Thoughts on Rob Bell (part four).

21 Mar


Evangelicalism’s Doom and the Phoenix that is Mainline Protestantism:  A response (sort-of) to David Fitch and Scot McKnight


{DISCLAIMER:  Post (and especially picture captions) are not for the easily offended.}


Faculty David Fitch

David Fitch and Scot McKnight are both evangelical theologians of the highest caliber, both with better-than-average communication skills in a field that’s not exactly known for its sublime prose. 

Fitch has a new book out, that you can learn all about here.  I’m excited to get a chance to read it soon, and as you can see for yourself on his website, you can get a copy at a 40% discount.  What a guy. Smile 

[See “our conversation” (in a manner of speaking) after the jump.]

One idea that Fitch has talked about recently on his blog is one that seems to drive the premise of his book (titled The End of Evangelicalism).  On March 1st he said this (bold added):

The landscape of N. American theological reflection looks more and more like the following for the average Christian under the age of 35. He or she looks to the pubishing superstars, i..e Brian McLaren, Rob Bell etc etc.. They often (in the past ten years) come out of the Emergent world where they are daring to ask questions that have been avoided or shut down within evangelical church culture the past fifty years. These authors get a big stir. They offer some good thoughts and helps. But then they fail to deliver on their promise. And therefore, hundreds, even thousands of these twenty- thirty something’s end up delusioned or looking for something more. This wandering herd then heads for the monster wave of the Neo Reformed – Neo Calvinists composed of Justin Taylor, John Piper and the cast of characters that have played the reactionary role in this Rob Bell frenzy…These people, to their credit offer theological substance sufficient for the formation of church life. And so we have thousands of young leaders at the gates of the Neo-Reformed.  This is the new theological landscape and it speaks to the need for an alternative theological coalition.  (for instance, the Neo-Anabaptist, Centrist-communal-wholistic-Baptist, Holiness/Charismatic oriented, Kingdom minded, evangelical Missionals).

Hmm…. that last title isn’t quite as catchy as “NeoReformed.”  You’ll have to work on the name, obviously, but whatever….Smile  

I jumped in on the Comment page, which included this note from moi:

Frankly, I’m wondering who (besides back in the early 2000s when Driscoll jumped ship with the emergent conversation) has been going from being intrigued by McLaren and the like, to wanting more theological substance, to then being enthralled by the NeoReformed? I don’t see that as a trend, personally. If anything, the Neoreformed types fall in love with Driscoll, the patron saint of the younger Neoreformed, and then delve into groups such as Resurgence and the Gospel Coalition.

Later I tweeted:

jlundewhitler:  Is @fitchest onto st when he says that lost Emergents r flocking 2 the Neoreformed camps of Driscoll&Piper? I don’t see it….

Fitch then responded back:

fitchest:  @jlundewhitler dude, it’s happening subtly among "young restless" who have yet to make up their mind but started by reading Mclaren et al 🙂

First of all, Fitch has to be pretty awesome to take time out of his life to devote 140 characters to little ol’ me.  So that was pretty cool.

Second of all, I agree with his overall assessment that evangelicalism is, as he later says, “cracking up.” It IS dying.  I’ve actually been saying that for a few years now, but not because I’m more insightful than Fitch (ha!) or clairvoyant, but because others have said the same thing for a while  (including in the Christian blog world, the late, great Internet Monk Michael Spencer) and because in seminary, I was in a “post-evangelical” environment that saw the fissures in evangelicalism and the flimsiness of its structures in the face of the postmodern shift…and thus started talking about “escape hatches” several years ago.  (Although no doubt Fitch’s book will add clarity and insight to the issue…)

This is also where McKnight comes in— as he’s been saying similar things for years now—and two days ago he blogged and commented on a post by Jimmy Spencer on Red Letter Christians— where the other two groups resulting from the Evangelical Fallout are the Progressive Evangelicals, and those like me that find their way into the mainline church… (perhaps we should be called, the “Defectors?”)  …Spencer’s take is bold; McKnight’s tone seems more resigned, called the so-called “Progressive Evangelicals”  “little more than unaffiliated Mainline Protestants” and seemingly bemoaning Evangelicalism’s death.

But that brings me to my third thought:   As Fitch implies and McKnight straight-up states:   ROB BELL IS THE TIPPPING POINT?  No disrespect to Rob, but again, I’m just floored by how big a deal this whole thing has become-— b/c EVEN EVANGELICALS have many notable scholars among them who show up all over the map regarding views of hell (whether their view is of eternal torment, annihilationism, hell-as-hospital, God-separation, hell-as-temporary-state, or un-nuanced universalism).  Even Billy Graham has shied away from a strong stance.  BILLY GRAHAM, PEOPLE.  Evangelicals don’t get any more universally-respected than good ol’ BG. 

What, you’re going to call me a heretic, too?  Say it to my face.  Just try it.  Can’t do it, can you?  You know why?  Cuz’ I’m @#%# Billy Graham, that’s why!!  U can’t handle my steely-yet-gentle gaze…. So step off!….. and God bless you. 

Why does Rob Bell get the third-degree, then?   Because (a), he’s considered a direct line to younger Christians, who are like Middle East oil to the church—everyone wants ‘em and knows their incredible value, and are willing to fight to the death for them….. and (b) this battle has been long coming—the Great Wright v. Piper Battle of 2010 certainly put a whole heaping of straw on the back of the camel—and Bell’s book, primarily because of the manner in which it was almost comically-prematurely reviewed, quite possibly became that last piece of straw. 

General Huffinpoof, brave and valorous, prepares his battle-weary men for one last charge at the Battle of Wright and Piper, ca. May, 2010.

In that case, I tend to think— if it wasn’t Bell, it would’ve been someone else, that would’ve set the inevitable into accelerated motion.

Fourth and finally—-If evangelicalism is indeed imploding, the question is:  is Fitch right that, essentially, “post-evangelicals,” disoriented by the work of the “emergent/progressives,” having nowhere else to turn, are clambering for the NeoReformed camp?

My thoughts:

*I’d like to see some “proof,” in the form of testimonials, that the NeoReformed are, like Driscoll, flocking there in the wake of the Emergent church’s failure to provide theological substance.  Perhaps it’s in the new book. 

*The nature of Emergent (of which Bell isn’t really a part, anyway) was always more about the questions, and less about the answers.  Part of that has been the desire to allow consensus to naturally build through dialogue (which has not developed unilaterally); much of that desire comes out of the “postmodern turn” that I described recently (here and here).  Questions are comforting to the postmodern mind; answers to the modern mind.  So, if people are flocking to the NeoReformed camp (which they clearly are), I wouldn’t naturally think it’s because people were left theologically stranded by Emergent and didn’t have anywhere else to go for another viewpoint; more like some people have sensed the impending loss of their modern theological footholds and thus gravitate towards any group that will promise a complete theological system that provides absolute assurance of Truth.  In other words, it’s modernity’s “Last Gasp.” [And as I said before, they’re attracted by Driscoll and others’ marketing ploy that paints themselves as the “serious, gritty, authentic Christians,” and emergents as the “mamby-pamby, weenie philosophers masquerading as Christians.” ]

John Wayne Jesus:  the perfect American Savior. 

* Are people reading Bell and McLaren (picking on them, since they seem to get all the attention) and really feeling “stranded” theologically? Again, evangelicals are all over questioning their evangelical heritage, and many of them are not “emergents.”  Stanley Grenz and N.T. Wright, are examples of scholars who are read on a popular level in the evangelical world, who have been giving people solid theological “meat” to help supplement their questions [e.g., in my wrestlings with atonement imagery in Scripture, Wright’s Paul: a Fresh Perspective was what first gave me a way to reclaim substitutionary language in Scripture without throwing substitutionary atonement in the garbage completely— in case anyone wanted to know].

*If you’re looking for a group of “progressive evangelicals” that are organized and provide a solid theological alternative, forget the “Neo-Anabaptist, Centrist” mumbo-gumbo.  What about the aforementioned Tony Campolo, along with McLaren, and the Great Dreadlocked One, Shane Claiborne, over at Red Letter Christians?  

Simply put, while I agree that modern evangelicalism is on the ropes, the death of progressive evangelicals (unaffiliated or not) and “post-evangelicals” is getting a little overblown, I think.  Although Fitch’s book may change my mind. 

*Finally, let’s just say it:  What’s so bad about the mainline church?  Fitch and (esp.) McKnight sound as if evangelicals (originally a Protestant reform movement) rejoining the traditional denominations (as well as flocking to Catholic and Orthodox churches) is something to mourn.  But the thing is, many of my “post-evangelical” colleagues and I, having been raised with the impression that going to a mainline Protestant church is tantamount to monkey-worship, are realizing that it’s not the bastion for heresy that it’s been made out to be.  While strands of hyper-rational modernism does still exist (e.g., the Jesus Seminar sympathizers), there is also plenty of room in the mainline church for those who believe in things like resurrection and biblical miracles, etc.  In fact, that’s always been the case.  The fact is, the mainline church has been wrestling with what evangelicals have only recently been “discovering” (and many of us have been arrogant enough to think that we evangelicals “discovered” these problems), and meanwhile, the mainline church has made great theological strides in the past half-century or so, away from modern reductionism. 

Sure the “Neos” know how to work the “raw" angle to appeal to twenty-somethings, but the mainline denominations, were they to embrace this role, have just as many plusses in their column, if not more:

      -Churches ready and waiting to open their arms back to an entire generation?  Check.

      -Historical rootedness and direct lineage to the universal Church?  Check.

      -Theological robustness and commitment to historical context?  Check. 

      -Able to utilize liturgy, mystery, sacrament, and the senses in their theology and worship?  Check. 

      -Resurging commitment to discipleship?  Check, particularly from my vantage point in Reformed/Presbyterian circles. 

      -Long-standing commitment to holistic mission?  Check.

      -Accepting of a wide range of opinions and not nearly as afraid of questions?  Check and double-check. 

If evangelicals can get over their fear, and mainliners can step up to the plate (and not be scared/reactionary in turn—[oh and STOP copying the mistakes of the evangelicals] ), then what’s so “doomsdayish” about a little reunion?  This is why I hold the controversial position that the mainline Protestants will outlive the evangelical church.  They won’t become huge and powerful again, but I think they’ll become a vibrant community of faith again…especially as they over time become more contextually-committed, become more united, and work more closely with Catholic communities.  Anyone feel me, or am I alone on this? [Wouldn’t be the first time. Certainly won’t be the last. ]


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Posted by on March 21, 2011 in church, emergent, future, RCA, theology


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