Tag Archives: Civil War

Relevance Kills: Rob Bell and Pyrrhic Victory

Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.
Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.

Relevance destroys.  You can sell a lot of burgers, but that makes you McDonalds.  Your album went triple platinum? The Spice Girls have you beat.  I fear that the once-respected evangelical pastor Rob Bell is becoming a spiritual McDonalds, a pop shadow of his former self.  Will he serve billions and billions more? Likely. But a burger made for the masses is neither tasty nor nutritious (nor a burger).

First things first.  I genuinely have affection for Bell.  I showed Nooma videos to my young adults.  I defended him when those with no sense of doctrinal history condemned him for age-old questions asked in Love Wins.  I saw him speak live at Duke and even got my picture taken with him. (He’s much taller than me.)

But I was saddened to read a recent interview with him by RNS.  I can live with controversial, envelope-pushing popular Christian reflection. I can tolerate the hipster glasses and skinny jeans.  But getting in league with Oprah and her army of overhyped pseudo-experts? This is a bridge too far.

Think about the other personalities under Oprah’s corporate umbrella:

  • Dr. Phil McGraw, a straight-talking Texan who dispenses counseling mints to millions of homes a week, making the frightening and deep inner work of therapy look as simple as talking to your local rodeo clown.  While McGraw does have a legitimate doctorate in clinical psychology, he has not been licensed to practice in any state since 1989.  (Imagine me offering advice on the church, pastoral care, and theology if my denomination had severed ties with me over 20 years ago!)
  • Dr. Mehmet Oz, a leading surgeon whose television success came at the expense of putting  his stamp on all kinds of snake oil backed by psuedo-science.  Some of his claims about phony weight loss products were so egregious that the US Senate got involved (because priorities).

In both instances, their relevance to mass audiences have taken legitimate concerns (physical and mental health) and commodified them to the point of tragicomedy.

A few years ago, I would have thought Bell a poor fit for such company, but now I am less certain.  Perhaps burned from the (admittedly ridiculous) backlash following Love Wins, Bell has essentially abandoned the church:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church.  “We have a little tribe of friends,” Bell said. “We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”

I wonder what the thousands of people who came to faith under Bell’s ministry at Mars Hill think of this? Personally, I would feel as if I’d been sold a bag of magic beans.  To think of it another way: the guy who so smoothly and confidently convinced you to buy a Honda is now driving a Fiat.

Rob Bell’s obsession with relevance – the desire to “matter” to the concerns and questions of contemporary culture – turns out to have been an invitation to entropy.  Bell is now so relevant that he seems to have little interest in Christianity.  Last year, in a speech at Vanderbilt University, he introduced himself as everything but a pastor, and didn’t mention his former calling until about 20 minutes in.  Moreover, when asked by RNS about working with Oprah, a notorious consumer from and promoter of the buffet of quasi-spiritualities, he responded:

“Is she a Christian? That word has so much baggage, I wouldn’t want to answer for someone. When Jesus talks about the full divine life, you think, this is what he’s talking about.”

I have no idea when Jesus talked about “the full divine life,” except when speaking about himself.  If the price of cultural relevance is that the “baggage” of a basic descriptor like ‘Christian’ is too much to palate or the particularity of the Son of God is an embarrassment, then it is time to stop making a fool’s bargain.

Rob spent a church building a career career building a church that was “relevant.”  The threshold for entry was low; it didn’t look, talk, or feel like “church,” and people responded in droves. Bell, in turn, built his brand on identifying with the non-religious and skeptic folks who were turned off by anything too obviously Christian.  But now, it appears, he has gone native.

dr philA pyrrhic victory is one which is too costly to be considered a legitimate win.  Bell’s trajectory shows clearly that the cost of cultural acceptance – the cost of relevance – is too high to pay.  The relevant pastor and the relevant congregation will find much success, as the world defines it.  But in earning that victory, it appears that one becomes so co-opted that the costs outweigh the benefits.  Looking back to the Civil War, we might consider the example of Confederate General Robert E. Lee constantly defeating Ulysses Grant’s attacks with superior tactics, but unable to sustain the campaign in the face of the superior resources of the North, who could afford the losses.  Likewise, pastors and churches who win the battle for relevance soon realize the long-term costs are far higher than first anticipated, and will then often find themselves co-opted beyond all restoration by the world they were trying to reach.  Playing to consumerism ends up consuming you.

Rob Bell is our next Dr. Phil, an expert whose expertise has been twisted to relevant, market-driven agenda.  He has gone from a pastor, a guide of souls, a preacher of the gospel, to just another space filler in Oprah’s cubby of spiritual shills.

A pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one.

On the Failure of the Church, Then & Now

https://i0.wp.com/i43.tower.com/images/mm101833386/broken-churches-nation-c-c-goen-paperback-cover-art.jpg

Today at Goodwill I picked up a true church nerd gem: an antique Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church, circa 1952.  Included in that Discipline was the 1939 document affirming the unification of the Methodist Episcopal (M.E for short) Church, M.E. Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.  It was fascinating to read, especially as I thought of the arguments that precipitated those splits.

In Broken Churches, Broken Nation, former Wesley Seminary professor of church history CC Goen argues that the split of the major denominations in the 1840’s – Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian – paved the way for the eventual sundering of the nation in the 1860’s and the brutal war that followed.  He cites numerous commentators of the time who expressed (highly prescient) fear that the natural result of schism in the church would be a tear in the fabric of the nation itself.

In his closing chapter, Goen offers conclusions about the failure of leadership that led to those denominational splits:

The real problem was the perception on the part of the evangelicals that an antislavery church would necessarily remain a very small church…the churches’ growth strategy depended upon their not requiring converts to face the hard moral discipline demanded by Christian sensitivity to the evil of human bondage.  So long as God seemed to smile on their zeal to bring in the unchurched, it was difficult to entertain any charge of fundamental wrongdoing…When Uncle Tom’s Cabin became as popular on stage as in book form, abolitionists noted wryly that “the theater became antislavery before many churches did.” (146-147)

Moreover, because the churches failed to lead the nation in coming to an amicable consensus around the issue of slavery, the country was left to find a political solution.  And while political solutions can be decisive legally, they do not necessarily change hearts and minds.  Goen quotes a 1961 work (hence the antiquated language) by historian Dwight Drummond:

…the failure of the churches at this point in our history forced the country to turn to political action against slavery, and political action destroyed slavery as a system but left the hearts of the slaveholders unregenerate and left oppression of the free Negro little less of an evil than slavery had been. (170)

Today, now as then, we are attempting to solve deep fissures in our national conscience with political action.  Also today, the church is failing her vocation to be both a graceful and an authoritative voice in the world.  The largest, most influential groups of Christians in Antebellum America were torn along sectional lines, and their Biblical interpretation and Christian ethics were largely determined by their social location.  Today, little has changed.

My own United Methodist corner of the Body is bitterly divided – between the Southeast and the rest of the country, between the the Western nations and the global South.  Again, social location seems to be triumphant, and we seem unable to ascertain a word of wisdom from the Spirit.

There must be a better way than parroting the worst of partisan culture, as we get with the “confessing” or “evangelical” renewal groups to fight the encroaching “progressive” or “liberal” interests in the other group.  As I read Goen’s book, and reflect upon our own situation, I was reminded of that great scene from War Games from many years ago which concludes, “the only winning move is not to play.”

A topic to develop for another time: isn’t it interesting how, centuries ago, Americans recognized that the key to church growth was not challenging the prevailing assumptions of those they sought to evangelize? Some things never change, I suppose…