Rob Bell, Pharisees and Sacrifice

The recent scrum between Rob Bell and Andrew Wilson is educational. (Check it out on The confronting issue, as they say, is gay marriage. Bell, apparently, has come out for it, or, at least, as he says, is in favor of “monogamy and fidelity and commitment and the world needs more of that and I think that promiscuity is dangerous and destructive, some people are gay and they should be able to marry. ” Bell is in favor of faithful and loving relationships whether they are gay or straight.

Enter Andrew Wilson, who I don’t know, but who is the perfect interlocutor for this contest. He is the prosecuting attorney, trying to extrude from Bell a confession that God no doubt thinks a “guy having sex with a guy is sinful.” Notice, of course, relationships are reduced to the sexual parts, as if, one might say, heterosexual marriage is about a man and woman “doing it.” Yikes, okay, well I think what Wilson wants to do is to get into an exegetical debate, which no doubt, based on Wilson’s vast knowledge of scripture, he will destroy Bell. Bell refuses the invitation and, I would argue, avoids the ploy. And it’s just that.

I want to suggest that while the presenting issue is gay marriage, this is really about competition and conflict between people who, for all intents and purposes, have 99 percent of things in common. It is what Freud so perfectly expressed as the “narcissism of small differences.” But it really goes beyond that. The same problem existed between Jesus and the Pharisees. They too were very similar. The Pharisees were always trying to trap Jesus, to get him to fess up that his ability with the law was weak at best, and the Pharisees, being the keepers of righteousness, were duty bound to protect every jot and tittle. And so we see Wilson going at Bell with everything he has, “Is it sin?” “Are you saying the church for 2,000 years has got it wrong?” Bell refuses to bite, more on this later.

Up pops Rene Girard, the scholar on violence and the sacred (check out Girard’s lectures on scapegoating here: Girard argues that social conflict (or mimetic crisis) is solved, ordinarily, through sacrifice, the death of a victim. Humans have used religion as the way to justify this killing, by sacralizing the violence and then, after the sacrifice, divinizing the victim. It works, for a while, then you need a new one and the process continues. They did this to Jesus, but he was innocent and, as Girard argues, Jesus reveals the whole system as a bankrupt and tragic way to live. Jesus argues that we should solve our conflicts nonviolently and be reconciled to one another. Clearly, humans, including Christians have not figured this out.

I would argue, in a polite and righteous way, Wilson was sacrificing, using Girardian terms–scapegoating Bell to resolve what has become a social crisis for the evangelical community. We can’t have a gay marriage lover in the family, Bell fails in his biblical exegesis; he needs to be expunged.

Bell, with a phlegmatic demeanor, neither takes Wilson’s bait, nor accepts his expulsion. He turns to Wilson and says, “Andrew’s my brother, if we got out the bread and wine, we’d both take it…. Is there something that trumps the differences we have? I think that’s the question.” Bell brilliantly shifts the conversation back to whole point of the Christian message, “Be reconciled to one another.”

It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Mark 2, when confronted on why he is picking heads of grain on the Sabbath, without even blinking Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The law is but a guideline, human flourishing is the hermeneutical key, always, and Jesus does this over and over again. Human healing and reconciliation are always what actually matters. I was listening to the gospels on tape while exercising the other day, and I thought, “My God, Jesus is a walking hospital.” And it’s true, he just keeps healing, forgiving and feeding people wherever he goes, and the righteousness of the person or the group does not matter.

So, in that sense, maybe the sexuality of the person doesn’t matter. And that’s the point, fidelity and commitment and reconciliation do matter. Bell neither wants to debate the text or debate the relative merits of the sin, he wants to affirm a reconciled relationship of love and commitment. Love wins; I guess you’d say.

So, I would suggest that the Pharisaical way of nitpicking sin, is the way of traditional religion, it always ends up with somebody dead or expunged from the community. It works for a while, but it’s not the way of Jesus.

Check out my Rob Bell and a New American Christianity to explore Bell’s hermeneutic of reconciliation:



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