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For Whom the Bell Tolls

July 20, 2014

I devoted a paragraph to briefly discussing Rob Bell and his work in For Love of Ink on Paper, my June 13th post of last year. The controversy surrounding him is old news. However, in light of my again viewing Bell’s Nooma series, I thought some of what I said then bears repeating today.

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The synchrony of my obligatory hiatus from Haiti and the ongoing debilitating joint pain of the chikungunya virus I contracted shortly before my return to Canada have afforded me more than ample opportunity to indulge my passions for reading and watching videos with a message. For no particular reason other than that I enjoyed it on first viewing some years ago, I lately decided to revisit Rob Bell’s Nooma series. Bell is a masterful communicator. He has a way that holds my attention and speaks to my heart. Each of the videos of the slickly produced series I found thought provoking, the ideas presented rattling around in my head for days, weeks.

Merely thinking about Nooma aroused nettlesome memories of the firestorm of controversy that culminated in Bell being ousted from his position as pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in America, and his repudiation by a vociferous faction within the Christian community. Bell’s detractors focused on perceived errors in his theology, a shortcoming some seemed to adjudge a religious calamity that might well result in the world going to hell in a handbasket. Personally, I found nothing disquieting about Nooma. Neither did I notice anything particularly contentious in Bell’s lightning rod book, Love Wins. But, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Some of the denunciation I have read faults Bell for not saying it all, not including the full gospel message in his series. To me this criticism is unfair. Surely not every video or film or book produced by a Christian need lay out the entirety of the gospel (or even the truncated version seemingly favoured by the vilifiers). I know what it is like to try to present ideas in a defined format. I almost always struggle to shoehorn all the thoughts I have about my chosen subject into the “optimal” post length of 400-600 words. Not easy. Often impossible. This is especially knotty when it comes to thrashing out matters of faith; as the writer of Revelation tells us, the writers of the Bible faced this quandary: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

My impression of at least some of the criticism leads me to believe the crux of the matter is language, something I have frequently discussed in my blog.  As I have often suggested, language can be a barrier to communication as much as it can be a facilitator. What words mean to me may not be exactly what they mean to you. Lamentably, when a writer like Bell uses phrases with which some are unacquainted, when they don’t use “traditional Christian language”, those who insist upon “correct” terminology pounce, going for the throat. The charge is that framing his message in the way he does will cause unbelievers to misunderstand the gospel. But do many of the unchurched understand our stained-glass vocabulary? For that matter, do many Christians fully grasp it?

As I read the Gospels, I don’t find Jesus using a lot of those words; rather he commonly tells earthy stories in very simple terms, stories that are very appealing and were easily understandable (at least on the surface) to his audience. He left the highfalutin phraseology to the scribes and Pharisees. (Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for me, but I probably am too much of a logophile to give it heed.)

Even if Bell’s theology is not spot on, I don’t see that as an earth-shattering issue. While I regard theology as important, it is not God. Holding an impeccable understanding of God (who would presume to know him?) is not the same as knowing God. It has no more power to convert than following my doctor’s orders has the power to heal. I am among those who believe our complicated and messy Bible can be properly understood only in terms of relationship, not solely through any compendium of tenets. As Donald Miller writes in Searching for God Knows What,

“Salvation happens through a mysterious, indefinable, relational interaction with Jesus in which we become one with him. I realized Christian conversion worked more like falling in love than understanding a series of concepts or ideas. This is not to say there are no true ideas, it is only to say there is something else, something beyond. There are true ideas involved in marriage and sex, but marriage and sex also involve something else, and that something else is mysterious.”

In my opinion, belittling pastors and thinkers in the name of right theology distracts people from seeing Christ far more than what some see as unfaithfulness to the message. The mudslingers are so intent upon a singular message—the core of the gospel—that they ignore much of Jesus’ message for us. So much of Paul’s message, so little of Jesus’. It was Jesus’ message I heard from Bell.

Perhaps it would be profitable to spend less time criticizing individuals, a practice I believe gives insult to God both by dishonouring Jesus’ imperative to love one another and by bringing Christians and Christianity alike into disrepute. Perhaps we could rather widen our vision, casting a critical eye on the myriad of institutions and systems (many of which many Christians enthusiastically support and participate in) that have the power to do immeasurably more damage to the cause of God than an individual writer whose theology is imperfect. But it’s far easier to cast stones across the church than it is to take on the world.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Dan Gagne permalink
    July 20, 2014 7:28 pm

    Good read Barry, thanks! Lately, I have simplified the gospel to ‘love others by the same measure God loves you’. Ask ourselves, ‘what measure does God loves us?’

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