Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Crucified on a Boogie Board

John Pavlovitz has written a blog post that has been reprinted by Relevant, and because of that it has been given a great deal of visibility. In the article Pavlovitz proposes to extract from the “crucifixion” of Rob Bell some sort of lesson about modern Christianity. When he begins with the words “It’s often been said that we Christians eat our own,” you know that his argument is definitely going to involve playing the meanie card. You can almost write his conclusion for him.

Lots of bands have a way of manipulating the audience into demanding that they come back for an encore. One of my favorite recordings is of one of U2’s live shows where Bono just says, “Let’s cut out all of the encore stuff where we leave and then you cheer for us to return and instead, we’ll just play the rest of our set.” I love it. So refreshing, honest, and respectful of the listeners' time.

I want to do something similar. There’s a script I’m supposed to follow in order to establish with the reader that I’m winsome, friendly, a nice guy. If I don’t, then anyone who reads this will just say that I’m another hater and that my opinion can be written off (hopefully not — this is the same crowd that supposedly loves dialogues, after all). I’m sorry, I sort of want to do the whole thing where I apologize for all the “mean” people in Evangelicalism (God knows they’re out there!) and where I say some of the good things that Bell has done and talk about how Oprah’s not so bad. However, before this post is over, you and I know that I will, of course, end up doing the predictable thing where I say, “But…” and then disagree. Let’s skip all that. I’m a nice guy, it’s true… yada yada yada… Please love me!

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to what I really want to say: If there has been a “crucifixion” of Rob Bell (and I’m not exactly sure that his new TV show, nice beach house, boogie board, and nights sitting barefooted with Jack Johnson around the fire pit really feel all that much like being crucified —I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been crucified before. Maybe it’s not so bad.), what it says about modern evangelicalism is not that evangelicals are big meanies who punish those who go against “the script” as Pavlovitz puts it. Rather, the supposed "crucifixion" of Rob Bell shows that theology does still matter to large segments of the church, and that leaders within evangelicalism believe, by and large, that some subjects are still worth contending for. Now that seem like the more charitable conclusion to be drawn here.

Over and over again throughout the article, Pavlovitz dodges the substantive problems that people have been bringing up with regard to Bell's two-plus year old book. For instance, when he discusses the Love Wins episode, his conclusion is not that Hell (sans post-mortem salvation) is evidently something that most evangelicals today believe is taught in Scripture but Rob Bell denied that important belief. Such a conclusion would be far too accommodating and wouldn’t fit Pavlovitz’ goal of trying to shame Bell’s dissenters and lift up Bell as some sort of martyr dying upon the altar of questions and confusion.

Instead, he concludes that Bell’s error was that “he didn’t stick to the script” (ah yes, so many blog posts and books talked about how “off-script” Bell had gotten…). Or as he puts it elsewhere, “He only asked people, to ask the questions.” It’s such a cliche. And I don’t even think that the emergent crowd really can possibly believe its own press at this point, either. Do Bell’s readers really think he was “only” asking questions? I read the book numerous times over. The book is filled with propositional statements intended to inform the reader and to persuade of his position that post-mortem salvation is a live possibility. He quotes church fathers and does word studies — all in order to dislodge from his readers the historic orthodox (such a dirty word!) position. Bell had a case to make and he did his best to make it. As did the best of those who responded to him (Kevin DeYoung, for instance).

In another place Pavlovitz reductively states that “[Bell] simply reached conclusions that he isn’t supposed to reach, and that really pisses off Church people.” (Wait, Bell reached “conclusions” in his book? I thought he was just asking questions…) I can only speak for myself and those immediately around me, but the whole Bell situation never "pissed" me off; rather, it was a doctrinal error to be addressed that morphed more recently into a sad cautionary tale.

In addition, Pavlovitz' statement ignores the fact that the best people who wanted to engage with Rob Bell did so with references to the issues at hand, not with regard to the narrative that he wasn’t in line with. Let me give you an example: When Francis Chan wrote Erasing Hell, his argument was not, “But Rob Bell isn’t saying what he’s supposed to say!” (in fact, I’m not even sure he mentions Bell by name). Instead, the argument was, “Here’s what Scripture says, and here’s why the denial of this thing that Scripture says is detrimental to the faith.” Will Pavlovitz allow someone to disagree with the substance of what Bell has to say without taking personal pot-shots and calling him a “venom-peddler”? If he is a magnanimous Jesus person who wants to occupy the moral high ground here without slipping into obvious and radical hypocrisy, he really ought to give Bell’s dissenters the benefit of the doubt.

It would have been more honest for Pavlovitz to simply say, “Look, Bell took a chance and told us what he really thought of the possibility of salvation after death, and his view clearly hasn’t caught on.” That, at least would be a simple but fair reading of the situation. Instead, he characterizes Bell’s dissenters as “venom-peddlers” (a “venomous” phrase if there ever was one) and calls them “unforgiving” (has Rob Bell even asked for forgiveness? Pavlovitz states quite clearly that he has not).

This narrative coming from whatever wing of evangelicalism Pavlovitz, Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell, etc. think they speak for is unsustainable. The only way to have a whole movement centralized around questions without answers, the sound of one hand clapping, and books written like haikus is to have a prior, assumed orthodoxy to leech off of. Evangelicalism as it currently exists has sustained itself on the remnants of an orthodoxy that has been its lifeblood for all of its existence. Eventually, if this crowd has its way, and all the meanies go home and stop caring about doctrinal health in their churches, well there won’t be an orthodoxy left to feed on. It will just be history to study and reminisce about. At that point, what will their movement be? I can’t answer that question completely (I might suggest they start by looking at the mainline denoms), but the words “healthy,” “sustainable,” and “robust” are hardly what come to mind.