In my last post
I discussed the intro and first chapter of Rob Bell's new book Love Wins
where he begins by asking some really important and challenging questions about the messed up way many of us have come to see God. The book has gotten a LOT of media attention, debuting at #2 on the NY Times Best Seller List, and making the cover of Time Magazine
. So for any of you evangelicals like me who thought that we were a small fringe minority in our wresting with these things, this is a big wake up call that you are not alone
. This book, and the questions it raises is obviously resonating with a whole lot of people out there. Bell and other Evangelicals like him (names like Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Jay Bakker, Greg Boyd all come to mind) are part of the new face of evangelicalism, and that of course has gotten those from the old (grumpy) guard pretty mad. It also has a lot of liberals confused because we don't fit into their cliche of what an evangelical is supposed to be (mean spirited, judgmental, unconcerned about the poor, anti-gay, etc.). They are left scratching their heads: "So what is
an evangelical if they are not those things?" they ponder.
The back of Bell's book has a quote from Andy Crouch in the New York Times where he writes, "Rob Bell is a central figure for his generation and for the way that evangelicals are likely to do church in the next twenty years."
Yet to others, Bell has left the evangelical fold all together. John Piper declared as much with the tweet
"Farewell, Rob Bell." Similarly, many liberals are wondering what the difference is between what Bell says and good old liberal Christianity? Lisa Miller of Newsweek asks Bell in a recent interview
"Aren’t you just a mainline Protestant posing as an evangelical?" I'd like to offer a response to that question here. I don't pretend to speak for Rob here. This is my own answer to why I continue to identify as evangelical:
The controversy with Bell's book has to do with the doctrinal claims it makes. So those who have spoken out against it are doing so based on saying that it says things that are wrong. The focus is on Truth with a big T, on authoritative doctrinal correctness. This focus on black and white right or wrongness is also characteristic of how traditional evangelicals understand morality and ethics. Their focus is on the "thou shalt nots," i.e. on opposing certain behavior that they see as immoral. So they say X is wrong, and people who practice X are a threat to the to moral fabric of our society. I'm sure you can fill in the blanks yourself.
On the other hand you have the way that liberal Christians (not to be confused with secular liberals) do morality and ethics. Instead of being focused on right and wrong, their focus is on compassion. This does not mean that everything is okay. They would insist that many things are really hurtful and bad, but that our response should be one of grace: We should be seeking rehabilitation and reconciliation, not retribution.
One focuses on something being either right or wrong, and then condemning the wrong. The other may agree completely that it is wrong, but still focus on a response of compassion because the goal is to mend and restore people--even the screw-ups and failures like us. This caries over into theology too: one focuses on saying what they think is the truth
about God. The other may agree with these doctrines, but places a priority on communicating grace, and realizes that if something is said without love, without compassion, without sensitivity, that is can actaully give a wrong picture of who God is. This is at the heart of Jesus' critique of the Pharisees. Truth without love leads to a dead faith. As Paul says "If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, but do not have love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2).
Of these two ways of doing ethics (and theology), the later is clearly more Christ-like. As far as this goes I fall very much in the liberal Christian camp, meaning that while I may agree most of the time with the doctrinal conclusions of traditional evangelicalism, I think that compassion is often absent from how they do theology and ethics, and to the extent and degree that it is absent, it is heretical and wrong. It is heretical and wrong because it gives a false witness about God, and pulls people away from faith. It's wrong because it hurts people, and thus opposes God's purpose. I use that word "heretical" here very intentionally, because while people are quick to say that wrong doctrinal formulations are "heretical," I would maintain that what is far more heretical and damaging is for people to say things in a heartless and unloving way. Why don't we see those people brought up on heresy trials? Why don't we see those people fired from their position in a seminary? Why is our criteria not focused on being Christ-like? That's a completely wrong priority. Yet so many of my fellow evangelicals seem completely oblivious to this point, even though it is blatantly obvious to pretty much everyone else.
So you might ask at this point: aren't you just a liberal Mainliner then? As far as this broad approach of compassion goes, I am. But there is something crucial that is missing here: I do not think that Christianity is primarily about affirming certain doctrines or adopting a certain set of ethical principles. It is about having a personal life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. That focus on relationship with God
is and always has been the core of evangelical faith. That is the
gospel. This is what being born again is all about. It is the foundation from which all Christian ethics stems.
In the evangelical churches I have been a part of (and for what it is worth, they were pentecostal/charismatic ones of that makes any difference) this has always
been the central focus. You can hear it in the worship choruses we sing, in the focus on personal prayer, devotional reading of Scripture, and of course the many alter calls. Yet to those on the outside, you might miss this. From the outside it seems all we talk about is the wrong/right morality issues. On our church webpages you will find Statement of Beliefs which focus on affirming orthodox doctrinal statements. Now, once you are on the inside
you will meet with this focus on a warm and living faith that flows into acceptance, support, love. But if you are on the outside looking in, you will encounter this focus on "right/wrong" which takes the shape of threats, condemnation, and (if the person you are speaking with gets frustrated with you) mean-spirited judgement. It's all very bi-polar, but goes a long way to understanding why evangelicals are perceived as a bunch of heartless, judgmental, jerks.
For a long long time a big part of the church (usually the part with political power on its side) has been really focused on right
doctrine--on finding absolute authoritative infallible truth. Heck, they burned people at the stake for making doctrinal statements they thought were wrong. Today theology professors still get fired from seminaries for having the "wrong" beliefs, and these "wrong beliefs" are exactly what Rob Bell is being attacked for. But look at the people who are calling him that. What are their fruits? As Bell has said, "When you hear the word 'Christian,' do you immediately think 'oh yeah, the people who never stop talking about God's love for everybody'? ...or... do a number of other
images and associations come to mind?" We evangelicals are not known for being loving to a fault. We are known for a merciless focus on being right
. In other words, we have the same reputation now as the Pharisees in the NT.
So again, I want to retain that vibrant focus on intimately knowing the Spirit of Christ relationally, and of having that love and grace change who I am. But I want to lose the focus on heartless moralism, and instead focus on compassion and grace. I think that focus of compassion fits much much better with that living relationship. But I don't really find that in Mainline liberal churches. Maybe its because they are worried about sounding too much like evangelicals (a four-letter word to them). Maybe its some other reason. Maybe there are people who do have a vibrant personal relationship with God, but who just never talk about it. I don't know. But I do know that it is something that you will hardly ever hear in liberal Mainline churches. The focus is very much on ethics and compassion--on adopting principles
. So while I agree with those principles, it is not enough. It is not the core, the heart of what faith is about. I miss that there.
So from all that, I would like to propose that what makes a new evangelical is that we retain the focus on a living transforming relationship with God, but that we have a way of thinking about theology, and of ethics which is rooted in compassion and grace. Rob begins his dialog with Lisa Miller with a brief sermonette where he says that we have "lost the plot" of the gospel which he defines simply as "God is love and sent Jesus to show us this love, that we might know this love, and extend it to others." There's that focus on relationship again: "Knowing
God's love," and there it is right alongside of a focus on compassion "and extend it to others."
I want to stress that I do not want to say here that doctrine or morality are unimportant. I think they are tremendously important in fact, and I'm sure Rob does too. I also am not saying I agree with everything Rob Bell says in his book. I disagree with him on a lot of things (which I think is a good and healthy thing). But what I see him doing primarily
is recognizing as a pastor that people are being hurt by the way these doctrines present God, and wanting to address that hurt. His is a pastoral focus rather than an exegetical one (in other words a relational
focus, rather than a detached intellectual one), and I think it is in fact a much more important focus to have when interpreting the Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say that without that pastoral/relational focus, it is not possible to do proper exegesis. In many ways, to be a so-called "new evangelical" is to get that.