Sunday, March 27, 2011

Piper and Bell as the great white fight in contemporary evangelicalism

I was sure, to go by the blogosphere a few years ago, that the big fight upon which the evangelical faith (read neo-Calvinism) was going to win or lose was about the New Perspective on Paul and whether or not N. T. Wright's fans could be nipped in the bud by proving Wright denied double imputation and thus compromised the whole Gospel (at least based on sound bites exchanged by Mark Driscoll and R. C. Sproul).

Well, it would appear that the new, real, big fight is about whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist. Piper and Bell are the blogged about people at the putative center of this theological dust-up. Two white guys with glasses. Hey, solidarity, man, because I look pretty white and I have glasses. Still ... having come from a racially mixed marriage of an American Indian man and a white woman I admit that when I stumbled upon this link above I was more amused than perhaps some people would say I should be. Drew G. I Hart writes:

Younger, fresher expressions of church are “emerging” and are winning over many from white America. Simultaneously, the old guard is losing relevance, and feels threatened. Rather than working together as as the Church, imperial and colonial instincts have kicked in as folks gaze upon all the religious authority that could be attained. Domination over American Christian theological direction has quietly been the real story & narrative when you stop and read between the lines.

What is interesting is that some of the people who have aligned against Bell at various times were aligned with the "younger, fresher expressions of church". The rest of his comments are sufficiently interesting I am just going to post them as follows:

I can understand why younger white evangelicals would want to break away from this brand of American Evangelicalism. While I can appreciate many of the theological nuances expressed by this zealous group of white 20 and 30 somethings, they have their own set of problems. Before we get too excited about this coming shift in influence over American religious life, we must acknowledge that the practice of hegemony and domination will still continue through these “emerging leaders”. Overall, I have been pleased with the theological shifts being expressed, because they express desire for racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the Church… wanting the Church to be ONE church, which we were called to be. However, it did not take very long for me to realize that the proclamations and the practices of this group were not lining up. Everything that is done is done to cater to white middle class suburbia. They cater to the priviliged despite affirming Jesus’ call to serve the least of these. [emphasis mine] As far as hegemony goes, Black and Latino pastors and theologians still continue to be uninvited to the infamous “table” Even these newly formed tables under banners of emergent or missional are starting off on the wrong foot, being almost completely homogeneous. Of course these Evangelical 3.0′s have learned from their predecessors that you must at least grab a token black for your entourage or program (however the 2.0’s actually did a better job at pulling in tokens), often this GED effort of token representation is not even being done at many of their gatherings and events. Unfortunately the white control and supremacy over religious life in America is not going anywhere if left on track.

In a truly global Christian perspective the fight about whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist or believes in Hell is pretty unimportant. Even as a self-identifying conservative evangelical guy Bell is finally a non-entity. This Piper/Bell conflagration can be seen as nothing more than two fairly affluent white boys in glasses who are not quite so young making bids for which young and upwardly mobile white boys and their wives will shape the future of white American Christianity.

Despite the tempest in the teapot I know plenty of Christians who 1) have no idea who Rob Bell is and 2) have even less of an idea who John Piper is. We among the neo-Reformed think it's a super-big-deal that this is all happening. Conservative Protestants do have some reasons to have reservations about Bell, of course ... but we have to remind ourselves that to Christians even in America, let alone Christians around the world this fight is about as compelling and relevant as comic book fans debating who would be more likely to win a fight with bloodlust on, Captain America or Wolverine.

Again, I'm not saying the issues aren't important at all but that we take ourselves too seriously as though the issues and debates will stand or fall on whether or not we win. American evangelicals must continually be reminded that heretical views such as modalism, Docetism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Montanism, etc. etc. are not new. Even the New Perspective on Paul isn't new so much as an attempt to recover the old perspective that is older than the old perspective on Paul developed in the scholastic battles of the late medieval and Renaissance periods. If Piper matters now to a lot of Christians who aren't already committed super-soldiers in the young, restless and Reformed it will unfortunately that Piper seems to be working his way slowly toward pontificating on the need for all Christians everywhere to repent of worldliness any time a natural disaster arrives with a consistency greater than Pat Robertson.

Of course Robertson will be dismissed as a nutjob by the YRR crowd but Piper won't be even though he's make the same case without being so bold as to mention (most of the time) which specific sins American Christians need to repent of as God permits tens or hundreds of thousands of people to die in other countries where by and large white American Christians will never live. Now my Christian friend in Japan probably isn't spending a lot of time reflecting on how the tsunami is a sign that she and other Christians should repent of worldliness so much as she is hoping that our Lord Jesus returns soon so these kinds of horrors won't continue any longer.

While Internet Monk was alive I think, if memory serves, he once said that one of the controversies surrounding Mark Driscoll's popularity among younger Baptists was due to his being Calvinist and his lack of obvious adherence to Baptist concepts of Christian piety. He may have gone so far as to suggest that Driscoll was a lightning rod because he represented what conservative southern Baptists didn't want their denomination to become characterized by, either the Calvinsit part or the lack of earlier piety part. Piper came under fire from a few of the old guard about letting Driscoll be on the team, or Rick Warren.

Well, perhaps in a way Piper's view of Bell shows that these things can be relative. If the new Calvinists a la Calvinist Baptists are pretty confident they are blessed by God to reshape American evangelicalism then if there's no meaningful threat or competition from the old guard Baptists and the New Perspective is too European in terms of serious adherents to be a problem (and Wright has stepped down from his role as bishop to work on more books anyway), then the new big battle to mobilize the troops can focus around a Mars Hill founded by Rob Bell that could be confused with a Mars Hill founded by Mark Driscoll and two other guys.

Dare we suggest that maybe the fight is not merely about a political struggle to see which version of urban and urbane white Christianity will win but also a public battle over branding issues? It's not impossible, though it is obviously a small part of the fracas. That there are two Mars Hill churches in America in different parts of the country with semi-young pastors who are controversial for not seeming old-fashioned enough suggests that we are living in a small world indeed. I was at the one in Seattle for quite a long time and never had much interest in Bell or his church. I thought that Mars Hill was a bigger deal then I think, ultimately, it will prove to be.

Almost twelve years after first attending I'd say that it went from being an emerging church to a Calvinist Baptist denomination, which is okay, just no longer what I had signed up for. That the other Mars Hill and Rob Bell are being described as drifting back into traditional liberal Protestantism simply reinforces for me that in order for this description to have happened and for Driscoll to be aligned with Piper proves that Driscoll has already functionally lined up as Reformed Baptist in all but denominational affiliation.

Even though there's a lot about American evangelical white culture I can still very much appreciate I am not under the impression that in the history of God's global Church that this is as big a deal as the liberal and conservative white Protestants at contingently hip or influential churches are making it out to be. I'm pretty sure my Orthodox relatives and charismatic relatives have no idea who these people are (well, the Orthodox relatives know who Piper is, for sure, and don't like him. :)


Brian Auten said...

In many ways (and I'm not saying that there are *not* problem with Rob Bell's theology), the Bell-Piper fight is about who wins the hearts and minds of 20-to-35-something *men* in modern evangelicalism. In the same way, look at the missional/so-called "social gospel" vs. gospel proclamation fight (which the upcoming DeYoung and Gilbert book is going to exacerbate) -- it's about making sure that the energies of young men are properly oriented.

Brian Auten said...

I should not have been so stark in the final sentence. It is not only about "making sure that the energies of young men are properly oriented" but it is at least partly about that.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Those observations dovetail nicely with Hart's, I think. Hart might say that the battle is to see if the younger generation of white males can be won to a particular conception of evangelicalism. As someone who is at a PCA church I have obviously landed firmly in the Reformed side rather than the side that tilts toward "social justice" while being squishy on doctrinal concerns.

If the neo-Reformed branch in any way loses the fight it will probably be by focusing so much on winning the young white males they do so at the expense of appealing to minorities and women.

I think it would also be useful to note, as J. I. Packer did, that the Puritans failed in all their goals for reforming the church within their lifetime but that their legacy is not therefore a failure.