This Ringing is Not New
Finding Rob Bell in the Reactionary History of Evangelicalism
When a theological discussion within Evangelicalism reaches the pages of The New York Times, it likely means that the media establishment, with its conflicted relationship to Evangelicalism, has picked up on something that most Evangelicals would rather not see happening.
On March 4th, 2011, the New York Times story (“Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views On Old Questions”) was about Grand Rapids, Michigan megachurch pastor Rob Bell. Weeks before Bell's latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, hit the shelves, Justin Taylor, an Evangelical blogger accused him of being a “universalist”, of asserting that people who do not profess faith in Jesus Christ might very well not suffer eternal punishment. In other words, Taylor accused Bell of being a heretic and the Devil in sheep’s clothing, based simply on a promotional video. That one suspect accusation set Evangelical broadband aflame. In the media blitz that followed, numerous voices stepped up to criticize Bell, even though few had access to the book itself. Most pointedly, Minneapolis Reformed pastor John Piper (a major force in conservative Evangelicalism) tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell”, a sort of “you're dead to me” message that Evangelicals (let alone Minnesota-Nice Evangelicals) tend to avoid, unless they feel their theology is being crossed.
If you're like me, this sounds like a non-story if there ever was one. Recent surveys (for instance, the research for Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace) have seen that many American Evangelicals, like their secular counterparts, are likely to think that good people, regardless of faith, do not go to Hell. And for anyone familiar with the controversial “rock star” career of Rob Bell, it would almost be more shocking if he wasn't some sort of universalist. So why the fuss?
Although the Times story doesn't say all that much about Rob Bell, it does reveal something crucial about what Evangelicalism is at its heart: a reactionary movement. Here, I should note that I do not intend to use the word “reactionary” in a derogatory sense, but only as a neutral descriptor. And while the word “movement” connotes some sort of institutional stability, stability is exactly what Evangelicalism has never had. Instead, from the very start, Evangelicalism has been moving and reacting to such an extent that, historically speaking, it is nothing more than a reactionary movement churning through the processes of Western secularization without a still harbor in sight.
For this to make any sense, and for the Rob Bell controversy to be properly contextualized, it is worth exploring a brief history of Evangelicalism. In the wake of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, the roots of what we now call Evangelicalism emerged in the form of German Pietism, a 17th century movement that resisted the post-Reformation politicization of Protestantism. As Europe fractured along religious lines, Christianity had largely become a tool in the hands of princes who used religious identity to secure their fragile domains. In response to what they saw as the political functionalism and nit-picking “Protestant scholastic” theology of 17th century Christianity, Pietist leaders like the Lutheran theologian Philipp Jakob Spener advocated a return to spiritual fervor, promoting practices that elevated the significance of the individual and communal piety of laypeople. As the subtitle of Spener's Pia Desideria (his influential 1675 book on Christian practices) pointed out, these Evangelicals were motivated by an Earnest Desire for a Reform of the True Evangelical Church.
Precisely because this movement was non-institutional at its core (in its rebellion against the clerical and political church establishment), it soon spread to England. Under Spener's influence, his godson, Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf led a Pietist movement in Moravia, which was so successful in its day that its practitioners are now known simply as Moravians. Soon, a young John Wesley adopted Moravian spirituality upon encountering Moravians during a trans-Atlantic voyage to Georgia. Filled with Evangelical zeal, John and his brother Charles began a movement that captured millions of hearts both in England and in the American colonies. Even some staunchly Calvinist pastors like New England preacher and intellectual Jonathan Edwards had followed English evangelist George Whitefield in calling for renewed Christian zeal—a call that threatened established clergy and influential laypeople alike. For thinkers like Edwards, Deism (which holds that God is not active in the world that God started) and the apathy of many established church authorities were the growing enemies of Christian piety and needed to be countered by renewed spiritual life. Similarly, the Wesleys had perceived the same problems in their English setting.
Three decades into the 19th century, however, the American elite became enamored with Unitarian teaching (which denies the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Furthermore, some of the intelligentsia went so far as to join the Transcendentalists in rejecting most traditional Christian teaching altogether. Meanwhile, the American frontier lacked established churches that could maintain the faith and morality of settlers who were moving West, past the Appalachian Mountains. In response, revivalists like Charles Finney called the masses to conversion (or reconversion, as the case may have been). But when Finney called new converts to the front of the tent, he wasn't merely counting numbers; he was signing them up for a political movement that was sweeping the nation: Abolitionism. At the same time, utopian Evangelicals (including Finney) coalesced around communities like Oberlin, Ohio, embracing all sorts of other reform movements: temperance, health foods, and women's rights. As a result, a new and socially progressive Evangelical establishment, buoyed by the Union victory, marched on into the 20th century.
By 1910, when a group of conservative theologians began to publish a theological encyclopedia called The Fundamentals, something was clearly amiss within Evangelicalism. Although they had seen civil war during the 19th century, Evangelicals were seldom as internally divided as they became in response to what the Fundamentalists called “Modernism.” As in the analogous European Catholic debate over “Modernism,” American Evangelicals were being faced with a series of decisions to make over issues such as historical criticism of the Bible and Darwinian evolution. While they had not raised these issues, they did react to them. In response, Modernist denominational leaders and seminaries took over the major institutions of American Protestantism, leaving the Fundamentalists with a scattered movement. As historian Joel Carpenter points out, Fundamentalists were not “organized,” but they were networked, allying against the church and seminary establishments that mocked and belittled what they saw as the core of Christian faith.
By 1947, the Fundamentalist establishment itself had become the target of an attack from within when Carl F. H. Henry published his critique of the The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism. In this book, Henry diagnosed Fundamentalism as too reluctant to engage in public debate regarding political and social issues. From the perspective of a new group associated with leaders like Billy Graham, the Fundamentalists were seen as too sectarian, too busy arguing amongst themselves to effectively influence their nation. With the coalescence of several denominations around the magazine Christianity Today and organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, these “neo-Evangelicals” soon became the Evangelical mainstream, overtaking the once-powerful Fundamentalists.
By 1978 something new was stirring in the world of Evangelicalism. While most casual observers would guess that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was the beginning of the powerful Religious Right movement, this is not quite what happened. Indeed, during the 1970s a group that Richard Quebedeaux labeled “the young Evangelicals” seemed poised to continue the trend that the neo-Evangelicals had begun by leading the movement toward more “progressive” social, political, and theological positions. When Iowa senator Dick Clark ran for re-election in 1978, he faced the unexpected opposition of traditionally pro-life Catholics and morally-outraged Evangelicals, most likely due to his support for legalized abortion. After Clark narrowly lost an election that he had been expected to win, it seemed clear that Evangelicals had surprisingly decided an election.
What isn't as well-known outside of Evangelical circles, however, is what has happened since then. Frequently, journalists have tended to focus on political apostasy among younger Evangelicals, many of whom voted for Democrats in 2008. However, the underlying conflict is more accurately seen in the career of pastor Brian McLaren, the most prominent figure in a diverse movement called the “Emergent Church.” This movement—which its leaders, who don't want to be called leaders, have tried to rebrand as a “conversation”—is just as unorganized as it claims to be. But it is held together by a common desire to move beyond certain tendencies of a rigid “modernity” that it believes has infected Evangelicalism: a desire for certainty, closed communities, a narrow focus on individual salvation, and a strident emphasis on socially-conservative political causes. But most conservative Evangelicals have been wary of the “postmodern” forms of Christianity that Emergents espouse.
This is the context into which Rob Bell's new book has fallen. For more traditional Evangelicals like John Piper, Bell's supposed apostasy is not an isolated incident; instead, Bell is viewed as but one more fallen angel, likely to take a whole host of young Evangelicals with him into hell, assuming that anyone ever goes there. So the dispute isn't really about the book Love Wins or even necessarily about fine points of doctrine. Rather, Evangelicals are now doing what they have always done: reacting, moving, and contesting a theological and political opponent. And what about those Evangelicals who tend to sympathize with Rob Bell? They too are reacting against theological and political positions that they view as intolerable: in books, on blogs, and through various new ways of doing church. And Bell, who is neither fully Emergent nor traditionally Evangelical, may very well be forming his own reactionary movement.
In light of philosopher Charles Taylor's analysis of secularization, such reactions are to be expected in secular societies. While pure religious unbelief is relatively rare in most places (including the United States), utterly certain religious belief is similarly rare in our secular age. Instead, most people are caught between the “cross-pressures” created by these polar alternatives, Taylor claims. These varied and vibrant pressures lead to a “nova effect,” a new and explosive variety of religious options that suddenly become available to modern people, with new alternatives constantly appearing on a blurry horizon. Roughly beginning with the aftermath of the Reformation, Western Christians have had to deal with (or enjoy, depending on one's perspective) such unabated religious pluralism.
But Evangelicals still desire some level of religious certainty and clear communal boundaries. Unlike Roman Catholics or, say, Hindus, Evangelicals have no permanent tradition (in the sense of ancient or medieval institutions or ancestral piety). As many a preacher has said, the Evangelical God has no grandchildren; every Evangelical has to decide to believe what he or she believes. How then can a coherent Evangelical religious identity persist through centuries of massive cultural change? By reacting and then reacting again to the reaction, and by never leaving both of one's feet on the ground at the same time. In this way, Evangelicalism is and always has been a movement of reaction, reaction against established Protestantism, against Deism, against Unitarianism, against social ills like slavery, against Modernism, against Fundamentalism, against the Democratic Party, and–upon the March 2011 release of Love Wins–against Rob Bell.
Stephen Waldron is a Massachusetts-based writer who holds an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Marquette University.