Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Rob Bell and the Riddle of Evangelicalism

Well, there’s been a lot of buzz going around about Rob Bell nowadays, an emerging church thinker whose fame (or infamy) rose greatly upon his publication of Love Wins. Apparently, the book’s controversial trailer alone threatened to uproot the Orthodox Christian conception of hell, reverse two millennia of Church dogma, and generally overturn Christianity as we know it in fire and water (a.k.a. universalism). Whatever shall orthodox Christianity do?

Well, I, for one, was relatively unamused, read the book, argued with a friend of mine for a while, and, in my cynical way, came to the conclusion that Origen had already put forward this heresy way back when and had been smacked down pretty seriously by a Council at Constantinople. Besides, George MacDonald’s version of the heresy was just so much more interesting and I never could dig the sentence fragments that were a staple of Bell’s books.


And here's a picture of Rob Bell and a squirrel.
Because of style. Prose. Legibility.

And coherence.

Nor did I like one word sentences.



Actually, that was a two word sentence fragment.

With a period separating it.

To make it look like.




(I think I need to go read some Shakespeare…)

That is, until I was sitting in Jeremiah Lorrig’s office the other day. We were having a friendly chat about some top secret stuff that we’re planning for Generation Joshua to work on next, when I noticed a copy of Christianity Today sitting on his desk. Being a big fan of Christianity, especially as it relates to today. I picked up the magazine, flipped to the table of contents and instantly noticed an article about Rob Bell’s latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. More specifically, I noticed the word “epistemology” and, like a sleep-deprived yet highly caffeinated philosophy student, immediately went “ooh, shiny.”

What We Know About God When We Talk About Knowing About God

So, I dusted off my copy of Velvet Elvis from my fling with emerging church theology back in high school and immediately set about writing an eloquent rebuff to Rob Bell’s ever-so-faulty presuppositions. But the more I delved into it, the more I’ve become convinced that Bell’s been wrestling through some pretty thorny issues that are confronting mainstream evangelicalism, and the more respect I’ve been able to develop for the intellectual struggle that he’s going through.

The question that Rob Bell is ultimately getting back to, as Galli pointed out in his Christianity Today article, is the question of how exactly we know God. Do we know him through Scripture? Through personal experience? Through reason?

I had an opportunity to listen to a lecture entitled “The Person as Gift” by Catholic thinker Anthony Esolen a year or so ago, in which Esolen put forward a pretty memorable account of how we come to know another person. According to Esolen “we see the action of love in the structure of knowledge most powerfully when the object of our knowledge is himself a subject, a free being who can choose to reveal himself to us, and upon whose self-revelation we depend, if we are to attain any deep knowledge of him at all.”

How do you get to know a person? In short, by the other person revealing himself to you. I think this way of thinking applies to knowledge of God (after all, He is God in three persons) – we know God insofar as He reveals himself to us out of love. That’s why we call Scripture “divine revelation.”

But with God, the stakes are raised, because he is infinite, transcendent, and inscrutable. So as Francis Chan once put it, when we talk about knowing God, it’s like a bunch of little lumps of clay getting together and trying talking about what the potter is like. His ways are higher than our ways. How could we, finite, limited earthen vessels, dare to declare that we know God? Our only hope is for the potter to tell us himself.

Christ revealing Himself to Paul en route to Damascus
The stakes couldn’t be higher, because our knowledge of God really does comprise our knowledge of everything about, well, everything. As the controversial Swiss theologian Karl Barth once said (and I think we can find traces of his thought throughout Rob Bell’s works), “'God is in heaven, and thou art on earth'. The relation between such a God and such a man, and the relation between such a man and such a God, is for me the theme of the Bible and the essence of philosophy.”

So when the powerful notion of God’s transcendence, infinitude, and inscrutability hits like a ton of bricks, we get the idea that we need God to reveal himself to us in order to have any knowledge of him whatsoever. The next question, then, is how does God reveal himself?

Rob Bell goes a direction based on the precedent that evangelicalism has set for him – the importance of the religious experience. Bell embraces a skepticism of dogma (after all, you wouldn’t describe yourself in terms of dogma, would you?), and moves towards the depth of feeling that comes about when one has a rapturous experience of joy in a moment shared between two persons of infinite wonder and complexity. According to Bell, “when I talk about God, I'm talking about a reality known, felt, and experienced.”

He stands with the precedent of a long line of evangelicals from a number of theological traditions who appeal to the importance of the individual religious experience, viewing knowledge of God as a fundamentally emotional experience. I mean, after all, Christ is the bridegroom, and the Church is his bride. Why shouldn’t we drink his reality in deeply and experience the rapturous joy of the love he shows us daily?

The problem is that healthy relationships are never based on emotions alone, and too often Christians are willing to settle for a fling with God instead of a committed marriage. Because if you engage in a fling, you don’t really get to know the person, you’re able to ride the emotions, and, in a sense, project them on to the other person. Instead of getting to know a God who is wholly other that we are, we simply seek emotional satisfaction by saying “oh, God wouldn’t do THIS,” or, “oh, God wouldn’t do that,” with it never occurring to us to sit down and ask him, “well, God, exactly what WOULD you do, anyways?” And since the emotions hit us while we are marveling in the wonder and delight of a God who really does love us and makes himself known to us in powerful religious experiences, we hold them with such deep conviction that it would take a wrecking ball to knock us out of it.

But then the death of a loved one hits us, or a story of abuse, or maybe something so simple, and yet so painful, as our dog dying. That’s when the rubber hits the road, and we’re left to crash from the emotional high, shaking our fists at God demanding an answer “why?”

St. Matthew writing under Divine inspiration.
Fortunately, God knew that we were in for a fall, which is precisely why he gave us Scripture as divine revelation and tells us who He is and what He is doing through the doctrines and dogma contained within. Returning to sound doctrine is like taking the time to sit down and seek the heart of a person, asking the hard questions about what he’s like, what he does, and why he does it. We need to reverse the order of reasoning we take when it comes to knowing God. Rather than starting with an emotional experience and presuming that we now know him, we need to start with getting to know him and let the experience come as it will. The emotional experience should always push us towards sound doctrine -- it should push us to learn about God through His own words, not through our own emotions.

Here Bell shows his hand as a post-modern. Instead of allying with the dogmas and the doctrines based on Scripture, he elevates the individual experience of God above the experience of the church as a whole, emphasizing the importance of the individual crafting his own meaningful picture of God. Dogmas and doctrines such as the virgin birth and the physical death and resurrection of Christ are worth preserving if they help us in forming our picture of God, but they can be dispensed with if they become unfavorable in the popular consciousness (see his trampoline analogy in Velvet Elvis). The reason is that Bell conceives of a God who is not simply transcendent, but also has not clearly revealed himself to us. Divine revelation, for Bell, does not come in clearly articulated doctrines put forward in Scripture and discerned through the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout two millennia of sacred tradition, rather, it comes to us in impulses and impressions, allowing us, ultimately, to interpret them as we will and determine for ourselves who God is and what he looks like.

That’s not to say that God doesn’t reveal himself in the moment of joyous rapture. On the contrary, some of the deepest revelations of God’s love throughout the ages have been in moments of mystical rapture, be it in Julian of Norwich, St. Thomas of Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, St. Francis of Assisi, or countless others. But the lived experience of God must be based first and foremost upon sound doctrine, not an emotional experience.

The problem doesn’t just end at Rob Bell, though. Rather, it points to a problem with evangelicalism as a whole. It shows up when the old Baptist and Methodist revival preachers tell you to “write this date in your Bible, and any time the devil tells you that you aren’t saved, point to this date.” It shows up when the non-denominational churchgoer walks out of a service, replete with otherworldly sound effects and synth pads, feeling distant from God because “I just didn't feel him in worship today.” In its worst form, it shows itself in the Pentecostal doctrine that the manifestation of the gift of tongues is the sign and seal of one's salvation. It teaches us to point back to moments of rapturous experience and build our faith on that.

Well I, for one, prefer a more solid foundation for my faith, and it’s based in doctrine, not experience. Namely, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved,” and “what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Wow. That was really long. Ah well. As usual, questions, comments or objections are greatly appreciated.

Posted by Nick Barden.

1). From gbrenna on flickr.
2). The Conversion of St. Paul by Michelangelo Carvaggio (1600).
3). Saint Matthew and the Angel by Michelangelo Carvaggio (1602).


  1. So since we cannot actually know God. You're saying that we can only know what he tells us himself, through his Word, which is Devine Revelation?

  2. Could you elaborate on Jonathan Edwards viewing a relationship with God as a fundamentally emotional experience? I would have thought that the emotional aspect, while extremely important to him, would have still come second to doctrinal/Biblical knowledge.

    1. Oh yeah, meant to say it the first time (early-morning commenting; not a great idea)—great article. This has become kind of a focus of mine in terms of reforming worship.

  3. Hey Matthew. Not exactly, I'm saying that the only way we know God is through some form of divine revelation. There are a number of ways that he reveals himself to us, but the most important is Scripture. Bell has this out of order by placing too much emphasis on the personal religious experience, and not enough on Scripture.

    Zachary, it's true that Edwards did ground his doctrine in Scripture, actually, all of the thinkers in the list I put up there did. That's where they differ from Rob Bell. But they all still emphasize very strongly that knowledge of God comes through personal experience with God. Edwards and those of Puritan lineage held very strongly to the importance of the conversion experience and the dangers of inauthentic conversion. They emphasized the presence of God's countenance upon the believer as a sign that one was saved (as well as an examination of the believer's works).