A Most Ironic Ministry: Rob Bell and Neo-Liberal Teaching
It’s been about 100 hundred years since Harry Emerson Fosdick made all the right headlines. The secular media welcomed his challenge to “fundamentalist” doctrine, even as gospel-loving Christians celebrated Christianity and Liberalism, the courageous and incisive response to Fosdick by J. Gresham Machen. After Fosdick’s ministry ran its course, and as the twentieth century wore on, it seemed like liberal theology had died out, replaced—however strangely in metaphysical terms—by so-called “death of God” theology.
Today, however, it seems that liberalism is alive and well. One figure who has revived some of the formulations of the Protestant modernists is Rob Bell. This is not to say that Bell necessarily quotes Fosdick in his work; it is to say that his more recent public offerings, including the documentary The Heretic (which profiles him in enthusiastic cooperation with Bell), offer a vision of religion or faith that is resonant with Fosdick’s. Call it neo-liberalism (or post-evangelicalism—I will use both terms below), and note this: if you heard it was dead, it’s actually alive and well in 2019.
In what follows, I want to give a brief precis on the nature of Bell’s teaching. Here are five points taken from my viewing of the film mentioned above. Knowing these principles of an unprincipled system will help us equip people in our congregations to spot these lies and ward off these teachers, choosing the far more glorious system of truth offered us in holy Scripture.
First, the so-called “heretics” are the new fundamentalists. The worst people for a post-evangelical (or a neo-liberal, as I call them) are the so-called “fundamentalists.” According to Bell and others in the film, fundamentalists believe in a woodenly literal Bible, emphasize the bloody death of Jesus, and get really excited about preaching on the damnation of sinners. Fundamentalists do not exhibit an open mind; they guard their fences with extreme watchfulness; they do not show generosity of spirit to others; they draw the lines of doctrine sharply, and are eager to keep the bad guys out.
Bell’s doctrine is heretical, as is well-known. In the documentary, he continues to espouse his soft universalism, he argues that the Bible has damaging teaching in it, and he downplays biblical morality. But here’s the curious thing: Bell actually operates and speaks as a “fundamentalist.” He does not exhibit an open mind toward conservative religious types; he censures them. He does not truly believe that everyone has an equal place in the Christian tradition; he believes that serious evangelicals are bad people. He does not show generosity in the film toward his disputants; over and over again, he drags them through the mud. He does not truly hold an open, flexible, free-thinking faith; he draws his own doctrinal lines precisely, and makes no bones about excluding conservatives. He talks openly—to my honest surprise—about helping “people read the Bible in a much better way.” That’s how a conservative talks!
It’s the strangest thing: the heretic is actually the fundamentalist.
Second, doubt is the inerrant principle of the neo-liberals. Doubt is the new “truth.” We hear emergent leader Peter Rollins say of Bell, for example, “he put his finger on a doubt and a questioning that was in that [evangelical] community, but wasn’t able to be expressed.” The sum and substance of The Heretic is that doubt is good, doubt is what makes faith comes alive, doubt frees you from the trap of red-faced literalistic evangelicalism. But doubt receives so much praise in the film, its little wings cannot bear it aloft any longer. Doubt is not truth; that makes no sense.
The film urges us, as Bell does, to doubt the fundamentalists, but unswervingly trust the heretic. It features no conversation, no debate, no open inquiry. When we see Bell on stage, he offers up straw men. He says of his past, mimicking an announcer: “‘In a previous life, he was a megachurch pastor in the Midwest.’ And now you’re like, I do believe in hell.” The crowd laughs. They know their cultural cues; they know the creeds and confessions of secular orthodoxy. They have been dogmatically trained to despise A) megachurches, B) pastors, and C) the Midwest. So much for the “inclusion” and unity Bell celebrates. He’s a doubter who urges us not only to doubt others, but to dislike them. This we receive as an article of faith; we must not doubt it.
Third, everything can be re-thought—and should be re-thought—except neo-liberal thought. This idea surfaces repeatedly in The Heretic. Commenting on Bell’s background, Elizabeth Gilbert strains to say nice things about the evangelicals. She does verbal backflips, speaking in fluent postmodernese of how Bell’s former communities tried to live out their ideals and “found sustenance” in them. But in describing Bell’s sojourn, she lets slip that Bell “matured beyond” his old haunts. The takeaway is plain: in post-evangelicalism, you are freed to re-think your old “community.” Re-think it until in your re-thinking it is so re-thought that it cannot be thought. Everything should be re-thought, in fact, with one tiny exception: that which the re-thinkers think. We should question everything except those who question everything. Irony this thick should come with duck-fat fries and a charred jalapeno aioli.
The preceding applies to Bell’s doctrine of revelation. Bell attacks conservative evangelicals, saying of their biblical approach that “Most of them are reading it as fundamentalists.” But while Bell critiques a literal, trusting hermeneutic—one in which we take the words of Scripture, genre-driven, as the actual truth of God—he expects us to use precisely such a hermeneutic for his words. We should not read his book Love Wins, for example, as if it is actually about a Swedish cat who becomes a unicorn in the zombie apocalypse. No, we should take Bell at his word; we should read his book, and listen to his talks, like the dreaded “fundamentalists” do. Post-evangelicalism torches literalism, what we could call trusting receptivity, while depending on it.
Fourth, the neo-liberals critique capitalism while making bushels of money off of it. Early in The Heretic, Bell speaks of how the corrupted evangelical establishment became “deeply entrenched” with capitalism. Sure, conservative evangelicals can fall into the money-trap; I can acknowledge that, sadly. Bell’s critique of evangelicalism lands in a few places, it’s true. But here’s the thing: I bought the film for $9. The list price of Bell’s new book is nearly university-press level: $27.99. Ticket prices for one stop on Bell’s upcoming tour: $50 if you want the “PRE-SHOW Q&A + FEES.”
Last I checked, most of the current-evangelicals—a distinct species from the post-evangelicals—cannot get near this for the pre-show. We don’t get this for the pre-show, the show, or the after-show. There is no show for most of us. There is for Rob Bell, though, who is if anything an extremely shrewd capitalist, with a management team that deserves international awards for its “deep entrenchment” with the free market.
Fifth, the neo-liberals evacuate their worldview of moral clarity. I confess that, as a theologian, I often struggle to figure out the ethics of the post-evangelicals. It’s not that Bell is unaware of moral matters; for example, critiquing the biblical God in his slippery way, he queries, “Where was the traditional God in the Holocaust, though?” At another point, Bell says that atheism and belief are “different dimensions” of what it means to be alive; he also notes repeatedly that the Bible is about “inclusion,” as previously noted.
But what has Bell done to actual ethics? This is not a trick question: if you remove the need for repentance from Christian faith, what does this communicate to on-the-ground sinners? If you tell them that the yellow-teeth literalists of the vengeful Midwest have hijacked Christianity by preaching the need to turn away from sin and from hell, what power for moral transformation remains in your theism? I would guess that your average sinner who hears Bell likely enjoys what they hear, for they are not challenged to renounce their ungodliness. They are, according to axiomatic post-evangelicalism, broken, messy, and messed up, but God loves them anyway. This line of argument works fine for your average middle-class bookstore-browser, most of whom reach Peak Personal Rebellion by dying a turquoise streak in their hair, but what about non-respectable lawbreakers—the Nazi? The child molester? Are they “included,” and is their wickedness merely a “different dimension” of humanity?
The Heretic makes no effort to handle these real questions. All belief systems have pressure points, but Bell’s post-evangelicalism seems unaware of possible weaknesses. Various figures tell us how much they like Bell’s morally-relaxed brand of theism, but they give us no sense of how we handle people who for no good reason want to slash and maim and kill, who want to blow others up and destroy innocence and beat their spouse. There are not a few of these types; in fact, the actual Christian worldview (not the post-evangelical kind) teaches us with clear-eyed firmness that we all carry the seeds of unrestrainable evil in our hearts, and therefore, we must all repent and trust Christ (Matt. 5:21-30). The neo-liberals, however, have let their grip on such anthropological realism relax.
The church today does well to understand and critique these ideas. What was it the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, a church battling both a pagan culture and a band of unsound teachers? “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,” Paul solemnly stated. So do we. We care for the sheep; we love young people, who are the special target of the kind of foolishness covered above; most of all, we yearn for God to be glorified through the preaching of sound doctrine.
It is this preaching that stands down the enemy, and that equips the people of God to think well, and not only this, but to live well before the Lord.
This essay is adapted from material published at the Center for Public Theology of Midwestern Seminary and is used with permission.