Today I read Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Rob is pastor of Mars Hill, a church in Grand Rapids (not to be confused with Mars Hill in Seattle, pastored by Mark Driscoll).
I appreciate the book in many respects. His thoughts on living like Christ in a way that is forgiving and loving instead of harsh and judgmental; his realism about suffering; his reflections on the importance of joy in Christianity; and his emphasis on the mystery of God and the way we can never exhaust him or figure him out and bottle him up like a math problem; these are all true and worthy of reflection.
But this book is exactly why I started this blog in the first place, and it's a perfect example of why I've called it "Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology."
Time and again the book trades in our doctrinal birthright as Christians for a mess of theology-taming pottage. Bell talks about joy and about enjoying God. Yes! What a central and needed message for our age; maybe for every age. But the way he does it is by softening and fuzzying the clear contours of divinely revealed truth mercifully given in Scripture. His end is right; his means is wrong.
I'll cite two examples. In his zeal for people to know just how counterintuitive and surprising and deep and wonderful and freeing God's grace and love are--and they are!--Bell writes that "when Jesus died on the cross, he died for everybody. Everybody. Everywhere. . . . This reality then isn't something we make true about ourselves by doing something. It is already true. Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making" (145-46).
We're still scratching our heads with this, wondering if he really means it, when he follows it up with: "Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for" (146).
I think I understand how Bell can say these kinds of things, unambiguously conflicting with biblical witness, from the second example. Bell is talking about the Christian life being more like a trampoline, which you jump on and call others to join you in enjoying, than it is a wall of bricks, with each doctrine being a brick. His point is that we ought not to worry about a single brick falling out and causing the whole wall to crumble, which is the mode in which he sees some conservative Christian operating (18-28).
Point taken. I want to call others to Christianity by enjoying it, not by battering doctrines over people's heads. Personally, I need to grow in this area.
But my response is: won't the height and enjoyment of our jumping be determined by the well-being and sturdiness of the foundational structure of the trampoline?
My conclusion is simply this. Doctrine exists for delight. Just as you don't bake a strawberry-rhubarb pie to stick it on a petry dish to analyze it, so God is meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed. But we still need to have the right recipe. The trampoline structure still needs to be secure. We won't enjoy the pie without the right recipe. Hence the importance of doctrine. It is the Holy Spirit who ignites joy, but he does it with the kindling of Scripture.
I don't want to be a theology-cop. Let's agree to spend our main energies affirming the good in people, not looking for the weaknesses, remembering how blind we ourselves are to our own errors and weaknesses. I have not a shred of doubt that Rob Bell has done TONS of good in this world. Praise God for him. May the Lord bless his efforts. But if you want your people to enjoy Jesus, Pastor Bell, you're softening the very means God has given for them to do it.
Theology exists for doxology. Doctrine exists for delight. We neither skip the head to get to the heart, nor focus on the head without letting doctrine pour into the heart. Rather we embrace and cultivate and defend doctrine, for the sake of the heart. Strawberry-rhubarb theology.