Rob Bell and Don Draper – The Ad Man’s Gospel

I find Rob Bell fascinating.

Sure, I disagree with his theology, but when it comes to engaging communication, the man is virtually without peer.

If you want to see a masterpiece in clever communication, look no further than a promotional video for a Rob Bell book.

This is Bell in his element.

Attention-grabbing.
Engaging.
Dynamic.

Take, for instance, this recent offering:

The dislocated camera shots.
The fractured statements.
It’s all there.

You start with the evocative image of the Velvet Elvis, reminding you of that summer you read through that book as a teen.

How that book resonated with you at the time!

Rob begins by telling us that a lot of people in our culture ‘can’t do the God-sort of belief system or idea.’ A ‘very, very popular movement’ tells us that this is all that there is. However, lots and lots of people, when they experience vaguely defined moments of transcendence – your kid is born, you hear that piece of music, you find yourself in that natural wonder – find that this doesn’t work for them.

And then, suddenly, we are snapped into another line of thought: ‘There’s just such extraordinary, great, interesting, fascinating truths and insights and discoveries.’

Indeed there are, but whose exactly and on what subject?

Who cares! That was a nice bundle of adjectives and the sense of wonder that they evoked is lingering…

Where did the idea for the book come from?

‘It actually started years ago. Kept having all these ideas. And it all seemed to have something connecting it, but I didn’t know what.’

Italian monkeys eating peanuts. The strangeness of the universe.

Rob then tells us about his sense of a need to study and read. We see his books. His cue cards, each of which bears an idea. Scattered like buckets to catch the rainfall of inspiration.

Cosmic significance. Crying for the divine. We’ve all been there.

And all at once, Rob isn’t talking about ‘I’ anymore, but about ‘you’. And then we experience the writing of the book through Rob’s eyes.

The words slow down. The camera pans its unfocused gaze over close ups of Rob’s features. The passion exudes. The smile widens.

And we’re in that feeling and that moment. Right with him.

‘And it doesn’t matter who’s going to read this or like it or not like it it’s all totally irrelevant the only thing that matters is you know that you are here to make this and so your feet get planted under the table and you … start typing.’

‘The desires of your heart are revealed.’
‘Do you want to make the next thing?’
‘Do you love it?
‘…and so you just give a big giant “YES”!’

Oh, so what is the book about then, Rob?

‘The book is essentially: God is not behind us dragging us backwards into some primitive, regressive state. God has always been ahead of us, pulling us forward into greater and greater peace, integration, wholeness, and love.’

Amen. Who could be against that?

Rob followed up the above tour de force with this offering:

Rob begins with an engaging story about an old car: the Oldsmobile that he owned as a 20 year old. A masterful storyteller, with an economy of brushstrokes, he paints a picture of the car that draws in our humour, our affection, and our nostalgia, all while the music plays in the background.

But the Oldsmobile that he once loved, while serving him well for several years, wasn’t able to keep up with the times. And then it becomes clear that the engaging story is designed to serve as a compelling metaphor.

‘…for a growing number of people in our modern world, God is a bit like Oldsmobiles…’

As the video cuts between panning and refocusing shots of the shabby and disintegrating car interior, Rob informs us:

‘Things have changed. We have more information and technology than ever. We’re interacting with a broader more diverse range of people than ever. And the tribal god, the only one many people have ever heard of, appears more and more small and narrow and irrelevant and in some cases just plain mean and other times, not … that … intelligent.’

Then Rob gives us three anecdotes from his friends, Cathy, Gary, and Michael, which invite us to share their feelings of shock, disgust, or bemusement at the antiquated views that still exist in some Christian circles. For the God of such Christian circles is the Oldsmobile of the story, ready to be gracefully retired before he embarrasses himself further.

‘And, as a pastor over the last twenty years what I’ve seen again and again is people with a growing sense that their spirituality is in some vital but mysterious way central to who they are as a person and yet the dominant perceptions and conceptions and understandings of God that they’ve encountered along the way aren’t just failing them, but in many cases are causing … harm.’

The hand gestures become at once more pronounced and more animated.

‘…because I believe there are other ways, better ways of talking about God and understanding God. Because I believe God is with us and for us. And I believe God is actually ahead of us, calling us and drawing us, inviting and pulling us all, every one of us, into a better future than we could ever imagine.’

***

If the theologian of the 16th century was a lawyer, the theologian of the 21st century is an ad man.

For this is what Rob Bell is. If we are to understand Bell, it is imperative that we recognize the sort of movement in Christian discourse that he exemplifies.

The ad man doesn’t persuade his customer by making a carefully reasoned and developed argument, but by subtly deflecting objections, evoking feelings and impressions, and directing those feelings and harnessing those impressions in a way that serves his interests. Where the lawyer argues, the ad man massages.

Rob Bell’s theology seldom approaches you head on. It typically comes at you couched in a question, insinuated in an anecdote, embedded in a quotation from one of his friends, or smuggled in a metaphor. Its non-confrontational and conversational tone invites ready agreement. Even if you don’t agree, Bell hasn’t pinned himself down. He’s only asked a question, quoted an acquaintance, or related an anecdote, and could easily distance himself from any of them.

We aren’t accustomed to arguing against metaphors, quotations, questions, images, and anecdotes, Bell’s stock-in-trade. We often don’t see them coming, and when we do, we are often uncertain of how to respond to them. Artfully employing such tools, someone like Bell can move you much of the way to his position before you even realize what is happening.

Bell’s distinctive rhetorical style is taken straight from advertising (before writing this post, I bet myself that Bell had studied something along the lines of advertising or psychology in the past: a quick Google search revealed that I was correct). His fragmentary and impressionistic statements, single sentence paragraphs, vague, one-size-fits all observations, generous deployment of unspecific adjectives, frequent uses of the second person singular to describe states of feeling, and heavy dependence upon narrative, anecdote, question, quotation, metaphor, and image are all fairly typical of advertising style.

Advertisers can be masters of eliciting feelings and states of mind in a manner that makes you think that you are on exactly the same wavelength, without actually telling you anything. They give you the bucket and you fill it, without recognizing what you are doing. Vague and indefinite terms that will be filled with highly emotive states (e.g. ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘wonder’ – words which almost always carry great emotional resonance for any hearer) and prose that seems to be saying something profound without making much of a specific claim is fairly typical here. They hold up a mirror and you see yourself in it.

While much modern preaching is about entertainment, I believe that advertising is a better category within which to understand Bell. When Bell brings a goat on stage, or shaves a person’s head while preaching on Numbers 6, he isn’t seeking primarily to entertain or even to inform, but to create a strong visual impression to bind to his message. The purpose of such a pastor is less one of reasoning with people to persuade them of a truth than one of creating an impression with them in order to get them to buy into an idea. Lest I be seen to dismiss the use of lessons learnt from advertising in our communication entirely, let me make clear that they can have a place. My point is that they should not be allowed into the driving seat.

I am a fan of the TV show Mad Men, set in an ad agency in 1960s New York. The show’s chief protagonist, the charismatic philanderer, Don Draper, puts this point well:

As Don says, ‘You are the product. You, feeling something.’

The ad man knows this secret, and so do many contemporary evangelicals. Much of the time Bell isn’t trying to communicate a particular abstract theology to people. Rather, he elicits desirable emotive states from his audience and connects those with a heavily chamfered theology while tying undesirable emotive states to opposing viewpoints. All of this can be done without actually presenting a carefully reasoned and developed argument for one’s own position, or engaging closely with opposing viewpoints.

The advertising style comes with a fragmentation of thought. Even the way that Bell describes his thinking and writing process – trying to find a theme to bind together hundreds of detached impressions – seems to manifest this. The advertiser does not make lengthy and involved arguments and those who are raised on advertising can seldom handle them.

And this is a key point, one which, having been raised without a television, it took me a while to recognize: the overwhelming majority of people today were trained in the process of making up their minds by advertisers. They also picked up the art of persuasion, not from classic texts of reason, but from advertising. As a result, many people fail to demonstrate genuine literacy in understanding and creating reasoned arguments, but are adept at producing advertising copy for their impressions. They have been taught both to process and to persuade using impressions. I think that Josh Strodtbeck expresses this well (I’ve quoted this before):

Then there’s this other type of person. As nearly as I can tell, they seem to create collages in their mind as they read. Turns of phrase here and individual metaphors there get thrown into different places in the collage until they have what appears to them to be a fairly complete picture, then they react to the picture in more of a qualitative way (this reaction is usually emotional since they don’t really do “critiquing logic” or “refuting ideas”). This sort of person really doesn’t do very well at all with complex writing, especially writing that goes in directions they’re not used to. In my experience, explaining what I wrote to a person like this is a lost cause. I inevitably find myself repeating ideas over and over, quoting my own text, and dissecting my own grammar to prove to this sort of person that I said what I actually said. If your audience is this sort of person, you need to be extremely careful in how you choose your individual words and phrases, or you will set off a negative emotional reaction that makes further communication impossible.

If you read many blogs, especially from a certain brand of progressive evangelical, you will notice similar styles of writing and thinking in operation. Sentences are brief, there are numerous single sentence paragraphs, sentences in bold, or fragmented statements. Anecdotes and engaging narratives are consistently employed. Rhetorical questions, potent images, and controlling metaphors are used extensively. Such writing typically persuades by getting the reader to feel something. The responses to such pieces are almost always emotive and affirming, very seldom critical (and critical responses are hardly ever interacted with carefully).

In an age dominated by advertising and the manipulation of feelings for the purpose of persuasion, the proliferation of conversational and self-revelatory styles of discourse, designed to capture people’s feelings, where logical argumentation once prevailed, shouldn’t surprise us. Where persuasion occurs through feeling, truth becomes bound up in the authentic communication of the ‘self’ and its passion, rather than in the more objective criteria of traditional discourses, where truth was tested by realities and practices outside of ourselves. This is truth in the mode of sharing one’s personal ‘sacred story’.

It is for this reason that narrative, anecdote, metaphor, and potent images are so important for such approaches. All of these are non-argumentative ways of drawing and inviting you, the reader, into the feelings of the text. They also serve as ways of avoiding direct ideological confrontation and engagement. By couching what would otherwise have to be presented as a theological argument in an impressionistic narrative they make it very difficult to frame disagreements. The most effective communicators of this type tend to be those who elicit and direct feelings most consistently. It can almost be as hard to have reasonable argument with such people than it would be to argue with an advert.

I wanted a pretext to include the following Mad Men clip, which shows Don Draper accomplishing this process masterfully.

By the end of Don’s pitch, you have a strong emotional bond with the product. Don hasn’t spoken about the technology itself, or argued its merits relative to other products on the market, but has just told us a compelling story, shared a smart anecdote, quoted someone, given us some compelling and emotionally resonant images to hang our feelings on, and taken us on a journey. And we are sold. This is how much Christian communication operates today. It is no less slick and clever, but we risk forgetting that we are not called to be salespersons.

Some might think that some of my points above are falling a little shy of the mark when it comes to Rob Bell and several others, who are often very smart people, making lots of clever points in their writings and sermons, referencing the original biblical languages, the cultural context of scriptural passages, and scholarly insights. I don’t dispute this for a moment. Advertisers are frequently incredibly intelligent people, as are many people who, whether intentionally or not, employ their methods. The point to recognize, however, is the way that such learning gets framed when we adopt the model of advertising.

One good example of how learning gets framed by advertising is the graphical or computer visualization of the operation of the clever science behind how the shampoo makes your hair so shiny. The actual science is not the real message of this graph or visualization. The real message is: trust us, trust our product – we are smart people who know what we are doing. The point of the science visualization is to relax your critical faculties more than to engage them. You’re OK, we have the science covered.

While making another point, this recent article compares Bell’s style to that of speakers at TED conferences. I think that this is a very illuminating analogy. The TED talk is a further example of the way that advertising techniques can shape the processes of thought and communication. While not being explicitly framed as advertising, the TED talk is all about pitching and selling an idea to an audience. For this reason, the style of the TED talk is typically emotive, focused upon ‘engagement’ and ‘inspiration’. It often aims primarily for people’s sense of curiosity or wonder. It aims to create strong impressions, though audio-visuals, demonstrations, or general stage-presence. It aims to put the mind of the viewer at complete rest concerning the validity of the science, hiding much of the messy working, allowing them to bask in the sense of insight that the ideas produce.

As this piece observes, what the TED context discourages is disputation or a devil’s advocate. A devil’s advocate would put such a damper on the sense of epiphany that the TED talk is supposed to produce. While it would produce a more informed audience, it would make it much more difficult for the TED talk to achieve its primary purpose of making the audience feel something. The problem here isn’t that speakers at TED are stupid – they are some of the smartest people around. Rather, the problem is with the adopted style of discourse.

One finds the same thing in other contexts where the goals of advertising are substituted for the goals of thought: disputation and challenge are consistently discouraged and resisted. Once we have recognized why this is taking place, we are halfway to answering an interesting conundrum: why is it that many of the people who most champion ‘questioning’ within the Church can be the most unwilling to expose their own thought to direct challenge and close interrogation? If questioning is such a good thing, then surely being questioned must be too.

A clue to understanding here is found in recognizing that critical thought and the requirement to reason are far more inescapably engaged when we have to commit to and defend a fixed position than when we can merely question. As long as we don’t have to respond to questioning, we can easily operate according to how we feel about different positions. We can relax and be at ease, because ideas don’t come with the heavy responsibility of thought, of reasoning for and defending them. Our critical faculties don’t have to be engaged.

As soon as we have to reason – something that being questioned forces us to do – we may find that the truth doesn’t underwrite our feelings, but often wounds them. The current celebration of ‘questioning’ in many quarters of the Church can play to pleasant feelings of novelty, curiosity, inspiration, superiority, popularity, and intelligence, and quell the negative feelings associated with certain beliefs that we would like to avoid. Questioning frees us from unpleasant commitments, from being tied down. However, situating this questioning within a context of rigorous mutual questioning would destroy this dynamic, as feelings are seldom salved and can never be settled in the driving seat when we are forced to reason for our impressions.

This new form of discourse is very weak when it comes to commitment. Traditional contexts of thought require commitment, a need to nail your colours to the mast, and preparedness to face opposition and accusation. Within such a context ideas are presented in a didactic or dogmatic style, one that confronts us more directly. The new context doesn’t require the same commitment of us, but is about ‘inspiring’ and ‘engaging’. It often couches its claims in non-confrontational rhetorical questions: ‘isn’t it interesting that…?’, ‘have you ever wondered whether…?’, etc. There isn’t a sense of the deep responsibility and accountability of thought.

The new evangelical communicator is all too often just such an ideas guru, spreading non-conventional, novel, and cool insights that make us feel good and encourage us to buy into their teaching, without being prepared to engage in the same costly work of thought and defence. Accusing such a person of possible heresy is such a buzz-kill and creates the sort of negative feelings that we don’t want to buy into. It isn’t heresy, it’s rebranding.

While recognizing the power and potential uses of advertising, we need to develop a deeper understanding of the ways that it works and the manner in which it can distort our thought and discourse. As Christians, maintaining the integrity of our discourse is one of our primary duties. This duty does not merely demand an attention to the content of our discourse, but also to the weaknesses, temptations, and inclinations of our chosen forms. Is the fragmented, vague, and emotionally-oriented and disorienting discourse of advertising, with its dense maze of interlocking narratives, questions, anecdotes, quotations, images, metaphors, and suggestions, the most faithful means of communication? I don’t think that it usually is.

The gold standard of Christian communication is provided for us in 2 Corinthians 4:2:

But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.

To the extent that our forms of discourse obfuscate the truth in order to evoke feelings that allow us to sell our ideas, we have fallen short of this goal.

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121 Responses to Rob Bell and Don Draper – The Ad Man’s Gospel

  1. Matt J. says:

    Great work. Thanks for mentioning and extending some ideas from that linked article about the need for a devil’s advocate in TED presentations. I was sharing that with everyone in my office last week where the talks are quite popular.

    You said: “We aren’t accustomed to arguing against metaphors, quotations, questions, images, and anecdotes, Bell’s stock-in-trade. We often don’t see them coming, and when we do, we are often uncertain of how to respond to them.”

    Indeed. So how can we be more accustomed to responding to this? Tell a counter-story? A counter-anecdote? Just off the top of my head, this often doesn’t seem to work. Observe any thread on gun-control in the U.S. during the past month. There is very little reasoned argument to be had, but rather a host of competing “ripped from the headlines” narratives escalating in volume. I’m not sure if that works. As far as responding to Bell or any other theologian who speaks like an ad man, I frequenty see opponents fall back to arguing like Aquinas – not because they can’t respond with a metaphor or clever question of their own, but they feel dirty in doing so. Advertising smells like lying and they don’t want to engage in that slickness on account of their own conscience. However, the consequence is that they are largely unable to engage with the argument in any sort of effective way in the public square. No amount of nostalgia for the days of good old classic rhetoric is going to change that. How can we respond? I’m not sure. I find the whole situation rather frustrating as I find marketing technique to be routinely distasteful, even as I recognize it’s effectiveness while engaging in it professionally at times.

    So, we are uncertain how to respond. I know you are still chewing on this and other topics related to discouse and your opinion may still be very much congealing, but any suggestions?

    • Thanks, Matt!

      Sadly, I think that you are right: it is profoundly difficult to reason with such people. As I suggested in my post, people who have been raised by advertisers are illiterate when it comes to understanding and creating developed logical arguments. However, much biblical thought depends upon just such literacy, along with a sort of symbolic literacy that has been perverted by the amorphous and disordered signifiers of the advertising industry. Without inculcating such literacy, I fear that attempts at communication will be worse than futile, as the more that one tries to reason, the more resistance one faces.

      Where a measure of true literacy, charity, and patience are lacking, we won’t be able to communicate. However, such things are seldom completely lacking, so we must work with what we have, and seek to address what is lacking as we can (for instance, creating more positive personal relationships with opponents). We need to reassert the elite character of our most important discourses wherever we can, and exclude those who lack the requisite aptitudes to participate, increasingly difficult in a society intoxicated with demotic values. As I have suggested in previous writing, a certain training in virtue is bound up with all of this. We need to address key areas and means of formation: the education system, parenting patterns, Church teaching methods, the news media, etc.

      We need to become more aware of what is actually taking place in such forms of discourse. Occasionally, bringing the emptiness of the discourse into the light can have some effect, removing the mystification from which it gains much of its effectiveness.

      And, yes, I feel dirty using the same forms of communication back. I would be well able to, if I wanted, but I know that they lack integrity and encourage ideological illiteracy. I respect my readers, myself, and – most importantly – the truth that I am trying to serve far too much to indulge in perverse forms of discourse.

      At the moment I share your frustration, without being able to offer much in the way of a solution. In many quarters the mental infrastructure of serious thought no longer exists and no progress will be made unless it is somehow put in place. Perhaps our best hope at the moment is that of alerting people to the problem, creating a deeper consciousness of healthy modes of discourse, placing a glaring spotlight upon serious offenders, and gradually creating multilateral contexts of discourse from which such people are openly excluded. We can then undertake the gruelling task of reconstruction.

      Thoughts?

      • Thanks for the reply.

        Since “raising awareness” is all the rage these days, perhaps we could declare March “International Mushy Rhetoric Awareness Month” and promote mini-seminars across the country where participants watch ads, book and movie trailers, and the like and then roast them afterwards. Organizations like AdBusters magazine has been doing that for a couple decades now, but their extreme liberal and anti-capitalist agenda tend to get in the way most of the time. Fortunately, we have The Onion daily publishing things like this (from this morning):

        http://www.theonion.com/articles/word-innovate-said-650000-times-at-sxsw-so-far,31618/

        More seriously though, all I can conclude at this point is that I should aim to rebuild the “mental infrastructure” as best as I can, beginning with my own children and extending that to other places I have some influence – be it at work on in lay ministry at church. I admire, for example, what Wilson, Leithart, etc. have done in building a small rigorous college where I live. We need that times 100 or times 1000 though. In the meantime, we need to stop being drawn into public debates where old-school argumentation will surely backfire.

        There must still be a place for fighting and defending. I think we still have to do some of that, even thought the crowd be populated with mockers. I think that being careful to watch out for those “trigger” words (as you’ve described in earlier posts) can help us get a lot more mileage out of our communication and prevent our arguments from being derailed early by emotional distractions. I don’t wish to mind the political correctness police, but rather be smart enough to sneak around them when possible. Sooner or later that will be impossible due to the great Stumbling Block. Later would be an improvement.

        I also think that in certain mediums, the technique of the ad man can still be used to our advantage without tainting ourselves. Film and music are places where metaphor and emotional manipulation are completely to be expected. I think some would say they are inherent in the medium itself. I mean, think of how lame Rob Bells book trailers would be if they were just straight-forward and logical? Might as well not even produce them at all if that is what you are going to do. How about we do really well at both things, but be careful to use them at the appropriate time?

      • Good points.

        Yes, careful use of these methods in the appropriate time and place can have a positive effect. And humorous parody is always an option.

  2. Mmmm – parables?

    Ad man or storyteller – you decide.

    They found it hard to pin Jesus down. One moment the kingdom was like a seed or a tree. The next it was like lost coin. Make your mind up Jesus.

    The problem with you piece is revealed part way through where you describe the 16th century preacher being like a lawyer. You haven’t gone far back enough with your reference point.

    • Some detailed thoughts on the style employed by Jesus, as it is an important issue:

      At the very outset – and as I pointed out in my post – my point is not that the tools and techniques of advertising should be completely off-limits. My point is rather that we are not advertisers, our goals and norms are quite different, and Christian thought that adopts the form of advertising usually corrupts itself. Many of the tools of advertisers aren’t new to advertising at all, but have been around for millennia. Used appropriately, they can powerfully serve thought. The problems lie less in the tools themselves than in the uses to which they are put.

      The word ‘narrative’ is bandied around rather a lot nowadays, and I use it as much as anyone. However, the problem is that ‘narrative’ is such a big floppy category that we need a lot more clarification of the sense in which we are speaking of it before it will truly become theologically serviceable. To very loosely paraphrase the Apostle Paul: if anyone else thinks they take the narrative forms of Scripture seriously, I more so. I am presently engaged in a huge project in biblical narrative and symbolism, as anyone who has been following my 40 Days of Exoduses posts will realize. This, on top of the fact that biblical symbolism, typology, the allusiveness of the scriptures, and their place in the liturgical, ritual, and symbolic life of the Church are central dimensions of my current studies. I am the last person to be antagonistic to narrative as such, nor, for that matter, to communication which addresses us on levels beyond that of the purely conscious and rational.

      Biblical uses of narrative tend to be strikingly different from the uses that one finds in contemporary culture and Christianity, however. Within Scripture, narratives serve a primarily orienting purpose. Biblical narratives help us to situate ourselves within a larger drama of divine activity. These narratives enable us to understand our place and role. They address our imaginations and invite our thinking to operate in terms of the frameworks that they provide for us. Biblical narratives are ‘thick’ narratives, with strongly defined roles to which persons conform. They are embedded in a highly developed symbolic universe to which they must manifest consistency.

      Scripture operates within a symbolic universe with an advanced narrative and theological ‘grammar’. I trust that my recent exoduses series is underlining this point for people. When Jesus talks about such things as dragnets, pearls, dogs, sowing and reaping, wedding feasts, masters and servants, olive trees, vines, bread, wine, older and younger brothers, mountains, the sea, fish, sheep, etc. he is not merely picking random emotionally resonant images or images that provide strong impressions out of his imagination. These images are carefully chosen to tap into and operate within the deeper world of Israel’s symbolic grammar, a world with a coherent logic to it that is not merely a matter of weak emotional resonance.

      In fact, scriptural narrative seldom focuses upon creating emotional states in us at all. Remarkably little emotional and sensory detail is presented to us, and that which is presented typically serves clear narrative ends (as my 40 Days of Exoduses series should also well illustrate). There are some powerfully emotional stories and moments in Scripture – Joseph and his brothers, David and Absalom, the Parable of the Lost Son, Peter’s denial of Christ, etc. – but these are definitely the exception, rather than the norm. This is especially surprising when we consider just how much scope the events recorded in biblical narratives would have provided for sensory-rich and emotional tellings had God wanted to communicate with us in such a manner. Even in the cases where strong and engaging emotion exists on the surface of the text, the emotion is not milked (the impressions that we have of such stories is formed in large measure by preaching that does milk emotion wherever it exists and often also where it doesn’t). Much the same could be said about most of the great symbols and rituals of Scripture: they really aren’t about eliciting states of feeling, but about creating an ordered and meaningful imaginative world.

      By contrast, contemporary uses of narrative are not typically means of situating and orienting us within thick and highly developed symbolic universes and providing clear direction for thought and action. Rather, narratives and anecdotes are appealed to primarily for the free-floating feelings, impressions, and connections that they can evoke. These feelings, impressions, and connections are then leveraged to get people to accept a particular idea or course of action. For all of their talk of narrative and imagination, I find the overwhelming majority of contemporary Christians – and perhaps especially progressive Christians – functionally illiterate when it comes to the symbolism and narrative of Scripture. In other words, the ‘narrative’ that they are celebrating is a vague and insubstantial concept that allows them to avoid rigorous thought, rather than order their minds even more firmly according to Scripture.

      In such an approach, narratives frequently tend to function more as reservoirs of impressions, rather than as developed structures for imagination, reason, and action. Take, for instance, Rob’s narrative of his Oldsmobile. Although narrative details are present (he owned an Oldsmobile at the age of 20, it served him well for several years; the company failed to move with the times, and he needed to get rid of the vehicle), the important thing is the Oldsmobile as an emotionally-tailored symbol. Hence, the focus on the resonant memories and sensory impressions associated with it, the silver colour, its décor, and its unusual features.

      The same is true of Bell’s account of his writing of the book. He actually tells us next to nothing about the book itself, while drawing us into a powerful movement of feelings. Once again, when Bell gives us anecdotes, they serve as ways to make controversial points in a manner that makes it difficult for us to challenge them. Jesus didn’t make his points by referencing the experiences of his friends Judah, Martha, and Joel. We are dealing with very different sorts of narratives and anecdotes here. Jesus’ narratives were designed to reorient thinking in a way that produced insight. They engaged the imagination but in a context of thought rather than feeling manipulation.

      The Scripture addresses our imaginations in order to conform them to Christ, establishing its world within us by illuminating, forming, dividing, and filling the imagination’s realm, bringing order to its chaos. This is why we have something like the book of Leviticus, which applies a rigorous ritual grammar to an extensive imaginative and symbolic order (I have a guest post coming out on Wednesday morning that touches on some of these issues).

      The difference with advertising and those who use its methods is stark here. The advertising approach thrives in the dark, chaotic deep of the human imagination. Keeping the imagination fluid, opaque, and disordered allows us to create and exploit whatever connections we desire, summoning up emotive images and powerful impressions and relating them to whatever we want. Such an imagination will be full of arbitrary and unruly relationships, rather than the sort of ordered imaginative relationships that deep engagement with the Bible’s symbolic world and its associative networks of meaning provides.

      The advertiser’s images don’t convey an ordered meaning, nor do they invite the sort of detailed exposition and unpacking that one finds in the work of the Apostle Paul. If the connections elicit emotion and get the person to act in the desired way, who cares whether or not they can withstand close analysis to determine whether they have an ordered meaning? The advertiser is always trying to conform the mind to the disordered world of the imagination, rather than bringing order to the imagination.

      So, as I have argued, Rob Bell’s form of writing and theology typically fragments thought into impressions and emotional states, directed towards the desired conclusion through a carefully crafted discourse. It often is very difficult to discern a clear thread of argument, nor does he tie himself down. Readers of his books can finish them, still uncertain about what he actually believes on some key issues.

      Close attention to his chosen style (one shared by many progressive evangelicals) will reveal that it doesn’t lend itself to coherent and extended argument. It is always disrupting critical thought processes, much of the time not even employing complete sentences and extended paragraphs (as my parodic imitation in the first half of my post illustrates). These are two of the primary tools of critical thought. Without them, instead of carefully structured chains of thought, crafted in sentences with multiple clauses, well-selected modifiers, and disciplined syntax, all embedded in tightly regimented yet complex paragraphs, we jolt and rattle along potholed roads of reasoning, paved with little more than the loose rubble of detached impressions.

      If Jesus of Nazareth were Rob Bell, he would have prioritized feeling over communicating understanding to those his chosen audience. If Jesus aimed at emotional connection with his audience through his stories, he wasn’t particularly good at it, although as means of conveying understanding, they are incredible. Rob of Nazareth would have brought the emotional details of his stories to the foreground. Where the sensory features and personal connections of his images could be highlighted, they would be. Rob of Nazareth would have ensured that we were personally drawn into any feeling within the parables and stories themselves.

      So what are we to say about Jesus’ use of narrative, metaphor, question, symbol, and the like? Several things. First of all, a parable isn’t an illustration, nor is it a typical narrative. A parable is a form of symbolic prophetic discourse, purposefully designed to hide its powerful message from most hearers. It is a form of judgment upon a people who are spiritually unreceptive (Matthew 13:13-15). In this respect, it is far from clear to me that Jesus’ use of parables is intended to be an example for us straightforwardly to follow. The message of the kingdom that had to be voiced in secret and in cryptic riddles prior to the resurrection would be shouted from rooftops in clear speech after that. There is a very good theological reason why parables aren’t typical of the forms of speech of the post-resurrection Church.

      Secondly, many of Jesus’ uses of questions were ways of escaping double binding traps that his enemies set for him. Similar things can be observed of other forms of speech and action that he employed. The forms of expression were purposefully designed to escape from tight spots. There is a time and a place for this – I have argued in favour of a place for righteous deception, for instance, in my recent 40 Days of Exoduses posts. However, when we are called to declare the Christian message openly, it is not the appropriate time to employ such evasive forms of speech. ‘With the pure You will show Yourself pure; and with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.’

      Third, as I pointed out in the post, the ad man’s primary goal is to get you to feel something and to connect those feelings with what he is trying to sell you. The ad man goes to great length to avoid tripping the switches of your critical mind. The fragmentation of thought and an emphasis upon arriving at conclusions on the primary basis of strong impression is crucial to this. Although we see Jesus addressing himself to the imagination, we do not see him fragmenting the structures of thought or prioritizing emotional impression over ordered meaning. We do not see Jesus revelling in the vague, emotion-eliciting language of ‘imagination’ and feeling. Jesus’ message has a clear and discernible content to it that Bell’s often lacks. In fact, Jesus’ message is densely packed into allusive statements and symbolic actions. When we actually try to unpick Bell’s message, we often find that he insinuates a lot, while saying very little. The ‘symbolism’ is arbitrary and designed to create the emotions that move you in his direction, rather than being truly meaningful. The difference is stark. While engaging the imagination, Jesus’ message is highly confrontational and operates in a context of challenge and question. It doesn’t typically play to our positive feelings and use our negative feelings to move us away from other positions, but presents us with a message and a Jesus that are both often rather unsettling. The critical faculties of listeners are engaged, rather than dulled.

      In short, while Rob Bell and Jesus both occasionally use similar tools, what they do with these are light years apart. Jesus speaks and acts as a Jewish prophet, engaging the ordered symbolic world of Israel with its meaningful networks of associations, preparing the new wineskins of imagination from within it for the resurrection truth of the kingdom of God that is about to split the old ones. Then someone like the Apostle Paul can expound the condensed logic of this vision. By contrast, much of the time Rob Bell speaks and writes as a twenty first century ad man, marshalling detached but potent impressions and resonant images to elicit desirable emotional states, which can then be attached to a particular position. Unlike Jesus, the more that you try to unpack the logic of Bell’s vision, the more that you realize that there isn’t really any there and that his statements evaporate, revealing their insubstantial character. Jesus is always saying so much more than we think, Bell so much less.

      • Wow you make some pretty bold claims. I haven’t got time now to answer them all but I would address your ‘remarkably little emotional and sensory detail is presented to us’ moment.

        This is so rooted in a current context – if you were poor in spirit in the first century context then the emotional sensibility in the words and stories of Jesus is huge.

        Secondly the stick you have chosen to hit Rob Bell with is the ‘he is an ad man’ rather tan a lawyer type preacher.

        You need to think again

      • Thanks for the comment, Alan.

        Yes, I do make some bold claims. And, yes, I am prepared to stand by them.

        I think that any comparison of the style of Bell and his ilk with that of Scripture would make my point for me. The resonance of Jesus’ words about the poor in spirit is primarily mediated by textual, rather than emotional reality. This isn’t to say that emotion isn’t powerfully present. However, the emotions are formed along textual paths. Jesus didn’t choose those particular words primarily because of the feelings of such people, but because the alert listener would recognize the meaning that Jesus was subtly conveying through a scriptural allusion.

        So, for instance, the significance of Jesus’ specific reference to being ‘poor in spirit’ had less to do with how that felt in the first century context, and rather more to do with the fact that Jesus was alluding to return from exile texts in Isaiah. The big point is that the return from exile is about to occur. How that feels to the individual hearer is not without importance, but it is not as dominating a concern in the thinking of Jesus and the biblical writers as it typically is in ours.

        While powerfully addressing and evoking feeling, the biblical narrative does not find its centre of gravity in individual feeling or individual persons at all, but in public events occurring in history, events into which we are drawn. The modern obsession with personal feelings as the measure of all biblical truth makes it very hard for us to understand this and leads to sappy thinking and preaching.

        And, as for my remark about Bell being an ad man, I completely stand by it. I never claimed that we should become lawyers (look again at what I said if you think that I did). The lawyer’s approach also has its weaknesses (weaknesses that I have spoken about in other contexts), although they are considerably less serious than those of the ad man. That statement was merely an allusion to a point that has been made by several writers on the modes of thought and discourse that dominated previous ages. I was observing that, if a determined mode of thought could be associated with the 16th century, our own age was no less apt for such typification.

      • David says:

        I agree with much of this response. So much of the “new Christianity” is little more than a white-washing of Reason and theological depth. I agree that the meta-narrative of Scripture is both intentional and practically unavoidable by anyone who takes just an inkling of time unpacking it.

        Writers like Tolkien and Lewis were master story-tellers as well. I think it’s fair to say their works contained a truck-load more depth too. I actually stumbled on this blog while reading your notes on “The Great Divorce.” The difference is obvious – Lewis knows he is writing metaphors for their teaching value – in other words Lewis was constructing something. Rob Bell, in my opinion, is deconstructing.

        I think when it comes to Rob Bell those are two better ways to view what’s really going on. The first is obviously much of what you describe… a jelly-like omnibus of feel -good experiential goo. But that is a constructionist view. That wasn’t my take away from Love Wins at all. Most of the criticisms against that book came from what have for me become “the expected constructionist places.” These sorts accused Bell of shallowness at a whole host of places, without ever answering any of the questions he put forward in an effort to deconstruct things that simply aren’t working in the Western culture. It’s obvious that Bell himself either can’t answer them himself, or that he is choosing to lead readers into an answer without spelling anything out.

        I’m still not convinced that Bell provided readers with much other than a truck load questions in that book. I think the best criticism of “Love Wins” comes by asserting that Bell’s questions are leading, meaning he often asks them in such a way that readers are expected to answer them his way.

        I am going to reserve judgment on this new book until after I’ve read it. However, I think its misguided to expect Bell to behave as Kant, or even Lewis might. I don’t think that’s his intent.

        Take the video you linked where Bell describes his Olds. He brings up three scenarios 1) the woman sitting in church and being told she shouldn’t teach or lead, 2) the presumably gay couple who hear an Easter sermon about how they are going to hell, and 3) the person told not to fool with the Bible if they can’t take Genesis 1 literally.

        These are problems. And these are not small problems, they are very large problems. First, these are not the Gospel message either and Bell knows it. A constructionist view would demand that Bell offer us a replacement theology if he’s going to criticize the establishment. Maybe he does in the book, but I have my doubts. Second, I fail to see how the three situations he describes differ much from the absolutism and doctrinal hurdles that were elevated to positions of power & worship in 1st century Judaism. They needed to be deconstructed – and to do that, Jesus placed the scribes and the Pharisees in the center of his parables. Personally, I don’t think Bell is that bold. I don’t think he’ll take a prophetic stand against the wedge that is driven between the lost and Jesus by assertive and often misleading Western doctrine.

        Maybe it’s just different here in the States. I live in the South, in a place where the lost would never set foot in a church because the three objections Bell raised above are prevalent in every message delivered. The line in the sand has been drawn on issue-driven doctrine, not the eternal grace afforded by Christ crucified for sin and resurrected on the 3rd day. I appreciate Bell for deconstructing and pushing back, the key now it seems, is for someone else to come along and do the “theological math.” Bell certainly seems incapable.

      • Thanks for the comment, David.

        The contrast between Bell and such Christian writers as Lewis and Tolkien is indeed profound. Lewis and Tolkien are both committed to a sort of task of formation that differs rather dramatically from Bell, who throws around questions that unstick things, without going to great effort to put things back together in a more healthy form.

        The examples that Bell brings up are live issues. One of my deepest problems with Bell and many others is that, beyond provocative anecdotes, elicitations of emotion, and strong impressions, they really don’t build a case for their position, even when pushed. The Church’s historic teaching on marriage, sexuality, creation, or ordination should not just be brushed off because it doesn’t ‘feel right’. But that is what Bell and others so frequently do. Appealing to vague concepts of justice, equality, and love they bypass critical analysis altogether. We are supposed to just have the impression that these things are wrong and dismiss them on the basis of that impression. However, we really need to make carefully and closely reasoned arguments and engaged with critics if we want to make such moves.

  3. ali1 says:

    Thanks for putting far better words to the thoughts I’ve had for a while about theological discourse. The latest example I have found of this is actually the discussions about same-sex marriage within society. When I actually took the time to look at the arguments for same-sex marriage (as opposed to arguments against same-sex marriage – I have yet to read your post below) they all boil down to “don’t be mean to homosexuals”. Now that’s a powerful argument in our culture, but it’s an “ad” argument. All other arguments have no teeth. And yet, arguing against this is very difficult to impossible. So, what do we do?

    My perspective is that we need to make arguments embodied within lives that demonstrate the goodness of the truths we present. This is a slower process of persuasion, but very much a biblical one. It may even result in short-term “loss” before any “win” is seen in the long-term. At this stage I see no other way.

    • You raise an important point, Ali. Healthy modes of reasoning embodied within faithful lives can be powerful over time. There is no easy solution in the short term, though. Fortunately, God has given us all of the time in the world.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for this – you put words to that sinking feeling i get when talking with my mom (a universalist) or one of my many Christian Judaizer friends. There is argument, but it is so hugely emotional, and reason takes a back seat. I find both groups very hard to reason with. I would love to find a rubric to make it work :)

    • Thanks, Stephanie! If you find such a rubric, please share it! :)

      In my experience the only thing that makes a difference in personal interaction is patient witness with people, not pushing them farther than they feel able to go, backing off when you have made a strong point and leaving them with it.

    • I am reluctant to get into the subject of universalism here, given how involved a discussion we would need to have to do justice to the issue. I believe that scripturally we need to hold to some form of ‘universalism’, in the sense that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. All things will be placed under Christ’s feet and reconciled to God’s order. There will be no remaining sinful resistance in the new heavens and the new earth. God’s love truly does win.

      However, I believe that this is consistent with the other dimension of the biblical testimony, which speaks of the reality of eternal loss and of the punishment of hell. We dissemble these truths at our peril.

  5. David says:

    I am somewhat in agreement with Alan’s comment, I think the narrative style Jesus employed was difficult to pen down. He certainly didn’t speak in theological bullet points, creeds, or produce an 8-page “Faith and Mission” statement. Jesus asked questions, I’ve heard 10 times as many as he answered. Even hard core evangelicals will say about Jesus’ most direct statements, that it was hyperbole. For example, when Jesus says it is better to cut off a hand than allow a member of the body to sin and thereby lose the body in Hell, not a single evangelical advocates for chopping off hands or poking out eyes. Yet, this was, in every respect, one of the most direct things Jesus said.

    The truth-speaking style used and accepted today is an invention of modernity and 18th century rationalism. These weren’t the tools of the Hebrew tradition at all, which is why they had no problem describing “evening and morning” before discussing “sun and moon” in Genesis 1. The idea that someone would rationally object or attempt to break down the narrative into truth claims wasn’t absurd, it just wasn’t an option to them and not why the text was written. Jesus seems much the same… he’s after a bit more than bullet-point non-negotiables.

    I do think we’ve gotten too “slick” in trying to communicate what ought to be simple truths about the Gospel. But that’s primarily (imho) because the theology police of the last two hundred years have staked claims in ways that don’t fully represent everyone’s experience of Christ and His love.

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  7. clarkd52 says:

    The people comparing Bell’s style to Jesus’ are forgetting something (or just not mentioning it) and that is that Jesus spoke in obscure ways on purpose! Intentionally Obscure. But then spoke very plainly to His disciples when he explained His obscurity. Bell is not Jesus. Bell’s words do not have the inherent power of the Word of God in them. They are not the words referred in Romans 1 that Are the Power of God unto salvation. Bell is just being unclear for unclearness’ sake. When the Apostle’s fleshed out, lived out, and didacted out the teachings of Christ they were immensely clear. Rather than compare Bell to Christ, lets stop off at Peter, James, and Paul.

    • David says:

      I’m much like author of this blog, I don’t particularly agree with Bell’s theology – but in all fairness, I’m not sure there is a theology to agree or disagree with. I do think Bell is extremely clear however – that clarity though is rooted in the idea that God is bigger than what we say about God, or even bigger than what the clarity of Peter, James, and Paul have to say about God. In fact, what God says about himself is painfully obscure in Exodus 3:14.

      I agree totally that Jesus was intentionally obscure. When I think about what that obscurity was about however, I am brought back to Rob Bell. Jesus was obscure in a religious age which had created a faulty power-structure which preferred doctrine over relationship. In Matthew 9 for example, Jesus says, “Go back and learning the meaning of…” then he quotes Hosea on mercy over sacrifice. And in spite of knowing fully that Isaiah wrote that God’s word cannot return void, Jesus intentionally says in Mark 7 – “You make void the word of God by tradition.”

      I guess where I am coming from would be that clarity in the face of a religious structure that allows its own clarity to become an object of worship would have been moot. Jesus deconstructs the relation-less void of the Jewish system by being intentionaly obscure. He is very clear in pointing out that clarity isn’t the answer, He is the answer (John 5:39).

      I enjoy reading this blog too much to start any kind of religious flame war, so please don’t read this as picking a fight. I’m just a guy who loves Jesus, has surrendered myself over to Him, but maybe sees it a bit a different. I want to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit and apologize if my thoughts come across as confrontational. Like many of us, I am just looking to deepen and grow.

      In Him,
      Acts 17:28

      • David, you don’t need to worry about starting a religious flame war. I welcome challenging questioning and discourse here: it is the best way to sharpen minds and arguments. I am not typically a ‘let’s agree to disagree’ type of person, save in situations where civil discourse has proved impossible. If we have a disagreement, why not make the most of it in a respectful manner and have some ideological sparring that might improve both of our arguments?

        That said, I have a ridiculously busy week ahead, so will need to bow out of this comment thread after this evening.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Paul, James, and Peter are very significant here. It is through their writings that the symbolic cogency and integrity of Jesus’ message and action is demonstrated. We see that Jesus’ actions and words don’t just have a powerful emotional resonance, but that they have an integrity of order to them and can sustain close rational analysis in terms of the symbolic world of the Scriptures.

  8. Rob Steele says:

    The parable and the ad are both subversive. Both fly in under your intellectual radar. The parable then blows up. Think of Nathan telling David about the rich guy who killed his poor neighbor’s precious lamb. That killed David. Parables force you to wake up where ads just seduce and lull you to sleep.

    • ali1 says:

      That’s a nice picture Rob. I think it’s also worth noticing that the hiddenness of parables was not a positive, but was part of Israel’s judgement. I don’t think Rob Bell’s ad style has the same purpose.

    • Good illustration, Rob.

      And the parable blows up into rational understanding, not just a vague but powerful impression. For instance, the ewe lamb is symbolically associated with the Israelite daughter or young wife. The legal requirement for restitution was four sheep (Exodus 22:1), which appears in David’s judgment (2 Samuel 12:6). David’s life was spared, but his sentence was enacted upon him as four of his lambs were taken from him (the newborn child of Bathsheba, Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah).

      Here we see that the parable wasn’t just about an emotive impression, but about invoking an ordered symbolic reality and imaginative order that revealed the true nature and orientation of human actions. This is quite different from Bell’s approach, I would argue.

  9. This was a great post, but can you make it into an info-graphic? I’d also appreciate a few more anecdotes, questions, and metaphors to support your point. (with sarcasm)

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  11. Morgan G. says:

    Great writing and debate. I think the bottom line is that Bell is at least a leading voice for introducing the “unchurched” that maintain an interest in divine matters to the gospel. The way he provokes emotion is effective for reaching his desired/target audience. This is truly important for the gospel! Even more so, imo, than diving into the theological/textual debate with a clear, stated theology. He intentionally doesn’t get pinned down, because I feel like he truly believes that there are issues that are progressive in nature (think the evangelical view of women in pastoral positions, homosexuality, just war, etc…) Pinning himself down on these issues, or others that are purely speculation (the afterlife), would do considerable harm to his message and the attraction to the Jesus story that he is trying to inspire. Jesus, as you well know, had lots to say to all the so-called “experts” of his day.

    • Thanks for the comment, Morgan.

      When it comes to spreading the gospel, I believe that the true power lies in the message itself, not in our rhetorical packaging of that message, or in clever marketing. To the extent that we feel the need to tweak or airbrush that message to make it more attractive to a general audience, I think that we are in danger of placing our trust in advertising technique over the Holy Spirit and losing the true power. As Paul says of his own teaching method in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:

      And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

      The gospel doesn’t require our dissembling to exert its effect.

      And, yes, as you observe, Jesus did have rather a lot to say to the experts of his day. However, what he had to say tended to have rather a lot to do with their ignorance of or obscuring of the Scriptures, often on account of their tradition. I suspect that he would have similar things to say of advertising techniques that do the same thing.

      • David says:

        I don’t think disassembling is the right word. Even in mission work, the Gospel is packaged in a way that best communicates its message, but the message itself is not disassembled. This is one of the first things missionaries learn – to take from the cultural cues of those they are trying to reach, and then learn to communicate the Gospel in the medium of that culture’s language. I still think it remains to be seen if Bell will go this far, or if he will simply adopt the medium of Western entertainment without getting to the message. I think in Love Wins, Bell stopped short of communicating the true power of Christ, but I will say that for the first time in about 15 years, my atheist friends were bringing up spirituality to me (not the other way around) after they read it. That’s worth a great deal in my estimation.

      • Thanks for the comment, David. As I pointed out elsewhere, medium and message are inescapably intertwined in the Christian gospel. We need variety in the forms of our presentation. However, this need for variety does not mean that every form of presentation is justifiable.

        I would certainly not suggest that Bell’s work is altogether without value. Most definitely not! I am encouraged to hear that it has been a means for non-Christians to reconsider the gospel. In a context where people have a lot of spiritual debris in their lives from negative experiences with unchristian presentations of the gospel, a fresh voice can make a difference. My concern is the cost at which this effectiveness in communication is gained.

  12. Morgan G. says:

    I think Jesus would have less to say about an advertising approach to his message and more to say about how we respond to his command to “Love thy neighbor.” This simple message is so easily overlooked/distorted by our human emphasis on theology. What I love about Rob is that he always refers to the ways our world is messed up and how desperate we are to receive good news. There is constant reference that all of us are capable of using creative energy to participate in God’s redemptive plan. I believe God is concerned with matters of the heart, and no matter where we are on the spiritual journey, the question of the posture of our heart would be at the core, regardless of our biblical/theological knowledge, which is why so many listen to Rob. He and his motives aren’t exempt either, of course, but I feel we need to recognize the value of his message from less of a theological perspective. As a local listener of Rob’s teaching since 2001, he has really progressed in his way of communicating. In the early days, it is very clear that he had a lot of pride in his ability to take relatively unknown biblical texts and unpack them (he started Mars Hill with a series on Leviticus, of all texts). Over the years, he learned to craft his message to borderline offending the conservative crowd, just challenging tradition enough without significant division. But at times he was radical enough to divide many members at Mars Hill (specifically on his posture towards inclusion of female pastors, and later on his suggestions of differing views of the afterlife with Love Wins). I believe now that he feels much more liberated and less restricted by not being governed by a greater church body, but he maintains the skill of suggesting radical ideas without signing onto them 100% (this certainly frustrates many people!).

    • Thanks for the response, Morgan.

      While I definitely agree in principle with you regarding the centrality of the message of love, my problem is that, by itself, ‘love’ merely tends to become a vague stand-in for ‘niceness’ and anything that makes us feel good. Everyone sees what they want to in the word ‘love’ – it is one of those words, so appreciated by advertisers, whose meaning is typically projected onto it by the hearer. However, the more that we read the Scriptures, the more that ‘love’ takes a very particular form, one which doesn’t conform to many people’s ideas of what it should be.

      Again, you speak about ‘radical’ ideas and ‘challenging tradition’. These can occasionally be very good things: it all depends on the idea and the tradition. However, when the delicious frisson of being edgy and challenging becomes an end in itself, our thought will soon become twisted.

      Also Christian teachers who like to ‘suggest radical ideas without signing onto them 100%’ can be incredibly dangerous. They absolve themselves of responsibility by not committing himself, while pushing people in directions without clear guidance. The pastor is called to teach and guard the flock committed to his charge, not to insinuate radical ideas to them.

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  14. diane says:

    You lost me when you said that you were a teenager when you read “Velvet Elvis” in 2005. I was 32 at the time. And apparently I wasn’t raised on advertising the way you were.

    I should also add that I’ve been a member of Mars Hill Bible Church for over 10 years. It’s always fascinating when I read articles about Rob.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment, Diane.

      I wasn’t a teenager when I read Velvet Elvis, but in my mid-twenties. I was speaking of the trailer from the perspective of a generic viewer.

      I wasn’t raised by advertising either. I grew up without a TV.

  15. john says:

    I appreciate your thoughts on this. The image you painted at the beginning of the article about the feeling of nostalgia looking back at my first reading of Velvet Elvis resonated, and I’m still a fan of Bell’s work. It’s good to hear a critique of the medium as well as message.
    I had questions about this: At least a couple of times, you say that we’re not called to be ad men. But I’m not sure then what form our preaching should take. You seem to say that debate is preferable, but I’ve not seen that tried from the pulpit. So do you think our message is actually something we can extract in a “pure” form from our medium, and then give to other people in a similarly “pure” form regardless of medium? Or is there a best medium for our message?
    You said the gold standard for Christian communication is 2 Corinthians 4:2, and my first thought was, “What about 1 Corinthians 9:19-23?”
    This was an incredibly insightful article, and I was glad to stumble on it today. Thanks for what you’re doing.

    • Thanks, John. And thanks for commenting.

      You ask some very important questions. I believe that we should encourage and employ many forms of discourse in the life of the Church. I believe that debate is crucial in the context of theological discourse, for instance. However, debating isn’t something that is for the act of preaching itself. When it comes to preaching, our primary duty is to present the Word of God clearly to people’s consciences (not to be straightforwardly confused with a person’s mind, actions, imaginations, or emotions). This demands a clear and directed presentation of biblical truth in a manner that calls for and encourages personal and ongoing commitment. There are other occasions, for instance, in Sunday School where we might aim more for the imagination or something else. Much Christian teaching rightly addresses the mind and imagination primarily.

      The ad man’s style is dangerous in the context of preaching as it is not clear, nor does it encourage genuine commitment. It typically downplays the unwelcome demands of God upon our lives, replacing the good news with the feelgood news. The ad man makes the most of impressions and vagueness, where God calls for a clarity that challenges us.

      Our message is not something that can or should be extracted from a medium. Besides, medium and message come together in Jesus Christ, who is the revelation of God in both ‘content’ and ‘form’. Consequently, as those seeking to present the truth of God faithfully, attention to our medium is crucial: not only our message but also our media must conform to Christ.

      1 Corinthians 9:19-23 shows Paul addressing people where they are. We have many forms of faithful discourse at our disposal, and we must speak truthfully to people using a manner appropriate to them. For instance, much of my blog is written on a slightly more academic level. However, if I were to address young children in such a style I would neither be a good servant of the gospel, nor of them. Nevertheless, the same norms apply in the case of all of our discourses, if they are to be faithful and truthful. My concern is that Bell’s style of discourse goes beyond a matter of accommodation to the people to whom he is trying to communicate and takes on a misleading and dangerous form that subtly undermines both critical thought and, more importantly, personal conviction and commitment.

  16. Paul Baxter says:

    Hi Al,

    lots of good stuff here, both from you and the commenters above. I love the fact that you enjoy Mad Men. What a terrific show. I hope you’ve been able to see some of the special features on the DVDs, as they are also very well done.

    I haven’t had a ton of exposure to Rob Bell. A pastor/friend from a few years ago showed a few of his videos at some church Sunday School classes, and I enjoyed them.

    My only thoughts are that Bell’s general approach may be, as some others have suggested, a very effective form of evangelism within US culture. To the extent that that is true, I say “great.” That particular friend also liked using lots stories and emotional content in his preaching and was self-consciously in favor of that sort of approach.

    Another related question might be, to what extent should sermons be motivational, as opposed to didactic or some other approach.

    Anyhow, hope you’ve been well. You are always welcome to watch Mad Men at my house anytime you are in the neighborhood :)

    • Thanks, Paul!

      Rob Bell has been a theologically moving target for some time, so earlier material is not necessarily an indication of the quality and content of later material and vice versa. I don’t deny that there is merit to his NOOMA videos and to much else that he has produced, much as I love many TED videos, while having deep reservations about the style.

      My concern is with the poisonous effect that advertising and its forms have on discourse and thought, especially discourses for which clarity and commitment are important. Particularly concerning is the willingness to throw our lot in completely with such styles of discourse, merely because they are – quite indisputably – effective. You only have to look at politics to see how effective yet toxic discourse driven by the forms of advertising can become.

      I believe that sermons should primarily be about addressing the conscience, which demands the avoidance of vagueness in the message, and a challenge to deep and costly personal commitment. There are times and places for other forms of discourse. However, applying Bell’s style of discourse to the task of theological communication and pastoral leadership can be incredibly dangerous, to my mind.

      An evening of Mad Men would be wonderful! Hopefully one day we will have the opportunity! :)

  17. David says:

    I read your article… found it interesting… it’s a great discussion to have regarding theology, etc. I guess the thing I’m wondering about is this: where does mystery come into play? You say that you can present a reasonable argument for your theology (and indeed, you do write a lot of words to that point) but I’m trying to wrap my head around whether you can have a “reasonable” argument for the Great Mystery that is God. It seems to me that Mr. Bell simply scraps “reason” to discuss the Mystery on “mystic” terms… talking about feelings, etc. It’s nothing new… Christian mystics have been doing this for ages.

    Your reasonable argument is still based on belief: in God, in the Bible as the authoritarian Word of God, as Christ being the Son of God. In the end, your argument is based on your experience of God. Any reasonable argument stated simply comes from a place of faith, that is the “evidence of things not seen,” as a blind person talking about what is seen. Bell has simply dispensed with the pleasantries and gone straight to the experience that we’re all having and said, “If it’s not getting results (as in joy, peace, love, etc) then what good is it?” He seems to believe that God actually does change people and that this is done through an experience with God, not a “reasonable” argument of theology.

    Truth is only relative because people are individuals. Even absolute truth is still relative, which is why we have 37,000 denominations of Christianity, every one of them claiming a genuine experience of God and many of them claiming “truth” in their theology. It seems to me that there is a place in there for a mystic like Bell to focus on the personal experience outside of a theology discussion.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment, David!

      I think that we should beware of confusing mystery with vagueness. Mystery is at the very heart of our faith. However, the Christian Church has gone to considerable effort to give definition to the mystery, without dissolving it. Take, for instance, all of the ecumenical creeds on the person and natures of Christ or on the doctrine of the Trinity. These truths are mysteries, but the Church was prepared to be torn apart to ensure that we spoke about these mysteries clearly. Reason can never fully comprehend God, but this inability was never an invitation to vague impressions to step in and try to do the job for it.

      My argument is not merely based upon my personal experience, but also upon the divinely inspired apostolic testimony, the faith of the Church, and its testimony to the truth.

      Interpretations are relative. This doesn’t mean that truth is relative (at least not in the sense that people mean). One of the reasons why people arrive at so many different interpretations is because they presume that most of our differences of interpretation say more about Scripture than they do about its interpreters. Nor do the limitations of interpretation justify every form of experiential hermeneutic or the employment of impressionistic rhetorical styles in our teaching.

      • David says:

        I understand your reasoning but there are real problems with it, especially regarding your use of the word “truth.” One can only claim truth for themselves… this is indisputable. You can claim that there is one truth, but this idea is still filtered through your own brain, your own biology. You can claim that the Christian Church has successfully (or even partially) defined the mystery through ecumenical creeds, etc, but still, this belief is filtered through your own biology, thus the existence of those who claim that those same creeds were an exercise to consolidate power inside the Roman Empire. All of these claims end up being filtered through what we believe of the world: our eyes, our ears, our hands, how we experience the world.

        All of this serves to point to the individual experience of faith… what I would call the “Abrahamic” experience. The Knowing of a God that meets us on the road, speaks to use out of nowhere and we hear God, respond to God. No theology. Just the Word before the Bible. The Word that was there in the beginning.

        It’s not something you can reason around, which goes back to the original point of your article: Bell isn’t trying to reason… he’s speaking about the Mystery, I think.

  18. I hope that all of you will understand if – given the fact that I have an exceedingly busy week – I bow out of this discussion at this point. I hope that I have already addressed most of the principal questions that would arise out of my post in the comments already.

    Feel free to continue to discuss in my absence! :)

  19. supersimbo says:

    Wonderfully helpful post – thank you

  20. David says:

    On some levels, quite so.

    But where would Augustine have been without his grasp of rhetoric? Or Paul, if you read him closely. That’s all this is, in the classical sense. This is language intended to persuade, and the art of suasion has always been equal parts reason, emotion, and shared cultural referents. Or, to put in classical terms, logos, pathos, and ethos. It’s all there, in these elegant little teasers.

  21. Henry says:

    I think you all are wrapped way to tight around the axle … you parse words and meanings and miss the point … We are human, we have emotion , we have longings .. and guess what – we need a relationship with Jesus – that’s the only way to fill those needs and longings .. How you get there and what it takes to get you there is irrelevant. That’s your Story .. Who is You Lord ?

    • David says:

      Henry, I’m reading the new book now (picked it up this morning). The entire beginning is about this problem of the definitions of words like God. So when you say that the only way to fill those needs and longings is a relationship with Jesus, Bell would say, (as he bluntly did in his last book), “Which Jesus?” This is why our experience with these “words” is so important, I would argue. You have to wrap your head around your definitions of things and be willing to throw them out if they don’t work.

      • Henry says:

        That is totally true .. so many people have their definition made for them, they are not even honest with themselves that they don’t know there is another “Jesus”. – I do not have the book so I am not commenting on that .. its just that the article seemed more concerned with how the message was delivered , and the style used .. If Rob stirs up in anyone the thought, the wrestling, the search for “Which Jesus” .. its a good thing.

  22. David says:

    I agree, Henry.

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  25. A truly fascinating discourse in both the article and perhaps even more so through the comments and replies.

    I find myself in both camps here. I’m a huge fan of Bell’s work and have been for many, many years. I’ve followed his teachings through the books, his tours and through his sermons at Mars Hill. So my experience with his teachings tells me that there is far more to what he’s teaching than what is distributed at the surface. (The Everything is Spiritual tour would perhaps sum that up well.)

    That being said, I see the entire point of being wary of an advertising pitch on Jesus. It’s dangerous for the critical thinker because it turns off that message to them as was stated in the article. A watered-down Jesus story that says “Just take the surface message here. Don’t worry, we’ll cover the how it works part for you.” is certainly a message that can be damaging within the Christian circles.

    But that’s where I think the point is divided here. The article here presents Rob Bell as an ad man. The examples given are in videos that are quite clearly…advertisements. They are product plugs. They are movie trailers. “In a world where man and machine must live as one…” We’ve all seen the movie trailers that make us go “Wow, I want to see that movie!” and it works. It’s an effective sales pitch. So that takes us back to what one of the comments above brought up: It’s all about consumption of the message.

    Alastair wrote a well-reasoned article on the dangers of the ad man approach to theology. Not many of the points can be argued with absolute counters that would “win”. They lead to a discourse and those of us reading the article and the comments are gobbling up that discourse. Our passion for the Jesus story comes from a deeper education level on the topics. But isn’t the presentation here of Rob Bell as just this mystic ad man in fact being presented in an ad man approach? We’re given snippets of the Bell theology through promotional videos. We’re told about the surface nature of his teachings in a way that will provoke us to emotions about how wrong that must be. We’re later told in comments that “Rob Bell has been a theologically moving target for some time, so earlier material is not necessarily an indication of the quality and content of later material and vice versa. I don’t deny that there is merit to his NOOMA videos and to much else that he has produced, much as I love many TED videos, while having deep reservations about the style.”

    So my reasoning on that would lead me to believe that this isn’t in fact about the message at all. This is about the consumption of the message. Consumption is relative. As I said above, we’re all gobbling this up and consuming the knowledge and discourse between reasonable people. We know that Jesus loves us and we understand his parables weren’t simply metaphors. But as many others brought up, we’re not the target demographic here. If we are to throw out Bell’s earlier works and deeper teachings, are we not selling a pitch to achieve the emotional response we desire? Yes, his theology on the surface has been a moving target. But from whom? The deeper critical thinkers that aren’t really the targets of the message are the ones with problems on his theology. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard any complaints on his theology from a casual person who just needed to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

    Yes, his surface teachings in his books and promotional videos are somewhat shallow in that they don’t penetrate a deep answer to the questions. But that’s not his goal. His goal IS to be that ad man and to get people in the door. You saw the movie trailer and you thought you couldn’t wait for that movie to come out. The ad man got you in the theater to see the movie. Now it’s the movie’s job to tell the story deeper and make you love it or hate it. It’s the audience around you who have to decide together what value they take from bits and pieces of the product.

    Rob Bell got people in the door who never would have come in the door before. Those of us already inside the door can roll our eyes at the message all we want, but guess what? We’ve got company now that we didn’t have earlier. If it took an advertising pitch to get them to the Jesus product, so be it. Now let’s wow them with the way it all works.

  26. Ok, so you’re critiquing Rob’s advertisement for his new book as being like an advertisement. Wow. What a claim?! Have you read one page of the book? I have. I’m halfway through chapter 2 and his message, his journey is mine. I don’t know how many pastors are out there that have had or are going through serious doubts about EVERYTHING and it’s quite certain they may not land anywhere near where they jumped off, but I know this journey and it’s painful and this is what Rob is speaking about and in a hopeful way.

    This is a book, so far, that I’ve already held in front of my wife who has been frustrated at my deep and bitter questions from time to time and said “That paragraph right there, read it. THAT’S what I’ve been trying to say.”

    Call the commercial a commercial. And yes, a lot of preachers get by with fluff for a long time, but so far, for me, this book is a timely and resonate piece of reading that speaks to this time, these people, and our God.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jared. As I pointed out above, I don’t really have time to participate further in the discussion in the comments here, but let me clear up a few things at this point.

      First, I have read a few Rob Bell books, seen him preach, and some of his videos. I am well aware of his work beyond book trailers.

      Second, Bell’s book trailers are advertisements. My point was that it is here that we see Bell’s style in its most natural element. Having seen the style in its most distilled form and recognized how it works, you will recognize its subtler, but no less real, presence in his other writings and videos. The same tendency to fracture thought into impressions, to persuade through careful elicitation and direction of emotions, to indulge in evasive, indirect, and insubstantial rhetoric, and to speak of theological truth in very vague terminology is present in his main writings.

      Third, I never claimed that Bell’s work is without substance, merely that, on account of its style, it has considerably less substance than people think and that its style is highly inappropriate for getting people to engage with the substance in an appropriately critical and discerning fashion. The parallel that I drew with TED talks is important here. TED talks are definitely not without substance, but they are presented in a way that discourages the very sort of ‘substantial’ engagement with substance that we need.

      Fourth, Bell’s work resonates and connects powerfully. This can definitely not be disputed and was much of my point. My concern was to observe that perhaps the primary reason why it so resonates is that he writes using the techniques and methods of an ad man.

      • David says:

        Alastair, I think you should spend some time examining that concept of “connection.” You seem to be of an analytical mindset. I teach at a university and am surrounded by critical thinkers, and feel myself to be one as well. But it’s fascinating to me that the professors that don’t know how to communicate their ideas have even less success in teaching their students to think critically. Bell’s work has proven itself to be critical in it’s nature, very much so. His book “Jesus wants to save Christians” was an in-depth reading of the Bible and it’s patterns of dominions and kingdoms. “Love Wins” was an analysis of each mention of hell in the Bible. I’m half-way through his new book… this new one is definitely expressing a new vision of how we think about God.

        Disagreeing with his theology does not make his thinking or approach less critical or rational. Your assumption that should we have a rational discussion about it, the conclusion would be more along the lines of what you believe (or “rational” people believe) is actually one of Bell’s main critiques of modern Christian thinking.

        And it doesn’t ring true to your own point. This has been one of the weaknesses of academia in the last 15 years… an inability to view creativity as a form of intelligence. Bell uses creativity to help make a point that he believes is correct. How is this blog any different?

        I would challenge you to examine what you feel connects to other people… would your idea of “rational” discussion connect or not? And if it doesn’t (which apologists are discovering all over the West), then is it rational? Is it valid? Or do you keep putting your head in the sand and insisting that what you think is right?

  27. Henry says:

    Maybe Rob was influenced more than we think by ex-Porsche Ad man – Shane Hipps – His Preaching partner at Mars Hill … I think Shane and Rob totally understood the advertising paradigm but knew enough that its not about filling chairs on Sunday – its about action, breaking down barriers that would separate our daily secular life from our spiritual life.

  28. Rev says:

    You don’t get Rob Bell but you spent all this time writing this piece. It’s easier to react to someone else than constructing something yourself. Look who’s the Ad man?

  29. Emma says:

    As someone who would identify themselves as being a Christian since the age of 16 (now an aged 43!), living in the UK and who has held various roles within the local church including deacon, youth worker and administrator, I found this post a fascinating read.

    I suppose my first thoughts are that in my own experience of my relationship with Jesus, my understanding of Him through the words of the Bible, commentators through the ages etc etc is that what I understood and knew at 16 has changed over the years. Life happens to all of us, and we will always see things through the filter of our own experiences at a particular given moment in time. I may interpret a passage of scripture very differently now than I did 20 years ago because of differing life experiences and situations and I think that’s OK. What I hope I never become is so entrenched in a way of thinking that I’m not open to change. I will admit that there are topics flying around the Christian thinking at the moment that I find challenging, but I’m happy to engage in them and explore them, weight them etc. I may have a standpoint about some of them now but I also know that this may change in years to come.

    I’ve just started to read Rob’s new book and I was struck by a para at the start that said this “first I am a Christian, and so Jesus is how I understand God. I realise that for some people, hearing talk about Jesus shrinks and narrows the discussion about God, by my experience has been the exact opposite. My experience of Jesus has opened my mind and my heart to a bigger, wider, more expansive and mysterious and loving God who I believe is actually up to something in the world”

    Earlier discussions have talked about truth, well truth to me is a person – Jesus. Like any relationship, getting to know someone takes time, effort and will. What I knew about my husband when we married 12 years ago is different from what I know about him now, as we’ve journeyed together through this period of our lives. To say at the start of my marriage I know everything about my husband and there’s nothing more to know would have not only been arrogant but sad – I would have missed out on so much as I wouldn’t having been willing to change and grow. And I see my relationship with Jesus in the same way – It’s grown and changed over time based on my personal life experiences, greater learning and simply by spending time with Him in a variety of ways and I can still say that like my husband I still don’t know everything but I want to know more.

    I know many will say that there are absolutes within the Christian faith that can’t change – and yes there are but perhaps just not as many -as we’d like!

    As an ex youth worker I know that more and more younger people find it incredibly hard to engage in any sort of way with the Christian faith at the moment and people like Rob make it so much easier for them. His way of communicating seems to engage them in a way that others can’t. Some may say that there is a lack of substance to Rob’s message but as has been said before, at least people are engaging in a dialogue and I’m sure as these people are shown the heart of Jesus and God and continue their journey with Him that like any relationship it will grow and change them – I have a great belief in God being able to change us – who doesn’t want to change for someone who loves us as much as He does! I just want to be part of that person’s journey in whatever capacity I can be.

    I think sometimes we’re concerned about the “looseness” of the theology and worry that people won’t understand as they should, they need to be told in a more forthright and clear way – but perhaps that’s the bit we should leave up to God and just work out what our part is in a persons life at the moment we intersect our life with theirs – it’s blooming exciting is all I know!

  30. I think that Rob Bell is just being honest about how he feels and thinks about God. If you think that you have the truth and your interpretation on the bible is the correct one, then you are just one of millions of people who all think that. To me this is a slippery slope that goes nowhere. Look at how many different denominations and religions that all say their way is the way to understand things. They all can’t be right and they all can’t be wrong. There isn’t just one way to understanding God, we have to be honest about that, Right? If you say no then you are stuck in an understanding that needs to evolve and open up. I used to be a hard core evangelical and my way was the only way, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodist, baptist, non-denominational churches, and of course all eastern thought and beliefs were wrong. I started to be honest about how i felt, though i know you think you can only trust your mind when it comes to what you believe, but your mind is just interpreting what you feel and we can get into how thoughts are vibration, and quantum physics but that is another discussion.

    I think that Rob Bell is starting to tap into what I have tapped into which is that the collective consciousness of mankind is growing and changing. The constructs that we have build our ideas on of what the “truth” is needs to be updated. Or you can say that the tree of consciousness needs pruning in order for new thought to grow and for mankind to evolve to a new understand of God and what it means to be human. It is not that the bible is not God inspired, or that truth is relative, it is more that our understanding of truth evolves through time as we continue to engage with it. Simple example: How you understand love at age 5 is much different than that at age 65, right? So it is with the collective consciousness and the ideas that we have constructed. How mankind understands things now is different and to continue to apply old constructs to our understanding now is not working. That is why Rob Bell says that God is ahead of us. There is absolute truth but our understanding of that truth changes through time as we grow in it. We use to allow slavery, now we don’t, woman use to be property, now they are not, same is true to our understanding of God and the role of spirituality in our lives.
    I think Rob Bell and I and millions of others are wanting a time of the redefinition of things. Time to redefine who and what God is, what our role as humans are on this plant, it is a time of going deeper and really having the courage to let go of understandings that are just not serving us any longer. Time is not linear, time is more circular, made of seasons so it says in the Bible Ecclesiastes 3: a time for everything. It is a spiritual practice to honor the season we are in and now is the season of letting go of certain understandings and applying new ones. This is a never ending process that we have to recognize and honor. During this time or season things need to be sorted out, and may be vague for a while because we are stepping out into new understandings and we don’t have the language or the right words for it yet. It is a season of new beginnings and expanded consciousness. This can be scary, but in order for our survival we need to have the courage to honor the season we are in and start to redefine the constructs in which we build our ideas. It doesn’t mean throw out all old ways of doing things at all it just means it is the season to make them new and fresh and to expand our understanding of these ancient truths.
    I think Rob Bell is wanting a new approach to understanding God, as am I. How you approach things is everything. I believe that we need to approach our conversation about God as just that a conversation, or discussion. This doesn’t mean that morality or right and wrong are now to be thrown out. It just means lets open our minds and hearts to all people and ideas, lets be brave and really engage with all ways of spirituality and if the truth is the truth we will find it. The bible says if you seek you will find, I say lets seek again. Lets go deeper, you can’t believe that we know all there is to know about God, if you think that then my heart goes out to you because you are stuck in an illusion and you can’t see. Let us be free and have the courage to really step out and Go to the depths. It may take man kind 2000 years to understand what is being felt and thought about God right now. Mankind is going through a rebirth, like a caterpillar that turns into a butterfly. that butterfly a few weeks before it comes out of its cocoon is crawling along the ground and is interacting with the world in a way that caterpillars do. Then it spins its cocoon and becomes a butterfly. In that moment of the butterflies life when it breaks out all it’s understanding of how to get food, and how to live,changes. The butterfly can now FLY!!! It’s consciousness needs to expand and evolve in order to survive. Mankind is going through that kind of rebirth, during this time in history. Mankind need to accept it, understand it and be open. We used to crawl along the ground and now we can fly!!!

    • cookiejezz says:

      Surely an alternative (not to say “better”) view is this: biblical truth has always existed an has been available to anyone who would see it, but very often mankind’s attempts at religion have obscured it.
      It is tragic that many Christian denominations insist on their way as the right way, because many churches and leaders (and, therefore, individual Christians) are not truly basing their theology and practice on what the Bible says, but on what they have been *told* that it says. All of our doctrine needs to be taken back to the Scriptures and examined to see whether it is true (as the “noble Bereans” did in Acts 17:11), whether we are Catholic, evangelical or something else altogether.
      What often happens, however, is that we tell ourselves that the theology we have come to accept as truth is as reliable as the Scriptures that our theology claims for support. Rather than measuring preaching against the Bible, we measure it against our theology. In this way the real yardstick of truth is ignored: we accept doctrine if it conforms to our theology (or our denominational allegiance) rather than going back to first principles in Scripture.

      In this, Rob Bell is as guilty as anybody, for he too is deeply involved in promoting a theology that claims to be biblical, whilst rejecting ideas that do not conform to his view of God, because he fails either to understand or examine biblical truth when it challenges his views.
      Thus, most often we do not need to discover anything new (novel), but rather to realise that Truth has been there all along, often buried beneath our wrong doctrines and wrong practices.

      • Again as you write this you fail to see that you are stating that some one can know the “right” way of interpreting the scriptures. We have to admit that your perception of truth versus mine are going to be different. Who is right who is wrong? Does it matter? We get so distracted by trying to prove something that we just can’t. Philosophically it is just wrong to state that one knows the truth. Since ones reality is just based on there perceptions built from there environment and experiences. This is not saying that there is no truth, I am just saying that all of us are going to understand it differently. There will be similarities but at the end of the day we can not really prove anything. This is why there is faith. Spirituality is not a science you can not treat it that way. It is not based in rational thinking and linear thought. The laws of the physical world can not apply to the things of God. The kingdom is a non-physical place, it is in our minds. Time for us to let go of our minds and trying to understand god through rational human thinking.

      • cookiejezz says:

        Dustin, thank you for your response.

        With the greatest of respect, your use of terms such as spirituality indicates a very great difference in our understanding and approach.
        Whilst maintaining that we cannot understand God through rational human thinking, you appear to be insisting that some kind of human thinking (Irrational? Spiritual but not figured out?) is all we can rely on.

        I am not at all saying that we should be trying to understand God through rational human thinking. the Bible is very clear about who God is and how to approach Him – we do not have to sit down and try to figure it out for ourselves. I have no faith at all in my own opinion, but I have a lot of faith in the very clear words God has written.

        God has made the way through Jesus Christ, and His Word, the Bible, very clearly states who Jesus is, what He has done, and how to find him.

        Thus the truth in which I believe could not be further removed from my own thinking. I have a choice, to accept what God says in his word or to reject it. Whether I reject it in favour of atheism or something that looks like religion, it is still a rejection if I do not accept and follow what God says.

        Far too many arguments against the truth of the Bible begin with the assumption that there is not much truth in the Bible. Jesus, however, says that His words are so solid that the man who does them will have built his life like a house built on rock, which withstands the storms of this world, unlike a man who builds on his own thinking, whose house falls flat like one built on sand.

        At the end of the day, God has spoken. It is true that our own opinions count for nothing, and it is precisely because our own opinions are so untrustworthy that God has given us his word. For those of us who put our faith in it, it is life and peace.

      • David says:

        Cookie, it doesn’t seem logical or intellectually feasible to attribute all of the Bible’s words to Jesus. By what power is this possible? Was it Jesus that said, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless?” Is that God speaking?

        You cannot rubber stamp your messages with “Truth” by making statements of belief. You can, however, attribute your beliefs with what you believe to be True while recognizing, in humility, that you are one man with a very, very small piece of the puzzle. Your need for absolutes is a house built on the sand.

      • Thank your for responding to me… If i may, can I ask a couple of questions… ?

        If the bible is so clear in what it says and means then why is there so many different interpratations and denominations that all say something different but yet claim to have the right way of interpreting the bible? Also you say you don’t rely on your opinion but Gods word, but isn’t your opinion of what gods word says just that, your own opinion?

        Also do you believe that the human mind is made up of many layers and dimensions. That reality is not just what we can see but what we can’t see? That our reality is based on our perception of it? Do you know anything about quantum physics?

  31. Webb Mealy says:

    “Rob Bell’s theology seldom approaches you head on. It typically comes at you couched in a question, insinuated in an anecdote, embedded in a quotation from one of his friends, or smuggled in a metaphor.” This suonds just like Jesus’ style of communication to me.

    • cookiejezz says:

      Surely the difference between Rob Bell and Jesus is this: Jesus brings us to objective, biblical truth which He consistently upholds, whereas Bell’s approach results in him undermining clear Scripture and interpreting a great many things in terms of how we feel.

      • David says:

        cookiejezz… the phrase “scripture framed objectiveness” is subjective. Have you not noticed how we have over 30,000 denominations in the Christian religion? Whose frame are you considering? Bell’s thoughts on emotions and subjective experience are based on one simple fact: we are all individuals and must experience God as individuals. As one author put it, “God is filtered through your biology.” This is indisputable. To take an example from Love Wins, if a woman grows up being sexually abused by her preacher/father, then her experience of the Bible, Jesus, anything Christian has inalterably affected her ability to experience God through that lens (what you call the scripturally-framed objectivity). Bell is simply calling people to a place where they see the world through this understanding.

        Your comments reek with the pride of “scripturally-framed objectivity.” I wonder whose Bible you are reading?

      • cookiejezz says:

        David, thank you for your comments. For sure, people who have a negative experience of Christian people’s behaviour will more than likely, by association, develop a negative view of God. However, that is the whole point of the objectivity of the truth found in the Bible: that there are truths that transcend human knowledge or experience, which are objective precisely because they do not depend on an individual’s experience for their truthfulness. In other words, these things are true whether people believe them or not, and whether they feel them to be true or not, and all points in between. But in order to benefit from their truthfulness, we have to allow a change in our own thinking (a “paradigm shift”). Therefore, if I previously believed that God is unjust and vengeful, I come to believe the truth – that He is loving and forgiving – and a change in not only my beliefs but also my attitudes and actions is the result.

        For the woman who has been sexually abused in your example, God offers healing, restoration and the power to forgive her abusers. In this there is freedom and newness of life. While there may indeed be aspects of her experience that she carries for the rest of her life, it will be so that God can bring good out of them – her life story is meant to be coloured not by shame and pain but by the glory of God’s new creation. This is very different from the argument that some make which essentially casts her for ever as a victim and excuses certain behaviours and attitudes on the basis that her suffering justifies them, but results at best in a sort of acceptance rather than real redemption.

        When it comes to different denominations (and the issue of my reeking pride) the core of the matter is this (and I believe that Alastair has also addressed this in previous posts): Many of us somehow acquire the notion that the Bible is for the most part mystical and ambiguous and that the content therein is capable of a great many forms of interpretation – and indeed that this ambiguity is part of God’s design. The corollary to this line of thought is that nobody can say for sure what the Bible means and that all interpretations are of more or les equal validity. If that is so, then to claim that my interpretation is better than anybody else’s would indeed be quite prideful.

        I happen to have studied law for 4 years, and languages for many more, so I am quite sensitive to issues of the interpretation of written words, all the more so when I comes to the Bible. What is abundantly clear, both from the whole tone of the Bible and the things it says about itself (that it is truth; that it stands for ever; that it is not to be added to or subtracted from), is that more often than not the issue with human “interpretation” of the Bible is not so much about certain texts being capable of a wide range of different meanings, as that we tend to put the ultimate truthfulness and immutability of both God’s word and God’s will on the back burner so that we can favour our own versions of godliness. The Bible is very clear on a great many things – it is we who obscure it by taking a stand against it or by postulating our own versions of “truth”.

        To pick examples from the modern day: some sections of the church no longer see sex before marriage as sinful, yet the Bible is consistent from front to back that sex outside of marriage is immoral. Those who preach that times have changed have not understood that the principle of two becoming one flesh stands for ever (see Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:8; 1 Cor 6:16; Ephesians 5:21), and are living in defiance of the Bible’s clear pronouncements on the subject.

        Or to take a strongly denominational example: a main plank in the argument of Catholics against contraception and/or masturbation is the story of Onan (it’s a huge issue, but we’ll just look at this one point). Yet when we read the account in Genesis 38:1-10, we find that far from having sex with his wife only for pleasure, or craftily gratifying himself, Onan was under a legal obligation to sleep with his dead brother’s wife to give her a child and heir. Thus the sin of Onan was not in spilling his seed on the ground just for the sake of spilling his seed on the ground, or indeed of using artificial methods of family planning, but rather in using his dead brother’s widow for his own sexual pleasure and in failing to fulfil his duty to provide her with a child. It was a callous act of taking advantage sexually of a vulnerable woman. By removing the act from its context and failing to understand the purpose of the God-given law (i.e. protecting childless widows from poverty due to lack of succession), Catholicism has created a crime (sin) where there isn’t one.

        You may say, “But Catholics have the Bible! They can read it for themselves! How can you say your view of truth is better?” Yet the problem is precisely that: Catholics have traditionally not been remotely encouraged to read the Bible and instead to rely upon the priests for their teaching. In the absence of personal Bible literacy it is the doctrine of papal infallibility and religious tradition which trumps biblical truth – and again, it is the workings of man’s teachings appearing to be the word of God, rather than the word of God itself, which prevail.

        To bring it back to Rob Bell, the things the Bible says about Hell are very clear. The things Jesus says about Hell are very clear too. Bell’s line of argument, however, is often to say “I don’t believe such-and-such” and to lay out his view. He does this when he talks about the devil, saying, I don’t believe that “somewhere down below the earth’s crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear.” (See also point 9 of my article, link below.) Okay, but I what way does this statement deal with what the Bible says about the devil? It doesn’t – Bell has set up his opinion in the place of God’s Word and is teaching it as such. Non-belief is in essence a non-argument. It doesn’t matter, for example, if I say that I don’t believe North Korea will drop a bomb on us. If they do it, they do it! My belief – or my opinion – is irrelevant.

        I could go on, but this post is long enough already. The bottom line is that while I agree that our experiences lay us open to the temptation of viewing God in a certain light, the whole point of the Bible is that there is truth beyond this, and to that truth we should cling. It is God’s word that should change our thinking (the “renewal of the mind” in Romans 12:1,2), not our thinking that should change God’s word.

        See also my comment on children eating their greens in my article on “Love Wins”, Under “An Immature Kind of Theology” – a short scroll down from here:

        http://www.jesustodayministries.com/Articles_Library/rob_bell_love_wins_companion_review.htm#1_misunderstanding_metaphor

        Thank you for reading; may God bless you in all things today.
        Jeremy.

  32. timbushong says:

    ““Rob Bell’s theology seldom approaches you head on. It typically comes at you couched in a question, insinuated in an anecdote, embedded in a quotation from one of his friends, or smuggled in a metaphor.” This suonds just like Jesus’ style of communication to me.”

    Except for all that language about “brood of vipers”, “whitewashed tombs”, and “I tell you the truth”…

    Rob is as selective as is gets, and one of the problems I have w/him and his teaching is that it is impossible to find ANY prophetic or apostolic witness using his paradigm. Try to fit Rob’s epistemology or approach into the real “Mars Hill” sermon, or Elijah’s confrontation with the Baal worshipers on Mt. Carmel- you can’t. Rob’s view of Scripture exposed his hand for me, and when you give of the perspicuity of Scripture, you give up the Lordship of Christ. Sorry for the terse style, but, like Alastair, I have a lot to do, not the least of which a sermon to finish.

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  34. David says:

    I finished the new Rob Bell book this week. I’d give it a B minus. It wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, it just wasn’t very good either. Bell’s strength comes through in the closing chapters. But in my estimation he lacks the scientific background to argue from the point of view he attempts in the start, and he lacks the theological training to really drive home his points (which are good points I believe) in the closing chapters.

    All in all, it was a good read and I wouldn’t have missed it. I see it as maybe a nice introduction to apologetics, written for people whose ADD keeps them from writers like Chesterton or Lewis.

    • Alex says:

      This is pretty much my critique of Bell in general. His books are really more like SparkNotes of others’ theology and are replete with questions and emotive anecdotes, but lacking in substance (Love Wins was egregious in its use of spacing, wide margins, and thick paper to conceal that it only had about 50 pages of material). I wouldn’t argue that all great theology is voluminous and dense, but Bell’s work doesn’t have any meat to its questioning bones. When folks asked me what I thought of _Love Wins_, I’d often say it raises questions and throws out catchy sayings but doesn’t support its assertions. I’d point them to von Balthasar’s _Dare We Hope_ or back to Origen if they wanted a similar take with some well-thought-out reasoning behind it. Bell knows what he wants to say/communicate but doesn’t feel the need to develop his assertions with reasoned evidence–a mark of the current generation (spoken as a card-carrying member). I appreciate that Bell is willing to live/think in theological tension, but his resolution of that tension is only to create more. This resolution seems at odds with those who compare his teaching style to Jesus’ parables.

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  43. cookiejezz says:

    As ever, a very thoughtful and insightful article!

    Your reference to Bell’s use of metaphor in his communication is worthy of follow-up. In an article I wrote about “Love Wins” (link below), I point out that Bell routinely fails to understand metaphor correctly and/or to discern the limits of a metaphor and its relationship to reality. In failing to understand how metaphor and reality relate to one another, he then rejects not only the metaphor but also the biblical truth to which the metaphor relates. Of course, such a rejection of ultimate truth is both symptomatic of and fundamental to a culture driven by advertising and sound-bites.

    Your exposé of Bell’s concern with feelings has also given me a clearer picture of where Bell’s sense of truth is rooted: in how things make people feel, rather than in (scripturally framed) objectiveness.

    Thank you once again!

    http://www.jesustodayministries.com/Articles_Library/rob_bell_love_wins_companion_review.htm#1_misunderstanding_metaphor

    • cookiejezz says:

      Oops – I meant to add: While there are doubtless many who are better qualified than me to talk about metaphor and the relationship of art/the arts to truth, I have studied literature in two foreign languages, one to degree level, and also take an interest in art, painting and sculpture in particular. What is plain from Bells’ demolition of metaphor is that he has no training whatsoever in these disciplines which use metaphor as key tools of intellectual expression (except, perhaps, in the superficial sense in which they serve the communication of advertising copy), with the sad result that his pronouncements on the subject of metaphor come across to anyone who has been educated in both the arts and evangelical theology as uninformed and ignorant.
      Rob Bell’s school report for art and literature: “Tries hard; needs to do much, much better”?

      • David says:

        I appreciate you taking the time for a long, well thought out reply. I want to point out a few things: your belief in the Bible is not indisputable. Saying that something in the Bible is “clear” doesn’t make it clear to anyone besides yourself. Stating your theology as Truth doesn’t make it Truth to anyone but yourself. Stating that the woman who was abused can find healing from God through correct belief is ignorant. Attempting to present logical arguments based on belief that a document is or is not the Sacred Word of God defies all logic. Everything you say is Truth is only Truth because you believe it is. There can be no reasonable argument for the things you claim simply because they cannot be proven.

        If something cannot be proven, then it stays in the realm of belief. And if someone (like the wounded girl) cannot force herself to believe what you say is Truth, then where does that leave her?

        Can you see why the church is losing this generation? Your type of thinking, that you can write a logical argument against an existential problem and that somehow that will bring true, mysterious healing to a generation of people in pain is just not working. This is why authors like Rob Bell are making real impact and why their books are selling… they’re simply articulating God in the same language as the origin of the problem.

        You must understand this one point: everything you have said here is filtered through your own brain, your own body, your own belief system. You can no more claim to know Truth as can any other of the 7 billion people on the planet. You can only know what is filtered through you.

      • cookiejezz says:

        David, I accept that some in the church may think they can write a logical argument against existential problems and expect that to make a difference. A lot of theology seems to promote a God who can do anything but never actually does do anything. They say God is omnipotent, but in their view of His sovereignty, He never seems to stir Himself to get involved. (For my Christian friends, I will concede that this is a bit of an oversimplification, but I hope they will agree that many of us in church are raised on not expecting God to actually DO very much. I certainly was.)

        Since my teens, however (I am now 38, so I have been doing this for a while), I have come to see – both in the Bible and in my experience and the experiences of many others – that God, and the power of God, are not just abstract ideas, a cosmic comfort that somehow something out there is going to make sure that everything is going to be all right. I have seen in my own life, and the lives of a great many people around me, that when we take God at His word, miraculous things result. Lives changed; broken hearts mended; diseases and pains healed; people whose lives were previously on a collision course with destruction changed radically from self-centred or victims of abuse into loving, joy-filled people who seek to pour out compassion on others in need.

        So I do not believe at all that truth is subjective – in order to be so transformative it can only be objective, because we as human beings are not capable of raising ourselves out of our sins. We need an outside agent, and that agent is God. It is the very real presence of the Holy Spirit, working in our lives wherever we invite Him to do so, that brings this healing, transformation and revelation of God. He (the Holy Spirit) can bring such revelation to your woman who was sexually abused. He is the one who empowers the church – our faith is dead without him. However well written our arguments may be, the Bible tells us that the written word by itself is dead, but the Holy Spirit brings life. Indeed, there are many churches that give little or no room to the Holy Spirit, and so they have the appearance of life, but are often dead inside (Revelation 3:1).

        The Bible says, “Taste, and [you will] see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” (Psalm 34:8; my elucidation in brackets) The God of the Bible – the God whom the Lord Jesus Christ came to bring near to us – is a God who can be experienced. Far from not being able to be tested, it is often agnostics and anti-religionists who maintain that God cannot be experienced, whilst all the while ignoring the opportunity they have to “taste” and experience God for themselves. (Need I point out that while we claim to be so rational and scientific, it is hardly scientific or rational to claim that a thing does not exist or work if we are ignoring the very mechanism that enables us to test it?)

        “The Atheist Prayer Experiment” is an initiative created to help atheists and other sceptics taste God for themselves. It involves taking the time to do the very thing on which God has said that He is willing to be put to the test: to invite Him in a humble and gentle manner to reveal himself in the very way that He said He would: to the heart. It is easy, straightforward and can be done by anyone. If you truly want to know if God is real, I recommend giving it a try.

        http://www.premier.org.uk/atheistprayerexperiment

      • David says:

        Thanks for the reply. I want to point out something to you: You said, “Since my teens, you have come to see… in the Bible and in my experiences… that God is not an abstract idea…. but when we take God at His word, miraculous things will happen…”

        Then you go on to claim that this is objective, not subjective. But this is impossible because as you relate your experience (since your teens, and now at 38) and your belief (in the Bible and the presence of the Holy Spirit), you are telling us a subjective story about your life. It is based on what you have experienced and come to believe that you know. The unfortunate thing is that somewhere along the line, you have come to believe that this is the same as Absolute Truth and that all man should believe as you do. Can you not see this?

        One can have a belief and at the same time, hold the humble possibility that their belief is limited in its understanding of Truth, allowing others to have their subjective journey and trusting that God will guide them through their own stories to a place of peace with him. This need not, and indeed cannot, be through the same tradition, religion or spiritual path. All life is subjective and you cannot know certainty, at least not for all mankind.

        Most Christians I know admit readily to the “mystery.” They openly admit that God is a mystery and that there is so much we cannot understand about God. When I pose the question, “Can you then admit that the mystery holds the possibility that you are wrong in your belief?” They often then say no, that the Bible explains all the things they need to know. When I ask, “Can you admit that the mystery could hold truths that might change your understanding in the Bible?” Then they often say no…. that they BELIEVE that the Bible is the Word of God, etc, etc. Then where does that leave the mystery?

        It seems to me, friend, that you have left the mystery behind and settled in a place of total understanding of Truth and God. You have found the Answers. You seem to assume that a person cannot experience God outside of this belief, which is wrong. Since leaving the church (and the mission field) many years ago, I have had more healing and beauty from God in my life than I ever did while in it. I readily admit that my experiences with God are mine and I do not assume that God will encounter you in any way that he has me. But I do pray that your eyes be opened to a much larger world and a God that is much larger than our theological reasoning, much larger than an ancient text, and much, much larger then our very, very limited understanding.

      • Alex says:

        I like the back and forth here between David and Cookie, but it seems like the discussion has moved beyond Bell’s theology/orthodoxy and into general epistemology. I don’t have time to give a detailed response, but I thought I’d throw in a few questions/comments:

        1. Is there a difference between David’s beliefs and Rob Bell’s beliefs about God and what might be termed Christian beliefs about God? It seems that we would need to define the term Christian as opposed to just theology or belief. At what point does the term/grouping of “Christian” lose its meaning as it becomes more expansive? I’m not claiming here that certain beliefs are objectively right or wrong, just that certain beliefs may be Christian or not-Christian. Can we agree on how that definition might be accomplished (authoritative texts, historical evidence, line of tradition, experience)? Do we have a regula fidei?

        One might hold Christian beliefs and those beliefs may be objectively wrong, but, as a self-identifying Christian, one should be committed to those beliefs as a Christian. Taking it back to Bell, he may be correct (or at least correct for his and others shared experiences) but does he cease to be “Christian” (by an agreed-upon definition) in certain beliefs? This doesn’t make those beliefs right or wrong just outside a certain definition.

        2. David, could you explain to me how the statement, “all truth is subjective” is not an objective statement, i.e. I know for certainty that there is no objective truth and therefore all truth is subjective? This seems to be a self-defeating line of argument. I’m not trying to be patronizing here, I’d really like to know how one can establish a line of argument without making objective presuppositions. I think that you operate on certain presuppositions that form the basis of your logic just as cookie operates on certain presuppositions that form the basis of his logic. Logic and argumentation requires presuppositions; disagreement on presuppositions does not make the argument illogical or irrational.

        3. Cookie, is your argument that an objective truth is out there whether we agree with it or not? If so, how can we be sure we know that truth? If David is correct, truth can never be known as a certainty (only experientially) and we have no basis for constructing a belief system that would make objective claims. It seems that this would certainly undermine my chosen profession in historical theology, but I’d like to hear your thoughts (and yours, David).

      • David says:

        Good questions, Alex. And can I say that my beliefs would not undermine your chosen profession, but from my viewpoint make it more relevant. From my perspective, understanding the history of the theological journey is massively important, no matter where we end up. Thought builds upon thought and experience upon experience. I’ve heard this from others, this idea that their position in ministry or theology would be pointless if it were not based on absolute Truth… I fail to see why. It seems to me that people who commit their lives to the study of the Divine are among, and will continue to be, some of the most important people in our community.

        It should be said that I once thought and believed exactly as Cookie does. A few years back I had a “God-experience” that threw all I thought I knew into question and have since been on a journey with God as my guide and it has been lovely and fruitful.

        As to questions regarding what divides Christian thought and just thoughts about God and belief (outside of Christianity), if someone considers him or her a Christian, then who can argue? We can all agree that our faith is intimately personal and in the face of the Divine, it seems silly to attempt to place a label on every experience. Nevertheless, we organize as humans and try and understand together what we call God. It’s natural. Then people like myself (and I assume Rob Bell) begin to speak of our “tradition” being one of Christian thought. Our way of reasoning, our way of seeing the world, our path and story, all intertwined with the teaching of the churches we’ve been raised in. So while our beliefs have changed, our way of seeing is still distinctly “Christian.” It is for others to decide if we are Christian enough to fit their own definitions. Indeed, there are churches that would welcome me and some who would not. Those who would not would most likely label those that would “heretical” or at the very least misinformed.

        As to the idea that saying “all truth is subjective” is an objective statement, well of course it is. It is a statement of belief and something I feel is universal. My argument isn’t self defeating because I recognize that it is one of belief and beliefs are, by their nature, personal. It is this idea I’m trying to communicate to Cookie.

        We can all admit that we have a body and most of us can admit we have a spirit. We can then admit that we experience everything through these two entities. We either encounter it physically with our bodies or we encounter it spiritually. Most of us would say that we encounter God with our spirit but then we also see the effects of that in our bodies (as in healing, assurance, faith). So the statement that “God is filtered” through our biology is an accurate one because all things are filtered through our own biology, are they not? There’s a logic then to the idea that if we are so varied in our biologies, then it seems to make sense that we are varied in our beliefs about God. And indeed, that variation is reflected in the world to the millionth degree. Religions, factions, denominations. We see as much variation in spirit as we do in body.

        But when one group argues that all our bodies should be the same (like the Nazis), we all revolt. But what is the difference between that and arguing that all our spirits should be the same? Do you see my trail of reasoning?

        I live in Alaska where we have had Inupiat people living in the Arctic for over 10,000 years, well before Jesus’ time on earth. They have a rich theology based on those times and the understanding of their universe, which up to just a few hundred years ago was completely untouched by Christianity. Their way of seeing was based on their way of experiencing. And they believe that God has been with them this entire span of years, with no interruption in the encounter of that spirit. Their belief system completely contradicts what we in the Christian tradition say we know about God. So if I embrace the mystery of God, is there a possibility that their story is true? I allow for that possibility and have encountered the fear and the darkness that it implies and have come out on the other end with more peace than I have ever had. God, as it were, is bigger to me.

        Gentlemen, the fascinating thing to me is this: the Nature of Belief… it is for us to examine carefully our own beliefs and why we believe them. Were we taught to believe them? Did God show us? If one person says, “God showed me this” and then another person says, “God showed me the opposite,” who is to say which one is correct? It is in this way that we have grown to 37,000 denominations in the Christian faith, many of them pointing at the others and crying “Heretic!” It is silly and self-defeating… like our savior said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I would argue that we should open our beliefs up, face the fear that lies masked in doubt, and allow for God to begin the healing of the world, instead of standing in its way. The world desperately needs our love… they do not need our condemnation.

      • Alex says:

        David,

        Thanks for the response. I’m going to answer quickly because I really should be working on other (paid) things right now ;-)

        I certainly agree that the world needs our love and not our condemnation; however, I think we would need to define “love” in a way that matches up with divine love. That is a huge question that should probably be another post, but is probably germane to the critique of Bell’s book, _Love_Wins_.

        I don’t think you undermine my profession by stating that there isn’t an absolute truth; however, I think the idea that truth (specifically religious) is experiential and ultimately personal and subjective certainly calls into question the validity of studying the formation of doctrine in the course of history. What is the relevancy of Jesus’ claims of truth (or the apostles’ claims or any other figure in Christian theological history) if they are ultimately individual claims that *should not* be definitive on anyone else’s individual truth experience? I emphasize “should not” because that seems to be the direction of your argument–please correct me if I’m wrong (e.g. I cannot/should not impose my standard of truth/belief on another because my claim to truth has no more validity than the other’s claim).

        I would say we still need a definition for Christian for it to be, in C.S. Lewis’s words, “a useful term.” I think this is why many folks today reject any organized religious tag and refer to themselves as “spiritual” but not religious. We could agree that the term Christian should not be more valued than spiritual, or is a subset of spirituality, but to broaden the term to include any individual personal belief seems to strip it of its usefulness in discourse. Here’s the example that I’ll throw out:

        Can one be called a Christian with the following beliefs/life experiences:

        1. Raised in a Christian home by parents in the pastorate.
        2. In college, decides that although Jesus was certainly a great teacher, he was not divine.
        3. Accepts most of orthodox Jewish thought and tries to live according to the Torah while waiting for the promised savior to come.
        4. Sees a lot of good in the Koran and believes that Allah is the only God and Mohammed is his prophet.
        5. Believes that the statements of truth, life/death, and the afterlife made by the Talmudic scholars, Jesus and his followers, and Mohammed and Islamic scholars are all equally valid–even where they contradict–and is willing to live in the tension of those belief systems.

        Can the person self-identify as a Christian and have that term mean anything in the history of thought and in discourse with others? Would it not be more useful in discussion with others to self-identify as a seeker of truth or as a spiritual person than to use the term Christian? And here, I’m not putting a valuation on which of those terms is better than another; I’m only saying that “Christian” as a term loses its meaning if it encompasses all individual interpretations. For a more mundane example, if you and I are talking about buying a car, but my definition includes anything that has wheels, I will look at you with crazy eyes when you tell me how much you paid for your most recent “car”–mine only costs $15 at a yard sale. How can we have meaningful discourse if we can’t agree on what terms mean outside of individual predilections?

        To take it back to Bell, I think he’s trying to redefine what Christianity has believed for centuries. Maybe this redefinition is necessary, but let’s call it what it is: a change to the historical trajectory of the faith.

        I’ve spent too much time already–forgive me for leaving with some questions/comments unanswered.

        Oh, on the “self-defeating” part–I think making an objective statement, “there is no objectivity in claims on truth,” is a paradox. Just as you are correct in challenging cookie to have some humility in his truth claims, I would challenge you in the same way. What if there is an absolute or objective truth and you are wrong to place it in the realm of individual experience? I think you are right that beliefs may not be objectively true but can the object of those beliefs be absolutely true? To lay my cards on the table, I think so.

        I see your trail of reasoning on the diversity in belief, but I’m not sure the filter of experience negates the truth that is behind that experience. If two people experience the same event–if the event is true–they should have varieties of responses but not antithetical ones (e.g. both people called to love their neighbors; one brings over dinner to share, the other brings over dinner laced with cyanide–can they both claim to be reflecting the same spiritual event?).

        I really must go now–I’ll check back later when I have time.

      • David says:

        Alex, the only thing called into question regarding theological study by experiential concepts is the claim of objective, universal truth. One can (and many do) study theology to the doctorate level with no claim whatsoever to ever having found a kernel of absolute truth. The world is full of universities and seminaries with professors who have found this balance. Your own personal beliefs can be separated from what you have academic knowledge of.

        Regarding the term “Christian” and having a definition to describe it, I would argue that the attempt to define it has failed beyond recovery. In fact, I would argue that the last century’s chronology of Christian “defining” has actually pushed things to where they are now: a post-modern Christianity with very little assurance of itself. (Indeed, Christianity is evolving, despite orthodoxy’s best efforts to keep it from doing so).

        To discuss organized religion is a matter of it’s own: if I follow the tenets of Islam and then call myself a Christian, then I might just be trying to provoke others into contentious conversation. I’ve never actually met a person who follows Islam and calls themselves Christian. But i have definitely met people who call themselves Christians but don’t necessarily believe that the Bible is the sacred Word of God or that Christianity (as defined by various churches) is THE truth, or have argued against the countless doctrines. For centuries, there have been no doctrines that have not been debated inside Christianity. From my perspective, that is what we are doing here… we are evolving Christianity through debate, study, observation, application. It is a faith that is unique in its ability to evolve. History has shown this: Constantine through Luther through Calvin through Rob Bell… none of them look the same. The same cannot be said about Islam (at least in the place of its origin) and can only be said of many religions to a very limited degree. What is Christianity was meant to evolve?

        Your point about calling oneself a “seeker” or “spiritual” person has become more and more common. When Donald Miller’s book “Blue Like Jazz” came out with the subtitle “Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” I remember thinking, “Now there’s something to discuss.” It ushered in a whole generation of Christians who opened up their ideas on Christianity. If that is the label you feel a person like myself should take on in order to preserve what you feel is a clean, clear definition of what is Christianity, then you have my permission. But if a person in my position still believes many tenants of the Christian faith and identifies as a Christian, then what can you do but insist that I’m not while I continue to call myself Christian? I suspect the word “heretic” gets pulled out of the tool belt at that point.

        Regarding the Paradox: what you pointed out is correct. It is a paradox. Probably the most prominent paradox in our world: the Subjectivity of Objectivity and Vice Versa. But since the subjective person is the one who says, “I could be wrong” claiming belief but not Truth, then that person would be holding the more “humble” position, while the person claiming Truth would be in the more difficult spot, with the burden of proving that Truth or at least defending something that is, by definition, indefensible (let alone having to implement it throughout the world). For centuries, the church has claimed this position… a person like Rob Bell is simply trying to redefine Christianity, claiming we can take the subjective position and still stay true to our faith in Jesus. I agree with him.

        Your cyanide example regarding diversity of belief is a bad example. Two people can experience the same thing and come away from that experience with completely different stories, both equally true for the individual who experienced it. This happens millions of times, every day. For instance: Two Christians survive the 9/11 attacks… both are rushed out of the towers by firefighters. Both make it out. A year later, one of them has committed their life to the ministry. The other has completely left the church. Why? They experienced the same thing. Which one was “right”? If a person poisons a neighbor and believes they are doing good, then what makes it wrong? This is why we have courts, no? At some point, a discussion on morality comes into play. But is that what we’re talking about regarding theology? No… you and I would probably completely agree on what is or is not moral and yet the paradox would still be in play. 60 years ago, segregation was accepted in the US. 170 years ago, slavery was accepted. So morality is also subjected to the paradox.

        And the other way around, two people can love another person to their very utmost and yet one of them has a greater capacity to love. I might be a bad husband because I never learned what a good husband looked like. I do my best, but I never saw an example of a good husband. Likewise, I might be a GREAT husband because I had a wonderful example set for me. But in both examples, I can reach the peak of my potential as a husband. It is my lack of experience that limits me. And that experience is, of course… subjective.

        I appreciate your thoughts… we are coming from a different spot but I do believe that discussion is helpful.

      • cookiejezz says:

        Hi David,

        Thank you for your comments. I apologise for taking a while to get back to you. Of necessity, I’m going to try (and fail!) to keep my response brief, but I hope I can answer at least some of your key points.
        I take your point about my experiences being subjective, but allow me to clarify: my belief is based upon not only the idea that God’s word is true, but also that specific statements it makes are true. These I have then found to be true by applying them in my own life – often in spite of the disagreement and opposition of Christians of the kind I grew up with, who were no less born again but might not have believed in the active involvement and presence of God in the way the Bible reveals to be possible. To arrive at this experience, I had to accept and act upon the truth of what was written, rather than disputing it, as my confreres were wont to do. (FWIW I am talking about things like speaking in tongues, praying for the sick to be healed, etc., all of which I was told I needn’t bother with and was given a great many supposedly scriptural and theological reasons why, none of which stand up to examination, and most of which owe a lot to fear or man’s inventions.)

        It is true that God is larger than our understanding, no matter how deeply we may be versed in the Bible. However, Bell and others use the idea that God is larger than our understanding to overturn the idea that we can find certain truth in statements that God has very clearly made. As Alastair has reminded us, Bell’s style of theology is about embracing vagueness in the name of mystery – yet in any field of human thought we would be forced to conclude that that would only lead to confusion, not to truth or liberation! (It’s a sad fact that many of us Earthlings believe on pain of death in rationality and absolute truth about everything to do with science and then argue that all statements are of equal value when it comes to divinity and morality!) Jesus reminds us that God’s word is first and foremost not mystery, but truth (“Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” John 17:17)
        To get down to brass tacks, if God (and/or Jesus, God-in-flesh) has said “Those who do not repent of their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ will go to hell,” (see e.g. John 3:16-18, Revelation ch. 20-22), how does Bell’s glossing that with the idea that we are free to make of it what we like in any way trump the clear statement and warning that God is making? Is Bell a better preacher than God? Or is God so mealy-mouthed and gauche in his expressions that what appears to be a stark warning of damnation is actually not that big a deal? (The consequences of our conclusion are worth examining too: why send His Son to the Cross if there is no damnation and everyone gets a chance to repent in the next life if not in this one? Of course, Bell devotes not a word to exploring the issue of Jesus’ sacrifice in “Love Wins” and thereby appears to the unwary to get away with missing the point.)

        You see (with the greatest of respect) in your attempt to say that my version of truth cannot be superior, you are at the same time clinging to the view that somebody else’s view of truth is superior – the one who says it’s vague! The problem is that there is a clear authority, that of Scripture, that leaves no room for manoeuvre on a great many issues for anyone who is reading it properly and not just trying to justify their own agenda, something that Bell sadly does all the time. I am heavily critical of his understanding of a great many topics in “Love Wins” and with good reason: he has not remotely done justice to things that the Bible says very clearly before setting up his own ideas in their place.
        If Bell were to take the same lack of engagement with the written word into a career in law, he would lose every case he brought to court. More than that, he would quickly be laughed out of his career as a lawyer because he would not be demonstrating the least bit of competence in his field. It’s that bad: he very often simply places his own ideas ahead of what God has said. (Again, having studied law for four years in two countries as well as being a Bible-reading Christian for almost 30, I feel quite strongly about the process of selective reading and elision by which Bell arrives at his doctrines.)
        In the interests of balance, let me add that Rob Bell is right about some things: he wants people of all kinds to know God’s love and he is right that God loves us a lot more, and a lot better, than many Christians make out. Yet at the same time, Bell’s reluctance to deal with biblical truths that he finds unpalatable is at risk of gutting his version of the gospel of any power or meaning. He has thrown the baby of truth out with the bathwater of wrong practices. And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want my case to be represented by a lawyer who was good at understanding some laws in his field but didn’t get the point of others.

        I understand, too, where you may be coming from with your experience of ministry and mission. I spent time working for a local church, which turned into a deeply hurtful experience, causing me to walk away from church and God for about 4 years. (It was getting seriously ill that brought me back.) During those 4 years, I allowed my experience of being ill-treated by my pastor and his family to colour my view of God: I blamed him for allowing it to happen.

        In that case, I did not start rearranging my theology to accommodate my disillusionment. I understand the temptation. Yet God has spoken clearly through His word. It is true that it often seems to be those who are most certain of “God’s truth” who are capable of doing the most harm, seemingly whilst claiming both the spiritual rectitude and the moral high ground.
        I can understand that you feel you may have found more freedom since leaving. If we are in a legalistic pressure cooker, as I was, being out of there can certainly feel like freedom. We may even relate to God better and hear him more clearly, as there is no longer the pressure to conform to a human ideal, and we no longer have a churchy version of Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth constantly telling us what to think.
        Nevertheless, there is a danger in being all spirit and no truth, or all feelings and no bedrock. God at one point even told me to stay out of church for a while when I was seeking my way back to him. He did it (he clearly told me) so that we could work on restoring our relationship. When that season ended, he brought me back to church – a healthier one this time, and with healthier attitudes on my part too.
        It is true that there are some who reject the idea of certainty or absolute truth because they have been hurt by people who are very certain. That it is a clear logical fallacy that a person’s (mis)representation of a truth does not make the actual truth any less true ought to be obvious, yet this is the subject of our discussion. E.g. If I say there is a tiger in the street eating people, and our learned colleague Alex, who is much better than me at identifying big cats under pressure, says it’s actually a lion, the fact that I was mistaken about the tiger does not also mean that there is no lion. That is the issue of absolute truth – when we find out what it is, we find also that it transcends misrepresentation.
        Jesus said the truth sets people free – yet it can also be used ignorantly or uncaringly to bind people or condemn them. This is why we must “speak the truth in love” and also remember that we too have been forgiven much.
        Sadly, it is a great problem amongst a great many churches, that we are all about using truth to judge people. That’s not Jesus’ way – yet at the same time He brings truth in order to bring salvation, and to turn us from our ways. Just as the truth that one has cancer is for the patient’s good, so that healing may begin, the truth that we have sinned and are on our way to Hell without Christ is for our good, so that we may face up to our sins, repent, and get back to God.
        So I hope I can in some way sympathise with where you may be at right now, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves: Are we truly seeking God in His truth, or are we comforting ourselves with a man-made story? Bell, I have no doubt, frequently does the latter, because he preaches a great many statements that are not in the Bible whilst ignoring what the Bible actually says. I wish I didn’t have to say that, and you may call me judgmental, but again, it’s like the example of lawyers in court. I have no right to drive along British roads at 95mph, because the law says the speed limit is 70. That law does not admit any exceptions, no matter how much I scream and cry about how unfair or judgmental it is, or how much I claim that my opinion is equal or superior, or even if I bring in an “expert” to dispute the statute. And so it is with the Bible: amongst many things, it is a book of laws: the law of God; the law of Moses; the law of salvation (literally, what one must do to be saved (Acts 2:37-41; 16:30; Romans 8:2). And in law, there is always truth.

        God bless you this weekend!
        Jeremy.

      • cookiejezz says:

        PS Oops! I fell over myself with one sentence. For which, my sincere apologies. To clarify:
        It is a clear logical fallacy that a person’s (mis-)representation of a truth would make the actual truth less true. This ought to be obvious, yet this is the subject of our discussion.

  44. The presumption of the original blog post is that persuasion of an advertising style is somehow inappropriate – and praising Madmen is an ingenious device while carefully tarring Rob Bell with it. The critique seems to assume that the presentation of the Christian faith should be reasoned and propositional. That is not Christian but enlightenment thinking as culturally biassed as the postmodern approach which you critique. Who cares how Rob Bell uses his hands? We have a model for communication – the scriptures which use a whole range of genres to communicate so be very careful before you damm one you regard as somehow culturally suspect. And we have the Christ himself whose words we know almost nothing of because the apostles opted to pass them onto us throught the filter of koine Greek, a language which was not Jesus’ mother tongue. Why close down the communication options when Jesus opened up them gloriously and the scriptures give us such a broad canvas? There is nothing shameful about using persuasion – yes you can quote 1 Corinthians 1 at me but I will point you back to the book of Romans and the book of Ecclesiastes. All the books in the world (we are told) would not be big enough to tell the whole of it!

    • Alex says:

      Just a quick historical note to your post, JG: the reasoned and propositional approach to the presentation of the Gospel can be seen in the book of Romans as well (Stoic modes of language and rhetorical flourishes) and it certainly is the dominant mode of presentation from the 2nd cenutry and on (the Apologists, fourth century arguments over the Trinity, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and many more before the Enlightenment). I’m not saying your point about the cultural bias of various approaches is invalid, but the propositional approach cannot be termed “not Christian” and beginning with the Enlightenment.

      • I am not against the reasoned and propositional approach to presenting the Christian faith at all. I was suggesting that it is one of a range of different approaches. My sense of the original blog posting was that Rob Bell/Don Draper were being criticised for using communications methods that were less than worthy. And that the assumption of the blog writer was that the reasoned and propositional approach was superior and (I got the impression) ought to be the default approach for Christian apologetics. The way the church fathers reasoned was different to the reasoning of the scholastics in the middle ages. But the way the blog writer reasoned (reason vs emotion) was different again and had more than a whiff of the enlightenment about it. Which was why I said it was not Christian (not un-Christian) but simply a cultural way of doing things which is strongly associated with the secularising Enlightenment and which is as culturally bound as the advertising persuasion that he was criticising.

      • Alex says:

        I don’t believe (and I didn’t state) that you excluded the propositional approach to Christian apologetics, as I tried to stay close to the words you used in your post. I just wanted to point out a historical inaccuracy–elevation of reason vs. limitations of emotion goes back at least as far as Plato–in your challenge to the original post. I’m not sure how you define a “Christian way of doing things” without an appeal to a cultural setting or at least an acknowledgement of the cultural setting. Here I am probably in agreement with what I believe is your main point. If we are to apply that (cultural influence) standard, we probably can’t call anything “Christian” in the abstract (e.g. Christian living, Christian faith, Christian interpretation, Christian argumentation).

        I didn’t read the original post as saying that the “ad-man” style of presenting the Gospel was inappropriate–the main idea is that it is exceedingly appropriate in our postmodern, media-driven culture–but rather that it is ultimately lacking/insufficient as the final word on the Gospel. If the Gospel only finds its truth through the ability to speak to emotions, what is the outcome for the Gospel when those emotional truths change?

        Once again, I don’t disagree with your point that the presentation of the Gospel is free from cultural and historical influences; however, we should challenge cultural assumptions, whether they are Enlightenment or postmodern assumptions, when we look at the counter-cultural claims of the Gospel.

  45. CookieJezz (great handle btw) I don’t want to suggest that truth can ever be less truthful because it is misunderstood and misrepresented. However 1 Corinthians 13 is not only the ‘Love’ chapter but includes a radical proposition that our knowing is only in part. We can be faithful witnesses but we cannot be reliable ones – or be sure that we have been. Central to our witness is that God is more than we can see, say or know but that does not stop us talking about him: this is Thou neither is this thou. The mystical tradition within Christendom is not vague or post modern but reverent and cautious. We need BOTH mysticism and proclamation. Certainty? Well therein lie the seeds of error. Truth is not guaranteed by me but by the one who reveals and sustains me.

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  55. oneredthread says:

    Reblogged this on 1RedThread and commented:
    There are some great insights in this article. Read it again and again.

  56. Reblogged this on memoirandremains and commented:
    I guess this is why I feel more comfortable around 16th Century theologians

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  60. Meme theology and non sequitur apologetics. Christian guruism. UGH. We all should benefit from this essay. The funniest but personally most frustrating process of the online Christian community in theology, apologetics and debate is what you described, namely, the task of having to (at times) diagram your own sentences in order to provide grammatical proof of what you said to those with whom you are debating. Head, meet wall, bang, bang, bang. I have come to the conclusion that such people, either in a temporary or sustained context, really have no genuine interest in what you are saying.

    The second problem is the moderation of forums in the online Christian community . What I mean is that much like policing the highways, speeding tickets are the most enforced offense when, in reality, things such as driving too closely, inappropriate passing and provoking accidents by taking up the passing line while driving slowly are what cause just as many, if not more, problems. But it is quite a bit more work and documentation to give such tickets so let’s just get the speeders (i.e., blatant offenders of the crude).

    If moderation (that means people who moderate forums and comment sections online) was done in a manner that heavily identified and disallowed non sequiturs, memes and so on and offenders had their violations pointed out to them with their posts not posted until they directly responded appropriately to the rebuttals, then participants might start learning the ethic of responding to people with regard to what they have said and not by way of irrelevancy.

    There is a mass of people who cannot logically follow slightly complex to extensively complex thought. I am sure there are limits for all of us. However, aplogetics and theology are not simply always 2+2. We have theological (apologetic) algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus and even beyond that. But because the online Christian community cannot always vet commenting/contributing sources, as we can in local assemblies, and because many, many forums have moderators with all kinds of agendas and levels of maturity, we end up with what is being described is this essay and we have it in large doses.

    I say this with great respect to the online Christian community because its impact is substantial. The online community is ever increasingly becoming the model for many believers in their approach toward apologetics and theology and practical Christian living, is ever increasing.

    Thank you for engineering a superb articulation of the thoughts of many, I am sure.

  61. Clarke Morledge says:

    Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:
    As I was finishing up my blog post comparing songwriter Mark Heard to popular evangelical author Donald Miller, I was trying to figure out how to handle Rob Bell. Bell has been the most explosive figure in progressive evangelicalism today, though within the past few years he has gone out even further than many of his progressive evangelical colleagues are willing to endorse. Theologically speaking in my view, a confused ecclesiology is what unites the contemporary triune fellowship of Bell, Miller, and Brian McLaren. It is difficult for me to say this, because while I still know that these folks love Jesus and I can still learn some things from them, there have just been some things there that continue to bug me. However, there could be more to it. I think I have stumbled onto an idea, but I had to look “across the pond” to find it.

    While some evangelicals in the U.S. still puzzle over the Rob Bell storm in recent years, a fire is currently raging in Britain. Recently, a debate between progressive evangelical Steve Chalke and more classic evangelical Andrew Wilson has intensely engaged thoughtful Christians. In reflecting on the debate, Andrew Wilson pointed to a specific problem in Steve Chalke’s argumentative method. In a nutshell, Wilson claims that Chalke sets up a type of “straw man” noting some extreme case, and therefore reacting to it with a different extreme case as THE solution, without acknowledging that there might be more moderate and alternative solutions that are being sidestepped. Wilson likens this to what Rob Bell is doing as a communicator of the “Ad Man’s Gospel”. Strangely, however, I do not think Rob Bell is alone in this. You can find folks equally on the more “fundamentalist” side of the evangelical movement who do EXACTLY the same thing in reverse. Wilson cites this post by Alastair Roberts as evidence. It says it better than I can.

    On the downside, it does make me seriously question how viable the Internet; e.g. blogging, serves as an effective vehicle for thoughtful communication and dialogue. I am still doing it, but I have my doubts. Veracity readers: Are Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts right?

  62. very good read….I am not much for internet debates…but I felt a need to respond here. I appreciate your explanation and non use of “one line statements.” I stand convicted of this method and I do admit that most Christian blogging speaks to the choir, so to speak. I do agree with Wilson and Roberts…..and to add my observation about blogging: most are written in order to solicit agreement i.e. blog awards, etc. a format that seems to bring attention to themselves….so when written for that reason…I too have doubts about internet blogs and the whole blogging community. I do not count on Christian blogs to teach me about God. That being said, however, I am often lifted up by the devotional blogs that I do read. When written in a format that doesn’t solicit replies or awards and it doesn’t matter to the writer whether they gain followers, likes, etc. I think a blog can be a very effective tool in the evangelical world. Very interesting post to be sure! Thank you!

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