Evangelicals behaving badly (and some important footnotes)

Evangelicals behaving badly (and some important footnotes) March 13, 2011

Several have asked me here why I am defending Rob Bell.  Haven’t they been listening?  I don’t defend Rob Bell; I defend the principle of “Before I say I disagree I should be able to say I understand.”  No one can truly say “I understand” Bell’s book until he or she has read it.  What I have attempted to do here is caution Christians to act like Christians and gentlemen (and gentlewomen) and wait until they read the book to make up their minds and pronounce a view about it.  This rush to judgment before even reading the book is pathological.  It smack to me of book burning and certainly of a kind of censorship–implying that “good Christians” should not read the book lest they be infected by its alleged heresy.  This is a sure sign of anti-intellectualism at best and demagoguery at worst.

Today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune carries a letter to the editor criticizing Bell’s forthcoming book based on hearsay.  (At least the letter writer doesn’t say she read the book; she is responding to an article about the controversy that appeared earlier in the newspaper.)  I question the wisdom of editors publishing such letters unless the letter writer says he or she has already read the book.

At his blog, Greg Boyd announces he has read the book.  He received an advance copy (probably from the publisher asking him to write a promotional statement for it).  He denies that it promotes universalism in the sense that hell will certainly be emptied.  He says Bell questions some traditional and popular notions of hell (I assume such as Dante’s Inferno and folk religious literalism about flames which even Billy Graham has said should not be taken literally).  I will wait until I read the book to make up my mind, but so far Boyd is the only person I know personally who says he has read the entire book.

Apparently Boyd’s web site was hacked recently and brought down by (presumably) critics of his views.  What in the world is going on in the Christian world these days?  Well, I can answer that from personal experience.  There are people out there who think their cause is so righteous that its promotion justifies unethical means.  I have been the victim of that as have other progressive, postconservative evangelicals.  Lies and rumors have been spread about some of us.  One of my most virulent critics invented a quote, attributed it to me, and passed it on to state  Baptist newspapers throughout the South.  It could have been very damaging were I at an institution vulnerable to such tactics.

What I wish would happen is this.  Certain leading evangelical spokespersons are quick to jump on suspected heresy or heterodoxy in the “ranks.”  Why doesn’t someone with stature in evangelicalism take it on himself or herself to call out evangelicals behaving badly?  Some years ago Eternity magazine and especially its columnist Joseph Bayly (sp?) called out Bill Gothard because of the antics of some of his followers.  Later Eternity and some other evangelical publications began to question some of Gothard’s own teachings and practices.  (To the best of my knowledge nobody questioned his intentions or character; it was a matter of teachings vulnerable to misinterpretation and practices liable to abuse.)

Later, some evangelical leaders publicly questioned the financial practices of some evangelical “ministries” which led to the formation of a council to monitor evangelical organizations’ financial practices.  When Tony Campolo’s theology was being questioned a blue ribbon panel of evangelical theologians of various theological orientations was formed to investigate the charges and accusations and he was exonerated after he agreed to make a few changes in how he expressed his views.

I am not in favor of inquisitions, but I find it ironic that we have them with regard to some beliefs and practices among evangelicals but not with regard to mean-spiritedness or demagoguery.

So, going out on a limb…I will take it on myself, as a senior evangelical theologian, to call out those who are attacking Rob Bell based on rumor, innuendo and suspicion and not on a careful, charitable, critical reading of his book.  That includes everyone who has weighed in against his alleged “universalism” so far.   Unless they can provide “chapter and verse” where he clearly and unequivocally says hell does not exist or will not exist forever they should shut up or at least tone down their rantings to a level appropriate to their ignorance or knowledge of what Bell actually says.

Now, I know already that someone (probably more than one someone!) will criticize me for “defending Rob Bell.”  That’s just nonsense and let me say so in advance.  I don’t know Rob Bell; I’ve never met him.  I don’t know his theology that well–such as it is.  As Greg Boyd points out, Rob Bell is more of a poet than a theologian in the traditional sense.  So please don’t come at me with any nonsense about me “defending Rob Bell.”  That’s simply a lie.  I am not defending him.  If it turns out he is advocating real universalism, I will be among his critics.

Something else I’ve been thinking about is whether Rob Bell even considers himself “evangelical.”  Does he?  Does he care to be that?  Why are conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists singling him out for criticism?  Why not, say, Marcus Borg (for example)?

Another thing I’ve been wondering is what “farewell Rob Bell” means.  Is that an attempt to expel him from evangelicalism?  Who really has the authority to do that?  Are they assuming he IS evangelical in their sense?  Does he think he is?  Are they assuming they are the person who has the authority to expel someone from something as amorphous as evangelicalism?

Finally, just a footnote to whomever claimed here that Dan Kimball isn’t part of the “emerging church” movement.  Just yesterday I saw a relatively new book (2009) by several authors including Kimball that is made up of essays about emerging church movement and its implications for theology and ethics and other areas of Christian thought and life.  I keep seeing his name associated with the emergent/emerging church movement.  I suspect some people have made up their minds that that movement is defined by Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt and a few other progressives when I know people who clearly identify themselves as “emergent” or “emerging” who are not where they are theologically.  Is this just another case of people reifying a loose movement as if it were a solid, closed, bounded-set organization?  Does one person speak for or represent all emerging church people?  I don’t think so.  My experience is they all have a few interests in common and the main one is the search for an authentic Christian way of life and being the church including willingness to engage in experimentation that more traditional churches (both so-called mainline and evangelical) would find a little unusual (to say the least).  Theologically some are more to the right (like Kimball) and some are more to the left (like Pagitt).  (Even Kimball, in the mentioned book, cautions conservatives not to think a pet doctrine is sacrosanct and incorrigible, but continually subject everything to the Bible–a key part of what I call postconservative evangelical theology.)

It’s very possible that when a person says “I’m not part of the emerging church movement” he or she is thinking of the popular image of it being spread by critics, but he or she may say in another context “I’m emerging” or “I’m emergent” and mean the broader and truer sense of it.  For example, I know people who speak in tongues who would adamantly deny being “charismatic” in some contexts because of the connotations of that term and its association in the public mind with TV evangelists.  But the same person will say “I am charismatic” to a group of, say, Catholic charismatics  (to establish affinity with their belief about and practice of tongues) or even Pentecostals (to distinguish his or her manner of believing in and practicing tongues from theirs).

So, let’s all just wait until Bell’s book is released and we have a chance to read it critically with a hermeneutic of charity (as opposed to a hermeneutic of suspicion) and then (and only then) offer opinions about its theology.




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