religious judgementalism: the rob bell episode

Rob Bell has made waves in the Twittersphere and other social networks in the last 24 hours or so.

This is not really because of anything Bell has done, but because blogger Justin Taylor has accused him of being a Universalist (basically, the view that all people will be reconciled to God), a perspective apparently outlined in Bell’s forthcoming book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

I am not interested at this point in discussing Bell or universalism; instead I simply want to voice my issue with those who have criticised him.

The most obvious problem arising is that Bell’s book is yet-to-be-released. That is to say, his critics have not yet read it!

How have we gotten to the point where an unreleased book can cause so many to rain fire against a person? Is it because evangelical Christianity has some ‘dog whistle’ tags with which association can be fatal?

I guess these would be things like universalist, homosexual, liberal, evolutionist, socialist, and all the rest. It is sad that we cannot debate the issues related to these tags reasonably, but rather such debates denigrate quickly into name-calling and trench-digging.

I think we need to actually do business with the perspectives we criticise, rather than simply making assumptions about them, or caricaturing them (straw men are easy to kill, after all). This is not merely the case for raging bloggers (of which I guess I am one…); even John Piper has gotten in on the ungenerous act of vilifying Bell in the last day or so, simply tweeting “Farewell Rob Bell.”

In my mind this is both childish and ignorant, like a child standing with their hands over their ears saying, “Lalalala, I’m not listening!” This is also oddly contrastive to Piper’s rather generous exchanges with N.T. Wright over the last few years…

It seems we often assume that Christians who hold different perspectives to us have never even read the Bible, and that they have no justification for their beliefs. We, on the other hand, have certainty that the Bible backs us up (!), despite the fact that most people have never done any in-depth study of the passages they use in support of their theological claims.

This is not to say there is no such thing as right or wrong. It is just to say that we are never as “right” and always more “wrong” than we think we are; we ultimately don’t know everything, and if my experience has taught me anything it is that God is much bigger than I understand at any given time.

I guess an issue is that we believe there is some kind of construct which we could deem “orthodox Christianity”, and that anyone who does not fit into this is somehow evil or heretical etc. But who decides what is “orthodox”? Is Rob Bell wrong because John Piper thinks so?

(By the way, the people that have decided what is “orthodox” in the last few centuries have generally been white, middle class, rich, Western males, with white, middle class, rich, Western male concerns and perspectives…)

What is curious is that the early Church has no such ‘orthodox’ construct. Early Christians were actually forced to debate their theology and practice, and have a good reason for their views based on Scripture, experience and tradition. I’m pretty sure there would have been Jewish Jerusalemites in the early Church who thought the Apostle Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was ‘heretical’ and evil. In time, however, his view was accepted by the majority.

I wonder if Bell’s view will ever have the same status? Hopefully, as his book implies, Love will win.

That is, of course, if his forthcoming book even says the things he is being accused of saying. If it doesn’t… well maybe that further illustrates my point about the ugliness of modern evangelical judgementalism.


Posted on February 28, 2011, in Church/Ecclesiology, Current Events, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Keep going Rob. Thoughtful people are listening!

  2. Well said Matt.
    I am disappointed in this whole episode. The evangelical reformed right tends towards this arrogance towards any who doesn’t believe exactly what they do… in my opinion it causes peer group pressure to conform and not true conversion and heart change via the Spirit.

    There is the same tendency towards this within the current church leadership movement where the leadership are not to be questioned either about practices and teaching….overall it leads to unhealthy practices.

  3. Love the video. Just the other day a friend told me he gave up his faith as a teenager because of those same questions. What I am encouraged by is that the answer is not to throw away the Bible but rather to READ the Bible.

  4. I found this blog re Rob Bell and Eugene Petersons comments on the cover of his book, it’s well worth a read….

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