…by the Bell: Two Friends Debate the Rob Bell Controversy

A Note from the Editor, Richard Clark
The debate about Rob Bell’s upcoming book is reaching critical mass. Meanwhile, several other outlets have published their own opinions about the books validity or heresy. There’s a good chance you’ve already made up your mind about the author, the book, and the primary issues it brings to the forefront. Still, there’s benefit in hearing one another out, even if we do have established theological lines that one cannot cross.

We wanted to speak to the Rob Bell controversy in some way, but we didn’t want to add to the noise, even if the noise is valid. We wanted to put on display some things we thought were typically missing from the debate: a focus on civility, an acknowledgment of dignity for those who disagree with us, and a willingness to give the issues the focus and follow-through they demand.

And so, Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, have come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.

Here’s how it works: Each week, Ben and Kiel will address a chapter of Love Wins, and then respond to one another via email. We’ll publish the results here, usually in our “Of the Moment” section below (those who subscribe to us via email and RSS feeds will receive every installment). This week, before they’ve had the chance to begin reading the book, I asked Ben and Kiel to respond to the following questions, and then to respond to one another:

What are your thoughts about the controversy surrounding this book? Is it valid to be concerned about an unreleased book? What are your actual expectations of the book, going in?

Kiel Hauck, Introductory Statement: “…this is what we like to do. We overreact.”
I remember the first time I ever heard about Rob Bell. Someone was angry. It was from a friend of mine who had heard about him at some John Piper led conference several years ago and about how Bell and his minions posed a threat to “Biblical Christianity.” Needless to say, I was different back then. Being the know-it-all, fundamentalist, legalistic, I’ve-got-it-all-figured-out, jerk of a Christian I was, I immediately jumped on the “I hate Rob Bell” bandwagon. It wasn’t until years (and more than a few “you shouldn’t be reading things by Rob Bell” speeches) later that I finally picked up one of his books and read it. That book was Velvet Elvis and it challenged me and broke me more than any other book I can remember. It also damaged some of my friendships. Not the book itself, just that fact that I’d read it. And liked it. That’s the effect Rob Bell seems to have on some people.

Therefore, I’m not surprised at the backlash surrounding the release of a certain promotional video for his new book, Love Wins. On one hand, maybe Rob Bell has brought this on himself. I’m more than certain that he’s self-aware enough to know how people view him and I’m also certain that he’s been far from surprised at the outcry from the reformed blogosphere, calling for his head (or at least his excommunication). The problem with the outcry is, how can any of it be taken seriously? If you think I’m the only person who’s ever paraded around with an anti-Bell sentiment without even touching one of his books – you’re wrong. In fact, most people I talk with that can’t stand the guy haven’t read anything other than pull quotes taken so far out of context that it’s almost comical. But this is what we like to do. We overreact.  We take issue before hearing the whole story.  We make targets.

Usually it stays within the realm of secular culture, whether it be Disney, homosexuals, that darn rap music, or even yoga. But eventually we run out of outside targets, so we turn amongst ourselves. We’re all guilty of it and it dates back to the beginning of humanity. So in answer to the question “Is it valid to be concerned about an unreleased book?” I would say “no.” But that’s never stopped us before. Love Wins will be a topic of hot debate just as A New Kind of Christianity, The Shack, and countless books were before that. But in the end, we’ll end up forgetting about it when the next new thing comes along. That’s how these things seem to go.

That being said, I in no way want to downplay the importance of the book. I’m extremely excited to read it and have been since the day I heard of its release. I’ve enjoyed each of Rob Bell’s past books and feel like I learn something and (hopefully) grow as a Christian each time I read one. He has a unique and refreshing writing style that makes his books easy to read and understand, and for simpletons such as myself, this is important. Couple that with his sense of humor, his knowledge of Christian history (he graduated from Wheaton, the same college as John Piper – hmm) and his incredible understanding of his audience and I believe you have one of the better writers around. Time will tell if I find his new book to be as refreshing and progressive as his past work, but my hopes are very high.

Ben Bartlett’s Response: “The tendency to vilify is real and true… but it goes both ways.”
The tendency to vilify is real and true, and it’s unfortunate. But wouldn’t you agree it goes both ways? I remember reading The Shack, and then having pretty intense discussions about it with my dad. In one sense, many people “vilified” the book, in that they said very negative things about it, and often their information was incorrect or unfair. But then again, The Shack itself has a lot of inherent criticisms of the way a lot of people have lived and loved and matured for a long time. Neither side, it seems, can lay claim to higher ground.

I certainly concede the point… some people aren’t fair and that’s too bad. But Rob Bell’s statements about who God is still need to line up with who God says He is, the same standard applied to Augustine and Bonheoffer and Moltmann and Warfield.

If our pursuit were a feeling or an experience, then the people who try to block or demean those feelings and experience are jerks, no question. If conservatives are a pack of Rambos moving from target to target (circling in closer and closer to their base as they go) without regard for truth, then they deserve the label of Pharisee. And in that scenario, the Bells and McLarens of the world are heroic figures.

Conversely, if God is all about a set of affirmations, a math problem to be figured out and adhered to with exacting theological precision, then the Emergent crowd would be wishy-washy and dangerous, hippies who tune out and become dead weights on the institution of the church. In that scenario, the conservative slash-and-burn crowd becomes something closer to Defenders of the Faith.

The thing is, our picture of God ought to have a lot more fullness than either of those. God is fully true in all that he says about himself, and he is rich and mystical and deep and emotionally compelling as well. God is love, and he also is truth. The Great, “I Am,” has something challenging to say to all of us, and so none of us has the right to feel safe in our evaluations or positions this side of heaven.

I’m definitely looking forward to reading the book with you and seeing how we can help each other see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, and know that He is God.

Ben Bartlett, Introductory Statement: “conservatives need to be fair minded and not angry, and emergents need to take criticism seriously.”
“Oh no.” That was my first thought when I read that Justin Taylor was making comments on Rob Bell’s theological perspectives in his new book… before the book actually came out.

But I want to be clear. I say, “Oh no” not because I think Taylor is wildly wrong. In fact, the thing that can be frustrating about Bell’s defenders is that they rarely acknowledge when critiques of Bell are actually right.

I say, “Oh no,” because debates about who said what and when are a distraction that ought to be easily avoided. If you want to criticize someone, read their entire book first and do it thoughtfully. And if you are the one being criticized, listen carefully and accept it gracefully. Emotion ought to be of fleeting and minuscule value in a debate about theology. In this case, conservatives need to be fair minded and not angry, and emergents need to take criticism seriously.

So that’s my view on that.

The Rob Bell question itself, divorced of emotional red herrings, is a personal one for me. I have several friends who are members of his church, I love his Wheaton and bible camp background, and I know plenty of people who enjoy his material (especially the NOOMA videos). On one hand, I would love to give the guy credit for his insightful questions, challenges to unbiblical church traditions, and general openness to the good things the culture has to offer.

On the other hand, he is a pastor. Lots of people look to him for biblical guidance, and that’s a huge responsibility. If he wants me to listen, he has to make it his goal to honor God’s Word and God’s statements about Himself in a balanced, proportional, and faithful way. I don’t think it’s asking a whole lot for a pastor to report God accurately to people, and EVERY pastor should be open to critiques when he strays from that path.

So I’ll be reading Bell’s book with those two views in mind: listening with fairness and nuance, but also maintaining the standards for what biblical theology needs to be. This is the standard I apply to Rob Bell, but it’s also the standard I apply to John Piper and RC Sproul and Billy Graham, Mike Maggard (My pastor) and everyone else. Most importantly, it’s the standard I apply to myself.

So, should conservatives have kept their mouths shut until the book came out? Yes. But then again, has Rob Bell said and done things that don’t meet my little test? Yes again. So let’s set those things aside, take a look at his book, and see what we come up with.

Kiel Hauck’s Response: “Who decides what’s balanced, proportional, and faithful?”
I want to dive right in by responding to your comment about Bell’s role in honoring God’s word in a “balanced, proportional, and faithful way” as far as pastoring is concerned.  Here are a few quotes directly from the mouth of Rob Bell to his church about what they believe about the Bible:

“We believe and affirm everything the Bible believes and affirms.  We believe it’s inspired, we believe it’s authoritative, we actually think it’s God’s word.”

“It’s possible to know lots of Bible verses, to know lots of passages, to know lots of Greek and Hebrew words and not be transformed by the love of Christ.”

“The Bible is not the point.  The point is knowing Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection.”

Now, as you and I both know from our many conversations during the time it takes Rich to set up any given board game, statements like yours and responses like Bell’s don’t seem to bridge the gap due to certain worldviews that both sides are coming to the table with.  When you say you want Bell to honor God’s word in a “balanced, proportional, and faithful way,” what it really comes down to is: who decides what’s balanced, proportional, and faithful?  When Rob Bell says his church “affirms everything the Bible affirms,” he’s basing his affirmation on his understanding of Scripture – which is really all he can be asked to do.  So then we’re back to the debate about whose understanding is right and whose is wrong, or as it’s also known, square one.

So in essence, I guess what I’m saying is that I feel Rob Bell is carrying out your request to the best of his abilities and doing so in a way that reflects his understandings of the mysterious nature of God through Scripture, through the lens that is his particular worldview.  Due to the possible difference in standards of what each of you feel biblical theology needs to be, you and Bell may be left at a stalemate.  That being said, I appreciate your willingness to listen to Bell along with your willingness to participate in this dialogue.  You say emergents need to be open to critique and take criticism seriously – I couldn’t agree more.  Hopefully these kinds of outlets can provide an opportunity for graceful response instead of both sides feeling the need to defend from attacks on their character rather than their ideas.

I’m excited to begin reading the book and emailing back and forth as we work through the chapters.  I have no doubt that this will be a challenging and stretching exercise, but I hope that the end result will produce, at the very least, an opportunity for people to feel encouraged to lower their defenses and feel free to listen, even when simply listening seems like the hardest thing to do.

About CAPC Writers
  • http://itiablog.wordpress.com Anna Blanch

    I look forward to following this series. I appreciate the model of dialogue and the way in which you are both seeking to keep things in perspective.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Thanks, Anna! I’m pretty excited about it myself.

  • http://notworthwritingabloglongenough.blogspot.com Peter Kutuzov

    Hmmm… I think I’m going to have strong emotions to this one. In Bell’s language, because I’m a pastor and because of love.

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  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    Hey Kiel, please allow a little push-back. You represent yourself as a simpleton and your primary concern with the book seems to be not how well Bell represents What Is, but how refreshing and progressive the book is. I’m not sure what you mean by progressive, but by much of your comments, it sounds like you really care primarily for the book’s spiritual effect on your life and not so much for how well it represents the world the way it truly is. Which is, generally speaking, the perspective of the simpleton.

    I’m just curious how deeply you identify with the caricature you’re embracing. If you really are not all that bright, then what do you propose to add to discussion of the book other than a positive vibe in Bell’s favour? If the question comes down to whether or not Bell truly represents the reality that Scripture paints (not just whether Bell feels he’s doing a fair job of representing Scripture), do you feel equipped to contribute to that discussion? Or are you not so much the simpleton you make yourself out to be?

    I’m just curious as to what to expect out of this back-and-forth. Ben’s corner seems pretty forthright, but yours is a bit more mysterious.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Dane,

    If Kiel will permit me, a couple of points.

    First, that’s just how Kiel talks. He’s that way in real life too. But the man is decidedly not a simpleton… there’s no way I could feel good about an interaction like this with someone I don’t respect.

    Part of the problem with a website like ours is that we hold all the cards and make all the rules; in other words, our control of the output allows us to set the terms of the debate. Even the Dane could have little influence around here if we chose to cut him off!

    So then, the purpose for our little experiment is to walk all the way through a controversial work together and give full expression to the both side’s positions, whether it agrees with our personal standpoints or not.

    We want to give Kiel’s perspective full expression so that we might model good ways to carry these conversations through. Without, you know, coming down hard on anyone at the outset.

    The thing about Kiel is that we start from a place of trust… I trust him and he trusts me. So the long term goal here is to give those ideas plenty of space and to make our conclusions at the end, which is all too uncommon these days.

    Give us a chance. We have a lot of book to work through, and neither of us would feel good about starting the arguing part just yet.

    I know when I was in college, I got hammered by people for my “irrational” perspectives. But the fact is, they were very rational… based on your starting point. Kiel has a bit different starting point than me, and I want people to get a full sense of how that plays itself out before asking people to make a choice or not.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    Good to know Ben. I wasn’t looking to start an argument. I just wanted to know if the series was one that would be worth tagging along for.

    Kiel’s self-depreciating made me skeptical (since if he was as simple as he represented, I wouldn’t expect much worthwhile back-and-forth), but if that was just a bluff, then I’ll continue paying attention. I was just worried that the conversation would turn into something like this:
    ___________________

    BEN: When Rob Bell says that Jesus was a unicorn and grants faery wings to all who believe, I just don’t see where he’s getting that from Scripture.

    KIEL: Well, of course you’re free to interpret Scripture any way you want, Ben, but personally, I happen to really appreciate the concept of a unicorn Jesus because it 1) is a new way of looking at him and 2) because I like unicorns so much, it draws me into a more fulfilling spiritual life.

    BEN: But you can’t even get that out of Scripture anywhere.

    KIEL: Maybe you can’t…
    ___________________

    And really, as entertaining as that would be, it wouldn’t be that useful. So, I’ll take your word for it from the start that Kiel is not a simpleton and look forward to seeing how you engage each other through the book.

    My personal take on Rob Bell is nebulous. My only experience of him is through his Nooma videos. After watching two of them, I simply let him slip from my radar since I was clearly not his target audience. I never read his Blue Elvis book and probably won’t read Love Wins, but I’m not entirely opposed to the idea that God could use hell as something of a refiner’s furnace through which he might redeem the lost of mankind. (I don’t even know if this is Bell’s position or not, but the hoopla makes it sound as if this is so.) Granted, I think its a stretch but I would be curious to hear a biblical defense of the idea and I find most common arguments pertaining to whether hell exists or not to be a too-simplistic read of the Scriptural evidence.

    So yeah, I don’t have a home team to root for in this game. Not yet at any rate.

  • Kiel

    I’m not going spend time defending my intellect for two reasons.

    1. Seth, it seems to me that you made up your mind about me and quite possibly my intelligence a long time ago. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I could do to change your opinion of me. If you knew me in person, you’d probably be even less impressed. Heaven knows, I am. And I, unfortunately, have to live with myself every grueling day.

    2. There’s really nothing to defend, because I am what I claim to be. I’m not super smart, I’m not cool, I’m not hip, I’m not anything, really. As much as I appreciate Ben’s defense of my honor, I am a simpleton. We didn’t come up with this idea as a battle of wits. If that were the case, I’d be dead in the water from the start. However, no matter how low of an opinion I hold of myself, I do believe that every person’s voice matters, no matter how “big” or “small,” “smart” or “dumb.” This series of posts will be exactly what it set out to be – a dialogue between two self-professing Christian friends who share a common interest in a new book. Hopefully something worth while will come of it, at least that’s the hope.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    Buck up little camper. You may be heartened to know that I’ve only made up my mind about two things about you: 1) you wrote an article contra Scott Schultz that I didn’t read because hip-hop doesn’t interest me (no offense); and 2) I seem to recall vaguely that you’re sympathetic to the emergenty side of things. Or at least were. And really, that’s it. Oh. And you have an interesting name that is more memorable than, say, Kevin.

    I don’t know who you are (save for that this post reveals that you are friends with Ben) and I don’t know anything about your opinions and I don’t know anything about your mind and the degree to which it either works well or devises harmful schemes masquerading as working well. You could be a genius or have the acumen of a mole rat. I don’t know because I don’t know you.

    Apparently, I should though? Have we met and I just don’t remember?

    So long story short: I have no real preconceived notions about you.

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