I decided against calling this “a reflection on a reflection on the death of Steve Jobs,” because it’s wordy and poncy, but that’s basically what this is.
I don’t have anything to say about Steve Jobs. I think it’s poor form to speak ill of the dead, especially the newly dead, and I’d hate to be the guy who in an uncareful moment became fixed in someone’s memory as they guy who metaphorically stuck a post-it on the Gandhi painting [link]. By the same token I don’t think I can add anything to what’s already been said online in praise of Jobs’s maverick spirit, etc. Several years ago when Cyrus Vance died, I heard CNN lead off their obituary with “Cyrus Vance was a good man…” and it made me cringe. So I’ll do my best this one time to leave the cringeworthy comments to others.
Jason Calacanis posted a tribute to Jobs on his blog yesterday [link]; this one quote gave me pause:
Of all the amazing things Steve said, the one that will always stick with me, was a quip in a 2 a.m. email to one of the meaningless critics, from one of the many meaningless publications that traffic in cynicism, criticism and hate in the name of pageview growth — and that most of us subject ourselves to daily.
“By the way, what have you done that’s so great?
Do you create anything, or just criticize other’s work
and belittle their motivations?”
– Steve Jobs
It gave me pause because blogging so easily lends itself to cynicism, criticism, hate, and belittling generally, and because I deal with sensitive issues here (namely, religion and occasionally politics) that this is a temptation I constantly face and don’t always resist.
I prefer to think I’m looking for case studies, trends, and guidelines, and I’m less interested in condemnation (“I think Kenneth Copeland is a crook; I think Chris Rosebrough is a blowhard.”) than in analysis (“Watch how Kenneth Copeland Ministries relates to secular authority; listen how Chris Rosebrough argues by illustration.”) but sometimes it’s hard for a casual reader (or even the author) to tell the difference.
Every time soon-to-be-former-pastor Rob Bell makes news I get hits on the older article with the title above, and I need to update this and be done with it.
Ed Dobson did at some point address the ruckus surrounding Love Wins in a brief blog post. The blog was associated with his book A Year of Living Jesusly, was apparently sponsored by his publisher, and went away some months ago, taking the response with it. I am attempting to reconstruct it from memory; it went a little like this:
- Dobson said he hadn’t read Love Wins.
- He referred readers to Mark 9:39-40 [NKJV].
I take this to be an act of professional courtesy rendered by Dobson to Bell; it’s a sort of non-answer answer that usually means that one pastor has better things to do than dirty his hands with the controversy surrounding another pastor. I don’t understand why pastors do this, but I haven’t e.g. been in Dobson’s shoes and can’t imagine what they’re like.
So I’m going to consider the matter closed unless and until. Thanks for asking.
I don’t really have anything to say at the moment about Bell’s departure from Mars Hill in Grand Rapids. I’m always puzzled when high-profile long-time scandal-free pastors leave the pulpit, and I haven’t collected enough case studies to make any sense of what I’ve seen.
Amazon has been offering a bunch of titles by some authors we’ve heard of (and some we would never read at full price) at half-price or less in their Kindle electronic book format. I picked up a copy of Kyle Idleman’s “Not a Fan” [link] last night for $2.99. I’m waiting for Francis Chan’s book responding to Rob Bell to go on sale.
I am of the opinion that Christian titles in the Kindle format are currently overpriced; I’d take Chan’s book [link] as a case in point. The paperback lists at $8.63 but can be had from a secondary seller for $7.20 new; the Kindle edition is $8.20. By way of comparison, the Susan Collins bestseller The Hunger Games is nearly twice as long, but sells for $4.94/$4.69 [link]; David Miller’s Appalachian Trail book is $10.17/$7.99 and is 25% longer than Chan’s book. Never mind that Miller’s book took 7 years to write and Chan’s shows all the signs of being an instant book.
So as I mentioned earlier I recently took the plunge and picked up Kindle editions of three Rob Bell books: Love Wins, Velvet Elvis, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. I’ve read the first and I’m about halfway through the second. The experience has left me thinking more about standards and practices of interpreting Scripture more than anything Bell is saying.
In Chapter 5 (“Dust”) of Velvet Elvis Bell is attempting to make sense of the rabbi-disciple relationship in Second Temple Judaism as context for the relationship between Jesus and His disciples, and he tells us that in Jesus’s time a rabbi (by which he means Jesus or any other itinerant teacher) would have been through two levels of education: Bet Sefer (“House of the Book”) and Bet Talmud (“House of Learning”) by which time he would have memorized the Pentateuch (Bet Sefer) and the rest of the Old Testament (Bet Talmud). All by the age of fourteen. It’s a mind-boggling image; Bell suggests that Jesus would have known the entire Old Testament by heart, and His disciples and much of His audience would have had huge chunks of Scripture memorized as well, on some sort of sliding scale according to how long they went to or stayed in school.
It’s a fascinating concept, and Bell uses it to interpret Jesus’s references to His own education, in e.g. John 15:15. I think I had always interpreted His use of the verb “to learn” to mean something involving divine revelation, or informal education, or maybe practical knowledge, but this piece of historical detail changes the way we might read the text substantially.
This sort of interpretive machinery brings new problems to replace the ones it solves; among other things it moves the foundation on which we understand Scripture from a plain reading of the text to some sort of consensus among historians, or of individual specialists, or in Bell’s case the novelist Milton Steinberg. That’s not to say that one authority is necessarily normative and others deviant; it’s just important to remember when using one framework or another what its hazards and shortcomings are.
I have to admit that I don’t know anyone who has memorized the entire Old Testament, so it seems like a superhuman feat to me. I mean, it’s something like 23,000 verses, meaning that if you memorized ten verses a day you’d need more than six years to memorize the whole thing. By way of contrast the New Testament has about 8,000 verses, and the Koran about 6,300. We know there are people today who memorize the entire Koran; there are enough of them that there’s a word for them: hafiz [link]. And memorization of the Koran, in the original Arabic, with the appropriate intonation, etc. is one of the two courses of study in a madrasah [link]. Which brings me to Ergun Caner.
Ergun Caner is still making speaking appearances at churches [link], including one in a couple of weeks at Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, TX. Here’s the blurb he’s using for this appearance:
Ergun Caner is a Professor & Apologist at the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School in Lynchburg, Virginia. Raised as a devout Sunni Muslim along with his two brothers, Caner converted in high school. After his conversion, he pursued his call to the ministry and education. He has a Masters degree from The Criswell College, a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of of Theology from the University of South Africa. He has written numerous books with his brother, Dr. Emil Caner, who is the President of Truett-McConnell College, a Baptist college in Georgia.
This biographical sketch no longer refers to his having been a jihadi, educated in a madrasah, or whatever. I honestly don’t remember what his sketch used to say before questions were raised about his background. Still, I am led to wonder, since Caner was raised as “a devout Sunni Muslim” how much of the Koran he can recite, in Arabic or otherwise. I’d pay a whole dollar to see him reciting one of the longer suras on stage at Calvary Baptist. That’s the sort of thing that might convince me that the bio above is accurate as presented. Just saying.
I wonder if Calvary pastor Brian Loveless will ask him about this while he’s in town.
I’ve been running short on blogging material recently, not because there’s nothing to blog about, but because so little of it has really crystallized for me. We’ve had a houseguest lately who has been talking about art in the Church; I’ve been reading Rob Bell and revisiting a lot of Emerging Church themes; some local churches are going through contortions; and I’ve been struggling with today’s topic.
If I had to make a list of interesting (not to say troubling, necessarily) trends in the American church today, I’d probably have to list the following, in pretty much this order:
- The decline of foreign missions
- Prosperity theology
- The perils of political engagement
- The megachurch phenomenon
- The decline of the Baby Boom generation and the rise of second-generation big-ministry leadership
- The Reformed resurgence
- The Emerging Church
So I guess I’d argue that what I have to talk about today isn’t the most interesting thing going on right now, but it is sometimes one of the easiest to see.
When I attended a Calvary Chapel I saw people come and go, but there were identifiable trends in the ways people entered the church and the ways people left. There were some new converts coming in; some of them had a by-the-numbers saved-from-sin born again experience; some of them left the Roman Catholic Church. There were also people who had stopped off somewhere else that offered simpler teaching and/or a more structured environment; we had a lot of people who had attended Potter’s House or had been through the mill at various local 12-step programs.
But people tended to leave Calvary because they were looking for one of two things: either they were looking for a more experiential Christianity, and they left for some sort of Third Wave Pentecostal or TBN-like church, or they moved in a more Reformed direction. At the time I credited the former to Calvary’s mild Charismatic leanings and familial relationship with Vineyard Christian Fellowships; the latter to the otherwise inexplicable presence of John MacArthur on the Calvary radio station in Albuquerque (KNKT). The truth is probably more complicated.
But the pattern then, and the pattern I see now as the Reformed resurgence progresses, was pretty predictable: people became Christians in an evangelical church, then eventually migrated to a more Calvinist church. Or as is the case here locally, people became Christians in evangelical churches, and then the churches themselves gradually moved in a more Reformed direction.
The thing that strikes me odd nowadays, though, is that when I meet someone nowadays, online or in person, who self-identifies as Reformed, they invariably have an “I used to be evangelical too” story. I have yet to meet anyone who became a Christian in a Reformed church unless they were raised there.
This question surfaced in a recent episode of The Dividing Line [link], where the ongoing feud between James White and George Bryson of Calvary Chapel Church Planting Mission (CCCPM) finally reached this question. Of course Bryson frames it his way and White frames it his way, and I’m not sure either of them offer more light than heat. Bryson incorrectly equivocates between all of Reformed theology and the Five Points of Calvinism; White objects but doesn’t clarify how exactly conversion (not to say salvation) happens in Calvinism.
I don’t have a soundbite here; it’s entirely possible that the world is fairly awash in Calvinists who are newly-converted Christians and I’ve just never met any of them, I suppose.
I got bogged down in work stuff and family commitments last week and I’m just now surfacing. I wanted to wish my handful of readers a belated Happy Easter. I spent a chunk of a recent work trip reading a couple of Rob Bell books — the recent Love Wins and part of Velvet Elvis (2005) and will have some reaction for you later, but in the meantime I wanted to mention a couple of things surrounding Easter.
First of all, because I grew up in a somewhat landmarkist fundamentalist subculture I tend to look askance at both liturgy and the liturgical year as being either meaningless repetition or pagan accretion, and I’m always tempted to point out that Christmas isn’t strictly speaking a Christian holiday; unlike communion and baptism there’s no command in the New Testament to observe it, our modern observation is a mix of pagan and Christian elements, etc. Easter is a bit different, but only just: it can be located on the calendar relative to Passover, was celebrated before Nicea, but we observe it with a mix of pagan and Christian elements, etc. As a result the whole cycle of holidays from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday sort of fits me like a borrowed suit: I’d like to think it looks nice, but it’s a bit itchy and uncomfortable.
Still, we managed to fit in both a Good Friday service and an Easter Sunday service this year, despite naps and delayed plane flights.
This particular church is fairly accused of being a rich white church, and runs maybe half full fifty Sundays a year but packed to the gills Christmas and Easter. At a glance it’s hard to tell the twice-a-years from the regular attenders: tall, good-looking, well-dressed, etc., and for the most part traveling in some sort of nuclear family bubble, smiling at but not making eye contact with anyone they don’t already know. We’re mostly refugees and retirees from California and Texas, in but not a part of New Mexico.
I don’t envy Martin Ban the task of preaching to this mixed multitude on a regular basis, and that goes double or more on Easter and Christmas. If he preaches a standard Easter sermon he’s orthodox but runs the risk of comforting the comfortable. If he strays too far afield he runs the risk of not preaching an Easter sermon per se at all. This Easter he took some risks.
The texts are 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 and the first dozen verses of the Revelation. He also makes heavy use of Penn Jillette’s contribution to NPR’s This I Believe series [link] titled “There Is No God.” Here’s the pull quote:
Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.
Ban contrasts having faith in God with having faith in our children’s ability to solve technical problems, alleviate suffering, etc. It’s a bit of a stretch for a cultural reference point for an Easter sermon, and I honestly can’t tell you if it works or not. I often get the feeling at Christ Church that I’m not really in the target audience, so I’m overhearing a conversation I’m not really party to, and as a result I don’t really understand what I’m hearing. I don’t know how many PCA Presbyterians are tempted by the arguments of fashionable atheism, especially on Easter Sunday.
Sources close to me listened to an audio version of Love Wins and recommended sections of it so highly I broke down and bought the Kindle version. Of the handful of reviews/discussions I’ve read, a surprising number of them say something like “Rob Bell raises some important questions, questions mainstream conservative Christianity needs to answer.” Unfortunately I haven’t seen a list of these questions, so I’m not sure if they’ve already been answered.
Also, I recently downloaded the Kindle version of Arthur Pink’s 1918 Calvinist classic The Sovereignty of God. Well, maybe it’s a classic and maybe it’s not; and maybe it’s Calvinist and maybe it’s not. It’s been by turns a stumbling block and a stepping stone for people I think highly of for years, and I’ve been putting it off reading it.
So far I think it’s awful. Not necessarily wrong, just poorly argued and poorly reasoned. Pink’s big on straw men, excluded middles, and self-congratulation. There’s a lot of “the pulpits of today (i.e. 1918) are devoid of strong doctrine, etc.” which was undoubtedly true but irrelevant. And then of course there’s this sort of argumentation:
We do not forget the words of one long since passed away, namely, that “Denunciation is the last resort of a defeated opponent.” To dismiss this book with the contemptuous epithet — “Hyper-Calvinism!” will not be worthy of notice.
I’d pay a whole dollar to find the origin of that quote; nothing I’ve found on the Web suggests it originated with anyone other than Pink himself. I guess I’ll have to see if Pink really is a Hyper-Calvinist by any of its various definitions [link]; I do think it’s interesting to note that modern discussions of Calvinism don’t generally involve the terms “free offer of the Gospel” and “duty-faith.”
Sources close to me sent me this overnight. I don’t know who wrote it and I haven’t been able to find it on the Web anywhere. Submitted for your approval, etc.
There once was a man named Rob BellWho trussed up the notion of hell.He said all were savedBoth the good and depraved,And boy did his book ever sell!
I have a very short list of spiritual heroes. Ed Dobson is one of them. Sources close to me who know this sent me a link to this rarely-watched YouTube clip promoting a movie by/about Dobson:
And I thought “Man that video looks really familiar. What does that remind me of?” It’s not just the color palette; the scene composition, the camera angles, the beats, the story-telling choices, etc. It’s almost as if the same person shot, produced, and edited another video I’ve seen recently.
I know what it was; it was the promo for that Rob Bell book everybody and his brother can’t stop talking about. If you haven’t already seen it I’ll spare you; if you have then you know what I’m talking about regarding the style.
I love Ed Dobson and there’s nothing he could do that would ever change that. I am grateful to him for being the pulpit speaker he was my first couple of years at Liberty University, and for having the good sense to leave Moral Majority and go back to the pulpit. I sorely missed him after he left. As most people know, Dobson left Liberty for Calvary Church, Grand Rapids, MI, and served there for about twenty years, until his condition (arterial lateral sclerosis) made it impossible for him to continue. During that time Calvary participated in the planting of Mars Hill Bible Church, now pastored by Rob Bell. Bell is the author of four books, is one of the public faces of the Emerging/Emergent Church movement, and may or may not be a universalist.
I have been puzzled why Ed Dobson has done some of the things he has done; his 2008 appearance on Good Morning America not least among them:
And I don’t understand why someone as solidly theologically conservative as Dobson, as close to Bell as he must be, and as special (for lack of a better term) as he has become during his illness doesn’t confront Bell in the manner appropriate: private, with witnesses, and if need be publicly, in that order. Perhaps his ongoing struggle with ALS makes that difficult-to-impossible. I don’t know.
The two are clearly close enough to use the same video producer, after all.
There are lots of things I can’t know about Dobson and Bell, obviously. But I am led to wonder if perhaps James White’s approach to Bell in a recent episode of The Dividing Line [link] isn’t close to the mark. White’s analysis, basically, is that Bell, having escaped from the fundamentalist fold, doesn’t know what to do exactly with his new-found freedom and in the process of taking it for a test drive has misapplied the theological concept of grace, etc. and ended up in the universalist ditch. I don’t know; I don’t much care; but it’s a helpful and cautionary explanation nonetheless.
This is a common problem; see e.g. Jason Hood’s recent analysis of grace misunderstood as antinomianism [link].
Regardless, I wish Dobson would take some of the precious time he has left and devote it to Bell. I’d hate to think he’d wandered off in a universalist direction too.