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Rob Bell: Amateur Lumberjack

Rob Bell, Axe in Hand

I’m not a fan of Rob Bell.

But I am a fan of mercy, grace, and trying to understand people before making any judgement’s about what they are saying. I don’t always succeed at that, by the way, but I think I’m getting better.

Not perfect. Just better.

So what’s my problem with Rob? Certainly not his style. His style is quite enjoyable, even enviable. Nor is it his quest—intentional or not—to question everything. If we question nothing, we never learn anything for ourselves, and I’ve been known to ask a few troubling questions myself.

No, it’s not the style or the questioning.

It’s his penchant for behaving as an erstwhile, amateur lumberjack, sawing at the tree trunk of Christian theology while we’re all (Rob included) hanging from its branches.


deforestation

Dialoguing on a Branch While Sawing at the Trunk

What do I mean? Let me start at at the beginning and explain where this post came from.

I started to write this post after hearing an interview and reading some of the criticism of Rob’s new book (with his wife), The Zimzum of Love. I haven’t read it, and I’m not going to say much about it, except that I am bothered with how readily Rob leaves Christian theology aside to make his case with other philosophies. And yet, Adam Shields made some really good points in defense of this, so I’m not going to argue the point…unless I get around to reading it.

After deciding that I didn’t have much more to say on the topic of “why Rob is wrong,” I moved on.

And then I read this on one of his Tumblr posts1 in defense of his belief that homosexuality is not a sin:

When someone is told that who or how they are is wrong or deviant, it creates massive dissonance in the depth of their being. Especially if they are told that God is opposed to who they are. This is why suicide rates among gay teens are so tragically high. Sexuality is one of the most mysterious dimensions of our humanity, and to tell a young man or woman in their most formative years that there is something deeply wrong with them at the core of their being and if they are true to who they are they will bring the wrath and condemnation of the creator of universe upon them is a crushing weight no one should have to carry.

Before you get all hot and bothered, I’m not going to be arguing Rob’s points about homosexuality. Others have and are continuing to do so. Again, it’s his “sawing at the truck” that I want to talk about.

In this statement—which was part of Rob’s answer to a question about homosexuality not being a sin—Rob is trying to make the point that we should accept homosexuals as they are, and I agree…to a point.. We should accept everyone as they are just like Jesus did. However, accepting someone as they are, where they are, isn’t the same as accepting” who they are” or “where they are” as “who they should be” and so on. Without wanting to put words in Rob’s mouth, I think he’d say that I’m not as accepting as I should be.

In making his point about accepting all people, Rob argue that we shouldn’t tell people that they are “wrong or deviant” and that its destructive to tell them that “there is something deeply wrong with them at the core of their being and if they are true to who they are they will bring the wrath and condemnation” of God upon themselves. I agree that we shouldn’t start our dialogue with the unchurched in such a way, but there’s more to it than that.

It sounds like Rob is subtly undermining the concepts of original sin and total depravity.

Maybe he isn’t doing it intentionally. Maybe he’s writing very informally and didn’t concern the weight of what he was saying. I really don’t want to charge him with something that he isn’t doing, but it sure looks that way. “Why?” Great question.

The doctrines of original sin and total depravity are underpinning doctrines that make up the philosophical/theological foundations for Christianity. Original sin holds that because of Adam and Eve’s sin we have all been born into sin. We are born with a stain on our hearts, which makes us prone to further sin. Total depravity adds to this by saying that human beings are not only born sinful but are completely lost in their sin and have no strength within themselves to choose God or even to choose right behavior. It’s only because of God’s prevenient (awakening) grace that we are able to hear and respond to God’s call to relationship.

If Rob is trying to—honestly, even if he’s not trying, it’s still pretty bad—to undermine these doctrines then he’s doing some pretty significant damage to Christianity. Essentially, he’s removing or at least reducing the need for the Savior. How so? If we aren’t all born into sin, then aren’t I free to chose righteousness on my own? If I’m not born into sin, then righteousness is my natural state of being. Evil, selfishness, and wickedness would all be external and not an issue until I freely chose them.

You see, the honest truth is that there is something wrong with all of us. We are all broken at the core of who were are until Jesus is allowed in to not only heal us but also redefine who were are. Our identity before we meet Christ is a fading shadow before the eternally glorious identity that we receive once we have been joined with Him. For Rob to argue in defense of these individuals’ identities is to argue in defense of the fallen nature.

Now, Rob—or you—might likely counter that these individuals aren’t fallen. They are Christians. Gay Christians. Christians who are gay because God made them that way.

In defense of this, Rob would say that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be with someone, with not wanting to be alone, and that we need more fidelity, more faithful couples, regardless of their gender composition.

To counter this, I would provide scriptural evidence, ranging from outright prohibitions against homosexuality to a lengthy discussion of the comparisons made between God and His people and a man and his wife. However, Rob wouldn’t respond to this. He wouldn’t counter any of it directly accept to say this2:

[T]he Bible…contains an arc, a trajectory, a movement within it’s pages.

And here we reach the end game. Rob isn’t merely sawing at the branches by discounting orthodox doctrine: he’s chopping down the trunk.

deforestation

Deforestation in the Wood of The Word

Rob seems to genuinely help people understand God better, but by positioning the Bible as being a “trajectory,” he’s removed any foundational authority we might have had. The Bible isn’t God, but it is the only authoritative source given to us by God by which we can establish our faith and discern our course in this life. If we claim that the Bible is on a trajectory, that it’s teachings and doctrines are the reflection of men’s consciences and consciousness and not inspired by God, then we have no substantial authority for out faith. Rob contends that the Bible’s prohibitions against homosexuality are the result of the cultural attitudes of the day and a response to the…”serial infidelity” of homosexual practices in these time periods. I’m sure he’d also argue my point about God’s own use of the metaphor of heterosexual marriage by saying that we don’t know how God expressed this idea to the Bible writers and that all we can know is that the Bible writers expressed God’s thoughts in this way.

That last line feels a bit unfair, so I’ll take a different route and ask some questions. If God is fine with homosexuality, why create two genders? Why not simply create one gender, human, that could reproduce homosexually? Why create two when He would have been fine with one? Furthermore, why impart the power of creating more humans and passing on the divine image to only a heterosexual pairing?

At one point in Rob’s answer about homosexuality, he made a point I never thought I’d see him make:

There are roughly 31,102 verses in the Bible. There are five or six or seven, depending on who you talk to, that refer to homosexuality.

There are a handful of verses that prohibit homosexuality. Fair point. I’ll grant you that it’s a bit of a drop in the bucket. Now, how many verses are there that, in any way, leave the door open for a change on this position? Ok, I’m going to pause for a minute and be a huge jerk, ok?

Really, Rob? You went there and counted the verses? That feels like something a moralist would do regarding drinking. And what does that prove anyway? You’re counting verses that explicitly mention it and explicitly forbid it in both the Old and New Testaments, right? Ok, so how many times do you have to tell you kids something before you get annoyed that they aren’t listening? Also, let’s count all of the times that marriage is mentioned in a heterosexual context…oh wait. We can’t because you’ll just argue that the metaphors are heterosexual because they were written by heterosexuals. Because the Bible is a reflection of men—conspicuous absence of women, right?—writing to describe and explain God. It’s not God’s Word, right? Then why even count the verses? Why even use it at all? If it’s not truly divine, if it is on a trajectory of progress, then how can we trust that it offers us anything of value or substance?

Now, back to, at least, the pretense of civility. I went off for a minute precisely because this belief that the Bible is on a trajectory, moving us toward a more “progressive” view of reality, is so frustrating. It essentially undermines the value of the Bible as an authoritative source. Try to convince all you want that the trajectory is real: the only trajectory I see is one from man’s fall to God’s descent to creations restoration. You can argue all you want about how society’s position on women or minorities have changed over the years as proof, but I’ll counter by saying that the Bible has been quite clear about all that; it’s society that hasn’t lived up to the biblical standard.

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28

The apostle Paul didn’t leave much room for interpretation: all of humanity is equal in worth before God.3 The problem with gender or race issues isn’t what has been written in the Bible but how it has been interpreted and abused. And while Paul was clear about the proper view of gender and race, he was also clear regarding his prohibitions against homosexuality, and before you make a statement about fidelity, let’s read what he said:

“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Why does he list sexual immorality, adultery, and homosexuality all separately? They were separate things. “Sexual immorality” is a fairly broad group. I’d hate to try to dissect that Paul could have meant there, but I think we could safely list bestiality, masturbation, pornography—though this obviously didn’t exist then as we would think of it today. “Adultery”isn’t limited to cheating on your spouse: it’s extramarital sex of any kind at any time, even if you’re not married. It’s after Paul lists the broad category of sexual immorality and the easily defined sin of adultery that he lists “men who have sex with men.” The Greek doesn’t indicate “men who have sex with men without commitment.” He was fairly clear about the issue.

Rob, I’ve call you a “lumberjack” because I feel like you’re sawing away at the trunk of the tree of Christianity. Furthermore, if the Bible and the doctrine and theology surrounding it were a wood, a lush forest, I envision you in the wood felling tree after tree at an amazing pace. You don’t seem to care about—Or maybe understand? No, I think you’re actually pretty smart.—about the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Christian doctrine. You are deforesting our theological woods, and if you’re not careful, there won’t be anything left to believe in.

But what if the Bible is on a trajectory? Where does the trajectory stop? With the cannon?4 Will God send us a new apostle, a new prophet, to better clarify Jesus’ message?5 Or maybe God has sent us a new apostle to do just that? An apostle with a shelf full of books and a new TV show?

I know that wasn’t very merciful or gracious.

I said that I’m getting better; I’m not perfect.

I went way too long on it, so if you made it this far, way to go! What do you think of what I’ve said here? Am I way off?


  1. All of the quotes in this post are coming from Rob’s Tumblr post What is the Bible? Part 75 

  2. The only edits I made to this quote were for the sake of readability outside of Rob’s post. Here’s the original quote: “Third, the Bible, then, contains an arc, a trajectory, a movement within it’s pages.” Also, this quote was taken from the same post but was not from the question about homosexuality. This was part of Rob’s answer to a question about troubling passages in the Bible, though I believe Rob has applied this same logic to the homosexuality debate before as well. 

  3. We can discuss “differentiation of gender roles” later. 

  4. The official, orthodox collection of sixty-six scriptural books that we call “the Bible.” 

  5. This is the heart of both Islam, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormonism, by the way. 

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