Tag Archives: Rob Bell

Forget Your Presuppositions (Presenting the Gospel)

Start from zero. Try to forget your presuppositions. What do you say to someone who doesn’t seem to have any of the same questions you do about life and religion when they ask you what and why you believe? In a conversation I had about religion with a friend, he started out by describing himself as a “flaming atheist,” later backing down from that descriptor and saying that more than anything he didn’t really think about the subject. He grew up going to church once or twice a year with his parents, but in the last forty years just didn’t think questions about God had any relevance to his life. In the conversations that followed, and the time that has passed by since then, I’ve tried to figure out the best way to answer his questions, the best way to explain why I bother to believe in anything, before I get into any specifics.

Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, author of Velvet Elvis and Sex God, and coauthor of Jesus Wants to Save Christians, was asked a similar question in a recent interview with Christianity Today. The question was, “How would you present this gospel on Twitter?” and Rob’s answer is a more fleshed out version of the answer I’ve started to give. Remember, Rob is not defining the Gospel here, nor giving a full explanation. He is presenting an introduction, calling the hearer into the journey.

“I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.”

Of course, G.K. Chesterton said many of the same things when talking about the need for fairy tales, like in this quote: “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these strong enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” And it’s one reason I’m convinced that art matters because it points to something better, that it has the power to stir up questions and desires in us that are otherwise drowned out by the noise and busyness of our everyday lives.

What about you? What answer do you give when asked why you believe?

Crazy for God, part 4 – Theological Purity

Crazy for God

I started writing a series of posts reviewing Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back a little over a year ago, back when I first read the book, and got sidetracked. Because the book has been on my mind again recently – along with thoughts of why we believe what we believe – I decided to finish the other two or three posts I had begun working on. Here are links to parts one, two, and three.

In Chapter 51, Frank writes about his father’s turn back to the denominational fights that had occupied his attention during the 40’s and 50’s. One casualty of that mindset was Francis’ son-in-law, John Sandri, who had begun giving Bible studies at L’Abri that “some of the more strictly Calvinistic workers,” like Francis’ two other sons-in-law, said bordered on heresy.

John’s “crime” was his interest in how the Bible states things and how you draw meaning from the biblical text. John knew that if you push the so-called Sola Scriptura Calvinist approach and the “inerrancy” ideas to their absurd limit, all real study of the Bible stops. It becomes a magical text. It is no longer open to interpretation. Dogma replaces study, because scholarship can only be meaningful when you are allowed to ask real questions and let the chips fall where they may.

It was decided that John should no longer teach in L’Abri. Dad instigated this anti-John, purity-of-the-visible-church purge. In the case of John – who was by far all of our family’s favorite person and the picture of kindness and Christian love, as well as common sense – the absurdity of trying to demand one-note theological purity became clear…

Dad went so far as to come up with a statement that everyone in L’Abri had to sign if they wanted to remain in the work. It was a McCarthy-type loyalty oath to the “inerrancy of scripture” concept. And of course John, to his credit, didn’t sign. Everyone else, to their discredit, did.

When L’Abri banned John Sandri from teaching, they asked if he would stay on nevertheless and help run the work! … And since John, unlike Dad at that point, didn’t take himself too seriously, he volunteered to help out, rather than let The Work collapse under the weight of an absurd theological fight.

It was a lesson I never forgot. To me, John’s selfless actions came to represent what faith looks like when lived, as opposed to what theological “purity” looks like. And one reason I still bother to struggle to have faith is because of John Sandri’s example. He truly returned good for evil.

As I read this the first time, remembering those in my life whose examples make me “still bother to struggle to have faith,” the lyrics to Andrew Osenga’s High School Band started going through my mind, in particular the third verse which always gives me pause and makes me wonder how I would respond.

// Frank used to pastor the Baptist church / before they tried to run him out. / He said, “Jesus, the righteous one, threw no stones,” / so he wasn’t starting now.//

One of the primary discussions taking place in the church today is on the topic of orthodoxy versus orthpraxy, that is, right doctrine versus right practice. The first thing often mentioned is that it is not a matter of either/or. Correct, in theory. But in practice one side always outweighs the other. Because, growing up, I spent enough time around those who emphasize “correct doctrine” over everything else, those who focus – even too much, perhaps – on how you live, on the practice of faith, is who I want to be around now. That is one reason I like the work of men like Rob Bell, even though I am not in complete theologic agreement with him. It makes me sick now whenever I am around groups that demand one-hundred percent theological agreement (as if there is such a thing) before you can work with, or even be around, them. I hope I’m never again in that kind of small, perverse world.

Fundamentalism and Intellectual Humility

I just published an essay over at the Rabbit Room that I started to write a couple years ago but didn’t finish for some reason. Not long ago, I came across a quote by N.T. Wright that provided a concise summary of the point I wanted to articulate, which prompted the completion of the essay. The title is Intellectual Humility, and in it I am trying to push back against the idea that we alone are possessors of the “correct interpretation” of Scripture, that we are, that I am, the only one reading scripture without preconceptions, the only one who believes the right things about God and the Bible. Rob Bell, in Velvet Elvis, builds one of his arguments around the idea that “God has spoken, and the rest is commentary.” There is no such thing as reading scripture in a vacuum, or “believing just what the Bible says.” We are, all of us, shaped by our environment, by our upbringing, by our culture, etc. As Scot McKnight says in his recent book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, “Every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adepts the Bible to our culture. In less appreciated terms, I’ll put it this way: Everyone picks and chooses.”

One book I have that provides a good example of the foundation from which I approached doctrine and certainty growing up is I Am a Fundamentalist, one of the last books written by my great-grandfather, John R. Rice, and published in 1975. In one chapter, he relays a question he received about the doctrine he held about scripture, followed by his reply.

You say, “You confuse a doctrine about the Bible with the Bible itself. You seem to believe that because a man doesn’t believe your theory of inspiration, he doesn’t believe in the Bible at all.”

How wrong you are! In the first place, an honest and friendly approach to the matter would show even a casual observer that I do not pretend to have any theory of my own about the Bible. I accept the Bible itself at face value. The only doctrine I have about the Bible is what the Bible itself teaches about itself.”

So, here is my attempt at pushing back against that kind of approach.