Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Not That Kind of Relationship

The Underground Pewster nails everything that is wrong with "dialogue" about sexuality: a hypothetical conversation between Bishop Waldo and a simple pewsitter.

I particularly loathe the phrase "living in relationship", which sits between "dialogue" and "living in community" on my Shelf of Theological Vacuity. Every two people live in some sort of relationship; the important thing is pinning down what that relationship needs to be like, and you know, God/people (your choice) invented these things called "rules" and "laws" to help us through this. "That kind of relationship" is discussed at length in scripture, and besides it doesn't take a lot of observation to realize that (a) long-term monogamy is what works best, and (b) "relationship" is a word which means "letting your sexual appetites and the drudgery of everyday life dictate your behavior."

At any rate, it took about thirty seconds for "not that kind of relationship" to become the new catchphrase in the Wingate household.

Friday, March 04, 2011

HarperCollins and the Velvet Elvis

The Christian and especially Anglican blogosphere is echoing now from the responses to the promotional campaign for Rob Bell's latest book. OK, so if you are a typical church-going Episcopalian, and you through some horrific accident stumbled upon this, you are wondering, "who in the heck is Rob Bell, and why should I care?" Well, you should care because Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, one of those gratingly hipster "emerging" churches, located in this case in Grand Rapids, which also happens to be the home of Zondervan and Eerdmans, the biggest evangelical publishers (Eerdmans also publishes a lot of Anglicana).

I suppose I shouldn't let my personal prejudices get in the way of all this, but I see Bell and think, "isn't time he grew up?" The guy is in his forties and he is trying to look as if he's twenty-five; yes, he has young kids, but he had them almost as late as I did. If his first kid had been born when he was 25 instead of almost 30 he would have a teenager now, and everyone knows that parents of teenagers cannot be hip. And probably wearing vestments isn't hip either, though one sees a lot of failed attempts to the contrary in the Episcopal Church. Vestments demand dignity, and what looks merely casual in hipster shirt-and-jeans (the shirt, of course, isn't tucked in) looks hopelessly undignified in vestments. (Vestments that are trying to look hip are grist for the Bad Vestments mill, which ranks lower on the scale than merely "undignified".) Yet there's a lot of wanabee Anglicanism (which is to say, Protestant Catholicism) on Mar's Hill's website, such as their recco of doing the Office, for which they link directly to an Episcopal Church site.

What I don't see is much Anglican influence in Bell's ideas. It's not clear how much the church's website reflects his personal views, but what he has written thus far reflects either an immersion in modernist theology, or at least a rediscovery of the same principles on his own. The example which everyone points to first is a passage from one of his early books, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith:
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry's tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and the Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if you discover that in the first century the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at the time, the word virgin could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being "born of a virgin" also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse? (p. 26)
I remember discussing all of these things (except the last, which is a new one on me and of course he doesn't cite anything) back in high school sacred studies and then again in college religion courses, thirty years ago. We are right in the middle of modernist country here, and it might occur to you that a leeettle bit of theological discussion may have happened since then, and not only that, but for decades and decades prior to that. And you would be right, except that somehow the modernists never seem to be able to hear the criticisms of traditionalists and even mainstream theologians. But to continue, Bell back in 2006 was still in the mode of actually answering his own rhetorical questions. He frames this whole thing in a metaphor in which his new system is likened to a trampoline, which he characterizes creedal faith in this manner:
It hit me while I was watch that for him [a creationist] faith isn't a trampoline; it's a wall of bricks. Each of the core doctrines for him is like an individual brick that stacks on top of the others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble. It appears quite strong and rigid, but if you begin to rethink or discuss even one brick, the whole thing is in danger.
Now, as usual, the deck is rigged by picking someone whom even most traditionalists outside of a subsection of radically conservative Protestantism think is quite wrong. And nothing is more bricklike than Roman Thomist or hardline Calvinist theology. But even ignoring that the history of theology shows that this claim isn't true, and that plenty of people are able to rebuild their theological edifices when parts of them are damaged in one manner or another, the real message here is based on the hipster values that trampolines are Cool and that brick walls are utterly UnCool. I suppose that means they never sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God", but really this is a pathetically lame basis for a theology. But never fear, he goes on to realize the similes and give a reason for preferring one to the other:
I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. [....] But if the whole faith falls apart when we examine and rethink one spring, then it wasn't very strong in the first place, was it?
Well, obviously it's going to depend on the spring, and Paul of course gives an absolutely contradictory answer. But like most modernists, Bell seems to have a problem with Paul. And in any case, as a thought experiment this runs up against the reality that one of my college classmates raised: nobody is ever going to come up with a strong disproof of the Virgin Birth, and we are always going to be forced to rely on believing the sources (scripture and the church) or not believing them. In the meantime, this has been discussed endlessly, but apparently not to Bell's satisfaction, so he has a new book coming out, and the emphasis is on raising questions again. Well, not really: at the moment, based on his promotional YouTube video, it's all about universalism. Not surprisingly, this set off a huge fight. Traditionalist altar-call Protestants simply aren't going to accept his answers, nor are traditional catholics. Equally unsurprisingly, the Episcopal "cool kids" love him. I suppose the fight is good publicity, just as "a Bishop rethinks" probably sold a lot of Spong's books, and I see that Bell has advanced from the unhip Zondervan to the with-it HarperCollins, the preferred publisher of the fashionably controversialist.

But I, personally, prefer to remain an agnostic on this at least to a point. Jesus and scripture spend too much time on the subject of damnation for me to dismiss the possibility that some people, maybe most people, end up there. Hell may be empty, but I'm not counting on it and I'm certainly not going teach that. On the other hand it's patently obvious from scripture that altar-call salvation is inadequate; behavior is important to salvation. There are people out there (for instance, Eugene Peterson) who are trying to find a better route between these Scylla and Charybdis of heresies, but this, I do not think, is going that route. Instead, what I see is that this fits into the Emergent path already trod by the likes of Brian McLaren of reinventing if not adopting the classic modernist errors of rhetoric and reasoning. There is a LOT of theology out there, and the reaction against (a) the Catholic Church or (b) fundamentalism or literalist evangelicalism is the erection of a strawman. There are and have always been other possibilities; if you look at a classical Anglican such as Lewis, for instance, you will find someone who not only does not adopt but actively avoids either position. Nobody who is going to make this kind of pronouncement should be doing so without at least surveying the literature, and Bell's writings seem to be those of someone who has taken a survey of the modernists and nobody else. I notice that his church commends Chesterton's Orthodoxy but I really don't see anything in his theses consonant with that book.

And also one again we see the essentially oppositional character of the Emergent movement, even if they don't see it themselves. One of the big issues that continues to plague the modernists is that they are stuck in eternal combat with the fundamentalists and Thomists and Calvinists and other hardline systematic traditionalists, but this century-old fight is completely irrelevant to my theology, and I say, a curse on all their houses. Too many Emergents are obviously in rebellion against American evangelicalism, and they show all the same traits of exaggeration and grandstanding and oversimplifying the field. Likewise, the whole hipster ethos is a rebellion against an earlier generation that should have ended a long time ago in an anamnetic religion. If there's one thing that should be learned from the history of 20th century theology, it's that reinventing theology is the fastest route to heresy and to that religion so memorably damned by H. Richard Niebuhr: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

Addendum: I commend to the reader this extended review of Velvet Elvis by an Orthodox Presbyterian minister.