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Further up and further in (What is Rob Bell on about?)

The Boston Globe recently ran an interview with Rob Bell. Amongst other things, Bell says,

I embrace the term evangelical, if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.

*Cue fuss from reformed bloggers*

There has been much consternation about Bell’s definition here.

However, is Bell actually providing a definition?

The interviewer seemed to want one.  A truckload of people on Pyromaniacs wanted one. This single interview scored 192 comments!  +_+

What’s going on here?

Bell seems quite deliberate in his refusal to use the ‘correct’ buzzwords. This suggests that he thinks American religious language needs an overhaul.  He seems to think that ‘the right answer’ using ‘the right words’ is no longer sufficient for his context. It’s no surprise to find Bell doing this in an interview either; he’s been doing it for some time. In Velvet Elvis, he even identifies himself as reformed: part of the tradition that is always reforming — always refocusing on God.

This seems to be what’s driving him: not a pursuit of ‘the right words’ but the right angle. This is the whole propositions-versus-relationship thing that we’ve recently been circling around here on Cyberpunk + Blue Twin.

And this is my big question about Bell. I’m less interested in whether he’s saying ‘the right things’ than what’s driving him. Why won’t he dance for the internet critics?

Bell’s purpose seems to revolve around prompting people to question and explore, rather than delineating and specifying.

This means that Bell is slippery, but it doesn’t automatically make him a heretic.

At the least, it’s worth delving into what Bell’s on about, rather than taking a cheap shot on the basis of propositions.

The hubbub from this interview is revealing: Bell is considering the evolution of language, while Phil Johnson of Team Pyro is concerned with reclaiming historic definitions. It seems to me that this is less a battle over biblical truth / Christian orthodoxy, and more a case of modernism versus postmodernism.

But what of Bell’s post-propositional way?

As I make out, there’s more than one way to talk about God.

There is always more to God. There will always be more to be said about God. There will always be more to be said about the incredible reaches of his plans in Christ. That’s the vision of heaven in Revelation: an eternity filled with endlessly renewing praise of God. There are not just endlessly new angles to be had on God, but endlessly new ways to express all the wealth already known. God doesn’t change, but there are new things to be found in the ancient Truth and new ways of talking about them.

In the closing pages of CS Lewis’s The Last Battle, at the dawn of the new creation, a unicorn cries out, ‘Come further up!  Come further in!’ We do not merely look forward to an eternity with God, but to an eternity in which we find ourselves continually on the doorstep of that eternity. The journey of knowing and delighting in God is an unending one. We do not arrive; we go further up and further in.

Is Jonathan Edwards your homeboy?  Reformed Christians of all people will cherish these things.

And if that’s what Rob Bell is getting at, then I’m keen.

– – – – –

PS: Tamie observes that I have again taken a modernist angle by trying to get at Bell’s intentions!

PPS: Joey mentions some of what was left out of Bell’s interview.

Part of a loose series:

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

6 replies

  1. I’ll bite, being part of the Reformed chattarati and all. Based on Joey’s evidence that you’ve linked to, Bell may have been misrepresented and am happy to acknowledge that. But …

    “Bell’s purpose seems to revolve around prompting people to question and explore, rather than delineating and specifying…. Bell seems quite deliberate in his refusal to use the ‘correct’ buzzwords. … Why won’t he dance for the internet critics?”

    Fancy stories aren’t worth anything if we can’t agree on who the heroes and villains are. This is what’s disturbing about Bell’s reluctance to use the “correct buzzwords.” Theologically, orthodoxy is about using the ‘correct’ terminology in a careful manner, that’s how we distinguish heresy from truth, not because we want to play games but because ultimately our lives depend on it. Furthermore 2 Thessalonians 2:15 reminds us to “hold to the traditions that you were taught by us.”

    “But what of Bell’s post-propositional way? … God doesn’t change, but there are new things to be found in the ancient Truth and new ways of talking about them.”

    Whoa there Tiger, what new things are these? It’s a closed canon, application may needs fresh expression but truth is an unchanging constant. Just like Gandalf said to the hobbits, good and evil are the same in both Lorein and Morder (my paraphrase.) Post-modernism is only a tool Arthur, not an epistemology.

    “At the least, it’s worth delving into what Bell’s on about, rather than taking a cheap shot on the basis of propositions.”

    What say I buy Bell’s book (Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile), and we post simultaneous interactive reviews?

  2. Whoa there, Luke. ‘Application may need fresh expression’? That sounds like one of those slippery postmodern phrases. Or pretty much exactly what Arthur was suggesting. :)

  3. Cheers Luke. :)

    I’m not saying that words do not matter, nor that Truth is in flux.

    Although I’ve referred to the vastness of God, what I’m getting at is God’s limitation of himself — by using human words and entering human culture, even entering human being. Our God is the limited God.

    So I’d say that orthodoxy is not about words but about a person, the Word, revealed through words. And words are words: less like numbers and more like paints. (We don’t live in a neat modernistic Universe.)

    I’m not saying there’s new revelation, but new exploration and new expression.

    Evangelism is all about the retelling of God’s story — not by undoing the story but by re-telling, telling again in new ways. This is creative non-fiction.

    Regarding Bell’s most strident critics, I’m not concerned about their criticisms of Bell. I’m concerned about their preoccupation with propositions — which is not a concern for the Truth but an attachment to modernistic ways.

    In other words, I’m not endorsing Bell but trying to ask the right questions.

    By the way, just this morning we watched Bell’s own 11-minute gospel presentation.
    Again, Greg Gilbert’s criticisms are pertinent here. But I wonder if Bell thinks other Christians have already got (say) the atonement covered, while there are people who need to hear a different angle. I don’t say that as if the atonement is peripheral, but that the American religious landscape (saturated with post-Enlightenment Christianese) may well mean that Bell is on target.

    We should talk about tag-team reviewing — would be good.

    I’ve found Tim Chester’s (‘Total Church’) reviews of Bell all useful:

    PS. I’m not sure what you mean by postmodernism as a tool. I’ve been talking about it as a mood of suspicion, not an epistemology.

  4. I wouldn’t describe postmodernism as a tool either, but rather a shift in perspective.

    Imagine your only experience of a car is from the inside and you had spent your whole life interacting with the car from that vantage point. You’ve never seen what it looks like from the front, from the back, from the side, from the top or even driving down the road. Imagine further that the car is surrounded by people who have only ever seen the car from one vantage point, varying based on where they are standing. If your task were to describe the car your description would be quite a bit different than somebody viewing it from the side. Neither would be wrong, just different. Neither, though, would be complete either. Postmodernism is the idea that though we’ve been only on the inside we’re unwilling to claim that the inside is the only vantage point that can see the car for what it really is and we are open to input from those looking at it from a different angle.

    In that sense, it is a quasi-epistemology because it admits limited perspective and seeks to understand that there may be truth in other perspectives that would help us to gain a more full picture. It also forces us to humbly admit that we don’t have the full picture.

    Here are some words from Bell:

    “I’m convinced that I am not doing anything new. I am hoping that I’m in a long tradition.”

    Bell doesn’t use the buzzwords (and I’m guessing here) because the buzzwords have shown such a narrow understanding of the gospel. When the word “sin” is used I completely agree that there is sin but when most people say the word they mean something very very specific and leave out a huge and important part of sin. Bell’s book, “Jesus Wants to Save Christians” is a book about sin. It is a book that widens the definition of sin to include consumerism at the cost of slavery and gluttony at the cost of poverty. Bell, and many others, are simply not comfortable with sin being only about personal piety and that is what the majority of the Christian world means when they use that word. It is really hard to use the word when you know that every single person who hears it is going to narrowly define it with their preconceived ideas rather than engage it. Sin is real but it is deeper and wider than most of us are willing to admit and when you focus solely on sin you tend to take focus away from the beginning – that we are created in the image of God and dearly loved and that God wants to return us to that relationship through the power of the resurrection.

  5. Bell tweeted this last night:

    “The gospel is the counterintuitive, joyous, exuberant news that Jesus has brought the unending, limitless, stunning love of God to even us.”

    Thought it might add a dimension to the conversation.

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