December 20, 2014

Sorry Rob, It’s Not Personal

Perhaps it was the blog post headline that sparked me: “The Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell and What it Says About the State of Modern Christianity.”  After all when even this year, 2014, actual Christians in the actual world are actually being crucified for actual refusal to give in to actual persecution and demands to convert to Islam, then the word “crucify” in relation to a well-off, white Western “Christian rock star” (the blog’s words not mine), seems a little like the boy who cried wolf.

Now that I’ve said it, that’s the word this is about, right? “Wolf”. That’s the issue.  Is Rob Bell one of those “savage wolves” of false teaching that Paul warns the Ephesians elders about, who will spring up even from among them (Acts20:29)? Or is he just misunderstood and trying to show a better way for Christianity to navigate the culture? Now this is no small issue. After all, it’s clearly a false teaching issue that Paul is referring to in Acts20, and not a heavy shepherding issue a la Mark Driscoll (more on that later), so Rob Bell had better get it right.  Or is Rob Bell simply misunderstood, mistreated and misrepresented, and the Apostle Paul, if he were here, would put us right on?

Now for a disclaimer:  I loved all of Rob Bell’s early stuff, especially his Nooma DVDs and I used to listen to his sermons as much as I used to listen to Driscoll’s, though for different reasons.  Notice I said “used to listen” about both of these men.  More on that later too.

Now Hamo has written a good response here with some good points about this issue, and he’s quite circumspect about how we treat other Christians, but perhaps I am going to push it further than he. My question picks up the second part of the original article’s headline, namely “...and what it says about the State of Modern Christianity.”  For me the issue is deeper than whether Rob Bell is being derided and vilified (which in itself is an ungodly thing to do). The issue is not what this says about the state of modern Christianity, but what the cult of rock star Christianity says about the state of modern Christianity.

And here’s what it seems to be saying: If you actually are a Christian ‘rock star” (mega-church pastor/leader of a movement etc) then there’s a sense that whatever your faults God might be more inclined to give you a hall pass.  In other words when “INSERT NAME” says something that goes against the grain of Christian apostolic tradition handed down over two thousand years, or when “INSERT NAME” behaves in such a way that belies the fact that he is simply an under-shepherd looking after sheep that do not belong to him, modern Christianity seems far more relaxed and forgiving about it.

Well, far more relaxed and forgiving about THEIR guy.  When Young, Restless and Reformed types excused the manner in which Driscoll systematically removed all effective accountability structures from his leadership, too many of his tribe were like ,  “Well, he gets things done.” Meanwhile everyone on the other side of the fence was calling out “Bully Shepherd” to all who would listen.

When Emergent, post-evangelical types excused the slow, but sure and steady drift away from orthodoxy by Bell, too many of his tribe were like, “Well he’s keeping faith relevant in a post-Christian age.” Meanwhile everyone on the other side of the fence was shouting “Wolf!” to all who would listen.

The primary problem is not Driscoll’s personality, or Bell’s theology, problematic though they both are.  The primary problem is what it all says about modern Christianity. The original blogger is asking the right question, but not coming to the right conclusion.  When the tribes are more defined by their cultural milieu (indie grunge rocker versus indie ukelele-playing reconstituted folk band – Ed) then perhaps its time to say enough is enough. Away with this narcissistic focus on “the modern” version of everything, and let’s ask a different, more pressing question: What does orthodox, historical and biblical Christianity say about modern Christianity?

Such is the level of pride in the modern mindset, it cannot conceive of the past being more informed, or more culturally aware than itself. But that is where we must start. We must humble ourselves and ask if there is a time-honoured solution to the rush to side with our rock stars, and the accompanying vilification of those we disagree with.

I offer these meagre thoughts as a starting point: Perhaps we need to take a collective deep breath and refuse to examine the likes of Bell and Driscoll, or any other Christian rock star for that matter, on the basis of knowing who they are.  Perhaps we need to examine all Christian leaders in the same way we would mark examinees during an extremely important national exam.

You know the type of exam I mean, the ones in which you are given a number instead of your name to write at the top of every page.  Examiners have no idea whose work they are marking and hence everyone gets judged and examined against a canon – a list of merits and standards independent of the examiner and the examinee. Sorry, you failed, but it’s nothing personal.  Congratulations, you passed with Distinction, whoever you are.

Hence when Driscoll writes his anonymous exam paper (an overview of his last five years of leadership style), and when Bell writes his anonymous exam paper (an overview of his last five years of theological direction and teaching), then both can be judged dispassionately against Scripture and orthodox Christian tradition.

Of course the problem is that we can’t actually do that.  The genie of celebrity culture is out of the bottle.  However perhaps modern Christianity needs to take a collective deep breath, gird its loins and give it a darn good try for the sake of the health of the church.  Perhaps we need to go to the foundational texts of the apostles (that’d be the OT Scriptures and the growing list of writings we now have as the NT) and mark everyone’s work in that light.  After all, it does say in there somewhere (many times actually), that God is no respecter of persons.  And we want to be more like God, don’t we?

Hence when we turn to the Bible and see that one of the primary problems that dogged Israel throughout her history was bad shepherds who bullied the sheep (e.g. Ezekiel 24:17-24), then on the revealed track record of Driscoll the exam paper is going to come back with “F” in red marks on it.  And when we see that one of the primary problems of Israel throughout her history was not simply rampant paganism, but a rush to accommodate the surrounding cultural framework to the covenant fidelity God called from his people (e.g. Ezekiel 8) then on the revealed track record of Bell the exam paper is going to come back with “F” in red marks on it.  It’s nothing personal.  When everyone’s exam paper is just a number, nobody’s getting a hall pass.

The blog post says that Rob Bell’s sin was that he didn’t stick to “the script”.  Don’t suppose the writer saw the irony in the use of that word.  If truth be told neither man has stuck to the script, though in vastly different ways.  And if truth be told, whilst I am more theologically aligned to Mark Driscoll, I would far prefer to have coffee for an hour with Rob Bell.  But that says something in itself, doesn’t it?  In our celebrity-pickled culture neither man knows me from a bar of soap, yet somehow we – I – feel that we “own them”, have a right to them, because we line up behind them and view them as our tribe, or because they are the antithesis of “the other guy”.

That feeling, that sense of immediacy is the accumulated grime of the past fifty years of visual culture that is, in fact, clouding our vision.  From expensively produced B&W television, all the way to  cheap and cheerful vodcasts; from the newscaster that seemed to be right there in your lounge room talking to you, to the late night variety show host, then on to Oprah, and finally the Christian rock stars, the conclusion is clear: We are star-struck people, wiling to offer adulation to anyone whose name rises above most other names.  That this is a great discredit to, and takes glory away from, The Name That Is Above All Names, often seems of little consequence.

 And what did that “Name” allow to happen to his name?  He allowed it to be dragged through Jerusalem’s streets.  He allowed it to be cursed and spat upon.  He allowed it to be nailed to a cross, naked and shamed for all to scorn. Jesus, the Rock, the Star of the universe, became a no-name, crucified for us, rejected by us, and all our broken need to find glory in anyone but Him.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

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