Zondervan seems to know its got a tiger by the tale. And not a tame one either, so they've boldly decided to let him out of his Grand Rapids cage. Indeed they have decided to take him out on tour-- more specifically the Sex God Tour, promoting his latest book "Sex God" and his new Nooma video. Both were on offer tonight at Singletary Auditorium for the performing arts on the campus of the University of Kentucky.
There was a definite buzz in the air and in the audience as we all waited for Rob to arrive (his plane flight from Detroit was canceled and so he drove and arrived a bit late. It says something for his integrity that he refused to disappoint the large crowd awaiting his coming). The format of the evening was Q+A on whatever subjects the audience wants to ask Rob about. His approach is in some ways post-modern (its more about the questions than the answers), but more than that it shows respect to the audience to care about their questions and try to respond. After about an hour of Q+A the new Nooma video "You" was shown.
There are a variety of things to commend about Rob and his two books "Velvet Elvis" and "Sex God". They often raise the right sort of questions, and it is clear that Rob connects well with the 20 something crowds. He is an engaging dialogue partner, and witty at times. I especially appreciate how self-effacing he is in his books in dealing with issues like his own struggles for example with depression. He is good at the relational level of things, and one can readily see that he has some pastoral skills. He also has some teaching skills as well. I am thankful that he takes the Bible seriously, and that he seeks to understand it in its original Jewish context. And he has some justified complaints about modernity and its world view as well. It seems clear that God is using him to reach a wide variety of young people, perhaps many who are not darkening the doors of church or can't relate to traditional church. The videos are engaging from a cinematographic and musical point of view, and there is content which is challenging, and not just fluff.
Having spoken of the promise of his writings and speaking engagements and videos, it is necessary in all fairness to turn around and talk about the problems. I will stick to a few major ones in the way he handles the Bible and issues of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. First of all it seems clear that Rob, in his valid attempt to read Jesus and the NT writers in the context of early Judaism, has not used good enough sources to really help him understand the difference between Judaism prior to the two Jewish wars in the first and second centuries A.D, and later Mishnaic and Talmudic Judaism.
Jesus was certainly not a rabbi in the later Mishnaic sense, much less like modern ordained rabbis. It is telling that the only time Jesus is ever really called rabbi by any of his followers is when Judas does so when he is betraying Jesus with a kiss. Jesus' approach to the Torah is not like later rabbis in various ways, not the least of which is that he does not cite (indeed he often contrasts his teaching with) the oral traditions of the elders, such as Hillel or Shammai and the like. Jesus spoke on his own independent authority. At times Rob seems too uncritical in his reading of sources like the truly dated works of Alfred Edersheim, and apparently he spends too much time listening to folks like Ray Vanderlaan, a local teacher in the Grand Rapids area who doesn't really much understand the differences between medieval Jewish rabbis and the context and ethos of teachers in early Judaism of Jesus' day. Rob needs to read some viable sources on early Judaism, for example some of the work of Craig Evans or George Nickelsburg or Jacob Neusner if he wants to paint the picture of the Jewish Jesus using the right hews, tones, and features.
The second problem area is ethics, which became very apparent tonight when Rob Bell was asked about homosexuality. His answers was evasive in part, and disturbing in other parts, and clearly unBiblical in other parts and in this he sounds like some other leaders in the Emergent Church movement. Some specifics should be mentioned.
First of all, Rob made the blanket statement that you have no moral authority to speak on this issue unless you have gay friends and understand their struggle. While I am all for having pastoral empathy with people and their struggles, on that showing, Paul should never have spoken on this issue at all. This comment by Rob is simply an unhelpful way of silencing important voices in a divisive conversation, and its not helpful. Indeed it goes against the whole M.O. of Rob himself, which is to honor other people's views and beliefs and questions.
Secondly, Rob then makes an argument from silence which is in fact misleading. The argument is this--- "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality". This is not quite true. Jesus took all sorts of sexual sin very seriously, even adultery of the heart, as Rob admits, and so it is no surprise then that we find Jesus telling his disciples in Mt. 19 that they have only two legitimate options: 1) marital fidelity (with marriage being defined as a relationship between one man and one woman joined together by God which leads to a one flesh union), or 2) being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom.
The term 'eunuch' here whether taken literally (as in a castrated person who is incapable of normal sexual intercourse), or simply morally (as in a person who never engages in sexual intercourse, remaining celibate in singleness, though he or she is capable of such an act), makes very evident that for single persons, any single persons, celibacy in singleness is the standard Jesus holds up for the unmarried.
Nor, in view of the way Jesus talks about marriage in the context with the discussion of the original Genesis story about the creation order-- the creation of woman for man (and their interdependency), could one ever imagine Jesus redefining marriage to include same-sex sexual partners. Jesus is not silent on such matters at all-- fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness are his standards, and indeed they are standards by which Jesus himself lived when we are thinking about the celibacy in singleness issue. He is likely talking about himself when he speaks of persons who have chosen to be eunuchs for the Kingdom. Chastity was considered a great virtue in that honor and shame culture.
Rob then raises the issue of hypocrisy. Of course he is right that all sexual sin should be taken equally seriously, and in view of the abysmal record of heterosexual Evangelical Christians when it comes to issues of marital faithfulness he is right that one should not single out homosexual sin for special attention and ignore the seriousness of heterosexual sin. True enough-- but the proper response to such a situation is be an equal opportunity critiquer of all such sexual sin, while honestly admitting one's own failures and shortcomings.
Rob then raises the point that the Bible says nothing about sexual orientation. This is true, but irrelevant. It says plenty about sexual behavior, including same sex sexual activity between consenting adults in Romans 1, 1 Cor. 6 and Gal. 5, to mention three texts. It is simply not true that the Bible is just opposed to pederasty or male prostitution, though certainly both of those forms of same-sex sexual expression are prohibited. The terms used in 1 Cor. 6 refer to males who play the role of 'malakoi' or the soft or effeminate role, and those that play the aggressive more male role called 'arsenokoites'-- which literal means a male who copulates with another male (and the word certainly does not imply copulation only with under aged males). On all of this Rob really needs to read Rob Gagnon's definitive work The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon).
Of course it is true that we all are sinners who fall short of the glory of God, so there is no basis for finger pointing on such issues, and everyone must in all humility deal with their own sins rather than focusing on other people's sins. A Christian approach must be that everyone is welcome to come to Christ and come into the church as they are without pre-conditions. But no one is welcome to stay as they are--- no one. They all must change, repent of their sins as needed, and strive to live in newness of life whether gay or straight.
I do not want to let my disagreement with Rob on some issues overshadow the fact that I think in many ways God is using him for good to reach young people. It is clear he deeply loves God and is striving to please God and help many people connect with Jesus. I am grateful for this.
But since God has provided him with such a forum, he must be all the more careful to speak in a way that honors what the Bible has to say about important subjects, and be clear about what it says, even if at present he finds it hard to accept. He needs to commit himself to studying more carefully the Bible in its proper contexts so that he will avoid needless off hand comments that reflect a lack of understanding of God's Word. And above all he must not fall into the trap of so identifying with the culture he is trying to reach, that instead of actually critiquing that culture from a Biblical point of view, he baptizes certain prevailing cultural values and calls them good, and even mistakes them for Biblical values.
And one more thing. Rob is absolutely correct that there is a fine line between one's sexuality and one's spirituality. It is easy to mistake one sort of passion involving another person for another sort passion, especially in an age which is as confused about sexual roles and sexual identity as this one is. Confusing and fusing spiritual and sexual thoughts, emotions, expressions is all too common these days. It is thus wiser to err on the side of caution when talking about such volatile and controversial issues, especially if you are unsure what God actually says about a subject.
Paul reminds us in 1 Cor. 7 that at the end of the day remaining celibate and single or faithful in marriage is a matter of God's gracious gift-- called a 'charisma'. Its not just about nature, or what feels natural. It requires a grace gift from God to remain true in either condition. And frankly grace restrains and transforms nature. Nature, in the Christian lexicon, does not have the last word, especially fallen human nature. Grace does.