I was asked a question about Rob Bell that I will admit made me just a little bit upset. It was from a friend. This is why it stung so much. It wasn’t that it was mean or rude. I just felt it to be so off the mark as to betray an almost total ignorance of who I really am. It was like someone seeing me taking spastic kangaroo hops around the bar and thrusting my fists into the air while shrieking like a manic when the Spanish national side won the World Cup, and being asked if I really felt that bad for the losing Netherlands team.
I mean do you not know that I bleed yellow and red? Are you not aware that I fasted for three days prior to the game just in case it might help the best team in the world never to win the Cup finally pull it off? And Netherlands? Those felons? I mean really!
It just rankled.
But I tried to respond judiciously like my wife repeatedly has counseled me. When I was finished with my civil clarification, I thought that had done the trick. But, apparently, it still festers. And it has made me think about my attitude and those of others who have taken issue with Love Wins. It has made me wonder what really motivates us, down deep where the rats scurry about looking for little treats.
Let me tell you the question and see where that leads.
My friend explained that while he did not think he agreed with everything in Rob’s book he certainly disagreed with how “religious people” had responded to it. His question to me was: “Why are you so threatened by this?” I had a choice. I could have shrugged it off by interpreting the personal pronoun as an indefinite plural rather than a pointed singular.
I refused the dodge and took the blast full in the chest.
What raised the reflexive hackles was the adverb “threatened.” (It is an adverb isn’t it? Unfortunately, I missed English grammar during my elementary school years in South America.)
What is particularly offensive about that word is that it sort of drips these slippery globules of condescension. That was not the intent of the questioner, I know that. But, it happens to be the specific term I have heard others frequently use in defense of the book. And every time it has that faint reek of superiority: “Are you so insecure about what you believe that you become unhinged and have to scream “heretic” at the top of your freaking lungs to hide the deficits in your own logic?”
No, I told my friend. My disagreement is not motivated by fear or inadequacy. For one thing, I am not the one recklessly tossing 2,000 years of patristic, scholastic, reformed and post-reformational teaching over the railings of the ship. I don’t feel a compulsion to defend St. Chrysostom, St. Augustine, or St. Aquinas on the one hand, or Luther, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, on the other, not to mention all the best preachers of the past two centuries. It isn’t a latent inferiority that drives my disagreement with cutting-edge interpretations that argue that the most influential teachers in the history of the church got it completely and totally wrong, regardless of whose minority voice may have been raised in disagreement over the years.
I don’t intend to be smug on this point. It is just that with those Fathers and Doctors and pastors of the church on one’s side, and over such an extensive period of time, one does not feel terribly vulnerable or embarrassed following their lead. So, “threatened” is just not the appropriate word to describe the motivation behind the strong reaction.
So, what is?
I cannot speak about the motives of others. I can however state that, in some, I have heard the discordant and jarring notes of a loveless anger. This is perhaps what prompted my friend’s question. Why the mean-spirited barbs and the nasty ridicule? Why the acid? I’m sure that one of the reasons I was stung by my friend’s inquiry was because I have put serious effort into avoiding that tone of malice I equate with political talk-show hosts.
I am all too aware of the seductive attraction of the ad hominem. Those like myself, and like Rob for that matter, nurtured within the sometimes spiky and belligerent folds of fundamentalism find ourselves, if we are honest, drawn almost against our wills into a posture that can look suspiciously like that of a bare-knuckled Victorian pugilist. While we may despise the acerbic barbs of Glen Beck, it is an all-too-attractive slide into the snide verbal parody of those on his left. No party, political or theological, has a monopoly on pride. And no one is more susceptible than the one who is battling hard against it.
So, if I am not prompted by an inferiority complex what is in my gut that won’t let it be?
The word I prefer is sadness.
I have not met Rob, though there are a score of people I know intimately that fall in the category of one-degree-of-separation. So, the pain that I feel is not for a personal friend who has hit the skids. It is not about feeling let down by a confidant, a colleague, or close comrade. What it comes down to is grief for a misguided and gifted teacher and for those whom he continues to influence.
The reason I am not angry is because I do not believe Rob is driven by a conscious malevolent intent to undermine and eviscerate the Gospel. I am sad because I think what it impels it is just the opposite.
At this point some may be gesticulating with their index fingers at Paul’s caustic remark about false teachers emasculating themselves. I do not take that as precedential in this instance. I think that that is the very, very last word about a Gospel-threatening heresy, not the first, or the second. And it is only to be uttered by those with a sufficiently broad authoritative mantle after direct confrontations have failed or been repulsed. The rest of us can reject, correct, and seek to instruct but anathemizing is reserved for others with a much higher pay grade than lowly bloggers or pastors with a narrow geographical jurisdiction.
I choose (until proven otherwise) to believe that what drives Rob is genuine love and that is what makes it all so terribly sad. It has made me wonder about many of those branded “heretics” (and rightfully so) by teachers of the church over the years. I wonder whether what made some of them willing to face martyrdom was the love which precipitated their error. Not all of them mind you, but some.
Was it love for purity that drove Montanus to extreme ascetism and a rejection of art? Was it love for the unique, singular majesty of God that motivated Arius to deny the deity of Jesus? Did Pelagius feel compelled by a love for the value and dignity of human freedom and choice to reject the doctrines of grace? In the 11th century was it devotion to a holy and cleansed church that pushed the Cathari over the edge? I am starting to ask myself whether these all loved their version of the truth or their conceptions of the church so much that they felt duty bound to lay down their lives for it.
It is these questions that prevent me from taking the slightest pleasure when I read an article in the local newspaper in which Rob admits that the past month has been the hardest in his life. And it brings into clear focus the deceptive power of misdirected love.
James warns us about this danger that can easily swallow us unawares. It cleverly hides behind a certain justifiable hatred. This is what makes it such a potent deception. It wraps itself in the soft glow of a kind-hearted, gentle, irenic disposition; it woos us into accepting a generous orthodoxy in reaction to a brutal, belligerent and reactionary judgementalism. It beckons us by disguising itself as the necessary antidote to smug, sanctimonius, self-congratulatory Phariseeism. And it ever so slowly spins us and twists us into the very object of our hatred.
The apostle James sounds out the warning: “You are as unfaithful as adulterous wives; don’t you realize that making the world your friend is making God your enemy? Anyone who chooses the world for his friend turns himself into God’s enemy” (Jam. 4:4 JB).
Not knowing Rob personally I can only extrapolate based on our similar religious upbringing. I have detected my issues in lots of Rob’s questions, so I do not think I am far off the beam in drawing certain parallels. When the “world” is declared to be toxic enemy number one and when cultural truths, goodness and beauty are disparaged and demonized a reverse toxicity can occur. The truths, goodness and beauty within your own camp may take on repulsive, radioactive qualities. Now, if you’re clever and good with words this can be masked to a great extent but the poison will seep out like mercury through the cracks.
But, there is more. When your eyes are opened to the unexpected and shocking splendor of culture (“the world”), in reaction to its shallow and fearful dismissal, that submerged spill of toxic waste makes you susceptible to a dangerous embrace that is equal parts love and hate: a too-great love for the “goodness” of the world and a too-intense hatred for that which has defamed and denied it.
Ever so subtly you become a defender of the world over against the culture-phobic church. And in short order you find yourself its friend in precisely the way James warns us about. You have grown to care more about how God treats humans than how they treat Him. You are far more interested in humanity being treated fairly than you are in God being worshipped, served and glorified.
Loving the world in this unhealthy way and for these unhealthy reasons causes you to reject whatever reminds you of the oppression you have grown to despise. It is love for those marginalized by an unloving church (and an angry God) that causes you to jettison all doctrines that smack of cruelty and a harsh vindictiveness.
I suspect that this is why Rob finds the historic teaching on an eternal Hell so abhorrent. It is an unconscionable assault on those he wants to protect. He tells us in his book that he wishes to shield sincere men and women from a mean God propagated by an ungracious religious establishment. This is understandable. If you are in love with the world what becomes compelling is ensuring humane justice here, not divine justice everywhere.
Unwittingly, and with the best of motives, when one’s affections are bent in one direction, one loses the capacity to empathize with the God who characterizes our misdirected loves as gross and brazen adultery; who considers humanity’s rebellion a provocative rejection of His infinite goodness, truth and beauty, and who thunders from beginning to end of the Epic Story that ignoring Him is a grievous assault on His exclusive rights as Creator and King and is ultimately self-destructive.
And what makes this whole discussion so hard is that this blindness is instigated by a faulty love that masks a subconscious hate. James tells us that loving the world in this way makes us an enemy of God. Or, put another way, when we love the world improvidently, we can easily be deceived into perceiving God (as proclaimed by the traditional, conservative Church) as the enemy.
This is why it is wrong to assume that all those who disagree with Rob are angry reactionaries.
This is why, I for one, am so sad about this whole discussion.
I am sad to see a gifted teacher defaulting on his calling to keep, guard and hand over the historic deposit of truth entrusted to him (II Tim 1); and to fail in his fiduciary obligations to “fight for the faith which has been once and for all entrusted to the saints” (Jud. 3).
I am grieved by a misdirected love and a misguided compassion.
Although I am not threatened by the error, or by the questions, I am saddened for those who will knowingly reject Christ but still be offered false hope, false comfort, false assurance and empty promises.
What makes it so heartbreaking is that when you choose to love humanity above God, you wind up becoming an enemy of both.
But let me be honest, in answering my friend’s query, I have to admit others that are beginning to bother me even more:
Has our too-hasty and untroubled defense of CET (conscious eternal torment) exposed something about us as well?
Do our assertions of concern for the lost serve as flimsy cover behind which apathy and indifference really hide?
Does all this bluster and resentment and fulmination against Love Wins mask the absence of a genuine sacrificial and evangelistic love for the world in our own hearts?
Is it all together too easy for me to rush to the defense of an admittedly terrible doctrine because rather than loving the world too much, I love it too little?
And that would be the saddest thing of all.