Rob Bell, one of orthodox Christianity’s favorite whipping boys, has made it too easy this time. Or at least I’m hoping that his followers see it as clearly as it is. In an interview with a religion writer for the Boston Globe, Bell waxes poetic about the downward spiral of “evangelicalism” and suggests a new definition of the term that he thinks many can accept and promote throughout the world.
Interviewer’s Question: “OK, how would you describe what it is that you believe?”
Bell’s Answer: “I embrace the term evangelical, if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.”
Change, stewardship, generosity, and hope are good things. But that’s not the essence of “evangelical.” What is more atrocious is that the award-winning religion journalist’s headline is “Bell aims to restore true meaning of ‘evangelical'” (italics mine). This award-winning writer has no clue what the historical meaning of evangelical means, and neither does the “pastor” (or as Bell says in the interview, “performance artist”) he’s interviewing.
To give Bell a little credit, before answering the above question he criticizes how “evangelical” has been hijacked to refer to Christian Coalition, right-wing, politically-charged types instead of the more spiritual meaning it had when it originated. “Evangelical” comes from the Greek word evangelion for “gospel,” “good news,” or literally “good message.” To put it more clearly, an “evangelical” historically referred to one who believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to earth to redeem His people from their sins by his atoning death and victorious resurrection:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor. 15)
So while I am with Bell in rejecting the use of the term to the Christian Right, I am also strongly against Bell’s “restoration” of the term to a man-centered, politically-charged social gospel. He just criticized the hijacking of “evangelical” and then hijacks it in his own way! The gospel of Jesus Christ is the evangel, the good news that is not me-centered but Christ-centered. Its profound truths quench the driest thirst, feed the hungriest soul, blot out the darkest sins, and through the Holy Spirit prompts radical change in the world. Why starve hungry sheep by leading them astray from what is right and true and good? Only the evangel can provide what is eternal and lasting.
As for Bell, it’s really no surprise to me that the secular world – especially the liberal northeast audience of the Globe – can’t get enough of his postmodern religion speak: because it is not the true gospel. It is teaching that tickles the ears of those who don’t want to hear the truth (something the church has had to deal with for 2,000 years since the time of Christ):
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Tim 4)
The legalism and fundamentalism that Bell and other emerg-ents/-ings are reacting against isn’t necessarily a bad thing to react against. The gospel is surely more than checking a box, saying a prayer, responding to an altar call, following a list of man-made rules, or punching a one-way ticket to heaven. But it’s also more than just caring for the poor, the environment, and striving for political change. In reacting against fundamentalism and legalism, Bell and others have hit a nerve of many who grew up in these circles and who want better. But in doing so, Bell sets up straw men and caricatures of Christianity. Christianity and the evangelion is so much deeper and richer than either the rigidity of fundamentalism or the spinelessness of postmodern conversation and community.