"I’m a Christian, and I liked the book Velvet Elvis."
Somehow, this admission has come to feel like something we can only say in an addiction support group setting, as if there is shame in finding anything Rob Bell has touched refreshing. Even as I type this, I picture a circle of hard, plastic chairs and a guy with a clipboard welcoming me, perhaps asking when was the last time I indulged in reading it.
Is this where I confess that I own most of the Nooma series, too?
"Why are you talking about Velvet Elvis? Wasn’t that published forever ago?" you might ask. (2005, actually)
Since then, Bell has been swimming in controversy (first wading, but I think we can agree he’s full-on swimming now). Today, I read that he has vocally confirmed his support of marriage equality.
Personally, I was disappointed with what he said, but likely not for the reasons you think. I, too, am for marriage equality, but that’s for another post on another day. Let’s break it down:
"I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man." Okay. You may disagree, but there are authentic Christians on both sides of this issue.
"I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are." *Pause* Maybe? I definitely think scripture (and inherently God) calls us, as Christians, to love people wherever they are. I think we need a clearer understanding of what Bell means by “affirm” here though. For those that doctrinally believe homosexuality to be a sin, then people being engaged in homosexual activities could be likened to any other sin, where we are to affirm the person, not the sin. What makes me hesitant about Bell’s phrasing is his “ship” metaphor. It sounds like he’s saying we should affirm the people because the culture in America has shifted to be more supportive of same-sex relationships and that the church needs to respond in kind. Personally, I don’t get what one has to do with the other. I think we should always have affirmed and loved people in whatever world we are living in. What the culture or subculture accepts/rejects shouldn’t be of interest to us or influence our behavior. (If you don’t believe homosexuality is a sin, then affirming people is in the midst of whatever sin they’re in, which we all are.)
"I think we are witnessing the death of a particular subculture that doesn’t work. I think there is a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized, Evangelical subculture that was told "we’re gonna change the thing" and they haven’t." Again, I don’t understand why the subculture matters. I do agree that American Christianity has become far too cozy with American politics and it prevents us from effectively spreading the gospel in love.
And they actually have turned away lots of people. And I think that when you’re in a part of a subculture that is dying, you make a lot more noise because it’s very painful. You sort of die or you adapt.” Yikes. Okay, so Christians have turned away a lot of people. People are leaving the church in swarms (another topic, another day). There is certainly a lot of noise and unfortunately it’s predominantly about hate and condemnation instead of love and grace. I don’t mean to obscure the reality of hell or gloss over the truth of the Bible. it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. But Jesus’ message came down to: Love God. Love Others. Make Disciples. How many headlines depict us doing that? If we take the media machine out of the equation, how often do you seen Christians around you doing that? (Yes, we need to acknowledge sin to identify a need for a savior…but the approach of the Christian political machine isn’t exactly “following in Jesus’ footsteps” and having dinner with tax collectors and prostitutes.) So there is noise, and it’s certainly distracting. What I don’t understand is why Bell thinks it’s okay for us to accept our only options as dying or adapting. Does he not remember that God already won? Or that scripture compels us, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”? (In Romans 12:2). If his theological interpretation of scripture is that homosexuality is not a sin, then that should not be dependent on any subculture or an adaptation to it. If he theologically believes that it is a sin, but that Jesus came as a carpenter, not a politician, and we should follow his example and not get caught up in deriving governmental laws on Christian theology, ok. But that’s not what he said. Dying or adapting are not our only options. Our only options are loving God, loving people and making disciples. (Non-Christians: “Making disciples” in Christian circles doesn’t -or at least shouldn’t - mean “brainwash”. It’s more analogous to equipping - bible studies, discussions, application - to better understand scripture, develop a relationship with God, and share God’s love through action with others.)
Ultimately, I think Bell’s articulation did a disservice to those of us who are Christian supporters of marriage equality. It perpetuated the perspective of this group bending scripture to cultural norms, rather than holding a differing and valid interpretation of scripture.
Rob Bell (and I say this in love) - you have a gift with words and helping others to find refreshment in God through them (See: Velvet Elvis, Nooma). Please use it responsibly. You’re starting to make it harder on us. Our voices and actions of grace are being drowned out by incessant, unproductive debates.