Friday, March 18, 2011

The Rob Bell Kerfuffle and the Diabolical Power of the Christian Patron-Client System

Recently someone whom we know, in a fit of frustration over being continually hounded for redundant pronouncements about Rob Bell, flippantly pledged to give up discussion of Mr. Bell for Lent.

That decision might or might not be in keeping with a thoughtfully Christian approach that says serving others is more important than temporary, self-focused pledges to give up this or that. We gently remind our friend of this helpful paradox.

In so doing, we point gentle readers to today's WSJ opinion piece by John Wilson, the estimable editor of Books & Culture, on l'affaire Bell.

By the way, has anyone else noticed how ably WSJ deals with matters of faith when its editors take them up?

In truth, there's nothing new about Wilson's review of the situation (it is that more than a review of the book that he offers). He belongs to that tribe of critics who seem to understand that Bell is trying to do something that belongs in the church's long consideration of eternal things, that sincerely if imperfectly (as if that needs saying) tries to recall the church to consideration of the real contents of its sacred books and its divine, incarnate Lord. A quotation will suffice to demonstrate:

But anyone who carefully reads "Love Wins" will see that Mr. Bell is not a universalist. As C.S. Lewis did, he suggests that God grants free will to all, including those who do not want his divine company and therefore choose damnation.

Still, the account of heaven and hell that he rejects does sound a lot like what most Christians have taught and been taught for 2,000 years, with some modifications. The notion that heaven is the preserve of "a few select Christians" has never been normative. Though all too many Christians have strayed into that error over the centuries, most have not presumed to speculate about how crowded (or uncrowded) heaven will be. God is both perfectly merciful and perfectly just.

As the discussion of the issue itself has now become utterly sclerotic, we turn to another phenomenon that it demonstrates. Wilson rightly cites Albert Mohler's pronouncement of Bell as influential in sparking criticism against him. He could as easily have cited John Piper's now-famous tweet. Meanwhile SWNID and his friend have complained mightily about being asked repeatedly to read Mr. Bell's book and pass judgment on Mr. Bell's orthodoxy.

These instances disturbs us. They demonstrate for us that despite our best efforts and others' best efforts to educate Christians for greater self-sufficiency in their thinking, the vast, vast majority remain comfortably dependent on others to do their thinking for them. Quick judgments based on messages limited to 140 characters are all that most want.

"Tell us what to say, Herr Professor, and we will say it" was once said to the legendary Jacob Neusner when he expressed frustration at the stubborn refusal of German graduate students to participate in graduate seminars. Such lazy dependency is deplorable in a university setting, and it's at least irritating in the church.

We think that too many prominent Christian leaders are too ready to accept the role not just of influencer but of pontiff, for whatever number of adherents they can attract through their blogs (!), DVDs, books, tweets, and media-circulated pronouncements. It's time for them to quit posing as the church's protector against the tides of heterodoxy and start acting like the leaders who equip the church in the manner of Ephesians 4 instead of addicting the church in the manner of the guy who throws a pair of sneakers over a utility wire.

So in the end we commend our close friend for attempting to fast from tintinnabulating statements of and about Final Judgment.

Christians of the world, throw off your chains of authoritarian dependency! You have nothing to lose but your complacency!


Anonymous said...

"Christians of the world, throw off your chains of authoritarian dependency! You have nothing to lose but your complacency!"

Did I really just read that? "I'm well pleased with that" (read in rustic, agrarian Wiltshire accent)! Despite the fact that many would argue very strongly that religion itself is authoritarian dependency the point of which is complacency.

Let's be realistic, though. I'm not saying that your frustration on the matter of students desperately seeking clear, authoritative axioms isn't well founded but let's put them in light of at least two things.

Firstly, students at institutions like SWNID's receive mixed messages. The educational (and theological) philosophies of, let's just say, two hypothetical, closely related departments are not only different, but incongruous. The first focuses on hermeneutics and developing critical thinking skills. The second takes massive questions like eternal destination and answers each related question in a short paragraph of a book written by the professor or someone in close relation to the professor.

You cannot honestly expect students to synchronize these two view points. Nor can you expect for most of them to adopt your own methodology which is hard and requires a degree of insecurity—both things which humans notoriously resist. Of course I understand the overwhelming frustration which results anyway, but there are things which can and cannot be done about this.

The second illuminating factor is even more general than the first. This is that while the educational system of the past 20 years has strived to focus on giving students the tools to access information, it has been woefully inadequate in preparing them to evaluate it. Result? Quite literally information overload. Hence phenomena like the Rob Bell Twitpocalypse (pun intentional)—your students will know that Rob Bell is "like way cool" and they will appreciate his amateurish theology because he delivers it in forms which they are able to easily process while alluding to sources which sound like they are profound. On the other hand, what is more simple to understand than "Farewell Rob Bell." After all, John Piper is, like, old man. He must know a heretic when he sees one.

JB in CA said...

... while the educational system of the past 20 years has strived to focus on giving students the tools to access information, it has been woefully inadequate in preparing them to evaluate it. Result? Quite literally information overload.

I agree that's a problem, but I'm not convinced we can blame the educational system for it. You don't have to be a rocket scientist (or a theologian) to resist the temptation to let someone else do your thinking for you. It seems to me the real problem is that most people care more about winning arguments than they care about figuring out what's true. It's easier to repeat what the talking heads say on TV (or what the twits twitter on your cell phone) than it is to work through the issues for yourself.

CDW said...

The desire for theological authority is now two layers deep.

"Dr. Weatherly, you are an authority - please read Mr. Bell's book and tell me whether or not I can agree with him."


"If you agree with him on this, then I can agree with him on everything!"

Anonymous said...

But are you not the one who wants to tell us what to think and why to think it about everything that really matters?

Anonymous said...

JB is right, cognitive dissonance is the true enemy here!

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Dr. Love, we don't deny that the differences in educational philosophy at our joint epitomize the issue. But since we get asked the same things in the same form by people who never attended our House of Knowledge, we figure that the problem has to do with a lot more than the fact that some of our colleagues are content to indoctrinate now and then.

We wonder if there's ever been an age when people were equipped to process the info that they had, even if it was just a little info.

But here's our challenge: that Christian leaders would abstain from spoon-feeding. Maybe if pastoral types were less inclined to co-dependency, some of the sheep might learn to safely graze.

Anonymous said...

I heard you told a student who asked you to read the book and tell him what to think to grow a pair. Classic.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

A pair of letters, as in B (bachelor) A (of arts), which he is about to acquire.