You gotta love Rob Bell…or hate him.
At least that’s what it seems like. Whatever you think of Rob, he’s always good for stirring the pot and getting my friends atwitter. Half my friends love the direction he’s going. The other half are “sad at the direction he’s taken.”
The latest brouhaha has to deal with Bell’s statements after being asked about gay marriage in San Francisco. As a former resident of the Bay Area, I know that when you’re asked this question in that place, it’s loaded!
Bell responded, “I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”
This is a statement primed for controversy, but every time a famed-lightning-rod-celebrity-preacher like Bell, or Driscoll or Piper say something, our responses to what they said are more telling about who we are than they are about who the speakers are. Myself included.
We Talk About What We Think He Said
As a speaker, I’m often shocked by what people tell me I said and didn’t say – particularly when I know what I said and didn’t say and it’s not what they said I said. So, let’s be careful about over analyzing what Rob said and did not say. In his response you do not see the words “gay, sin, acceptance, okay, not-a-sin, condone” nor “condemnation.” I can’t believe we missed this opacity. Bell has made a living off the vagaries of the English language.
As a very conservative friend pointed out to me, Bell’s ambiguity is wide enough to drive a MAC truck through.
I’m for everything Rob mentions (and so are you, in some form), the question regards the combination of those elements, which Bell doesn’t actually address. Are all those statement independent of each other like Crash Davis’ speech in Bull Durham? I assume Crash believes in the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curveball, and a Constitutional Amendment banning astroturf as independent of one another. Of course, two men can love each other without being married. In fact, two men can love each other without being gay.
And what does it mean to be “for marriage” in California where there is no such thing as “gay-marriage?” If you think that’s a distinction without a difference, I’ll remind you of adoption laws. Here in Texas, gay couples cannot adopt. Why? There is no legal status for gay couples. Therefore, if a gay couple wishes to adopt, only one of them can. The other partner is not considered in the equation. Because the status does not exist, an answer to the question, “Can gay couples adopt?” doesn’t exist either. There’s no such legal thing. Marriage is defined – in California, at least – as a union between a man and woman. Bell says he is for marriage. So are you.
When we talk about Rob Bell we’re talking about what we think, assume, and read into what he said. We’re trying to make black and white a man whose craft is gray. Whatever you think Bell said is pretty close to what you thought he’d eventually say. Again, myself included.
The same was true about his previous book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” From my reading of “Love Wins,” Rob lays out a blurry, one-sentence-paragraph-filled, regurgitation of C. S. Lewis’s case from “The Great Divorce.” Many pastors called Bell a Universalist. By doing so, they revealed they didn’t actually read “Love Wins.” On the heaven and hell issue, Rob was uncharacteristically clear:
“…speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God’s love, namely God’s desire and intention to see things become everything they were always intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them, ‘Not here you won’t.’” (Love Wins, pg. 113, emphasis mine)
A number of folks watched the book trailer for “Love Wins” and knocked over old ladies and pushed babies in the face racing to computers to tweet and write rebuttals about what they thought he said. All that to say, when it comes to the Christian community, we are quick to speak and slow to listen. For me at least, Rob hasn’t given me enough to go on. He’s like those politicians who say “family, freedom, and hamburgers are great.” Well, okay, I guess. Who’s against hamburgers? Or love? Hamburgers are great, but if you eat McDonald’s everyday, you’re going to die prematurely. Likewise, being “for love” says nothing about the appropriate practice or exercise of love.
We really don’t know what Rob Bell thinks about “gay-marriage.” If called into court and arriving only with this statement, we’d have to deal with the fact that if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit. The evidence is circumstantial.
When we talk about Rob Bell we’re always talking about what we think he thinks. Which is, I think, the way he likes it.
We Talk About Something We Mostly Agree On (When We Bother To Think About It)
The most important point Bell made is the most overlooked. He said, “I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”
Most who have read Jesus would agree, Jesus affirms people where they are. Where Christians will disagree is whether it is appropriate to “affirm” where they are as an acceptable location or merely a starting point for walking with God.
The answer is both.
I’ve been in the church my entire life and am more than glad that God affirmed me – not for what I could be – but for what I was, am presently, and am becoming. This is not heroic nor difficult behavior. Parents do it everyday.
Could you imagine a parent loving, affirming, and accepting their child for what he or she might be…one day? No. I have two daughters and I have a love for them I did not know previously and cannot explain. It overwhelms me. I’m not overwhelmed by the idea that they might go to college, cure cancer, or become President…one day. I’m overwhelmed by love simply because they exist today.
My daughters don’t ever have to do or become anything. Ever! I affirm them because they are, not because they are becoming…. What’s more, children are loved, blessed, sacrificed for, and affirmed regardless of whether parents deem their behavior acceptable.
We do the same for our spouses. If we disagree, we claim and discuss it. We talk frankly, but we don’t stop affirming nor accepting our spouses. Marriages which cease to affirm and accept one another end in divorce. Separation. Limited relationship. Christians who want to live divorced from other humans God loves, do not want the same thing God wants. Last I checked, while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me.
Affirming the humanity in all people and the simple truth that every person is created in God’s image is not, and has never been, the same as affirming all behaviors. I have no one in my life for whom I affirm everything they do. I accept them in fellowship, trusting that we are all in the midst of struggle, on a journey and being saved by grace. For me, to do otherwise, to put behaving ahead of belonging is the height of Phariseeism. It’s not a treatment I want, therefore I refuse to visit it upon others.
Most Christians I know agree. Should a gay couple show up at my church, The Vine, they would be loved. I know because it has happened (even before I arrived on the scene). And we, by no means, are a liberal congregation. We’re mostly a conservative lot, in fact. Megachurch pastors like Bill Hybels and Andy Stanley have said the same about their congregations. So, what we talk about when we talk about Rob Bell is something that many of us agree on, but when someone some of us distrust says it, we get all bowed up and forget we believe the same thing.
All people are God’s children and we should treat them as such. This is what parents do. Don’t believe me? Ask Christian parents, like Brian McLaren and Rob Portman, how they responded to their own children’s sexual orientations.
We Talk About Our View Of Church
What we talk about when we talk about Rob Bell is our ecclesiology – our view of church. For some of us, the church is a purity-cult. In that case, everyone ought to watch their P’s & Q’s. Purity cults create no space, no ambiguity, no gray. If gray exist, how can people possibly know they are wrong? The purity-cult folks broke with Bell a long time ago, but secretly keep some old NOOMA videos tucked between their mattress and boxed springs.
For others, the church is the Jesus-culture. Jesus never rejected the questioning, hurting, despondent, nor outsiders, so they don’t either. But beware! In all their words and expressions of grace for non-believers, the same treatment is not often visited on those of more conservative leanings.
Yet both are working off the same script when it comes to Bell.
Both the purity cult and the Jesus culture are willing to echo Jesus’ words from John 8, spoken to the woman caught in adultery, “Then neither do I condemn you….Go and sin no more.” The difference is which clause in the sentence gets the emphasis. While the purity-cult wants to ensure no one sins no more, the Jesus culture will never condemn. And because the two approaches to church have formed such disdain for one another, folks land on one side of the coin to the neglect of the other, leaving us all deformed.
As for me, there’s one thing I know: I can’t control whether someone “sins no more,” but I can control whether I condemn.
When we talk about Rob Bell, all we’re really doing is reflecting our predetermined notions about the purpose of the church.
Pushing Our Buttons
Rob Bell is phenomenal at pushing evangelicals’ buttons. And I think that’s mostly good. I think it’s good that we’ve had more meaningful conversations about hell and now many of us are thinking more seriously about LGBTQ issues and what the Bible says about them and how to interact with a community of people, like all people, who are loved by God.
In a few sentences, Bell rushed forth a confluence of controversy regarding language and the way we use it, coupled with traditional Christian approaches to outreach and ministry, and revealed a deep schism in how American Christians view the church and her mission.
The primary thing we’ve learn this week is this: Whatever we’re talking about when we talk about Rob Bell- it’s not Rob Bell.