Friday, June 19, 2009

He Stinketh: My Thoughts on Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis

A bit harsh, I know, but the joke was too easy. I'm the type of guy that cannot resist an open opportunity at humor. He left himself wide open for it, though. If you've ever read his book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith you would undoubtedly remember the sappy application drawn from Martha's comment on her four-day dead brother Lazarus, "He stinketh" (Luke 11:39 KJV). Bell's reaction to this two-word phrase is uncomfortable at best. By uncomfortable, I don't mean theologically awry, I mean that to read it made me feel so awkward just hearing his words in my head that I would have preferred to get a wet kiss from my great aunt than to continue on in the chapter. What "stinketh" in you, Rob Bell? Let's start with your exegesis and go from there.

But, as I mentioned, it's more the humor afforded by the situation that I'm enthralled with, not necessarily a hatred of the book. I have, in fact, a love-hate relationship with this book and with Rob Bell's theology. I have enjoyed his communication style, his illustrative ability, and many of the contextual insight's he's offered, which often came as just tangents rather than main points. Although, given the "hate" side which I'm about to describe, I do intend to check his sources before holding to tightly to the facts he's presented.

So, that said, would I recommend this book to others? To be honest, probably not. So, is Nick just jumping on the bandwagon with all the other staunch traditionalists and defenders of orthodox doctrine? I hope not, but I have to ask... what's so wrong with orthodoxy? If you've read with interest Velvet Elvis and came away with a sentiment of disgust for the "old" way of the reformers and for the guard dogs of doctrine in conservative academia today--then you've proven my point. That being the likely reaction of readers is precisely why I would not recommend this book.

Bell seems to introduce a notion that our theology and doctrine are ever changing, evolving, and being reinvented by each generation into something better and more applicable to life. It's a notion that, by the way, wreaks of open theism and a distinctly Darwinian understanding of progression.

As evidence for his views, Bell offers Jesus. Who else? In His sermon on the mount, He repeatedly said "You have heard it said... but I tell you..." repealing the traditions and--according to Bell--evolving theology. The conclusion, then, is that we are to likewise be "binding and loosing," as he calls it, in an ever-changing exploration of theology.

The failure point of this conclusion is that Jesus was not taking part of a linear process of morphing theology. He was opening blind eyes to see anew the beauty and truth in the dry, old scriptures of such practitioners of orthodoxy as Moses and David, which their teachers and pharisees had so ignorantly missed. Jesus was not spurring on some evolutionary process by which we improve our relationship with God, He was rectifying a wrong understanding of God with timeless scripture penned by men long forgotten.

What I caution readers of Bell and other emergent leaders like him is this: to accept these teachers' charge to "re-examine" scripture and take a fresh approach to theology is indeed encouraged... so long as you don't begin with the demand that this "fresh" exploration cannot possibly lead to the same conclusions that it once led Edwards, or Calvin, or Augustine, or Paul. It is pure arrogance, born of Darwinian mindset, that tells us we are at a pinnacle of truth today which was unattainable in generations past.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Hero of the Hudson: A Lesson in Narrative Theology

The recent heroics of Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III on US Airways Flight 1549 are growing in fame. His hero status has (in under 24 hours, mind you) topped the national news with titles like "hero pilot," and has even spawned a facebook group honoring the "The Hudson River Hero." And, not to downplay Sullenberger's heroism, he clearly deserves our accolade for his obvious selfless acts, preparedness, and perfect execution of a crisis plan under crisis circumstances.

But all the hype makes me wonder, knowing the forgetfulness of our society, what the activity of that facebook group will be in a week... a month... or a year. Will Sully's phone be ringing off the hook with interview requests, book deals, and crazed fans after a few months have gone by? Only a rare few heroes of even the last century are still household names today.

After God had brought plagues on Egypt, parted the red sea, delivered manna and quail in the desert, and was preparing to drive out the Canaanite nations before Israel, He expressed His concern for the same forgetfulness in the hearts and minds of His people. "When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers," He warned, "be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Deut. 6:10-12).

God understood that, just as the heroics of Mr. Sullenberger, no matter how great, are at risk of being forever forgotten, so are the mighty miracles of God that demonstrate His character and His love for His people. How could Moses ensure that the children and grandchildren of the generation who witnessed all these things would not forget their God who did them? Just as we tend to forget the heroics of a crisis after the crisis is over and we rest comfortably in our armchair, so would Israel grow complacent as they rested comfortably in the land of milk and honey where God would establish their borders and bless them.

Herein lies the importance of narrative theology—the story behind the doctrines! About such "doctrinal" beliefs God told Moses to instruct the people: "In the future, when your son asks you, 'What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?' tell him: 'We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.' (Deut. 6:20-21). Tell these stories! God wants His fame to never be forgotten!

Fortunately, God is not a God who delivered us once and has left us be ever since. He is present with us, active in our lives. What stories will you tell your children about God? How has He been a hero in your life? How will they learn to revere His name and proclaim His fame?

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mars Hill's Narrative Theology - What's Missing in This Story?

First, let me start by clarifying something that confused me from the beginning. We're not talking about the Mars Hill of Seattle, WA where Mark Driscoll preaches. When my uncle first approached me asking, "What do you think about this 'Mars Hill' thing?" I immediately thought of Driscoll's church in Seattle.

No, instead, this is Mars Hill Bible church of Grandville, MI where Pastor Rob Bell has championed his statement of Narrative Theology, coupled with the New Exodus teaching, with great popularity (an estimated 10,000+ weekly attendance). My question is this: What's missing in this "story?"

As I first began to read their statement of Narrative Theology, I was admittedly pleased. The narrative approach to developing theology and doctrine is quite fond to me. In fact, many might say that my first book, Thy Kingdom Come: A Prayer of Victory, was itself an expression of Narrative Theology. Obviously I don't think that the approach is altogether without merit. For a more in-depth look at the topic of Narrative Theology at large, I recommend this answer by Ra McLaughlin (though I've not explored any of the other claims that may be found at that URL).

So, what IS missing in Rob Bell's story? What left me—at the end of just one single PDF page—writhing in my desk chair? Allow me to offer a surface-level critique of this increasingly popular statement of faith, and then I invite you, the reader, to share your own take on the matter. Perhaps some of you have more first-hand experience that may shed light.
  1. The statement is devoid of any affirmation to the Substitutionary Atonement of Christ. The statement, found in paragraph 6 of the aforementioned statement of Narrative Theology, reads: "His path of suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection has brought hope to all creation. Jesus is our only hope for bringing peace and reconciliation between God and humans." It seems that this is just strong enough to preclude anyone from holding only to the Exemplary Atonement theory, but it (and the entire narrative as I read it) is devoid of the concept of wrath, atonement, death as penalty for sin, etc.
  2. My second critique was a little less obvious and it took me a while to find this. Read the document again, if you can, through the eyes of a total non-believer. Do you see how the plural first-person "we" would include you, the non-believing reader, in the narrative? I have no confirmation that Rob Bell preaches, or even holds this position, but this theological statement is extremely friendly to the Universalist.

In summary, I must conclude that this statement of theology is unique in it's ability to say so much while affirming nothing at all. The purpose—in my opinion—of a doctrinal statement should be to guard sound doctrine and affirm that false doctrines are not propagated at your church. By Mars Hill Bible Church's statement, what could be refuted? Universalism? No. Legalism? No. Pelagianism? No. Yikes!

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