A Strangely Insightful Circus

     In a lot of ways the whole circus surrounding the release of the new Rob Bell book on Hell has acted as a strange and compelling fun house mirror, held up to the current American Evangelical landscape.  It has revealed some of the worrying tendencies in certain camps while confusing many an evangelical…like myself.  The crazy thing is I don’t think it’s a bad thing.  In a weird way I’m thankful for the internet exploding into insanity in the past couple weeks; between the whole Hell vs. Universalism debate and Charlie Sheen basically embracing the fact he is an F-18 bro (aka, he’s a lunatic) it’s given me a lot to think about.

     On the one hand, there is the Rob Bell camp which I suppose could best be described as progressive evangelicalism (my words).  Living now in San Francisco I can somewhat identify with this group.  I don’t think ‘progressive’ is a bad word no matter how often Glenn Beck writes it on a chalkboard, but I do think many progressive evangelicals can wear it like a badge of honor.  Bell seems to take pride in the fact he is less condemning and more understanding than other Christian teachers.  I would say he is more artist than philosopher/theologian, but either way he seems very…how can I put this nicely…sure of himself?  Another way to say it would be arrogant, even dismissive of the ‘close-minded’ conservatives who hold so tightly to traditional Christian beliefs without questioning them…at least that’s how he seems to this casual observer.  I enjoy some of his Nooma videos and liked the book Velvet Elvis and even have enjoyed and learned from a few of his sermons but he just seems very…prideful to me.  The book description from HarperCollins on his new book on heaven and hell, Love Wins, simply solidifies my suspicions: “An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation.”
     Setting aside for a moment the desire to sell books and the probability Rob Bell didn’t write that himself, how in the world can a pastor allow themselves to be described in such a ridiculous and worshipful way and NOT do anything to change it?  If a pastor is supposed to lead their congregation by the way they  live life, how could he not simply laugh at such an absurd description and tell the publishers, ‘look guys, I’m flattered, but how’s about toning down the praise, cause right now it makes me look like an arrogant jerk who thinks WAY to highly of himself’.  This to me is the FAR more worrying trend in Evangelicalism at the moment: how prideful Christian leaders come across.  Their way of thinking is the best way, they are so insightful, other people who disagree with them just don’t get it, look at how popular they are and how many books they’ve sold, ect.  And coupled with this sense of pride is a lack of awareness (best case scenario) or a lack of caring about it (worst case scenario).

     The sad thing is our culture longs for the Christian ‘rock-star’.  We’ve been conditioned by our society to turn a person into an idol because it’s easier to cope with an idol than with Jesus.  It’s easier to latch onto your favorite writer/theologian/pastor/teacher and follow everything they do than it is to latch fully onto Jesus.  But no matter how many times Mark Driscoll challenges you to not be a stupid idiot, or N.T. Wright challenges you to think of heaven as a renewed physical earth and not a place of disembodies souls, those challenges PALE in comparison to the challenges of Jesus, starting simply with love God and love others.  That is too hard!  And yet the Bible teaches it is the commands and life of Jesus we are supposed to follow, not our favorite speaker.  So no matter what Rob Bell says about heaven or hell, no matter how ‘electrifying’ he is, his insight and opinion isn’t the final word…then again neither is the other side’s.

     Which bring us to the other tent in this circus, the tent which in many ways started this whole fiasco to begin with.  The New Reformed tent.  It’s a pretty big and influential tent (not to mention pretty male and white) with a lot going for it.  It is just as media savvy as Rob Bell, just as in touch with the culture and unfortunately, just as aware of its popularity and power. 

     First things first: what troubles me most about the way many leaders and pastors in this camp rushed to judgment on a book they have never read isn’t the fact they are attempting to toss him outside the Christian community, or the fact they assume they have the power to kick someone out of the Christian community, or the fact they are labeling Rob Bell a heretic without having read his book, it’s the obvious lack of LOVE they have shown in this whole situation.
Alex, my lovely wife, said it best, “Why is their first reaction to kick Rob Bell out of the Christian community via the internet and NOT to go to him and try to love him, or at least talk to him?”  The dismissiveness of many very influential leaders of Rob Bell is troubling to say the least.  It’s almost as if they were LOOKING for a reason to dismiss him, which honestly, maybe they were.  Maybe they were tired of answering questions about Velvet Elvis or of hearing about Rob Bell doing speaking engagements with the Dali Llama (I know I was) and this was the final straw.  Maybe they were just sick of such a widely read pastor asking questions they deemed to be dangerous or giving answers they deemed to be questionable.  Whatever the case, their first actions, articles and tweets were reactionary, angry, dismissive and unreasonable given the fact they hadn’t read more than the chapter or two of the book the publisher sent out early.  More over there was an underlying theme of fear.  Fear of Christians wrestling with big issues like what the Bible says about hell and how to best understand it, fear of people not being content just to believe in hell because its always been taught, fear of (and this is just my opinion) losing their own power and influence.  As someone who has thought about hell a lot recently I can honestly say I believe there is a hell and that its separation from Jesus and the worst possible place humanity can be…but does that mean I angrily dismiss anyone I know for merely asking a question about how hell is portrayed in the Bible and label them a heretic?  It seems intellectually dishonest and thoroughly UN-Biblical and unloving to attack someone for asking a question, no matter how scary you think the implications of the question is.

     The bigger issue which this whole circus has raised and not many people seem to be acknowledging, is pride.  An astonishing lack of humility has been show by both sides in this argument!  On the one hand there is Rob Bell and the ‘progressives’ who are quick to label more ‘conservative’ Christians as close minded and bigoted, not to mention the already touched on absurdity of Rob Bell being okay with being described as a “rock star”.  On the other hand you have the New Reformers who are so convinced their system is the right system and their theology is the right theology they rush to excommunicate a fellow brother in Christ instead of reaching out to him in love when they feel threatened…not to mention the fact they are excoriating the said brother in Jesus based on a book description, not the actual book itself!  If you ask me, it is pretty presumptuous to call someone a heretic based on a book description, no matter how egomaniacal the book description is.  As I mentioned earlier, I am weirdly thankful for this whole circus because its made very clear the problems which explode when pride is left unchecked…on both sides.

     My reason for writing this post is to challenge myself to take a good hard look at the areas in my life where pride reigns (not to mention the ways in which I can overvalue the opinions of pastors/teachers I respect instead of thinking for myself).  I should go into meetings with students and City Cru events with fear and trembling, not self-assured confidence, knowing the dangers and delusions of pride are often impossible to detect until something draws them out publicly…like a book description from an author I don’t particularly agree with on an issue I think I have the end-all answer to.  My hope and wish is for all the Christian leaders involved to take a deep breath and apologize for believing their own hype, rushing to judgment or at the very least for acting out in a way soaked in self-trust and anger instead of Jesus.  I know I am as guilty as anyone of being seduced by the allure of pride, vanity and esteem so I hope I don’t sound holier than thou.  Its is often easy to see the pride of others and point it out while being blinded to my own vanity.  We are all sinners who are very imperfect but are loved infinitely by a God who is very perfect indeed.  And that, at least, is an eternally comforting thought.


jwaid said...

good word josh...it is so easy to look at others live with a microscope and our own lives with at telescope.