The Zeitgeist’s New Prophet

March 15, 2011 — 1 Comment

In case you have been somewhat technologically challenged over the past few weeks, here is how we got to today.

I had originally planned on reading the book and writing a semi-review of it, but when I saw how long Kevin DeYoung’s is, I decided there might not be much left to say. I will probably read it eventually, but right now, I have so much other reading and work to do, my time this week (even on spring break) is limited to reading some of the reviews last night, and this post you are reading now.

I wrestled for a bit about buying the book, mainly because I felt by actually purchasing it instead of requesting a review copy I am contributing to the book’s popularity. Maybe that isn’t a big issue, but I would feel better buying a used copy off someone else than actually contributing the book’s sales.

To very few people’s surprise, the book does affirm a universalist position in content but not in name. Ironically, it is perhaps the opposite with respect to hell, which is affirmed in name, but is gradually relieved of its content. This it seems is Bell’s modus operandi in respect to many doctrines. Deny the label, but redefine the evangelical position in a such a way it would actually fit better under the previously denied label.

Bell is in many ways evangelicalism’s prodigal son, having grown up inside its fold, attended Evangelical U (Wheaton) and then graduated from Neo-Evangelical Seminary (Fuller) before starting a church. While many of his critiques against the culture and praxis of traditional evangelicalism can hit the mark, his artistic doctrinal musings usually do not. As such, the zeitgeist’s new prophet is not welcome in his hometown.

In a way, I would imagine Bell is ok with this set up. Prophets do not really come to have discussions, they come to proclaim the truth they have received from up on the mountain top. Bell can wear the sheepskin of humility, but when his publicly expressed views are publicly critiqued and shown to be either factually inaccurate or exegetically improbable, to my knowledge he has not had the humility to admit wrong and correct his course. Matthew 18 does not apply to this scenario, views expressed in public warrant public critique. If Bell is genuinely interested in discussing the questions he raised and then answered in the book, then he needs  to offer a coherent response defending his exegesis, at bare minimum dealing with the 10 blunders pointed out by Kevin DeYoung’s review.

The livecast last night answering questions was nice and all, but none of the people there had publicly published well researched responses to Bell. It gives the appearance of wanting to dialogue, but it is a very selective dialogue and even then, it is marked by avoiding the issues by the smokescreen of anecdotal stories. I am all for stories used illustratively, but many times it seems like Bell uses the evasively. Answer the hard questions posed to your view first, then illustrate with a story if the other person is not clear on what you mean.

Interestingly, Bell self deprecatingly said he wasn’t a theologian at the end of the livecast which, based on his sloppy handling of both Scripture and the history of Christian theology, is clearly true in some respects. Maybe he means he is not a professional theologian, or a well trained theologian, but he went to seminary didn’t he? He pastors a church and writes books on theology, so he is certainly perceived by both other Christians and the general public as a theologian of some kind.

In a way this is not much different than Plato claiming in a late letter that he never wrote any philosophy (if the authenticity proves lacking, the illustration still sticks). Technically, he could make this claim since he wrote dialogues, so in a way his writings were literature and any philosophy was coming out of the characters’ mouths, making it sometimes hard to see which argument and view was Plato’s own (kind of like someone else we know). But on the other hand, they are now treated as works of philosophy and studied as such. Yes, they are literature, but they are literature that teach philosophy. In the same way, Bell may eschew the label theologian, but he is a person that teaches theology through his speaking and writing. (If it walks and quacks like a duck…well you’re probably just looking at it from the wrong angle, which reminds me of a story…)

Perhaps some grace is certainly in order. The book did just come out, and those offering coherent reviews of it have had weeks with review copies to prepare. But if Bell does not publicly respond to the actual arguments of those criticizing his views within a few weeks or by the summer at least, he would seem to indicate he is really only interested in telling everyone what he thinks God hath said, which is again to pick up the prophet’s mantle.

Only in this case, if he ultimately can’t defend his views from Scripture, he isn’t so much a prophet from God sent to correct the misguided notions of the Pharisees (i.e. evangelicals), he is rather a prophet speaking on behalf of the general trends of thought and  feeling that characterize our postmodern landscape. Rather than proclaiming God’s word to the surrounding culture, Bell just seems to be echoing back the surrounding culture bouncing on the trampoline of Scripture as he progressively replaces several of the springs.

If we’re gonna have a discussion, let’s have a discussion. But I don’t get the impression Rob Bell is really interested in that, at least not with narrow minded evangelicals who think they have the corner on truth. And certainly not with anyone who takes the time thoughtfully read his book and evaluate its ideas against the text and context of Scripture.

But I could be wrong. In fact, it would be great for Bell’s sake if I am.


UPDATE: This is a step in the right direction (the interviewer quotes from DeYoung’s review) but it also makes Bell look bad and the interviewer makes the same basic point as this blog. Bell really doesn’t answer the main question put to him, which is exactly the follow up question that needs to be answered.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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