It seems to me that many Christians enjoy getting fired up about something. Or, at the very least, having something to be fired up about.
A new trend among Christian bloggers is the “open letter.” If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s basically a blog post directed at someone – a letter written for everyone to read. Generally it explains in detail where someone went wrong and why they should publicly admit to such a failure. Usually open letters are written as much for public opinion as they are to the person to whom they are directed; likely the person writing the letter simply wants everyone else to agree with his opinion that the target of the letter is in the wrong.
It’s happened to a couple of people of note recently. The first is Christian singer/songwriter Derek Webb. In his recent song “What Matters More,” Derek challenges Christians to realize that they are mis-prioritizing their concerns; specifically, that too much weight is given to the issue of homosexuality. The idea seems to be that instead of levying so much Christian influence against homosexuality, the time could be better put to use in other ways – helping those in need, for example. More recently, he echoed that same sentiment in an interview with the Huffington Post called “Just Follow Jesus” in late 2010.
Under the guise of “accountability”, Derek received scathing criticism from Christians on Twitter and in blogs (also note Derek’s response to referring to criticism as accountability). A recent example includes the tweet, “I wonder how many hungry/dying kids Derek Webb could have fed with the money it took to record ‘what matters more’?” (to which Derek cleverly replied, “i own my studio, so my recording cost is around $0. the question is, how many more can be saved by that song’s royalties.”). A fake Twitter account called “The Old Derek Webb” was even created to reminisce on the days when he “never did anything controversial.” While the criticism was harsh, it’s important to note that Derek responded lovingly and urged those who took his side to do the same.
Today, criticism is again mounting. This time, however, the target is different and the stakes are higher. Rather than just controversy, heresy is in the air. Because of a video and publisher’s description of an upcoming book, Rob Bell is under attack. Pundits are accusing Bell of universalism. Whether this remains to actually be the case has yet to be determined, but for those criticizing him, this is of no matter. Even though the book itself has not been released to the public, a short video from Rob and a description he didn’t even write is enough material for him to become a trending topic on Twitter today. Noted Christian leaders such as John Piper and Joshua Harris have tweeted harsh comments against Bell (which, without context, might lead one to believe he even died).
Though it’s too soon to know for sure, undoubtedly many bloggers will release angry open letters to Rob Bell, telling him that he is preaching a false gospel and requesting his public repentance. If Twitter is any early indication, the criticism will be at least as mounting as it was against Derek Webb and likely far more. Since many critics (mainly Calvinists) have been out to get him for years, they likely see the upcoming book release as the chance they’ve been waiting for.
I’ll be the first to admit that I do not know what conclusion the book will draw. It could be that Rob is indeed espousing universalism. If this is the case, I will be very disappointed, because I don’t believe one can accurately interpret the Bible and come to such a conclusion. However, even if this is the case and Rob’s book does indeed teach universalism, the response from the Christian community is equally disturbing. If anything, I would love to see angry bloggers and tweeters learn from the first round of open letters and respond with love and not hate. Derek Webb serves as a great example of how to handle a difficult situation. Throughout his whole encounter with critics, he never publicly lashed out with the anger so mercilessly poured out to him. While his critics cited Bible verse after Bible verse, Derek Webb responded not with the words of Jesus but with the attitude of Jesus (with occasional sarcasm added). His response of love demonstrated that his heart was indeed where his words were – pursuing Jesus. Even though Rob Bell may in fact be “guilty” of teaching bad theology, it says even less of his critics that they abandon the heart of Jesus when responding to someone they believe abandoned the teachings of Jesus.
If you choose not to remain silent in response to Rob Bell’s new book, please respond with love. Responding with the hatred that Piper, Harris, and others have so far does nothing to further God’s Kingdom. It only serves to paint a negative picture of Christianity as a whole and further divide Christ followers.
Edit: Added some helpful links (tweets from Harris and Piper, lyrics of “What Matters More”, Christianity Today article detailing the controversy surrounding Bell’s book) and rephrased a few statements for clarification.
Christians are supposed to get fired up about Christ.
it’s against Jesus’ teaching to publicly decry people without talking to them first. 🙂
well, I like this post, because I needed to be encouraged to live with the heart of Jesus.
Thank you jonathan for sharing! As long as there are more than two christians onthis early there will be some differences in opinions on how we should live and act as christians. The question is how should we as followers in Christ act towards those who disagree with us. I think you gave some good advice…
I appreciate your consideration in writing this post. A couple of things came to mind while reading it. Please note that this isn’t meant to be a scholarly response, so I won’t worry to source things. That shouldn’t be a problem though.
I love Derek Webb’s work, and I’ve been inspired by his music time and again. While I haven’t heard the song specifically referenced, I’ll take your word that you’ve gotten a good bead on its meaning and message. If the message is as you’ve summarized though, I’d have to say that I disagree with him: a chronic sin like homosexuality that is held high and celebrated in popular culture should probably be focused on a bit more. If lying were celebrated as virtuous, we’d probably need to focus on that a great deal. That said, I only disagree with him on it. It’s not a matter of salvation. I read the open letter you’re referring to, and I agree: it’s preposterous. There really was no reason for its being published as an open letter other than self-gratification for its author. For shame.
I should also note that your recollection of Webb’s responses is a bit whitewashed. I’m a card-carrying member of Sarcasm Lovers International, but we have to admit that “loving responses” isn’t the best descriptor of his Twitter/blog responses. Hilarious, yes. But not exactly dripping with grace. Now I don’t have a problem with Webb’s responses (or with sarcasm on blogs or Twitter at all), but your post presents this as far too black-and-white a case.
This issue with Rob Bell, on the other hand, has a much different tone and gravity to it. You rightly note that the stakes are higher: “Heresy is in the air.” The publisher’s description isn’t enough to condemn a man, certainly. Bell himself didn’t write that description, and furthermore, it’s a promo meant to entice the reader to buy the book. The author of the blog post that’s causing this kerfuffle seemed cognizant of that distinction. Similarly, Bell’s video is also a promo to get us to buy the book. It could be argued that he asks a lot of questions, implying that the answer is in the book. I sure hope so. The promos worked: I’ll be buying the book to see how it turns out. At the very least, I think we can agree that the tone and approach regarding the open letter to Derek Webb and the blog post about Rob Bell’s new book are markedly different. The post concerning Bell’s new book openly admits that while the marketing for it is disturbing, the book isn’t out yet and cannot really be judged until it’s read. To be sure, that post carried a great deal of nuance, and the post’s author has since updated it to reflect an even more “let’s wait and see, but let’s read this with a careful eye” approach. I think that’s wise no matter what we’re reading. (And I would heartily recommend that everyone who read the post before it was updated go back and read its additions.)
My skepticism here is that asking a lot of questions and never arriving at a conclusion seems to be Rob Bell’s usual modus operandi. It’s an infuriating argument to hear from anyone about any topic. It’s like a song that doesn’t resolve. It’s interesting every now and again, but I don’t want all my music to sound like that. I’ll be thrilled if Bell’s new book makes an actual truth claim with regards to the questions he raised in the video even if I completely disagree with him. It will at least be something real to discuss.
Now with regards to the “Everyone’s hating on Rob Bell!” meme that springs up from Bell’s defenders every time he’s criticized… come on. Let’s calm down a bit. Twitter is necessarily a truncated medium. While Piper’s tweet linking to the post lacked tactfulness, that’s the worst of it that I’ve seen from any major critic. Concern for the truthfulness of a major, mainstream preacher’s message is not hating. That’s hyperbolic and a poor use of vocabulary. Most of the long-form critiques I’ve seen about Bell over the years and tonight have been fairly academic and dispense a great deal of concern for him and his theology as a pastor and preacher to tens of thousands. That’s absolutely the right thing to do, and that kind of scrutiny and high standard should be applied to all teachers of The Word (John Piper included).
I’m also getting tired of seeing so many folks on both sides mock major figures on the other side of this religious schism and then turn right around and complain that the other side is out to get their side. Either choose to engage in this rather lively (and sometimes turbulent) back and forth, or get out. A case can be made for either position, but you can’t have it both ways. Don’t complain that you don’t like Group A because they always attack your groups and then endlessly tweet and retweet snide remarks about leaders in Group A. You can’t claim the high road and play in the mud, too. It’s disingenuous to say the least. (Yep, I’m looking right at you on this one, Guenther.)
So let’s all get back together for a good discussion about the book once we’ve all had a chance to read it. Until then, why don’t we share the saving message of Christ with everyone?