Learning from the Rob Bell Firestorm
My latest column at Christian Week:
I was in the middle of my chores on the last Saturday of February when I stopped to read some blogs. Justin Taylor, a top Christian blogger, had a new post called “Rob Bell: Universalist?” I showed the post to my wife, sent a link to the post to a friend and continued with my chores.
When I checked back later that day, I discovered that this single post had caused a firestorm. Hundreds of people had commented on the post. “Rob Bell” was a trending topic on Twitter. CNN and The New York Times carried the story. As I write this almost a month later, the controversy has not yet abated.
Why all the fuss? Rob Bell, a megachurch pastor in Grand Rapids, has written a new book called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
. In this book, Bell addresses the issue of the afterlife and suggests “a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” It’s not a particularly new argument. I’ve read the book, and didn’t find it compelling. But it’s revealed some tensions and challenges for the Church today.
First, the whole controversy has revealed some serious tensions. Some of these are theological: what do we believe about heaven and hell? But there’s an underlying question that’s even more foundational: is theology even important? Just this morning I read this on Twitter: “Stop with debates re: heaven/hell and focus on real hell going in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Japan, Palestine, etc.” As someone who believes that theology is important, I need to realize that some Christians don’t see it as important at all.
It’s also revealed tensions between various groups. The so-called young, restless and Reformed crowd – those who tend to like pastors such as John Piper and Tim Keller – were the most outspoken against the book. Others seemed exasperated by this group. One commentator says, “You are witnessing something big right now. You are witnessing a new split in Protestant Evangelicalism…This may be the future of Evangelicalism – and we may all be witnessing the tipping point.” I have no idea if he’s right or not, but something big seems to be going on.
This controversy also reveals some challenges for us. The first challenge is for pastors. I’m only just now realizing how much influence the Internet has on the people within my church. I used to think that I had to teach how to be discerning on Facebook and MySpace; I now realize that I need to teach discernment in reading Christian blogs and listening to sermon podcasts. I still sometimes hear what a TV preacher has been saying; I’m increasingly hearing what some pastor said on YouTube or Twitter. I’m influenced too. It’s causing me to reflect on the challenges of forming disciples when the Internet is forming people far more than we realize.
The second challenge is how to speak into the charged environment of online theological debates. I’ve felt a little like an adult in a Charlie Brown TV special: I open my mouth to speak, but all that comes out is an unintelligible sound. The debate has been noisy and polarized, and many of the voices have been shrill. The answer is not silence, at least in the long term. We need to know when to remain silent, but when we speak, we’d better know how to say something that’s not shrill and that’s not just more noise.
I have a feeling that Rob Bell’s new book will be quickly forgotten, and that we’ll move on to new books and fresh debates. But I also have a feeling that something’s changed. As pastors and church leaders, we need to learn how to live in a world in which evangelicalism appears to be split; in which the online voices speak louder than ours; and in which it’s increasingly harder to say anything that doesn’t just add to the noise.
But I also believe that personal presence is more powerful than online presence; that your voice in your context will still be heard; and that God will still prevail, even in this new and crazy online world.