmoderns thing! One wonders whether the majority of the people attracted to Bell's gospel are really those who've become dissilusioned with their evangelical upbringing, rather than those outside the Church to begin with. Just some random thoughts really last thing at night . . .!