Friday, March 18, 2011

A Serious Theological Interview on MSNBC: Now I've Seen Everything!

The internet is buzzing with controversy over yet another Emergent Church pastor with an "edgy, new book" questioning something the Church has affirmed for 20 centuries. So Rob Bell has a book at #4 on Amazon that may or may not teach universalism, if it actually teaches anything clearly, which seems to be in question. I have not read the book, but I have followed the reaction to it with some amusement because I've seen the same movie before with different characters.

I did see this interview of Rob Bell by Martin Bashir at MSNBC (see below). The interview is astonishing because it features an interviewer asking tough questions of a trendy liberal type instead of just lobbing the usual soft balls and sneering at conservative doctrine and conservative Christians. I thought is was outstanding journalism and MSNBC ought to be commended for rising above its usual liberal bias.

The interviewer, Martin Bashir, asks Bell to clarify if he is or is not a universalist. Bell refuses. It appears that the marketing strategy of the book is to claim to be (1) in the mainstream of Christianity and (2) pro-universalism in a vague manner. It seems to be "working" from a sales and marketing perspective and Bell stays right on script. The only problem is that he looks foolish, evasive and dishonest when confronted by an interviewer who really tries to get to the bottom of what he actually believes.

A partial transcript can be accessed here. Kevin DeYoung's 20 page review of Bell's book, which Bashir quotes in the interview, can be accessed here. Paul Edwards has a very interesting 30 minute interview with Martin Bashir about the whole incident, which can be heard here.

Some bloggers have accused Martin Bashir of being biased against Rob Bell just because he attends Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. It figures; when you can't refute the message, shoot the messenger.

Bashir answers Edwards' question about this by asserting that the job of a journalist is to get at the truth on behalf of the audience and that his personal beliefs have nothing to do with that duty. Quite right. The issue that Rob Bell's supporters have to deal with is not whether Bashir was or was not of one opinion personally or the other. Suppose he was completely opposed to Rob Bell; the question still is why does Bell do so much squirming and equivocating instead of answering clearly and with calm conviction? Why is Bell so reluctant to answer a straight-forward question? In the interview, he looks much more like a politician than a pastor. In fact, he looks like Romney answering questions on health care at a Tea Party rally! The question is: why?

Bashir opines in the interview that Bell is using the medium of writing to work out his own anxieties, insecurities and unresolved issues from his own conservative upbringing. When Bashir asked Bell if this was true, Bell owned up to it rather than denying it. In Emergent Church circles this is not seen as a bad thing at all; it is the way many Emergent Church pastors preach, in fact. But when a pastor writes a book he ought to remember James' injunction about the higher responsibility borne by teachers in the Church and he ought to remember that ineffective shepherds are judged harshly in Scripture. Using one's megachurch platform to address a theological issue is not the place to work out issues best confined to sessions with one's spiritual director.

The Emergent Church is basically a series of youth groups that got out of hand. Some day, one can only hope its leaders grow up and take adult responsibility for protecting the sheep entrusted to them by God. After all, they don't ultimately answer to the blogosphere but to the Good Shepherd Himself.


Gordon Hackman said...

I feel the need to offer a bit of pushback to this post, not because I agree with Bell's position (if he is, in fact, pushing universalism), but because it is not accurate to claim him as an Emergent pastor. Though Bell is often lumped in with the Emergent church crowd by its critics, he has never been formally associated with nor claimed an association with them.

I saw the interview and thought that Bell got handed his lunch. He did seem evasive and unable to give direct answers to the questions posed, which made him look really bad. In fairness though, I have to say that I'm not sure I'd do that well in an agressive interview setting of that sort either. Some people just aren't good at responding on their feet.

Again, I'm not trying to defend Bell or his book or his universalism, if that's what he's promoting. Personally, Bell is a non-entity to me and I have no real interest in reading the book, as there are just too many good books out there that I'm really excited about reading, but I do feel the need to try and treat him as I'd like to be treated.

My biggest complaint against those who reject historic Christian orthodoxy is that they make the faith dull and uninteresting by turning into nothing but a reflection of the current cultural outlook (that of modernity), which is typically insipid and lifeless. I'd like to see some of Bell's critics make the case against universalism in those terms (sort of like Dorothy Sayer's did in "Creed or Chaos.")

Craig Carter said...

I agree that making the Gospel into a faint echo of what the world already believes is boring and insipid. I also agree that Bell is not important. But, like Joel Osteen, he influences many people and therefore it is good to see him rebuked and corrected. It is hard, thankless work but Scripture commands that it be done so that the flock may be protected. (II Tim. 2:26-28)

Gordon Hackman said...

I took my own advice and attempted to argue the case against universalism from a Dorothy Sayers type postion. Here is the link if your interested: