The Unwritten Rules of Evangelical Discourse (and how Rob Bell breaks them)

Introduction

The history of evangelicalism in America is a complex and many-sided tale. While the New World was the natural testing ground for the fresh ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment, it was also the perfect seedbed for conservative communities of faith. And while there has always been a tension (often played up into a biting war) between these vestiges of old-world piety and the wider American ethos of secular progress and reason, there are also a number of areas in which the evangelical movement has been shaped and influenced by the surrounding modernist project. This is nowhere more evident than in the area of language.

Stemming from the Enlightenment’s epistemology, the modernist tends to view language as a vehicle for observational knowledge, a utility through which hard, objective realities are conveyed. Just as modern architecture is characterized by simple economy, contrasted with the nonfunctional grandiosity of the Gothic cathedrals, so modern language tends to be unadorned, practical, and straightforward, in contrast with the more aesthetic expressionism of the classical and Romantic styles. These are rough generalizations, of course, but accurate in outline nonetheless.  The point, for our purposes, is that even as evangelicals have reacted to the perceived threat of the modernist project, they have (whether knowingly or unknowingly) largely absorbed modernism’s epistemology and dialectic into their own worldview and praxis. This is especially true for the discipline of theology.

But American evangelicalism is in a new state of crisis. The battle has changed, the weapons are different, and no one really knows where the enemy is.  The paradoxical kinship between evangelicalism and modernism becomes more and more apparent as both ideologies face the threat of deconstruction from postmodern critique. And just as the positivist view of reality cracks under the strain of an unremitting skepticism, so the old rules of discourse find a new light shining on all of their fixed presuppositions. What would we discover if we examined some of those presuppositions and asked how they function within the social structures of the community? In what context would we find these unwritten rules expressed? Would we learn anything new about the evangelical worldview and values from observing the community’s language? These are the questions I want to explore here.

A Controversial Case Study

Controversy has a unique way of pulling our presuppositions out into the light.  When we find a central tenet of our worldview challenged, we are forced to reach back and ask ourselves why we think the way we do, and in such contexts we often find ourselves articulating (perhaps, for the first time) things we’ve simply assumed to be true. This being the case, we should not expect to see the defining traits of a community’s discourse critically articulated between members of the same community. Rather, we should expect to find them in the midst of controversy, when the axe is laid at the root of the tree and members of the community find their sacred presuppositions threatened from the outside.  In order to illustrate this with respect to the evangelical community, we should look for a controversy in which fundamental tenets of its worldview are at stake, where unwritten rules become written rules.

Enter, Rob Bell. Recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, Robert Holmes Bell is the former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the author of the popular books Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller Love Wins. Educated at Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, Bell represents a growing number of American Christians who feel more at home in the new world of postmodern discourse than the (ironically) old world of modern discourse. As Andy Crouch, an editor at Christianity Today, said it, “Rob Bell is a central figure for his generation and for the way that evangelicals are likely to do church in the next 20 years. He occupies a centrist place that is very appealing, committed to the basic evangelical doctrines but incredibly creative in his reinterpretive style.”

And yet it’s Bell’s “creative” and “reinterpretive” style that has, on more than one occasion, provoked a barrage of scathing remarks and denunciations from more traditional evangelicals. The most striking example of this came surrounding the release of his latest book, Love Wins, which in the subtitle purports to be about “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” More than a month before the book even arrived on the shelves of local bookstores, trusted defenders of the gospel were warning their flocks of its sinister guile and exposing its author as a Universalist soothsayer, blasting out melodramatic Tweets that read “Farewell Rob Bell.” Apparently, this charismatic pastor struck a central nerve of the evangelical worldview. What’s truly remarkable, though, is just how many different accounts there are of what exactly Bell is saying. Some readers claim he’s a Universalist; others swear adamantly that he is not. Some readers have thought up entirely new categories with which to label the hybrid slant of Love Wins.

Now that the book is out and the dust of the initial reactions has settled, however, it should be clear that the controversy was as much about how Bell said what he did as about anything he actually said. Beneath all the accusations of heresy, the traditionalist objections have as much to do with accepted modes of speech as they do with doctrinal orthodoxy.  Yes, the doctrine of eternal punishment is a sacred boundary-marker of the evangelical community, a trusted litmus test to separate the wheat from the chaff, and Bell has clearly tampered with it. But others within the community (including quintessential evangelical John Stott, also named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people) have done the same and have not been denounced as false teachers. The fact is that Rob Bell has transgressed the unwritten rules of evangelical discourse.

As a movement that has grown and come of age largely within the wider milieu of the Enlightenment, evangelicalism has (for the most part) tacitly accepted the modernist ideal for how language should function. The controversy over Rob Bell’s latest book serves to illustrate some of the governing characteristics of modernist-evangelical discourse inasmuch as Bell has opted for a more fluid, postmodern alternative. This is evident in at least four different areas.

First, Bell tends to ask more questions than traditionalists feel comfortable with, and he is sometimes content to leave those questions unanswered. As Greg Boyd puts it, “Rob is far more comfortable (and far better at) questioning established beliefs and creatively hinting at possible answers than he is at constructing a logically rigorous case defending a definitive conclusion.” In the preface to Love Wins, Bell says that he wrote the book “because the kind of faith that Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them” (ix).  And again, “There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous. At the same time, some issues aren’t as big as people have made them” (x). Many of Bell’s critics, however, do not agree. Some see Bell’s method of inquiry as nothing more than a way to avoid the tough answers and remain “studiously ambiguous in terminology” (Taylor).  For the traditionalist, too many questions can be threatening and subversive, and for that reason it’s best to stick with the accepted statements of faith.  Reflecting a modernist epistemology, the truth is believed to be fairly straightforward, not hidden behind the haze and distortion of our own cultural perspectives, and such questions are thus regarded as mostly counterproductive.

Second, Bell has a way of taking old, technical terms and injecting new life into them by employing them in fresh ways. As Greg Boyd says it, “Rob is first and foremost a poet/artist/dramatist who has a fantastic gift for communicating in ways that inspire creativity and provoke thought.” But for those not accustomed to subtle metaphors or the unconventional usage of established terminology, Bell’s style might be easily misunderstood. “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story,” he says on page 170, a statement taken by many to mean that he does not believe in the literal place of judgment traditionally called “hell”. But from the surrounding context and his explicit statements elsewhere (e.g., chapter 3), it does not appear that Bell intends to do away with the literal sense of the word. It’s just that he finds it a rather appropriate metaphor as well, and so, in the words of Lewis Carroll, he pays it extra, something most evangelical theologians are not in the habit of doing. Traditionalists tend to favor a straightforward literalism over fluid and expressionistic figures of speech, another sign of modernist influence.

Third, Bell sometimes prefers the rhetorical power of sarcasm and caricature to the dry precision of propositional statements. This is most evident in the promotional video for Love Wins: “Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?” While there is a significant seed of truth to this portrait, its stabbing potency lies precisely in its overblown depiction of the traditionalist view of hell. It takes aim, not at what most televangelists actually say in their presentations of the gospel, but at what Bell sees as the ugly reality behind such presentations. Needless to say, this mode of discourse does not go over well with Bell’s opponents: “Whether the sentences end in question marks or not, the force of these sentences is to undermine—nay, to ridicule—the reality of eternal conscious punishment, the wrath of the God, and penal substitutionary atonement” (DeYoung). It seems that for the traditionalists, at least in theory, theological debate should be a no-contact sport, which again reflects the positivist vision of a detached objectivity.

Fourth, Bell prefers the governing category of “story” to the abstract, systematic approach of modernism. “Just read the story, because a good story has a powerful way of rescuing us from abstract theological discussions that can tie us up in knots for years” (12). And again, “it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others” (110). For Bell, “story” is a central aspect of every worldview, and so any comparison of worldviews should address the way individual beliefs function within the larger story being told. For the modernist, however, this appears to be little more than a confession of relativism. According to John MacArthur, Bell’s methodology is simply an extension of his aim “to eliminate the authority and clarity of Scripture so that he can reinvent a god who is more to his liking… He suggests that he is better—nicer, more kindly, more tolerant, more lenient—than the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture. He therefore sets aside God’s revealed Word and makes his own musings the inviolable standard.”

Now, MacArthur does not appear to have read the whole book, or even just the third chapter, in which Bell makes a sustained case for his view from countless passages of Scripture, but his reaction does serve to illustrate the modernist-evangelical perspective quite well. According to this view, the Bible is not a complex historical narrative written by many different authors within the framework of a developing worldview, but simply a depository of timeless revelatory truths, and thus an emphasis on “story” is merely a way to avoid the simple truth and justify one’s own subjective feelings. What remains unclear, however, is just exactly how Bell’s consideration of a “good story” versus a “bad story” differs in principle, on a methodological level, from the necessary considerations of reason and experience long affirmed by the evangelical tradition. Once again, the differences of language seem to have become a stumbling block in what could have otherwise been a constructive dialog.

Conclusion

The point here is not to arbitrate over who is more right, whether Bell or his opponents, but to explore an aspect of the debate that has gone mostly unnoticed and thus largely misunderstood. Rob Bell doesn’t talk like evangelicals used to, and so he’s often misinterpreted as saying things he never actually intended. Now, that’s not to say his views aren’t controversial, but simply that the recent controversy has been less about his views, in and of themselves, and more about the way he communicates them. Like every other community, evangelicalism has its own unwritten rules of discourse, and Rob Bell tends to break them.

What can we learn from all of this? Well, for starters, we can all learn to appreciate the distinct characteristics of communities other than our own. For the English-speaking world, we can become more conscious of the many different ways we all employ the same words, how our worldviews affect the way we speak and hear the English language. For Christians, we should be more self-conscious of those elements of our worldview which sometimes owe more to our surrounding modern and postmodern cultures than they do to the sacred text of Scripture. Instead of assuming that “the gospel commits us to one side of the debate,” as N. T. Wright says it, we should realize that “things are rarely that easy,” and we should take the risk, out of a place of prayer and humility, “of hearing both sides,” and perhaps “of being shot at from both sides” (The Challenge of Jesus 191). This, as I understand it, is part of what Jesus meant when he called us to follow him. This is what it means to be peacemakers.

In Christ,

Matt