A large part of the Rob Bell discussion on the Internet has focused on labels. Is Bell a universalist? Is Bell an evangelical? Is Bell orthodox? I’ll hazard my own label for Bell, he’s part of the emergent church movement who’s label has at least as much ambiguity as the other three. Part of the emergent movement’s struggle has been to resist labels and they have a point. The best thing we can do is listen to Bell to hear what he is saying and what he wants to say and take it from there.
Bell did an extended interview on his book where he denies (as he does in the book) the label of being a universalist but he embraces the labels of orthodoxy and evangelical. One of the most important high profile evangelicals to weigh in on this is Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Rob Bell’s alma mater. Mouw and I are both members of the Christian Reformed Church. I took one course from Mouw when I was an undergrad at Calvin College. I’ve enjoyed and appreciated Richard Mouw’s work for years and very much respect him. His first and second blog posts have attracted a lot of attention Bell’s book and are very much worth reading. He places Bell in the larger tent of orthodoxy. Mouw has made a big deal about civility in the public sphere and has himself practiced a very generous approach to orthodoxy while maintaining his own standards for himself. He’s very clear and eloquent in his second blog post and I for the most part agree with him. Mouw is a peacemaker and Jesus calls people like him “blessed”.
My goal in this post is to take a look at how Rob Bell understands the gospel in chapter 3 in his book and why understanding where he is going and what he is doing is important for the broader Christian conversation in North America right now.
The Seeker Movement
I think it is important to locate Bell in the evangelical church conversation over the last two decades. If you want to understand the emergent movement you need to understand American evangelicalism and the seeker church movement. In the preface and chapter 1 Bell makes it very clear he’s responding to the Christianity he’s seen played out in the evangelical church and in public. He is trying to save the church from itself as well as invite unchurched people into the good news. In that same livestream interview linked above Bell says, “I want to see [everyone] experience good news, I want [everyone] to experience love.”
At the end of the 20th century Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and churches like it changed the American churchscape. Bill Hybels wanted to create “a safe place for people to hear a dangerous message.” The Willow Creek Association invited thousands of pastors and church leaders into their auditorium to learn from the “success” of Willow and to apply some of it in their own spaces. The seeker service was designed to be a culturally understandable and comfortable place to make a very traditionally evangelical “message of salvation” easily accessible. Wisdom, understood as “biblical lifeskills” as evidenced in church teaching and the lives of church members were leveraged to give the Bible credibility that it relates to modern, suburban Americans in giving them a rather successful and sensible way to live. The call to conversion, however, was standard 20th century evangelicalism. It was an appeal to accept Jesus into your life so that you would go to heaven when you die and not hell. “Closing the deal” employed a variety of standard evangelistic tools like the cross over the gap, the Roman road or the 4 spiritual laws. Churches across the evangelical spectrum trained with the “Contagious Christians” course. This “crossing the line” was of course the end goal. Helping people to live more peacefully and happily through “biblical wisdom” was of course good, but of course winning someone for an eternity of bliss in heaven was the heart of the entire enterprise.
Rick Warren in his “Purpose Driven Life” increasingly commodified the movement (the turn-key business approach to replicate the success of model churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback was a part of the leadership development conferences) while adding more of a high profile social justice strain to their chorus through his AIDS work in Africa and statements for environmental responsibility.
The seeker movement was willing to radically alter liturgy and church practice in order to seek the one, central goal of its system. The seeker movement was an appropriation of contemporary goal oriented business practices (remember Hybels does not have a theological degree) in pursuit of the traditional evangelical goal. It was Costco come to church and it flourished usually in the same places Costco does.
The Emergent Movement
Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll both named their churches “Mars Hill” and were both born in 1970. Both Bell and Driscoll are often labeled “emergent” but both occupy different branches of the same movement. If you listen to them, however, you’d think they were worlds apart. What they have in common is their reaction to the seeker movement and broader evangelicalism. They both focus with missionary zeal to plant churches and spread their message. For Driscoll the seeker movement was too soft. For Bell it was too cold and culturally antithetical. Driscoll rejects the accommodation impulse of the seeker movement while maintaining its hell-avoidance, fight the devil core. Bell continues to embrace the accommodation impulse (making church accessible), embraces the “win them with love” approach but as this book makes clear (its really the central purpose of the book) he wants to distance itself from the soul-winning, (afterlife, not present-age) hell-avoidance center of the Seeker movement.
The blogosphere food fight over Bell is of little value. It’s more helpful to ask “what is the shape of Rob Bell’s gospel”? How does it relate to the evangelical tent he says he’s staying within? Does it square with Jesus or at least how I see Jesus’ message and ministry?
Why Did Jesus Come?
Now remember, we’re only up to chapter 3 so we’ll likely keep refining or developing Bell’s thought. Chapter 1 basically makes the point that the traditional evangelical “Jesus came so that his followers can be rescued from a post-physical-death-literal-hell that threatens all of humanity” is in his opinion not at the center of Jesus’ mission. Bell asserts in chapter 1 that this theological construct is offensive to non-Christians and/or non-church people, doesn’t make sense of lots of good things and people in the world, and isn’t what Jesus as found in the gospels was about anyway. All of the questions of chapter 1 essentially say that the traditional construct that “salvation” should be exclusively or in a majority sense understood as post-physical-death-literal-hell-avoidance is no longer plausible and should be rejected. Labels say as much about who assigns them as they do what labels are assigned, so on point alone will many will stand with John Piper and bid Bell a “farewell” from the circle they recognize as evangelical. Bell will say that Jesus came to save, but he wants to in the rest of the book answer the question “save from what?”
Jesus Came to Communicate the Love of God
Towards the end of chapter 3 Bell makes the correct observation (in my opinion) that Jesus in the canonical gospels did not generally use the threat of hell to reach out to those categorized as “sinners” to the religious authorities of his day. Jesus didn’t say “turn or burn” to the woman at the well in John 4. In this section what Bell gives us is both his Old and New Testament missiology. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, assumedly in continuity with the Old Testament, had “their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.”
He goes on in the next paragraph: “whatever special standing they believed they had with God was always, only, ever about their being the kind of transformed, generous, loving people through whom God could show the world what God’s love looks like in flesh and blood.”
Before I say anymore I think it is important to note that this is very much core American evangelical language. “God is love and the Bible is God’s love song written to a lost world.” If you’ve been around evangelicals before you’ve heard this line. This a standard, evangelical position.
Part of what I think a lot of evangelicals won’t own up to is that to a degree Bell is a product of evangelical success in our culture. Contrary to thousands of years of assumptions regarding “who God is” American culture firmly imagines that God is love, will first do no harm, and wants to have a cozy, romantic, ecstatic relationship with all of us.
This stands in direct contrast to many other traditional religious movements that see God or the gods or the spiritual world as a threat that must be managed at great expense. Danger has been assumed and security and acceptance must be purchased through significant sacrifice. Sacrifice may literally mean animal or human sacrifice, or monetary sacrifice, or demanding moralistic, cultic or ascetic behaviors. American evangelicals have been screaming “God is love” for years, and people have gotten the message.
“The Wrath of God is Satisfied” or “the path to God is opened wide”?
In 2007 a student from Calvin College worshipped at Rob Bell’s church and was singing “In Christ Alone” with his eyes closed and noticed that the church had swapped out “the wrath of God was satisfied” for “the path to God was opened wide”. Now again it’s easy to use this as exhibit A for Bell’s departure, but the more relevant point to most of us who don’t go to Bell’s church is “why did he feel the need to make this change? What is he responding to?” and then to figure out what we make of this other reality and how we want to respond to it.
Clearly Bell is responding to the cultural assumption that God a completely non-threatening reality to every human being in the world. This assumption gets at the very heart of a lot of implicit and non-specific presuppositional ideas of who God is and who we are. Within our culture there are a lot of poorly defined, vague notions and feelings about this subject informed by “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Avatar”, and our cornucopia of religious and self-help movements. The best articulation that I’ve seen for the current majority cultural religious assumption is Christian Smith’s work calling it Moralistic, therapeutic Deism. As described by the book “Almost Christian” they are these five articles:
1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
These cultural assumptions have impacted us all to one degree or another. They also create what is called by Tim Keller (borrowing from Alvin Plantinga) a defeater belief making one of the traditional evangelical atonement theories unbelievable. The idea that Jesus has to protect us from God the Father “just doesn’t work” culturally for many people. That of course doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, it just means that this version of Christianity isn’t believable, and worse, is offensive. One element of the belief package they have unconsciously absorbed from their culture is the assumption that God is not only great and good but also nice and that people are good for the most part making the traditional idea that regular, tax paying, house maintaining, child raising people are under threat of penalty for “run of the mill” sins from an angry God is unthinkable.
In seeing this it is important to separate out some questions. “what is true of God and us on this score” is one question. “How do I approach a population with this particular cultural package” is another. Both questions are enormous and responding to either is a huge enterprise.
If you believe the Bible as Christians conceive of it is the faithful revelation of Yhwh and that Jesus is claiming to be in that trinity I think it is difficult NOT to recognize that humanity in its rebellion is under threat of condemnation from Yhwh and that one take of Jesus’ mission was to deal with this threat. There is certainly more to the story than this (Read “The Nature of the Atonement: 4 Views http://www.amazon.com/Nature-Atonement-Four-Views/dp/0830825703) but in my opinion this is an undeniable element of the Christian tradition and one that has support from the Bible.
“How do you approach a population with this particular cultural package” is a separate question. What are the consequences (in this age and the next) for having this element of the Christian tradition either eliminated or under-developed? Many of the most vocal critics have been those from the “young and reformed” community who have a particularly passionate relationship with penal substitutionary atonement. It’s not mystery why they are so upset.
Accommodation or Capitulation
Missionaries need to make strategic decisions when doing their work. Some missionaries take an approach that seeks to gain a hearing through a strategy of accommodation. “See, there are already ideas and beliefs that you have that are in harmony with the gospel, won’t you consider these as well.” Others undertake a strategy of capitulation: “Your life is messed up. Your belief system isn’t working for you. Throw yours away and adopt this one.”
The line between these two strategies isn’t always that obvious, but I think the are both valid approaches and both have strengths and weaknesses. Bell is undertaking an “accommodation” approach. Driscoll is undertaking a “capitulation” approach. Please be aware that this isn’t necessarily a function of their belief systems. Tim Keller, who in terms of positions is possibly closer to Driscoll than Bell I think also takes and “accommodation” approach.
I want to be clear that taking an “accommodation” approach in missions is NOT a bad thing. If you compare the passion narratives in Matthew and Luke you’ll see significant differences. Most scholars attribute this to Luke making Jesus more intelligible for his audience as opposed to Matthew’s audience. This is an attempt at accommodation for the purposes of intelligibility. Traditional theology has long asserted that God accommodates himself, “condescends” on our behalf to communicate to us. The tension this approach always has within it is whether essential elements of what is communicated are being subverted or betrayed by the accommodation communication process. That is what we have to evaluate.
Bell Understands the Gospel as his understanding of Love
From what I understand from what Bell has written here he is in sync with the culture in terms of the question of how much of a threat God is to us without Jesus and how what he understands love to be. He might think different but in terms of what I’ve seen in the book so far that is what I see.
What is interesting, however, is that although Bell seems to want to follow CS Lewis I’m not sure how much of Lewis Bell has read on love. Lewis in fact did a lot of work on the lexical spread of our usage of “love” and applied it to this issue of the threat that God is to us and our vulnerability to a just condemnation. Tim Keller, another fan of Lewis who has also adopted some similar positions to Bell on hell (Read “The Reason for God” on hell), who also takes an accommodationist missiological approach to our culture spends a lot of time differentiating different understandings of love. Just a couple of weeks ago, in fact, this issues dominated one of his Sunday sermons . How our culture understands “love” is a deeply important missiological subject which in many ways stands at the heart of not only our capacity to evaluate Moralistic Therapeutic Deism but also our expectations and assumptions with respect to our view of God.
Lewis in the “The Problem of Pain” will delineate the difference between a “heavenly father” and a “heavenly grandfather”. Parental love is complex to the child. Loving parents say “no”. Grandparents, hopefully relieved of parental obligations can dote and spoil.
I might write a separate posting on the issue of “love” for our context, but this is sufficient for now. Bell seems to be following our cultural reduction of what we understand “love” to be uncritically making any theological tradition that sees God as a threat to our autonomy and even existent unthinkable. Once this threat is removed some elements of evangelical Christianity will disappear. A further question I might want to return will be “can you be a Christian and NOT have a dangerous God?”
Because this is long, I’m going to create a separate post for the second element of Bell’s gospel that emerges in this chapter, which is “Jesus came to bring social revolution.”