I’m not sure I should write much more about Rob Bell’s book. I may offend those who dislike it as much as the ones who do. Nonetheless, I don’t like it. It contains a dangerous form of spiritual darkness called cynicism.
However, Cynicism never works alone. It works with a demonic cousin called Gullibility.
Gullibility swoops in first. He spreads stories people love to believe; conspiracy theories, half-baked urban myths and exaggerated tales of spiritual adventure. People who like these stories retell them in their sermons, drama and song. Finally, they get so wrapped up in the stories that they simply cannot bear even reasonable questions about their validity.
Once Gullibility does his work, sneering Cynicism moves in. He mocks the people who have fallen for the stories. It’s not long before some begin to realize that their beloved stories are full of holes. That’s when their naiveté turns to bitterness. Others, afraid their stories will unravel, just plug up their ears, entrenching their beliefs into a mindless denial that becomes conscious, deliberate and hateful.
This describes many American believers – either naïve or angry, but at any rate trying to resist, by whatever means, the post-modern world in which we live and work.
Too many of us have been trying to maintain the scientific worldview of the late 1880’s while taking advantage of all the marvels produced by modern science. Fleeing from legitimate questions posed by paleontology, neurology, relativity and quantum physics, we run into an intellectual cul-de-sac where we become terrified of intellectual life, even when it is trying to address theology and Holy Scripture. In far too many cases we have replaced a healthy, informed spirituality with a naive pietism. And, too many of us have replaced our intellectual heritage -- filled with the likes of Aquinas, Calvin, Augustine, Edwards, Lewis and McGrath --- with a form of knownothingism we sincerely believe will prove our fidelity to God.
All this has opened the door for Gullibility’s evil cousin, Cynicism.
That’s what I hear speaking through Rob Bell’s book.
However, we must also acknowledge that Rob Bell is one of our own children. And, it is our children who most believe that his message expresses something important. So, we must acknowledge that our attitudes and responses to the modern world have helped both produced him and sustain his success.
So, why don’t I like Rob Bell’s book?
Because its spirit reminds me of the taunts the Sadducees threw at Jesus, especially the time when they asked the Lord the woman who had married seven brothers after each of them had died, whose wife she would be after the resurrection.
Now, who can respond to such cynical, sarcastic mockery?
Jesus did. “You do err, not knowing the scriptures;” he said.
Chapter two of Bell’s book sounds like those sneering Sadducees, and deserves the same sort of response.
In that chapter, Bell remembers a picture that hung on his grandmother’s wall. I remember that picture. I agree with him. It was no Rembrandt! And I get the point that Bell is a lot more aesthetically sophisticated than his grandma. But should he scoff?
No, he shouldn’t. He doth err.
Neither the artist nor Bell’s grandmother believed that the painting depicted anything close to an actual thing someone might actually see, either in this life or the next.
A sign hanging over an exit that depicts a stickman sitting on a circle simply informs us that there is a wheelchair ramp beyond the exit. It doesn’t cause us to look at each other and laugh.
“Ha. Ha. Ha. What idiot painted that silly thing? Are there still people who believe that somewhere beyond the door little unseen stickmen ride around on wheels? Don’t the poor stick men fall off? Don’t we have better things to do right in this room other than worry about mythical stickmen rolling around outside – wherever ‘outside’ is!”
The trouble is, some Evangelicals seem to have a gullible attachment to the pictures we have created with our words, paintings and songs. So we feel a need to remind them that the pictures were only meant to describe, in the best way we knew how, what the Bible insists that “eye has not seen and ear has not heard.”
But the cynicism is uncharitable and ill founded.
After a day of backbreaking labor in the fields, slaves once sang:
"Deep river; my home is over Jordan.
Deep river; I just want to cross over into camp ground."
It was a beautiful, haunting song. It put into words a truth: that this life is not everything. The singers sang what they believed and believed what they sang. They transformed pain into art and their apparent meaninglessness dissolved into profound meaning as a result. It didn’t matter that there is no river. It didn’t matter that there is no camp ground. The truth they sang was greater than the apocalyptic metaphors they created to express the truth.
We get into trouble when we allow Gullibility to transform our metaphors into concrete things. When that happens, not even the silence of scripture can convince some of us that the Jordan River is actually a large but not really impressive creek. And, contrary to another old gospel song, Jordan’s waters are not so cold; as you must believe if you take the words too literally. None of this makes the songs “untrue,” however, or even simplistic. The songs are much more important than the daily news or the stock market report.
Our attempts over these last few centuries to squeeze our faith into the confines of European rationalism have been opening a huge door. The two evil twins – Gullibility and Cynicism -- have rushed through the opening. Because we think there is no alternative, we keep rushing from the arms of one into the arms of the other. It would be like getting into arguments every time someone remarks that the sun is about to set; causing some people to laugh and insist that everyone since Copernicus has known that the sun does not such thing while others shout “down with Copernicus!” We all know perfectly well what the sun does and doesn’t do. Copernicus doesn’t stop any of us from admiring the beautiful sunset; unless we are anxious to let everyone know how much more intelligent we are than the people we grew up with.
My grandmother had a picture on her wall too. That one was of a little boy and girl crossing a rickety old bridge. The children in the picture cross that bridge hand in hand across a fierce current. There are openings in that bridge and we are alarmed because one false move and they will plunge into certain death. However, a large angel with beautiful wings walks behind the children, her hand gently resting on their shoulder.
I hung that picture over my little girl’s bed because she had nightmares. I didn’t take the time to explain to her that the picture is a myth, an apocalyptic image, a poor representation of something we can’t really explain. I never told her such things even after she grew up. Why? Because the picture accurately describes something beyond that is more real than anything I can put into words.
So was the picture hanging on that wall at Rob Bell’s grandmother’s house.
He should not mock that picture. His grandmother was wiser than he. He is embarrassed because he believes there is no place in the world where a cross hangs over nothing and forms a bridge to a city that floats up in the air.
He doth err.
Bell’s claim that believing such things keeps people from trying to make a difference in this world is false. Then what are we to make of all the Christian soup kitchens, orphanages, hospitals, mercy ships, and well-digging missionaries?
While he is busy making a fortune sneering at believers he claims are too obsessed with artistic clichés, or too fearful about scientific or even theological questions; thousands of brilliant men and women leave their families and homes each year to live among the poorest of the poor. They learn new languages. They allow themselves to become increasingly out-of-place among their own countrymen. They do this in order to rescue individuals from conditions that the people at Princeton, Wall Street and Madison Avenue will never understand. They do it because they have crossed that bridge that delivers them from a world that the Bible says is perishing.
Like Bell, I don’t like the gullibility and anti-intellectual atmosphere that has become so prevalent among many Evangelicals. Like him, I often feel battered and squeezed by this state of affairs; so much that I have a good deal of sympathy for him.
But then I remember: Cynicism kills; just like Gullibility. That’s why I keep walking across that bridge, knowing that the way is perilous but that an unseen hand rests upon my shoulder, oblivious to my anxious aesthetics.