Two of the most controversial and prominent figures in evangelical Christianity are Rob Bell (of NOOMA fame) and Mark Driscoll. Both emphasise the importance of engaging with culture, ‘building bridges’ with unbelievers – both have called their churches ‘Mars Hill’ after Paul’s encounter in Acts 17. Yet they have very different approaches to “bridge building”.
Driscoll describes himself as ‘reformed’. He’s committed to Reformation doctrine and his preaching is propositional and confrontational. He works at being culturally relevant by knowing and referencing what’s going on in popular culture and the sub-cultures of people coming to his church. It’s reflected in how his church does music, technology, aesthetics, small groups, etc. You could say that he’s doctrinally conservative but culturally liberal. This is how I’ve generally thought about bridge building too.
Bell, on the other hand focuses on the fabric of culture over its elements. It’s not enough to know what’s happening in culture and reference it – you have to speak the same language. And that language is one of postmodernism. And the postmodern fascination with story leads him to employ narrative theology. Wikipedia summarises it like this: “the Christian faith is understood as a culture and a language, in which doctrines are likened to a second-order “grammar” upon the first-order language and culture (practices, skills, habits) generated by the scriptural narrative.”
I find Bell’s approach appealing. The Bible is one big story, but more than that, it’s our story! We can see that as Paul weaves the Ephesians’ story alongside God’s work in Ephesians 2. And culturally, I get this. Spirituality is experiential; Christianity is about more than signing up to a set of propositions. This is a much more corporate model, about life and culture. It isn’t afraid of a big God.
And yet, when you ask anyone to describe their own culture – be it Australian culture, their family culture, whatever – if they can do it at all, they are generally pretty vague! It’s like asking a fish to describe water, which is clear and completely envelops it. To use the language metaphor from before, it’s like speaking the language but not understanding how it functions. If you don’t set out to study culture, it’s normally invisible.
I like Bell’s movement away from “legal metaphors that don’t deliver a way of life.” And yet, I don’t think it means that we give up on teaching doctrine. There are plenty of exhortations to do so in Scripture (e.g. Titus 2:1) but doctrine is also the lifeblood of story. It’s how the story becomes visible. To know who God is, three in one, one in three is essential to knowing God. Understanding our separation from him is intrinsic to experiencing the majesty of his presence. Grasping the meaning of Jesus’ death helps us to participate in the great story of his body broken.
I think we need to recover the notion of story as we seek to build bridges with a (post)postmodern culture. And yet, I don’t see doctrine as secondary. Rather, it’s through doctrine that we discover our story and are equipped to articulate who we are.
Part of a loose series:
- Missing the boat on postmodernism
- Re-viewing Nooma (How to use Nooma)
- Further up and further in (What is Rob Bell on about?)
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.