We are living in uncharted territory when it comes to communication and media. The changes in my half-century of life have been amazing as I have gone from a world where we had to wait for the phone to ring four times before we knew for sure that it was for someone in our house (party-line days) and I even had a pen pal to where everyone in my house now has a cell phone and an email address. If the weather was just right in our area, we could pick up three television stations when I was a child. Today, the 140 channels we get on our satellite TV services are often ignored by my kids who prefer Youtube, Hulu and Netflix.
In this day of the new media, it is possible for just about anyone to gain some audience via the internet through blogs, forums and webcasts. Even publishing a book is much easier with a plethora of self-publishing companies available and now e-books are rapidly gaining in popularity.
And as communication continues at ever faster speeds, accountability for what we say is rapidly declining. Whether it’s teens who get caught in the web of sexting or students who steal term paper content from the work of others via google or those who publish books which have not been subject to editing, review and evaluation at a level of rigor that was once required, while the quantity of media-driven content is increasing, few would argue that the quality is suffering dramatically.
This is what brings me to the title of this article, “Should Rob Bell be ‘At the Bar’?” Please give me a few moments to explain…
I spend quite a bit of time in the world of academia where a sub-theme on many university campuses is “publish or perish”. It is expected, that if you are to be considered a scholar of any reputation, you must periodically produce significant treatises supported by research, empirical evidence and careful theses. There is a process for producing respectable work and the pinnacle of that process is to be published in some sort of academic journal that highlights the best of the best in your journal. There is often an oral presentation before peers as well. These two steps invite the kleig lights of academic review from one’s peers and other experts in the fields, who, as a matter of academic sport, will mercilessly grill every jot and tittle of what you have written or proposed. IF (and that’s a pretty big “if”) it survives, then it is considered a landmark or watershed work and others will then build upon it and reference it and it becomes a part of what is referenced in academic circles as the “stream of knowledge.”
In many ways, this is like being “in court”. It must hold up to the scrutiny of the rules of research, logic, rhetoric, law (natural and otherwise), ethics and myriad other disciplines. If found worthy, it proceeds. If not, it is relegated to the scrapheap of academic “junk” and largely ignored. If considered dishonest, particularly shallow or simply unworthy, it can draw substantial rebukes from the academic community to the point of loss of standing and even conclusion of career for the author.
In legal circles, historically there has been a “bar” which must be crossed that divides the common observer and the experts. To be a bonafide attorney, one must “pass the bar exam”. There is a symbolic “bar” behind which you’ll find the judges and attorneys in many courts including the US Supreme Court. When one stands before a judge to plead his case, it is considered making an appeal “at the bar” during which the plaintiff or defendant must use the law and the rules of evidence to convince the judges of guilt or innocence.
Now let’s think of today’s communication in theological circles where young evangelical leaders, often deemed successful because of the number of people who follow their blogs, read their books, attend their congregations and pay fees to attend their conferences, can produce books with the ease of high school term papers and make millions as their devotees rush to Amazon and Barnes and Noble to purchase their latest ponderings. These young pastors and evangelists are frequently referred to by the secular media as “rock stars” because of the wild popularity and adoration they receive from their audiences. The loyalty is nothing short of amazing at times.
However, in this age of “new media” there is less accountability than ever before as peer review can largely be skipped and direct access to the audience is not only easy, but supported by publishers who see the profit potential when a “rock star” leader releases a tome that grabs attention and headlines around the blogosphere. As denominationalism has shrunk and there is less ecclesiastical oversight due to the massive multiplication of “independents” and “non-denominational” churches in the last generation, there is virtually no one who can match the voice of a Joel Osteen, a Rob Bell, a Brian McClaren when they stand before their adherents or publish their latest revelation, opinion or foray into theology.
But does anyone who is serious about theology seriously consider any of this crop of evangelical leaders to be academic heavyweights? Where is the review by scholars and peers that precedes most any other science when landmark and seismic-shifting works are released to the masses? To whom are these folks accountable as they literally re-frame the perspective of entire generations on issues of historical orthodoxy within the evangelical movement? The best those who see flaws in their theses and arguments can muster is often after-the-release blog articles and heavily-edited interviews and reviews which attract a tiny portion of those who are exposed to the initial work. Thus historic positions on key doctrines can be tried, challenged and over-turned in one-sided tomes without a serious discussion ever having taken place.
Perhaps it’s time for an old-fashioned notion — a Church Council.
Whether we review the confrontation of Peter over the issue of circumcision or the multiple church councils that were called during the days of gnostics and Romanists or the reaffirmation of historic and fundamental creeds that were issued to enunciate and define orthodoxy, the history of Christianity has multiple examples of self-correction that came from high-profile challenges before a court of sorts that was composed of scholars and credible experts.
In recent years, Greg Boyd, a scholar of some note at Bethany College and a mega-church pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN, was largely criticized for his theory of “Open Theism” — a belief that some humorously described as “earnestly contending for the ignorance of God.” His was one of the most recent and earliest controversies in this new era of unaccountable media. His introduction of additional theories as to how a Sovereign and omniscient God can function within a world that possesses free will rattled a lot of theological and philosophical cages and is one of the major instances of a modern theological controversy in the days of the new media.
It was, however, a minor kerfuffle compared to the one that has broken out over Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins” which many describe as resurrecting theological liberalism, promoting a practical from of universalism and redefining the historic orthodox position on the existence of a literal, eternal hell.
The reaction — both pro and anti-Bell and Hell — has been significant across the blogosphere. Today’s huge Christian publishing empire has also provided many new opportunities to bring theological controversies to secular outlets and the firestorm over Bell’s book has been no exception as Fox News and Martin Bashir and other secular media megastars have taken note of the controversy and invited Bell to be interviewed. Most of those who are offended-to-outraged by Bell’s theory have found it difficult to gain a tiny fraction of the voice he now commands as his book has reached the upper spots in Amazon’s best-seller list. The debate has become rather vitriolic on both sides with significant challenges being made against Bell’s theology, spiritual standing, financial objectives and other issues coming from one side while the other often calls those who might earnestly disagree with Bell “haters”, “fundamentalist extremists” and so on.
But where was the review? Where were the formal challenges? How is it that one man in a single book can seemingly resurrect an old posit of theological liberalism and, in effect, rattle the foundation of orthodoxy among a significant percentage of evangelicals without so much as a single defense of his thesis before evangelical and theological scholars? And let’s face it, appearing on “Fox and Friends” is NOT an audience with theological experts.
Thus, my suggestion. I believe it is time for someone of stature to call for a Theological Hearing of sorts — be it a council, a court or some other style of examination — at which Rob Bell should be called to “the bar” to present a scholarly defense of his landmark work. If he refuses, then hold the court with Bell being in absentia but using a careful review of his book, his sources and any other writings or sermons which he has produced that have some connection to “Love Wins”, but also let his absence be noted and be testimony in and of itself. Select six, eight or a dozen scholars from leading evangelical institutions — Wheaton, Dallas Theological Seminary, Southern Seminary, Southwestern, Talbot, Master’s Seminary and others — who would serve as a jury. For the sake of moderation, do not include those who would be viewed by a majority as way left or right on the evangelical/theological spectrum be they fundamentalists or liberals. Let experts from varying perspectives appear as witnesses. Give him a fair hearing. Do everything possible to get him to appear before these scholars.
And then issue a verdict. If he can Biblically defend his position, then affirm it. Call for evangelicalism to embrace it. Consider Bell a worthy scholar and give him credit for his work. If his position is found incorrect by virtue of the absolute standard of Scriptural Canon, then rebuke him. Demand a retraction and repentance. If he refuses, mark him as a heretic if that is appropriate. But make him give account for his words.
There is too much at stake to just ignore this and pretend it’s no big deal. Spurgeon said that “Theology is the queen of all the sciences.” If that is the case, then some must take upon themselves the responsibility of defending the rules that keeps that science credible and it begins and ends with a high view of Scripture as the infallible, immutable Word of God.
I’m not sure who has the stature to issue a call and organize the review. Perhaps it should be called for in a letter of leading pastors who might suggest a moderator. Perhaps some venerable academic scholars or deans or professors should make a declaration and offer the terms and a venue. People smarter and with a broader audience than I have can take on this charge. But can we admit that changing the definition of “Hell” is no small matter and possesses the potential for dramatic implications throughout evangelical Christianity for those who adhere to a literalist perspective on matters of Biblical interpretation wherein the rules of theology require it.
Bell should have nothing to fear from such an appearance or exam. Truth should always be able to stand on its own legs. If he fears his theory cannot stand before the weight of scholarship, then he should withdraw it on his own accord. If he refuses to defend it, then the examination should still occur and may the verdict not only speak to the topic, but to the author. This does not need to be an inquisition, but at least can we agree that there should be an examination?
What say ye? Pass this on to others for discussion, agreement or disagreement if you are so inclined.
Dan Burrell, Ed.D.
Cornelius, North Carolina