First off, make the time to watch the video below. If you have teenagers or young adults, get them to huddle around to view it with you. It is a radio interaction between Andrew Wilson and Rob Bell on the topic of homosexuality. It provides a wonderfully clarifying case study that we do well to examine. Let's have a lesson in what to look for when listening to people like Rob Bell.
False teachers have a playbook. I'm not sure who prints and distributes it. Okay, it doesn't need to be distributed; it lies lurking in every heart of every son of Adam and daughter of Eve. It all begins with the original temptation: "Did God really say?" Quite amazing, really, when you stop to think about it, how that exact question is the one at issue right in front of us in the here-and-now of 2013. Embracing that original doubt, which we might call (to keep up with the times) hermeneutical "suspicion," leads directly to a number of things.
First, we become the ultimate arbiters of good and evil. The standard is not delivered from on high; we figure it out based on our own experience, just as Eve "saw" that the forbidden fruit was good. God is no longer the lawgiver, worthy of submission. He answers to us, not the other way around.
And so Rob Bell very confidently tells us:
“Homosexuality is not destructive. It is not evil. It is part of what churches are. It is part of how life is. And it’s fine.”
Rob knows this to be true. He somehow knows that homosexual behavior does not "disturb the shalom of God," but, he helpfully adds, "some things are destructive." Which is which? How does he know? He knows that sex and idolatry are not linked like they were when Paul wrote Romans. How would he know this? Astonishing claims to knowledge. Repeatedly, incessantly, he appeals to a combination of his own experience and pure pragmatism. He knows Jesus-loving gay people. That's just the way the world is now. People will stop coming to church if we don't get with the times. When asked directly, how do you know that you aren't "going liberal"? How do you know that you are doing God's work here? he replies with the sources of his confidence:
"You have the witness of the community; your own experience; lots of scholarship; you have lots of things that inform why you think the way you do. You draw on lots of sources. That’s how we all do it."
Amazing how open-minded and broad that sounds. But it is narrower than the eye of a needle. Rob's "witness of the community" excludes a rather large community: the uniform voice of God's people as far back as recorded history goes. That's an odd choice, really: privileging the "witness" of a community that happens to be made up of a small number of inked-up, latte-sipping, urban hipsters living right now who agree with you. Interesting to see a postmodern co-opt one of modernism's classic vices: chronological snobbery. I, too, want the witness of the community to be a factor in how we do theology. But I insist on hearing all the testimony. Rob rigs the trial by refusing to hear any testimony earlier than, say, 1990.
He appeals to "scholarship." That refers specifically to the scholarship he happens to like. He doesn't have this in mind. Again, a high-minded, noble-sounding appeal that is actually completely self-serving and narrow.
There is another glaring omission: The Bible. The thing that I find scary is that I don't believe that Rob Bell neglected mentioning the Bible intentionally. It is, rather, part of his DNA. The Bible was left out so casually, so naturally. I noticed this early on in the work of Brian McLaren: they want to have a "conversation" about a variety of issues. The only person who doesn't get a voice in the "conversation" is God himself. So McLaren and Bell run around pretending they're prophets of open-mindedness and tolerance, but they exclude every saint who ever lived before the late 20th century, every scholar who ever disagreed with them, and, indeed, the Bible itself.
It is rhetoric chock full of disingenuity.
And it shows in other ways. There is a sort of passive-aggressiveness about false teachers that cannot be bottled up. Bell has the gall to say something like this:
"Gay people feel wired to live their life with somebody. I don’t see any reason to say that you can’t do that, you then can’t be a part of the church, you can’t be a contributing member. It doesn’t make any sense to me."
He sees no reason? It makes no sense? He is really, seriously bewildered how somebody could read Romans 1 and come away with the impression that men having sex with men is sinful? You know, from that part where Paul says that men having sex with men and women having sex with women is wickedness "worthy of death"? So that's phase one. Throw out an inflammatory, truly ridiculous statement like that. Phase two is pretend to be a victim. "I'm not controversial!" Why's everybody always pickin' on me? This is just one little issue! So he complains that the contentious issue is
"not nuclear weapons. It’s not immigration. The addiction to technology and email and all the ways people are overwhelmed with stress and worry. You have a wide range of issues. Somebody comes along and this issue, apparently, there’s an issue with them. For me it’s just like, seriously?"
Yeah. Seriously? I call this the "Look! Squirrel!" defense. Look! Lots of other issues! I cannot believe you are focusing on the current inflammatory thing I just said instead of worrying about starving people in Africa! You call yourself a Christian!? This is, he says
"the bullshit that really, really, really pushes people away is when you have a particular conviction and all of a sudden your orthodoxy or your faithfulness to Jesus is called into question. You haven’t asked Andrew a list of questions. It comes back to me. This is why so many people don’t want to be a part of the church."
Since Rob so helpfully brought up bullshit (and I mean that in its scholarly, philosophical meaning), let's find some, shall we? First, I'll just observe that it isn't Andrew, his interlocutor, contradicting 2,000 years of Christian doctrine. That has something to do with why he isn't in the hot seat. But, further, let's scratch our heads and wonder why homosexuality might be a bit more of an "issue" than what someone believes about nuclear weapons or immigration or worry. How about this: sexual immorality is an issue of eschatological proportions. The uniform witness of Scripture is that homosexual offenders, among lots of others, "will not inherit the kingdom of heaven" (1 Corinthians 6:9). What one believes about immigration is not exactly a heaven or hell sort of thing, is it? Yet here we have Rob Bell saying that homosexual offenders surely will inherit the kingdom of heaven. And he thinks it's bullshit for you to be upset with him.
And there's more. Andrew Wilson puts his finger on the precise question: Rob, are you saying that Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles thought homosexuality was just fine and the church has been wrong? Or are you saying that Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles thought homosexuality was sinful and we know better now? That's your choice. His answer?
"That’s a great, deep, thick question I’d have to think about more."
That, my friends, is the real bullshit. Rob Bell has certainly thought of that question, but he really doesn't want to say his answer out loud and in public. His discomfort at the question is palpable, and he simply refuses to answer it. Twice. Hint: The Bible says it's wrong, but we know better now.
Finally, observe his retreat to the last resort of intellectual scoundrels. After telling us that "scholarship" is one of his sources of knowledge, he tells Andrew Wilson that nobody can know what the Bible teaches because, after all, it's just "your interpretation." Appealing to Leviticus "raises questions" about inter-testamental continuity and discontinuity and, well, nobody can say. This is, as I say, the last resort of intellectual scoundrels. It is not as though Rob Bell is himself being open-ended here, suspending judgment. These are hardly unanswered questions in his own mind. He is saying affirmatively that God approves of same-sex relationships. But when his opposition shows him, chapter and verse, that he is wrong, suddenly human language is incapable of communication. Meaning cannot be discerned. Suddenly the confident guy who just declared emphatically that homosexuality "is not destructive" and "not evil" becomes the reincarnation of Jacques Derrida. The guy who wanted a "conversation" now wants to completely shut it down by hitting the emergency button labeled "Deconstructionism."
If total deconstruction (language is meaningless, authorial intent is impossible to discern) is going to be your last resort, then kindly shut up. The adults would like to continue conversing.
I am reminded here of an earlier era where you could find somebody unorthodox but intellectually honest. In so many ways this is a 21st century replay of the Fundamentalist controversies in mainline churches in the early 20th century. It might interest you to know that the famously acerbic, cranky, atheist journalist H.L. Mencken wrote an obituary of a fairly obscure (by global standards) Presbyterian minister named J. Gresham Machen. Machen had fought the Presbyterian church tooth and nail over its liberal drift. Mencken's closing paragraphs are astonishing, really, and apply just as well to the debate you just watched, with Andrew Wilson playing the role of Machen:
But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, "education," or osteopathy.
That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again—in Henrik Ibsen's phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing. Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed—but he was undoubtedly right.
That H.L. Mencken knew real bullshit when he saw it. Do likewise.