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Love Loses: Rob Bell, John Piper, and the Tone Of Public Conversation

I haven’t posted here for months as I’ve been working on my new record, so I thought I’d make up for lost time by making my first reentry a long one. Sorry.

I have misgivings about writing this post, mostly because I imagine people might be tired of hearing about the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins – you know, that it’s already become passé. After all, this topic is sooooo last week. But I’ll risk it anyway believing that fashionable doesn’t always equal relevant, contrary to the zeitgeist of blogging culture. I wonder if there’s still an opportunity here for the Spirit to speak to us.

Besides, I haven’t even read the book yet and it’s not really the book that I want to talk about anyway. At present I’m more interested in talking about the accidental topic that Love Wins has raised, which concerns the way we conduct ourselves as Christians in public conversation.

If you missed it, Rob Bell set off a blogging maelstrom a few weeks ago with comments he made about his upcoming book, Love Wins, where he turns his formidable spotlight on some of the left of mainstream ideas out there concerning Hell – what it is, how you end up there, and whether Dante was right about the sign posted above Hell’s gates saying “abandon all hope ye who enter here”. Are our short 80 years (give or take) on earth really the absolute and final testing ground that determines an eternity of punishment or bliss? What do you do with the problem of the souls who’ve never heard the gospel? How can a loving Father condemn people to a place of eternal punishment with no hope of correction? Or is Hell a place we choose for ourselves because we prefer it to Heaven? Are the gates of Hell locked from the inside?

These are not new questions, nor are most of Bell’s musings (from what I have gathered so far) either as unorthodox or as progressive as some would make them out to be. Even C.S. Lewis asked similar questions in his discourse on the afterlife, The Great Divorce, offering up a different lens through which to imagine what Hell might be all about.

To risk being even more unfashionable, I’d like to make another pop culture reference that we’re all probably weary of: Charlie Sheen’s recent headline making behavior. But it’s as good an example as any of the kind of thing I believe Lewis and even Bell are getting at. Watch the interviews with Sheen and you will see a man who is so clearly choosing the ideals of Hell – consuming lust with no hope for intimacy, prideful self-justifying un-forgiveness, a relentless denial of help from others… All of this he called “winning”, but those of us who know the joy of intimacy, humble forgiveness, and community recognize it for what it really is: Hell on earth. Charlie Sheen may be a good example, if Lewis is on target, of a person who can’t stomach the virtues of Heaven and who, even in his suffering, prefers Hell. But I digress…

Bell’s book raises questions that understandably rattle the cages of modern Evangelical Christianity.And in truth, the book may very well be revealed as being, at the very least, theologically soft.But aside from all that, the unintended question it has raised for me has to do with the tone of Christian conversation and whether the church has fallen victim to the contentious and self-righteous spirit of the age.

I bowed out of watching political television programming some time ago because of how dehumanizing it can be, whether you’re from a blue state or a red one. It’s rare that anybody is actually “heard” in what passes for political dialogue. I experience it more as an ideological kind of blood sport where mutual understanding is sacrificed on the altar of a kind of “winning” that only serves to assure everybody that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. The tone is so polarizing and, though it can be morbidly entertaining, I’ve grown weary of it.

And yet I know I’ve often been guilty in my own way of the same kind of thing. Too much of the time I have loved being right more than I have loved mercy, loved winning a fight more than I have loved the person I’m talking to. This impoverishes me.

The day that Rob Bell’s comments hit the web, the reaction was swift and strong by those who felt that his theology was dangerous at best and downright heresy at worst – and this was before anybody even read the book! One of the most famous critiques came from my fellow Minnesotan, Pastor John Piper, who could hardly have been more dismissive when he tweeted three words: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

I’m about as interested in taking John Piper to task as I am in defending Rob Bell’s orthodoxy, so I’ll move on quickly (you can read this as me hoping to avert the wrath of you Piper enthusiasts out there). It is, however, this kind of tone in public Christian conversation that seems worthy of our evaluation. Piper’s comment and others like it seem to me to fall short of genuine conversation and instead engenders a circling of the wagons that is long on self-righteous defensiveness and short on respectful listening.

Bell’s detractors might argue that such “heresy” deserves our contempt and dismissal, but even so, might there be another way to conduct this conversation, especially with the rest of the world eavesdropping on us? Why did passions boil over so quickly on this one?

Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m learning to see what’s happening in my own heart when I react similarly.

A while ago I started to feel like the Holy Spirit was inviting me to pay attention to my defensiveness and anger – what activated it and why? Most times I only get defensive when I feel threatened, whether directly or vicariously by way of something I cared about being challenged. Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling threatened, but is it always the best response? I believe the Holy Spirit began to invite me, every time I felt defensive, to be curious about why and if there might be more redemptive responses to choose from.

I started to wonder if feeling threatened all the time was really a symptom of misplaced identity and trust. Here’s what I mean: if my identity is firmly rooted and secure in Christ, if I am defined by my belovedness to Jesus, should I feel as threatened as often as I do? I began to see how often my defensiveness arises from a desperate need to prove myself – less because of arrogance than because of how hard it is for me to believe and rest in the sufficiency that Christ won for me.

Reformed Pastor Tim Keller (and contemporary of John Piper – so, you can’t completely dismiss me as a liberal) says the default mode of human instinct is self-justification.As an unbeliever, one way to do this is by always trying to tell ourselves that we’re good people – especially compared to Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and [insert name of your favorite villain here].As believers we’re often guilty of the same sin of self-justification, though it’s harder to diagnose.

Here’s what I began to wonder about myself (I’ll leave it up to the Holy Spirit to prompt you if you should wonder the same about yourself). How many times has my defense of the truth been merely a veiled attempt at self-justification – my need to be right, to be on the right side, to prove myself, to be honorable, the hero, etc.

I also started wondering about my assumptions about the nature of my relationship to the truth. Charles Spurgeon – another hero of reformed theology – once likened the Truth to being a Lion. “Who ever heard of defending a lion?” he asked. “Just turn it loose and it will defend itself.” This compelling understanding of truth relieves me of the responsibility to come to the rescue whenever I’m afraid that Truth is under attack. Does the truth really need me? This is a simple question that I believe can help change the tone of our conversations.

Of course there is a time to defend the Truth, to guard it as Paul exhorted Timothy, but I think the dynamic changes when we understand that defending the gospel is maybe more of a privilege than it is a responsibility. Does that make sense? I know there is great risk of being misunderstood here, but I pray you will give me the benefit of your doubt for a moment.

Trusting that God’s Truth is all sufficient and can stand on its own without needing me to come to its rescue takes the anxious hand-wringing out of my “defense” of it. It’s big enough to take care of itself without me. Furthermore, I’m not responsible for the hearts of those that I would defend the gospel to – meaning it’s not all up to me to persuade or convert those I find myself in conversation with. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.

When I trust that the Truth doesn’t need me, and when I trust that I’m not solely responsible for the fate of those around me, it takes a lot of pressure off. I can relax a bit and I can even enjoy the conversation. And it’s here that I begin to see that some of my so called defense of the gospel may have been more about my need to be right – my default instinct of self-justification – than it’s been about love of the gospel or especially love for those I’m in conversation with.

If I trust the sturdiness of truth, if I trust that God is in charge of drawing people to himself, and if I trust, too, that God is ultimately in control (which, by the way, are all ideals celebrated by people of the reformed theological tradition like John Piper), it sets me free to do something radically loving: listen.

Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in marriage. When conflict arises and a conversation must be had, we have to choose: will we fight to be right, to be heard at all costs, thus failing to listen to each other because of our defensiveness? Or will we lay down our weapons for a moment and really hear each other’s hearts? Which is more honoring? Which produces better fruit? Which choice leads to death and which leads to life?

I think this might be worth consideration: We are told in Genesis 3 that the consequence of sin entering the world for Adam and all those who come after him is that

through painful toil you will eat food from [the ground] all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food…

There is a sense of futility here, that our efforts will be frustrated and we will be plagued by feeling that no matter how hard we work it will never be enough – that we will never be enough. This pretty much sums up the human experience as we know it: our days dogged by a deep sense of inadequacy – as spouses, as parents, as workers, even as children of God.

Which can lead to the temptation to prove ourselves. I would propose that most if not all of us carry around a deep sense of futility and inadequacy that puts us always on the defensive.

Bring this dynamic into public discourse and our conversations can quickly degrade into dismissive, defensive, un-listening self-justification fueled by fear and the need to be right. It is all the more insidious when you bring Christianity into the mix because of the way this brokenness hides behind the virtues of “defending the gospel” and “standing up for Truth and Righteousness.” (for a glaring example of this, watch Martin Bashir’s unlistening and bullying interrogation of Bell here.)

Please don’t think that I’m saying there’s never a time to passionately speak out for what we believe. John Chrysostom, one of Christianity’s Early Church Fathers, said: “He that is angry without cause sins, but he who is not angry when there is cause sins.”

If I give Pastor Piper the benefit of the doubt – which I believe is a pre-requisite to fruitful conversation – I would imagine that his comment on twitter came from the heart of a pastor feeling protective over his flock, concerned that ideas like Bell’s pose a threat to their spiritual development. A commendable instinct perhaps – there is, of course, such a thing as righteous anger. I’m just afraid that most of us are generally too quick to assume our anger is righteous when in fact it may just be self-righteous.

There is a simple antidote that I think can help. What if we examined the motives of our hearts by being curious whenever we feel defensiveness or anger rise up in us: “Is this legitimate or is this a symptom that my identity isn’t firmly rooted in Christ, or that deep down I believe the salvation of the world is some how up to me?” Asking ourselves this may spare us from being ugly and reactionary.

Jesus himself models passion under control. One of my favorite discoveries in scripture is the moment when he goes to rid the temple of the moneylenders. At first glance it looks like he’s swept up in a moment of righteous indignation, turning over tables like a man consumed by his passion. But a closer look reveals that Jesus is responding with intentionality rather than reacting emotionally – John 2:15 shows us that before driving out the moneylenders, Jesus “made a whip out of cords.” It starts to look less like a heated moment of passion when you factor in the time it must take to braid a whip.

I fear that to the outside world the face of Western Christianity looks scarred by all of our precious dividing lines of theological parsing. When our conversation is marked by reactionary rhetoric, I’m afraid that we fail to show the world that we are disciples of Jesus “by loving one another” (John 13:35) and that love loses.

I will confess that much of my own line drawing has been driven by fear and a failure to rest in my identity as Jesus’ beloved. If I could believe I’m already approved, I wouldn’t feel such a need to prove myself. And If trusted God is in control, I could relax a bit more and honor others with my listening. Who knows, I might even learn something I otherwise wouldn’t on my own.

Is Rob Bell so persuasive a writer that he can dismantle evangelical Christianity with one book? Is he or any one else the author and finisher of our faith? Are we so afraid of being deceived and ruined as though a lie – perceived or genuine – can have the final say over our lives?

I know there are times to speak up and stand our ground – and some may feel that this is such a time – but for me, personally, it’s good to ask myself these kinds of questions before I go crusading.

[Editor’s Note: Please keep your comments germane to the subject of Jason’s post. Comments will be tightly moderated if necessary.]

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