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Learning to speak Christian

Rob Bell is releasing a new book, Love Wins, raising the question of universalism. He’s been censured with astonishing speed by a string of American evangelicals, like these two at the Gospel Coalition. One guy has even written an embarrassing point-by-point refutation of — guess what — the book’s promotional video. How very thorough.

As for John Piper’s tweet, I can only describe it as an excommunication: ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’.

The ridiculous thing is that the book has not even shipped yet.

I’m sure there’s room for dialogue here, and it would of course be helpful to read the book. Yet I’m less concerned with Rob Bell’s faithfulness than with what this ruckus says about our culture as Western Christians. Why are these reactions to Bell so dismissive?

As Jon Coutts relates, Karl Barth was once asked to clear up some anxieties about his teaching. He initially refused to reply, and his explanation is pertinent.

These people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.

The online dust cloud surrounding Rob Bell is not an exercise in truth-telling so much as an attempt to reassure ourselves, to batten down the hatches. It sounds like the chafing of a weak culture, a culture that ‘mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future’. It is another manifestation of Western Christianity’s struggle to describe itself outside the shelter of Christendom.

As we’ve noted before, Rob Bell is attempting to ‘speak Christian’ in appropriate ways, to make Jesus known to a new generation. Whether he is doing so effectively remains to be seen, but for me, this is somewhat beside the point. We are all ‘speaking Christian’, but some of us are doing a better job of it. Which is the better Christianity? And which will be seen to be the better Christianity?

We all need to be ‘speaking Christian’ in ways that are faithful, winsome, and timely. Whether he’s right or wrong, let’s see if we can outdo Rob Bell! Let’s not take our eyes off the ball. Let’s not walk in fear but in boldness.

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

9 replies

  1. The backlash was swift and firm wasn’t it? Quite a few atheist blogs I follow were commenting on it and the supposed ‘division’ it is causing! It will be interesting to read what he actually says….

  2. Hi Arthur,

    I’m mixed on this response – I think it’s good practice to read a book before commenting on it, but I suspect there’s grounds for commenting on a book when the author has a track record of selling out the hard truths about Christianity to make the message more palatable.

    Plus this is going to generate sales as people who wouldn’t have even thought to read the book pick it up just so they can pull it apart – if Bell has nothing to hide he should welcome the scrutiny. That’s how the marketplace of ideas works. And isn’t a book a contribution to that marketplace?

  3. I wonder if there’s something about a book review that makes an ad hominem attack almost ok – because I’m not post-modern I think the mind of the author is relevant for interpreting and understanding a book, so a bit of pre-reading well poisoning might be a wise strategy if you’re pastoring a flock. You don’t want people coming at some stuff thinking it represents Barth’s non-orthodoxy… Ministers/pastors/whatever you want to call them can’t really afford to be objective if they believe in Hell. Can they? There are greater things at play than giving a persuasive idiot a fair hearing.

  4. I’m all against speaking rashly. I was annoyed when perhaps I found myself guilty of that when this all broke.

    But I’m intrigued by your 3 characteristics of “speaking Christian”, namely: “faithful, winsome, and timely.”

    Which of these is the most important? From what you’ve said here, it seems that being winsome and timely is more important. “Yet I’m less concerned with Rob Bell’s faithfulness than with what this ruckus says about our culture as Western Christians.”

    Why? Why is Rob Bell’s faithfulness less important here? Paul seems to think being faithful to the Gospel is more important than presenting it in a “winsome” way. If Rob Bell had sent his books to the church in Galatia, what would Paul have said? Or Corinth?

    It seems to me that if it’s okay to be mad at Christians for not being “winsome” or “timely” (are you *really* saying that about John Piper, for example? Really?), then it’s okay to be mad at guys like Bell for not loving their audiences enough to be faithful AND clear enough that this sort of controversy shouldn’t come up.

    If 2/3 (faithful, timely) isn’t enough for the guys at the GC, then 2/3 shouldn’t be enough for Rob Bell either (winsome, timely).

    This is probably coming across as an angry rant. Sorry. It isn’t meant to be. But I get steamed when style appears to be valued over substance (or lack thereof).

  5. Hey lads, thanks for commenting.

    Like some of our other posts about Rob Bell, this one’s not really about Rob Bell!

    This post is not really calling for dialogue but asking what this sabre-rattling might say about us. What does the ‘analysis’ of Rob Bell’s Christianity reveal in our own Christianity? I smell fear, and I suspect it’s more than just net-noise.

    Andy, I’m all for faithfulness, but I’m not seeking to arbitrate on that here. That’s might be a good conversation for when the book comes out. I do think that style/substance or faithful/timely/winsome are all pretty inseparable (as seen in 1 Pet 3:15-16, 2 Tim 4:1-5, etc).

    But I will add that I think Rob Bell is a very careful and deliberate communicator, and there are reasons why he expresses himself the way he does. We need to understand this in order to understand his message. Our older posts draw this out a little more. Happy to talk more about it, of course.

  6. Brilliant post Arthur (I haven’t read the comments though). That articulates all my own feelings about the whole thing, particularly the quote from Barth. I think it highlights a disturbing issue that has surfaced through the ‘dust cloud’ — there is a radical insecurity that runs deep in much of the evangelical church, and the coping mechanism is theological self-righteousness.

  7. My sense is that this is in fact an example of many of us being stuck in the Christendom way of thinking. The alignment of Christianity with secular authority made it of crucial importance to enforce conformity and minimise dissent. Hence, opinions that challenge orthodoxy must be suppressed and excluded. The cost is that we fail to learn, and never correct our mistakes or recast our message in the language of our time and place for fear of ostracism.

  8. The people who have gotten advance copies of the WHOLE book are saying Bell’s not out of line, from what I’ve seen. It’s the people going by the blurb and video and, sometimes, the first couple of chapters who are throwing stones. It’s like reviewing a movie based on the trailer, a two-minute interview with one of the actors, and the first 10 minutes of the movie. We’d consider a movie reviewer who did this unprofessional, yet somehow these people who have passed judgement on Bell based on the same amount of material think they’re justified. It’s ridiculous and, more importantly, unchristian.

    I get the impression that Rob Bell asks the questions and then takes the reader along on an exploration of what scripture says instead of just laying out the answers as if he is the final authority and interpreter of scripture. I wish there were more writers and pastors in the church that would do likewise, instead of always spoonfeeding answers to their congregations. How often did Jesus Christ himself answer tough questions by asking questions back and then going through the scriptures, illuminating them with stories and applications to his hearers’ lives? Why are we rejecting a teacher for teaching like Christ did? Why is the church so afraid of allowing and encouraging Christians to think and discuss and dig deep into scripture?

  9. Jeff Cook explores similar lines to this post in his comparison of Rob Bell and C S Lewis:

    Is there one idea in Love Wins that is not already grounded in word or metaphor in the writings of evangelicalism’s best-selling author? … The debate over Love Wins is not actually a fight about doctrine.

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