Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth…

2 08 2011

Trevin Wax has posted a brilliant comment on Chan and Sprinkle’s Erasing Hell, in which he’s picked up on a concern I’ve had for sometime with the battle between the Emergent and Reformed camps. I’ve been meaning to post something to this effect, but he beat me to it, and did a brilliant job.

Read the whole thing, please, but here are some of the key sections I would like to comment on:

‘Chan and Sprinkle approach this topic from an analytical, exegetical point of view. And […] at the exegetical level, the book succeeds. But that’s not where the battle is being waged. No one is discarding hell because of the convincing nature of Bell’s eisegesis. No… people are following Bell because of the compelling way he has made his case.

Chan and Sprinkle are analysts. Bell fashions himself as an artist. (It’s no coincidence Bell’s first book is Velvet Elvis.)

Chan and Sprinkle are theologian-pastors. Bell fashions himself as a risky explorer.

The power of Love Wins is not in Bell’s exegesis or in his thoughtfulness. The power of Bell’s book is in its aesthetic qualities. Bell is appealing to the sentiments and emotions in a way that proves effective for many disaffected evangelicals today.

Bell’s book is troublesome, not because it is a thoughtful representation of the optimistic inclusivist position. (See Clark Pinnock’s work if you’re looking for that!) It’s troublesome because it is seeking to make inclusivism beautiful. Bell succeeds at “dressing up” falsehood. Meanwhile, his evangelical critics aren’t even bothering with the wardrobe. We are Nixon, and he is Kennedy. From a purely rhetorical, debating standpoint, we win. But Bell understands the medium.

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T.

I’m not calling out Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle alone on this. God bless them – they care about precious truths and they are working to preserve them. No, I’m indicting myself in this too. We struggle in the area of aesthetics, and I’m not sure why. After all, the Reformed wing of the church is influenced by Jonathan Edwards, who wrote more about beauty than virtually any theologian in Christian history. The study of true beauty is the study of God. So why doesn’t the result of our study reflect that?

[…]

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

Beyond that, we often appear pedantic in the grasping of these important issues. In the study of the communication arts, there is a part of the brain known as Brocha’s Area which acts like the gateway to whether people actually listen. Surprising or intriguing Brocha is one way to get that door to open – something that art in its many variations is capable of doing.

Erasing Hell is functional, but not beautiful. From a functional point of view, I recommend it. But I think we need to be pushed on the beautiful side of this equation as well. The gospel shouldn’t shut down our imagination, but rather fuel it and direct it toward the beauty that is inherent to the truth. We need more than analysis; we need artistry.’

He is absolutely right.

The thing I found most frustrating in the whole Love Wins fiasco was the lack of creativity, compelling writing and aesthetically-evocative engagement I saw coming from those who defended an orthodox position. As Wax said, we can write the 50 page responses with proof-texts galore, but they’re the ones writing the good stories.

I could list half a dozen responses to Love Wins which I think are genuinely, biblically excellent. DeYoung’s tome is outstanding. Carson’s Gospel Coalition session is very helpful. But neither of them has that ‘I must turn the page’ factor. None of them has me holding my breath, or causes a tear to form in my eye like Bell does when he pleads with me “but don’t you wish this were true?”

So we saw papers, articles, blogs and debates with people who dotted every I, crossed every T and painted a picture of a God with no heart, soul, or emotions. (Perhaps ‘painted a picture’ is too artistic a term: I fear ‘chalked up an equation’ may be more apt). In fact, sometimes I wonder if the god they defended wasn’t some wizened old coward with his hands tied, mumbling feebly “I really wish I could help… genuinely I do… but logic prohibits me!”

The thing we have to remember is that it is not, on the whole, those with neo-reformed predilections who are being swayed by Bell. It’s the emergent, arty people; those who’ve often been hurt by churches, or who tend to (rightly or wrongly) be wary of black and white statements and hardline positions. It’s the disaffected and suspicious; those who need to be wooed rather than lambasted. Therefore we can’t simply expect to speak to them in Reformedese, and imagine that they will respond positively. We need to engage with them on their terms, in their language, in a style they’ll understand and warm to.

So nobody with a predisposition to engage with the emergent style is going to take kindly to being handed a missive by Carson, or an angry rant by Driscoll (for different reasons: one has a lot of academic clout, but sometimes feels a little dry, and the other has a loud voice that gets people’s backs up immediately, irrespective of the content). That would be somewhat like complaining to your local street cleaner that he missed a spot, but doing so in finely honed, point-perfect, totally abstruse and impenetrable Latin. You’re simply speaking a different language!

(Ok, maybe it’s not quite like that. No offence to emergent guys or street cleaners… But there is an issue of language at stake here: tone, style, timbre and vernacular. And we can’t assume that because we technically speak the same language: ‘English’ we speak the same form of English.)

You can’t just approach someone who loves grey areas and say:

‘Look, it’s just black and white! There’s no middle ground and you have to choose!’

But you can say gently and with a winsome tone:

‘Sure, that looks a bit grey. But there are even different shades of grey. And surely you can see that this shade of grey is darker than that one… and hey, this shade of grey is only one step away from being black.’

And thus we woo…

Ultimately, whilst I may favour the Reformed perspective, I am drawn to beauty. And I wish beyond wish that there were more people from the orthodox perspective writing with the same level of creative engagement as some of the emergent guys. Because frankly, some of the Reformed guys make me want to switch sides… Call it petulance, but I have artistic tendencies that are often unfulfilled by many of the guys I read or listen to. I have the odd postmodern gene bobbing along in my bloodstream, and if my head-shape were a little more regular, I daresay I might be tempted shave my hair and wear emergent, thick-rimmed glasses… If you catch my drift.

I want truth and I want beauty. Surely that’s not asking for too much?

We need to find ways of turning phrases, and painting vistas that are compelling and evocative, not simply perfectly lined up, puritanical and soulless. I don’t want to write (or read!) books that make people go “Well, I guess I have to believe that, even if I don’t like it, because at the end of the day he showed me more proof texts than the other guy.” I want to write and read books that make me see the beauty of unpopular doctrines.

As I write, I am on the train on the way home from speaking at a seminar at the Newday youth festival. At the end of the seminar a girl came and asked me if in the new creation she would remember her non-Christian friends. And if so, how could she remember them without feeling a sense of sorrow at their absence. We spoke for a while and settled on the fact that there will be a good number of things that we will come to with a fresh perspective “when we’ve been there ten thousand years.” Perhaps one of the reasons we won’t feel sorrow is that we will be captivated by a new understanding of judgment; one that emphasises justice over emotive-offence; one that sees things from God’s perspective at last. And the things that once seemed abhorrent may then shine like precious jewels.

If only people could begin to write in such a way as to help us see like that now… Oh for truthful beauty, and beautiful truth!





Francis Chan: Hail the conquering her…oh!

7 07 2011

I like Francis Chan. He’s very cool, yet doesn’t try to be. He’s typically orthodox, yet still packs a punch. He’s humble, but preaches with authority.

When I heard about his new book Erasing Hell, I thought:

Great – here’s an evangelical guy who is compelling, who won’t just come armed with a thousand verses and an axe to grind, but with a winsome attitude. A guy who doesn’t come across as stuffy and stuck-in-his-ivory-tower-of-academia. A calvinist, like me, but not one of the angry types. A guy who ‘emergents’ may take time to listen to. Surely he will bring us a good antidote to Bell’s quasi-universalism.’

And many others seem to have thought the same.

The blog world is full of people championing Chan’s book, (let us be clear, most of them haven’t read it yet, since it’s only just been released) looking forward to hearing his defence of the standard evangelical view of conscious torment. At least, that’s what they assumed they were going to get…

But read this quote from an interview between Chan and Mark Galli:

Galli: In your book you seem agnostic as to whether hell is a conscious eternal torment or annihilation.

Chan: That was one of the things I was a little surprised by: the language. I would definitely have to say that if I leaned a certain direction I would lean toward the conscious torment that’s eternal. But I couldn’t say I’m sure of that, because there are some passages that really seem to emphasize a destruction. And then I look in history and find that’s not really a strange view. There are some good, godly men—and maybe even the majority—that seem to take the annihilation view. I was surprised because all I was brought up with was conscious torment. And I see that. I see that in Scripture and I would lean more that way but, I’m not ready to say okay I know it’s this one. So say here “Here are a couple of views.” I don’t even remember if I wrote that I lean towards that, but maybe it comes across. I’m still open. And I hope that’s because of my study and not because I’d rather have the annihilation view. I don’t know what was harder, researching or keeping a check on my heart and making sure there are no weird, ungodly motives in everything I wrote.

Galli: I hadn’t thought about it that much, but I probably leaned toward annihilationism and probably still do. But I read Randy Alcorn’s book on heaven again and he made such a strong case for eternal conscious punishment I had to revise one chapter to give that view stronger resonance. In the end, I’m with you: I’m agnostic. I probably lean toward annihilationism, but I’m open to hearing a good argument from either side.

Both men are agnostic on the subject. Galli leans towards annihilationism (the view that people are destroyed rather than consciously punished) and Chan towards conscious torment. And Chan can’t even remember if he said in the book which way he leaned, but he hoped it comes across.

I don’t want to knock Chan for this position; I appreciate the honesty with which he’s arrived there. I don’t think he’s trying to stir up controversy, and he’s certainly never one to put himself on the pedestal in a personality war… He would be horrified at such a thing! What interests me are the questions this raises, and I suspect the answers say more about us than they do about him:

  1. Why did we assume that Chan was going to end up at a firm ‘conscious torment’ position?
    Why did we not just wait to hear his views before assuming he was the answer we had been waiting for? I fear it may be because we may care more about who wades into the fight than we do about the substance of the battle. Bell-fans leapt to defend Bell and assume the best about him because they like him, and because typically they agree with him on everything else, and so assume they will on this too… before they’ve read his work. Has the evangelical world just done the same with Chan? We should always be wary of putting people on pedestals, even people we have good cause to admire. As Rob Bell said, ‘I believe it is best to only discuss books you’ve actually read.’ I do think there’s some value in preempting and prejudging books, but not in trumpeting the author as a knight in shining armour before you actually know what side he’s planning to fight in the battle. “Hail the conquering her…oh!”
  2. Is annihilationism really a more acceptable alternative to universalism?
    By which I mean, before this whole debate kicked off earlier this year, if you had asked evangelicals to assess various views on hell, wouldn’t they have been likely to put annihilation and universalism in the same sort of ballpark: evil, misguided, unbiblical etc… If so…
  3. Why is there not more uproar about Chan’s position?
    People don’t seem to be throwing around the ‘H’ word quite as much with Chan as they did with Bell. (That’s no bad thing… the more people get labelled ‘heretics’ the more I think we may be in danger of redefining the word ‘anyone who sees things slightly differently to me.’) But why not?
  4. Why is it ok for Chan to hedge his bets, but not Bell?
    What struck me about the responses to Bell was the claim that the Bible is clear on this subject, and that offering alternatives and saying ‘I lean towards this one’ (or not even saying clearly which one you do ‘lean towards’; a feature common of both authors!) is unhelpful and unacceptable. Chan, like Bell, has offered us alternatives, and said ‘we can’t really know.’ Obviously, he’s not arguing for annihilationism, and he’s said in the interview that he actually leans the other way; but he’s open to it, and I don’t see the ‘there’s only one plain, clear reading of Scripture’ people jumping up and down on his head. Why are people not lambasting him for raising questions he doesn’t answer, and opening people up to the idea of an un-orthodox view?
  5. Will the evangelical world drop Chan as their ‘poster-guy’once they’ve read his book?
    I suspect not. Sadly, I suspect fewer people will read his book, in part due to the fact that they assume it simply enforces what they already think. And I suspect the pastors who were so worried about their people reading Bell will be far more comfortable with them reading Chan, not because the possibility of annihilationism is more palatable, but for the simple reason that Chan is not Bell. It really might just come down to the fact that we’re looking for a ‘good guy’ in a battle of personalities.
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Rob Bell comes clean?

11 04 2011

When I opened Facebook yesterday, virtually one in three items on my news feed contained the following video, in which Rob Bell ‘comes out and states what many have been waiting to hear.’ Each time it has been posted, it has been accompanied by one of the following kinds of comments:

  1. Well done Rob! Glad to see you are orthodox after all (that’ll show those nay saying reformed guys)
  2. I haven’t read the book yet, but I thought everyone’s saying he is a universalist. I’m confused.
  3. I have read the book, and I thought it was fairly clear he was a universalist. Now I’m very puzzled

In the clip, Bell introduces himself as a Christian, and then essentially recites a creed, outlining the details of his Christian faith, all of which I say ‘amen’ to. Listen to it. See what you think. He includes in his list the fact that Jesus is the way, and that there is a hell… All of which seems a little confusing.

Here are a few comments:

I do believe he is a Christian. I believe his faith is genuine. As I’ve said before, I like him very much and enjoy listening to his preaching… though usually armed with a large pinch of salt. It’s great to hear him affirming many of the central tenets of the Christian faith. (Shame he couldn’t have included the virgin birth in there just to put the Velvet Elvis confusion to bed)

However, just because you throw around some titles and terms doesn’t mean you have affirmed where you stand on a particular doctrine. You could glance through the creeds of many different church streams and find them all affirming similar things using similar language, but meaning things that are worlds apart! Get a high Anglican, a non-conformist, a Baptist and a Mormon together and ask them if they believe in baptism – of course they all do, but what they mean by ‘I believe in baptism’ will be entirely different.

Of course, baptism isn’t the best example, because that’s an area of practice that has divided churches, whereas the items Bell includes are all things that evangelicals would have broad agreement on. But my point is this: Saying ‘I believe in X’ means very little when you are regularly guilty of redefining what X really means.

I’ve read Love Wins and I have no doubt Rob believes in Hell. He makes that very clear. But whether he and I and Jesus agree on how you define ‘hell’ is a different matter. I do think that he has redefined hell beyond the boundaries of where scripture goes, and so a simple affirmation like ‘I believe in hell’ means very little.

The central statement in his creed is this:

‘And I’m not a universalist because I believe God’s love is so great God lets you decide.’

This, I imagine, is what has confused many people, and put a smug smile on the face of others. And again it’s a labeling thing. Rob is defining universalism as the belief that everyone gets out of hell and into heaven. And of course he is rejecting that, because he believes that Jesus is the way, and so God won’t simply override your decision to reject Jesus. ‘He lets you decide.’

The question is ‘when does he let you decide?’

It’s very easy to reject a label, but functionally Bell is very far along the spectrum towards universalism. Because what he doesn’t say in this clip, but does say in his book, is that he anticipates that God’s love is so strong that people will be wooed to respond to him after their death, even if they’ve been languishing in hell for some time. The gates of heaven are never shut and Sodom and Gomorrah get restored, and this, for Bell, is enough to show that there will be postmortem opportunities for people to respond to the gospel.

(Of course, that’s not all of his argument – read the book if you have the time and inclination, or don’t if you don’t – see if you can figure out what the heck his exegesis of the prodigal son is about? It baffled the hell out of me.)

So Bell can and does reject the label of universalism, but what he actually says is barely different: hell is real, people will go there, but even there they will have the opportunity to respond to God’s love, and God’s love is so great that we can be optimistic that even in the darkest place, people will be swayed to respond.

So if we were to ask him ‘will hell at last be empty?’ I imagine his answer (not that he gives answers per se) would be: “theoretically no, since people will still be able to choose to reject God’s love. But hopefully yes, since God’s love is so compelling, who wouldn’t want to respond?”

I’m not going to get into critiquing Bell properly… that’s been done to death (and beyond). But I would make this appeal, particularly to my friends who fell into category (1) ‘Way to go Rob!’ – Don’t cheer too loudly. Rejecting the title is not the same as rejecting the doctrine. And Rob Bell is still preaching unorthodoxy.

And that leads me to the final point of his creed; the pinnacle:

‘And I also believe it’s best to only discuss books you’ve actually read’

(Cue rapturous applause)

Leaving aside the chagrin I felt at this getting more applause and whooping than the death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus, this wound me up a little…

Of course people are going to discuss books they haven’t read, when you release a promo video raising discussion questions before the release date. You invited them to discuss it!

Of course people are going to discuss it when they pastor churches and need to shepherd congregations.

Of course people are going to discuss it when the fate of their friends hangs in the balance, and they want to ensure they hear a faithful representation of the gospel.

And I would add this; it cuts both ways! And I have heard as many, if not more, people defend Bells book without having read it, as I have critiquing it. If we were to cut their voices out of the discussion, it would be a rather different tone of conversation.

To those who have, on the basis of this clip alone, declared Bell to be orthodox after all; you are just as ill-equipped to make that statement as the people you have criticised. Don’t put your eggs in the basket of a pithy creed. Read what he’s saying and take heed of what he’s not saying. Be discerning.

And remember; all of us run the risk of having itchy ears. Let’s be careful who we allow to scratch them. (2 Tim 4:3-4)





Love Wins: An Incognito Sheep?

28 02 2011

Once again, Rob Bell has stirred up much discussion simply by announcing the publication of a new book…

From the start, let me say this: I like the guy. I think he is a remarkably gifted communicator and a provocative preacher. Many of his insights into preaching are remarkable, and I would far rather grab a beer with him than many of the theological heavyweights in the reformed world with whom I may be more closely aligned… for the simple reason that he’s interesting! He’s creative. He’s quirky. I think he’d be fun to spend time with. He’s a bit more edgy. He doesn’t just serve up a hunk of flame-grilled meat; he knows how to cook it sous-vide, decorate and garnish it! He’s the Heston Blumenthal of the preaching world. And there, perhaps, lies his downfall…

His new book, Love Wins, comes out at the end of March, and already bloggers are wading in and condemning it as heresy, swiftly followed by the predictable backlash of comments saying ‘how dare you? You haven’t read it yet!‘ Well… yes… they have a point. But if the promo video is anything to go by, the concerns of the likes of Justin Taylor and Joshua Harris are quite valid. It does appear that Bell is radically redefining, or rejecting the biblical notion of hell.

But then again, Rob Bell does have an infuriating habit of painting himself as less orthodox than he really is. I found that reading Velvet Elvis I regularly got annoyed at what I perceived to be him rejecting a major doctrine, only to find upon a careful second-reading that he wasn’t really denying it at all. Often he raises incisive questions in order to expose our knee-jerk fundamentalism, and to cause us to rethink how we express our doctrines. Such a strategy is high-risk! Many never recover from their initial anger, and others, not picking up the nuances, will think that his questioning gives them permission to jettison large portions of orthodox faith. Personally I would be wary at taking such large risks when the items that stand to suffer are people’s hearts, minds and souls.

I sincerely hope that this is another of those ill-advised, but typically ‘Bellian’ marketing strategies. We are greatly in need of a way of articulating hell that avoids the equal and opposite pitfalls of grace-less fundamentalism and woolly liberalism. If Bell can help us with that, I will be very grateful. But for the moment I am more inclined to echo the concern of Harris and Taylor… I am dismayed, but sorely hope I am wrong.

Leaving aside the specifics of this book though, this marks a peculiar shift in preaching technique and common sense. I am deeply saddened that we have reached a point in time where people feel that the only way to get a hearing for orthodoxy is to dress it up as heresy! Jesus warned us about:

Wolves dressing as sheep to feed on the sheep

But now we’re beginning to see a strange phenomenon:

Sheep dressing as wolves to feed the sheep

If this continues, sales in lamb will suffer, and nobody will know who to trust…