Rob Bell as Drag Queen

Talk about click bait. But if a drag queen could provoke Sorhab Ahmari to go digitally postal on David French-ism, the once-upon-a-time emergent church poster boy seems to have prompted Christianity Today’s editor, Mark Galli, to question the logic of the missional church:

I was interviewing Rob Bell for Christianity Today about his book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He wrote something in the book that surprised me (imagine that, Rob Bell saying something surprising). So I asked him to clarify himself: “What to you is the purpose of the church?”

“The purpose of the church,” he replied, “is to make the world a better place.” That’s what he had said in the book, and that’s the statement that puzzled me. I frankly couldn’t believe he had said that in front of God and everybody. But as I thought about it, I realized that Bell had expressed precisely the current zeitgeist of the American church. I was less concerned about Bell than I was about the church.

Galli goes on to link Bell’s view first to Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel (without mentioning cultural Marxism!) and then to Leslie Newbiggin who has inspired a certain Presbyterian church in mid-town Manhattan:

Wilbert Shenk’s summary of Newbigin is what many of his readers have taken away:

… we are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose. … Mission is often treated as a stepchild or, even worse, in some cases an orphan. That is to say, traditional ecclesiology has had no place for mission. Yet the church was instituted by Jesus Christ to be a sign of God’s reign and the means of witnessing to that reign throughout the world. The church that refuses to accept its missionary purpose is a deformed church. … We are being called to reclaim the church for its missionary purpose in relation to modern Western culture.

As I just noted, Newbigin’s theology is larger than this, but this is what has made a great impact on evangelical leaders. Perhaps the prime example is what’s called the missional movement. As with most movements, the very term itself is in dispute and comes to us in many colors. It is often combined with a fresh appreciation of kingdom theology, an attempt to let Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God become the hub of the wheel of our theology. We needn’t deny the many flavors of missional, or its obvious strengths, to grasp that for many pastors and theologians, the purpose of the church can be summarized like this (from a church blog I happened upon):

After Jesus was resurrected and after he had spent significant time schooling the nascent church, as He Himself had been sent, He sent His church on a mission, and sent the Holy Spirit to empower them for that task until the end of time, to the very ends of the earth. As Jesus was sent, and as the Spirit was sent, in like manner, the church has been sent. Therefore, the church exists missionally, sent by the triune God to carry out the mission of making disciples of all nations. Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world, as a sign and proclamation of the kingdom of God.

Given my travels and readings especially in the evangelical subculture, this strikes me as a near-perfect summary of an evangelically orthodox expression of much missional thinking today. For all its inspirational value—and this is not to be denied nor denigrated—in the end, it reduces the purpose of the church in the same way as does Rauschenbusch: “Wherever the church exists, it exists for the sake of the world.”

Let the reader answer: how is this any different from Redeemer’s mission statement?

The Redeemer family of churches and ministries exist to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if the editor of Christianity Today is thinking that missional Protestantism has set priorities for the church that are more transformational (and worldly) than they are doxological and evangelistic, someone in the home office may want to call a meeting.

Meanwhile, confessional Protestants who know how to distinguish between the church and the world (and have been doing so since at least the Second Pretty Good Awakening) did not need Rob Bell to understand what Galli has discovered.

It’s Funny Because It’s True

That was Homer Simpson’s reaction to the video, “Football to the Groin” (as I recall). Good humor has a strong does of reality, that was the lesson implied in Homer’s quip. And Babylon Bee’s top ten books for 2016 also suggest that Old Life criticisms of the Protestant world have a strong resemblance to reality. These indicate that OL and BB share not a w-w but a wariness about evangelical hype and cliches:

1.) Whatever Tim Keller wrote, probably: Honestly, we didn’t read any Tim Keller books this year. But we’re sure that whatever he wrote was pretty good. So the number 1 book of the year is whatever he wrote. Pick your favorite and put it in this slot. Congratulations, Tim!

3.) The Purpose Driven Ferret — Rick Warren: While fans of the Purpose Driven series have hundreds of variants to choose from, Rick Warren may have outdone himself with this special edition of The Purpose Driven Life, written exclusively for the close cousin of the polecat. Your ferret will love learning how to fulfill its God-given purpose as Warren masterfully uses over 250 different translations of the Bible to drive home his point.

6.) Worldview: The Worldview: Worldview Edition — Al Mohler: Al Mohler is right in his wheelhouse when writing about worldviews, and his latest work, Worldview: The Worldview: Worldview Edition is an excellent guide to worldviews and the worldviews that view them in the world.

7.) Hyphenating To The Glory Of God — John Piper: Piper focuses with white-hot, laser-like intensity on, as he puts it, “the all-other-punctuation-mark-surpassing splendor” of the hyphen. Soul-stirring and paradigm-shattering, you should not miss this all-too-important, not-exactly-like-his-usual-books-but-still-vintage-John-Piper work.

9.) ? — Rob Bell: “I was thinking about what I wanted my new book to convey,” Bell said thoughtfully in a short YouTube video designed to promote the May release of New York Times bestseller ?. “And it suddenly hit me—I really have no idea. I mean, about anything.” This masterful work features thousands of question marks arranged on each page in no discernible order, as well as several chapters written in Sanskrit.

The lesson: the way to avoid ridicule is stop doing ridiculous stuff.

Inside the Bubble, All White Christians Look the Same

President-elect Trump’s pick for Department of Education, Betsy Devos, has deep ties to the Christian Reformed Church:

She is daughter of Edgar Prince, the founder of Prince Corp., an automobile parts supplier based in Holland, Mich. While her mother, Elsa, and her husband’s parents have supported anti-gay marriage efforts in the past, Betsy Devos has focused primarily on education.

DeVos has been member and an elder at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, which was formerly led by popular author Rob Bell. Former president of Fuller Seminary Rich Mouw said he served on a committee with her to replace Bell, and he said DeVos is heavily influenced by Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch writer and Calvinist theologian.

“I wouldn’t consider her to be right wing,” Mouw said. “She’s a classic free-enterprise conservative. She takes public life, art and politics very seriously.”

Middle-class work ethic – check

Anti-gay marriage – check

Abraham Kuyper – check

Rob Bell – what the bleep?

If You Can Make It In SE Grand Rapids . . .

you can make it on Oprah.

After the initial battle over Love Wins died down, Bell seemed to disappear from the public eye. He left his Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids and headed out to California to work on TV projects.

The Rob Bell Show will premiere Dec. 21 on the Oprah Winfrey Network, a one-hour show that features Bell and is co-produced by him. He also recently toured the country with Winfrey on a Life You Want Weekend.

In many ways, some elements of typical evangelicalism are a good fit for Oprah’s lineup of public confession and personal transformation, said Kathryn Lofton, author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. The difference, however, is that The Church of Oprah incorporates as many religious concepts as possible, while evangelicalism commits to exclusivity.

“I think an interesting way to think about Bell and Oprah here is to observe how easily she incorporates him into her pantheon of spiritual advisers. She remains, as ever, the determining corporate deity,” said Lofton, a professor of religious studies at Yale.

“One way of looking at this is less a merger of two equal powers than it is the acquisition by one large corporation of another small business.”

To be sure, Bell still holds his evangelical credentials, with degrees from Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. And like other leading evangelicals, he’s trying to stake out some ground on marriage.

Did I miss something? When did Oprah become hip?

The Secular Litmus Test

Contemporary conservatism — religious, political, cultural — is defined at least in part by opposition to secularism. Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer scored early and often when throwing around the phrase secular humanism, for instance. Meanwhile, one of the complaints (or worse) about 2K is that it tolerates — even welcomes — a secular world. (For some reason, folks don’t seem to notice that the secular is actually a Christian notion that designates a specific time in salvation history.)

Because of the associations between opposition to secularism and conservatism, I was surprised to read that Pete Enns is glad to see a reduction in secularity even if he is not exactly a conservative. In a post that lauded Oprah’s discovery of Rob Bell, Enns appealed to N.T. Wright for help in making the case that spirituality is the natural human response to the unsatisfying demands of a secular world:

The official guardians of the old water system (many of whom work in the media and in politics, and some of whom, naturally enough, work in churches) are of course horrified to see the volcano of “spirituality” that has erupted in recent years. All this “New Age” myticism, the Tarot cards, crystals, horoscopes, and so on; all this fundamentalism, with militant Christians, militant Sikhs, militant muslims, and many others bombing each otherwith God in their side. Surely, say the guardians of the official water system, all this is terribly unhealthy? Surely it will lead us back to superstition, to the old chaotic, polluted, and irrational water supply? They have a point. But they must face a question in response: Does the fault not lie with those who wanted to pave over the springs with concrete in the first place.

“The hidden spring” of spirituality is the second feature of human life which, I suggest, functions as an echo of a voice; as a signpost pointing away from the bleak landscape of modern secularism and toward the possibility that we humans are made for more than this.

Along then comes Rob Bell (and others) to the rescue, according to Enns:

I think what Bell is doing is helping unstop the springs, and I’m glad he’s doing it. Those who lose sleep over the damage he’s causing may, even in the name of Christ, be more in league with the dictator than they may realize. As many have noted: American fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism have more in common with modernity than many may be able, or willing, to see.

But why Bell? Why not someone with “better theology” (some might ask) for such a time as this? Because the tools of evangelical theological fine-tuning are not suited for excavating concrete. Plus, Bell is a truly gifted communicator who doesn’t use in-house lingo. He knows how to market his ideas, i.e., to get people to listen.

This suggests that Enns, Wright, and Bell have more in common with many conservatives than they might imagine. If you’re going to frame the question as one between the secular and the religious, then the nature of Christianity is going to look different from the way that confessional Protestants understand it. Why Enns is willing to welcome Bell’s aids to spirituality but keeps fundamentalist or evangelical helps to devotion at arm’s length is anyone’s guess (though Bell is hipper than John Piper). It would seem to me that if you’re in the business of pulling down the secular order, you take help from inerrantists as much as from militant Sikhs. (It is precisely that kind of expansiveness in opposition to secularism that produces the Manhattan Declaration.)

But if you believe the church is called, in the words of the Confession of Faith, to minister the “ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world,” (25.3), then you may not care if your tool box has tools to excavate concrete. The spiritual weapons you’re carrying are a lot more powerful and responsive than that.

The Limits of Unlimited Authority

When you hunt around for explanations of the Council of Trent’s anathemas on various Roman Catholic websites, you find a recurring assertion that the church cannot damn anyone to hell, only God can do that. The anathemas as such only apply to Protestant doctrines, not to Protestants themselves.

Like other excommunications, anathemas didn’t do anything to a person’s soul. It didn’t make him “damned by God” or anything like that. The only man who can make a man damned by God is the man himself. The Church has no such power. An anathema was a formal way of signaling him that he had done something gravely wrong, that he had endangered his own soul, and that he needed to repent. Anathemas, like other excommunications, were thus medicinal penalties, designed to promote healing and reconciliation.

Love the Protestant, hate Protestantism, I guess.

This explanation is odd for a couple reasons. First, if Protestants are not anathematized by Trent, is it not the case that Protestants are still schismatics, which is not a good condition for the soul since schism is a mortal sin?

Sins against Faith: 2087 Our moral life has its source in faith in God who reveals his love to us. St. Paul speaks of the “obedience of faith”9 as our first obligation. He shows that “ignorance of God” is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations.10 Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him. 2088 The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith: Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness. 2089 Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

Some apologists will also tell us that we are under obligation to go to Mass if we want to go to heaven.

We may be spared Trent’s condemnations, but the very idea of no salvation outside the church and Rome’s claim that it has the power to dispense grace takes Protestants from the Council’s frying pan into Rome’s fire.

The other odd aspect of this distinction between Rome’s authority and God’s when it comes the fate of souls is that the papacy does apparently have the power to canonize saints. This implies that the church can determine who is in heaven. It even has access to a treasury of merits to liberate souls from purgatory with indulgences.

Now maybe such limits on Rome’s power truly exist. But why does it seem like a case of public relations where Roman Catholic apologists are uncomfortable with hell and try to distance themselves from anathemas but not so much with heaven and the process of canonization? Have Rome’s apologists been reading Rob Bell?

Is Tony Soprano in Hell?

That is the question that Ross Douthat uses to respond to Rob Bell’s query about whether Christians must believe that Ghandi is in hell for being Hindu (probably not the best way of putting it since the eternal destiny of any human, aside from Christ, has not been part of Protestant church dogma).

Here is part of Douthat’s reasoning:

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

The entire piece is worth reading not only for its explicit point but also to show that as supposedly debased and secular as American society is, it still permits arguments like Douthat’s – at the New York Times no less. Way to go, Ross. Way to go, light of nature.

Hello, Rob Bell

According to one news story I read, Rob Bell’s embrace of God’s love has landed the Grand Rapid’s religious entrepreneur in Desiring God Ministries hell. The ultimate kiss off in the evangelical world is for John Piper to tweet, “Farewell Rob Bell.”

But I am wondering why all the hoopla over Bell. If you do some searches over at the Gospel Coalition blogs, where the exposure of Bell’s errors have been fast and furious, the gospel co-allies didn’t seem to pay much attention to Bell prior to his recent book. I found one review of Bell’s videos, a link from 9-Marks that is now dead. But Bell was a basic no-show prior to March 2011.

The best explanation of why someone might care comes from Kevin DeYoung who has a personal account (and one that appeals to me now that I am a Michigander). He wrote:

This issue is especially pertinent to me because I grew up where Rob Bell lives (Grand Rapids) and live where Rob Bell grew up (Lansing). I know the church he grew up at (it’s a normal evangelical church with some fine people there). And I remember buying baseball cards at the mall where Mars Hill now meets. I have people at my church that used to go to his church, and people from my home church that now go to his. Small world. Over the years, I’ve known many people that have attended Mars Hill at one time or another. Rob Bell’s influence stretches across Michigan. It seems that most people I talk to have some family member or friend or second cousin that’s gone to Mars Hill or loves Rob Bell’s books. Although few, if any, in my congregation would say they are Rob Bell fans, many interact frequently with those who are. Clarity on the important issues he raises (and misunderstands) is absolutely necessary. Especially in the Mitten.

So if you’re from or live in Michigan, concerns about Bell may make sense (though how does anything hip come from Michigan?). But what kind of threat is Bell to the Gospel Coalition or my friends in the Southern Baptist Convention? I mean, American Protestantism does not lack for low hanging fruit in the orchard of bad theology and inappropriate ministry. Just turn on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and go to one of the pastor’s websites if you’re in the mood to expose pernicious teaching.

So again, why all the fuss over Bell? And why especially all the Gospel Coalition resolve to pounce on Bell? I may need to get out more and meet people who read Rob’s books and watch his movies (though I did sit through an uncomfortably fawning interview with Bell at the Calvin College Writer’s conference a few years ago). I understand he is a celebrity. And I understand he is supposed to be cool. But do the believers who go to Gospel Coalition churches really need counsel on the dangers of Rob Bell? If they are reading Piper or Keller or Carson, shouldn’t they be able to spot good theology from bad?

Or could it be the case that we are always hardest on those who are closest to us, such that to show that our position is correct we need to expose the errors of someone close to our position? But is Bell really close to the Gospel Coalition? I wouldn’t have thought so, except that the Gospel Coalition seems to be open to emerging churches (hello, Mark Driscoll). The other exception is that Bell has the kind of religious celebrity that cements the Gospel Coalition’s celebrities. But doesn’t all this exposure increase Bell’s celebrity?

As I say, hello, Rob Bell, I hadn’t thought about you much before the allies said farewell.