Postmodern-Christian writers are strange animals. They’re the first to speak about how impossible it is to connect truth and language, and how language fails when it comes to communicating anything about God. Yet they’re never short of words to tell the rest of us about God, and they expect us to understand them. They’re the most cynical about the misuse of language, and yet they engage in more rhetoric and manipulation than anyone, without regard for genuine argument or logic.
We’re having a postgraduate seminar about the ’emerging church’ tomorrow. The student paper on the subject looks at Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis (2005), and I got upset. So I thought I’d share.
*Note: Having just had the seminar, it is clear that the student has misinterpreted Bell in some respects, and at least not fully demonstrated his thesis that Bell is leaning on Brian McLaren’s thinking. So let me not take it for granted that Bell is fully in the Emergent line. Nevertheless, there are some worrying tendencies.
Dangling on a Spring
Bell’s book might be great (I’ll review it fully another time). However, some of the trends that I’ve seen on the basis of citations from his book worry me. If there is a serious problem with what I’ve seen, it is that it relies too much on false dichotomies.
In line with the usual postmodern propaganda, everything dynamic is good, and everything static is bad. So, Rob Bell apparently teaches that doctrine should be approached like a spring, not a brick. Bricks are unchanging and immovable, whereas springs are flexible and constantly changing. Why it is that dynamism should be self-evidently a good thing is beyond me. I like living in a brick house. Swaying atop a spring would lead to perpetual motion-sickness.
I understand that Bell is reacting to some fundamentalist circles in America in which subjectivity is not recognised, and in which an interpreter assumes that because he is talking about God’s Word, he must therefore be speaking God’s Words too. This is worth opposing. I am concerned that Bell overbalances.
Viewing doctrine as a settled, unchangeable brick edifice is indeed a dangerous extreme. Viewing doctrine as a ‘spring’ makes is responsive and dynamic and open to change, and therefore more reasonable and attractive. Of course, with most false dichotomies, it’s not that the author’s proposal isn’t better than the view he’s opposing, it’s just that his view isn’t the only or best alternative.
The fact that our understanding might never be full and might always prove subject to revisions is not to say that we cannot at the same time preserve some unchanging truths. If we suddenly awake to find that our house needs to be repainted, it is an idiot who thinks the only approach is to knock the building down and start again.
Bell likens the present form of Christianity to a wall made up of bricks of doctrine that are dependent on one another (2005:26). He argues that not only does the wall keep people out of Christianity, but also if one brick is found to be faulty, then the whole wall crumbles.
Firstly, not even walls work like that, let alone doctrine. You can chip bricks out and replace them if need be. Secondly, while not every bad brick fells the wall, there are some ‘bricks’ that would bring the whole wall down if they were found to be false. What’s wrong with that? If Jesus didn’t rise, we are still in our sins. Stands to reason. If every belief is disposable, do you believe anything? So, correct imagery for doctrine is not an unchangeable edifice, but neither is flexibility or motion. Doctrine is the image of God, which changes only when we’ve stuck something on there that doesn’t belong.
Perhaps the analogy is a statue. A statue has cultural context: we understand the statue if we see it clearly and if we know why the artist carved it. But then it’s always full of pigeon poo, and drunk students keep dressing it up as a scarecrow or putting a clown nose on it. The study of doctrine strips away from the sculpted image all of those layers of nonsense that other interpreters have illegitimately placed over it. But the true image doesn’t change.
Don’t defend your loved ones, share them with strangers
On Page 27, Bell offers some analogies to explain why defending the faith is a bad thing. Again, ridiculous in-fighting about things that do not matter is a grave shame to the church. But defending the faith is something else entirely, and we need to keep the distinctions clear.
Somebody showed me a letter from the president of a large seminary who is raising money to help him train leaders who will defend Christianity. The letter went on about the desperate need for defense of the true faith. What disturbed me was the defensive posture of the letter, which reflects one of the things that happens in brickworld; you spend a lot of time talking about how right you are. Which of course leads to how wrong everybody else is. Which then leads you to defending the wall. It struck me reading the letter that you rarely defend a trampoline. You invite people to jump on it with you…
I don’t know about that last line. More people get invited into houses than onto trampolines, and they don’t even have to take their shoes off. But I digress.
…I am far more interested in jumping than I am in arguing about whose trampoline is better. You rarely defend the things you love. You enjoy them and tell others about them and invite others to enjoy them with you…
You rarely defend the things you love?? No, true, we never defend our daughters or our wives, or secure our homes, or look after our prized possessions more carefully than our garbage.
What nonsense! The point of defending the faith is not to be ‘more right’ than anyone else, but rather to make sure that the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t being raped and pillaged. If Jesus had to die to secure our salvation, then anyone who truly loves him would probably want to make sure that his death isn’t turned into a joke. The more you love something, the more eagerly you defend it.
…Have you ever seem someone pull a photo out of their wallet and argue about the supremacy of this particular loved one? Of course not. They show you the picture and give you the opportunity to see what they see.
Ah, well, if we’re talking baby photos, then we need to be more careful about our analogies. This demonstrates my point. Firstly, ‘defending’ is not the same as ‘competing’. It is stupid to have a contest about something subjective, such as whose kid is better, just as it is usually crazy to fight about whose church is better. However, it is not stupid to defend your child against an accuser or an attacker. You wouldn’t love your child if you did not. The Church (and its gospel) needs defence, even if the personal preferences of individual churches do not.
Secondly, you wouldn’t think much of a person who, when asked for a photo of their child, pulled out a picture of a child that came with the photo frame, because one picture is as good as another. ‘You wouldn’t know the difference between my child and this child anyway,’ the person might say. But of course it makes a difference! If someone wants to know Jordan Pickering’s child, then it won’t do to choose one at random. How much more important is it to correctly show the image of God to an enquirer, rather than any old cobbled-together god of our imagining?
I show my child to enquirers because I love her like no other child, and I defend the faith to the death, because I love the God who revealed Himself, and no other.
Now, I’m sure that Bell is far more balanced than these over-polarised dichotomies, but nevertheless, let’s not be so poisoned by the inflexible excesses of some Fundamentalists that we grow cynical about doctrinal solidity, and the importance of defending the truth of the gospel.