Rob Bell is more interested in making sure people live the Christian life than making sure their doctrine is exactly right. He is more interested in orthopraxis than orthodoxy.
His overarching metaphor for this in the first chapter of Velvet Elvis is jumping on a trampoline (check out the multiple book covers featuring people jumping in the air). He wants people to jump; he is not as interested in making sure they understand the springs of the trampoline (he refers to Christianity’s doctrines as the “springs”). He is critical of the form of Christianity that emphasizes correct doctrine over everything else.
Not that doctrine is unimportant. Without doctrine, articulated by human words, there would be no springs to catapult us upward. But the springs, in Bell’s words, “aren’t the point.” The point is whether or not we are jumping; whether or not we are living the Christian life. And so Bell goes on these mini-tangents questioning such time-honored doctrines as the Trinity and the Virgin Birth. He says he believes these doctrines, but he wonders if we must insist that people affirm these kinds of things in order to be counted as Christians. And he wonders if so much emphasis on doctrine encumbers a life of vibrantly living for Christ.
I put it this way:
Exactly where do we draw the line around a set of doctrines that one must understand and believe in order for us to say, “Yea, that person is now a follower of Jesus Christ.” And is it even wise to say that one must affirm a certain doctrinal belief structure in order to authentically have a relationship with Christ? Granted, a person must meet the real Christ, not one made up and not one different than the person revealed on the pages of the Bible. And, also granted, a person should have a legitimate desire to know the reality of God that is only revealed on the pages of the Bible. But, and I ask this with great concern, what must a person affirm theologically before evangelical Christians would call that person a Christian? Can they be still learning to accept things like the Trinity or the Virgin Birth or even Penal Substitution? Or must they first articulate beliefs in these doctrines in order to be believers in Christ? In other words, when we say a Christian is a “believer,” do we mean that this person is a believer in sound doctrinal propositions or are we saying that they trust in the person of Jesus Christ?
Bell is critical of what he calls “brickianity.” Instead of flexible springs for doctrine, some Christians believe that faith is built upon theological statements that are more like solid and unyielding bricks. “Often it appears as though you have to agree with all the bricks exactly as they are or you can’t join” (p. 28). “In brickworld, the focus often becomes getting people to believe the right things so they can be ‘in.’ There is often a list of however many doctrines, and the goal is to get people to intellectually assent to these things being true. Once we believe the right things, then we’re in. And once we’re in, the goal often becomes learning how to get others in with us” (pp. 34-35).
This kind of rhetoric is what gets emerging church people in trouble. How dare they call into doubt orthodox doctrine? How dare they call into question the truth that the creeds, confessions, and doctrinal statements have articulated? How dare they say that people do not have to believe certain things in order to become Christians? The thinking is that this postmodern skepticism about understanding and believing truth is not a road that we should travel down. If we lose “truth,” the thinking goes, we lose Christianity, for Christianity is truth.
But what is Bell actually saying? He is saying that the real “truth” is that we are limited in our ability to explain an infinite God with finite words. And since words are so limited, we must constantly be working on articulating God again and again in words that make sense to the present world.
“The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. And if we made him up, then we are in control…This truth about God is why study and discussion and doctrines are so necessary. They help us put into words the realities beyond words. They give us insight and understanding into the experience of God we’re having. Which is why the springs only work when they serve the greater cause: us finding our lives in God. If they ever become the point, something has gone seriously wrong. Doctrine is a wonderful servant and a horrible master.” (p. 25)
Bell is not denying truth. Bell is not denying reality. Instead, he is on a relentless quest for authentic truth and reality. And he is convinced that the Christian quest in the modern era for that truth and reality in mere doctrine missed the mark. The real mark is a vibrant life in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He is convinced that, though we need to articulate what we believe in words and write them down as doctrines, these words and doctrines must be held loosely. We cannot ever be sure that we have arrived at a full and absolutely accurate description of God. We must always question ourselves and question God. We must always allow ourselves to doubt.
“The very nature of orthodox Christian faith is that we never come to the end. It begs for more. More discussion, more inquiry, more debate, more questions” (p. 34).
In making this point, Bell, at times, says things that are harsh to the evangelical ear. The things he says about the Trinity and the Virgin Birth are stated for shock value and, frankly, undermine his bigger point. He should have done better than this.
But that bigger point is valid: Christianity needs to be defined more by who we know than what we know. It needs to be defined more by how we live than what doctrines we agree with. Christianity needs to be more than believing the right things about God and Jesus Christ; it must be a trusting relationship with God that manifests itself in a community that lives as disciples of Christ.
Posts in this series: TRUE – Velvet Jesus
TASSELS - Velvet Jesus
NEW – Velvet Jesus
Is Rob Bell a Godless Man, Condemned by God? Review of John MacArthur's The Truth War
technorati: emerging church, missional, spiritual formation, postmodernity