by Peter Enns
September 25, 2013
Just yesterday on The Revangelical Blog, Brandan Robertson posted on Rob Bell teaming up with Oprah. Apparently, she sees Bell as a spiritual mentor of sorts along with a number of others that strike a nerve with her.
Predictably, the internet equivalent of a switchboard is lighting up like the bombing of Dunkirk–and if I had more energy right now, I’d think of a better mixed similie.
I still, for the life of me, cannot understand why Bell attracts so much “energy” from fellow Christians when we each have so much of a mess in our own backyards to haul away daily.
Disagreement? Sure. But the feeding frenzy anytime he crosses and uncrosses his legs leaves me scratching my head. The trigger, no doubt–at least on the surface–is worry that he is “dangerous” and might “influence” unsuspecting people, but I can think of many greater, more insidious, dangers (like materialism in the American church) that hardly garner a glance.
Perhaps its the conservative Christian reflex to think that we should not in any way be in “league” with people with whom we differ (Bell’s theology surely differs strongly from Oprah’s).
Or perhaps at work at some level is jealousy that Bell’s often mocked
attracts more readers over a long weekend than it takes many other, even accomplished, Christian writers years to come close to.
Whatever. Maybe some don’t know what to do unless they’re fightin’ for Jesus.
Anyway, to my point. I don’t have a problem at all with what Bell is doing here, and it has nothing to do with whether I agree or disagree with him on how expresses his faith. N.T. Wright can help me explain why.
In chapter 2 of Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Wright tells the story of a “hidden spring.”It goes on for a few pages, but here’s the gist. The western world has been ruled by a dictator who paved over the springs of water with thick concrete, thus forcing the people to drink from his complex system of pipes. That worked for a while until people started pining for the distant memory of bubbling springs and fresh water.
Then, in time, without warning, the springs burst through the concrete in a sudden explosion.
Wright’s dictator is materialist philosophy, and the water “is what we call today ‘spirituality,’ the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.” (p. 18)
The official guardians of the old water system (many of whom work in the media and in politics, and some of whom, naturally enough, work in churches) are of course horrified to see the volcano of “spirituality” that has erupted in recent years. All this “New Age” myticism, the Tarot cards, crystals, horoscopes, and so on; all this fundamentalism, with militant Christians, militant Sikhs, militant muslims, and many others bombing each otherwith God in their side. Surely, say the guardians of the official water system, all this is terribly unhealthy? Surely it will lead us back to superstition, to the old chaotic, polluted, and irrational water supply? They have a point. But they must face a question in response: Does the fault not lie with those who wanted to pave over the springs with concrete in the first place (pp. 19-20)
“The hidden spring” of spirituality is the second feature of human life which, I suggest, functions as an echo of a voice; as a signpost pointing away from the bleak landscape of modern secularism and toward the possibility that we humans are made for more than this. (p. 20; the “first feature” is the topic of chapter 1, the cry for justice)
I think what Bell is doing is helping unstop the springs, and I’m glad he’s doing it. Those who lose sleep over the damage he’s causing may, even in the name of Christ, be more in league with the dictator than they may realize. As many have noted: American fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism have more in common with modernity than many may be able, or willing, to see.
But why Bell? Why not someone with “better theology” (some might ask) for such a time as this? Because the tools of evangelical theological fine-tuning are not suited for excavating concrete. Plus, Bell is a truly gifted communicator who doesn’t use in-house lingo. He knows how to market his ideas, i.e., to get people to listen.
Test and discern, yes. But with some humility, being ever willing to turn that searching gaze inward.
Don’t assume God is not in this because you disagree.