Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment

Note: Originally posted at State of Formation

The criticism of Rob Bell’s Love Wins is not about theology. It is all about authority.

In case you missed the hubbub surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I point you to Sara Staely’s post where she outlines John Piper and the neo-Calvinist establishment’s response to the book. She sums up the conflict nicely:

Over the past few days, one three-word tweet has put the evangelical world into a tizzy:Farewell Rob Bell.  The tweet came from John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and the veritable Godfather of the neo-reformed evangelical establishment (for more on Piper’s influence, see my previous post on evangelicals and inter-religious dialogue).  Piper was referencing Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, a celebrated speaker and author among a younger, more progressive evangelical crowd.

Largely based on this two-and-a-half minute promotional video for Bell’s forthcoming book,Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Piper has determined that the book will come a bit too close to universalism for his sensibilities.  And so, with a few clicks of the keyboard, a tap of the mouse and one trite tweet, it seems Bell has been expelled from what Piper deems to be the One True Church.

Sara goes on to discuss her own response to Piper et al.’s theological self-congratulations for securing orthodox evangelicalism, but I want to take things in a different direction. Sara is quite right to dwell on the theological implications of the “Bell’s Hell” controversy, however, I think at bottom the dispute is not about heaven and hell or heresy and orthodoxy. It is about authority.

Rob Bell challenges the authority of the (Calvinist) evangelical establishment and they don’t like it. For example, Bill Walker has compared Bell’s ideas in Love Wins with conservative evangelical darling and Presbyterian Church in America pastor Tim Keller’s ideas in The Reason for God. As Walker lays it out, the two share a lot in common. They both lean heavily on C.S. Lewis for their ideas and Bell even cites Keller’s other book Prodigal God in his “further reading” section of Love Wins. Yet, Keller is beloved by those in the pews and quoted by those in the pulpits while Bell is dangerous. As Walker puts it:

So here’s my second question.  Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if his theology is the same as one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really about theology?  Might there a deeper political element of power underlying the supposedly righteous rhetoric?

The short answer to Walker’s questions: Yes.

The controversy is not about the book or its theology. Look at this list of responses to the book from Southern Baptist leaders, put together by the Baptist Press. It seems like half of the respondents have not even read the book. They just know it was written by Rob Bell and so it must be opposed. The ones that do try to engage Bell’s writing either misread it or pan it as erroneous without giving good reasons why.

So, if it is not about theology, then what is is about? Why is Keller in but Rob Bell out? Why are old man Piper and the good fellas at the SBC hassling pastor Bell? Piper, the SBC, and other “orthodox” evangelical critics of the book are defending their own privileged place in American evangelicalism. Tim Keller is okay because he is a PCA pastor. He is inside the establishment. He is safe. Rob Bell is not.  Bell is not part of any major denomination and so, to Piper et al., he answers to no one. He is a rogue pastor with a HarperCollins book deal.

The response to Bell reminds me of the disputes between the Old Lights and New Lights in colonial America. During what some historians call the Great Awakening, pastors like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached an evangelicalism that emphasized God’s grace and personal experiences of salvation. Revivals broke out up and down the East coast as Whitfield preached to crowds. Along with this exuberant evangelical “experimental religion” came challenges to the old guard of church leadership. The revival came because of a new kind of ministry the mended the failures of the old lights.

While Bell is  not giving sermons on “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” like Gilbert Tennent, nonetheless, his book and his overall project challenges the power of the existing denominational establishment in America. The Baptists, the PCA, and the various Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations have provided the institutional structures and the doctrinal orthodoxy for their particular corners of the evangelical community. But Bell and others like him come from outside of these structures, challenging their theology but, more importantly, challenging their authority. There is no assembly, council, bishop or court to drag Bell into and strip him of his post. This lack of control scares evangelical elites like John Piper.

In the pursuit for control over what counts as “evangelicalism” in America, it remains to be seen if love wins or not.

Tough Academics and Fragile Politicians

It’s funny cuz it’s true.

Second, the Republicans seem remarkably fragile. A professor writing a blog post gives them the shivers. It’s a good thing they chose politics, and not the kind of career where the going can really get rough. Professors, for example, teach their hearts out to surly adolescents who call them boring in course evaluations and write their hearts out for colleagues who trash their books in snarky reviews. These Wisconsin Republicans may never have survived ordeals like that. Happily, Cronon has been toughened by decades of academic life. He’ll be blogging—and teaching and writing—long after Wisconsin voters have sent these Republicans back to obscurity.

via News Desk: Wisconsin: The Cronon Affair : The New Yorker.

Review: American Veda by Philip Goldberg

While I was traveling over the last few days, Religion Dispatches published a review I wrote of Philp Goldberg’s American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. Here’s a bit of it:

A Methodist church near my house advertises for “Gentle Yoga Classes” on one of those church signs usually reserved for witty and redemptive one-liners like “Jesus: Your Get Out of Hell Free Card.” Meanwhile, a local pizza place lists a “Kosmic Karma” pie on its menu. Indian spiritual language has crept into American vernacular culture. But where did it come from? Is there some connection between karmic pizza and yoga in church?

In American Veda, Philip Goldberg tells the story of a new American tradition, derived from both the practices of yoga, and the philosophy of Vedanta. He names this “Vedanta-yoga,” as distinguished from other aspects of Hindu religious culture (such as the worship of multi-limbed deities) that might be less meaningful for Americans.

For Goldberg, it all adds up to the slow “Vedicization” of American spirituality. By this he means that Americans have become more comfortable with a view of the world ultimately found in the ancient literature of India—the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. First, there is the idea that the self and the ground of Being (or the Divine, God, Brahman, Consciousness, etc.) are one. The full realization of this truth leads to liberation and the cessation of suffering. Second, there are a number of paths toward this realization and no single path works for everyone. Third, it follows then that, at bottom, all religious and spiritual traditions, while looking different, share the same goal of divine realization. Vedanta-Yoga is thus a monist, pluralist, and perennialist tradition of American spirituality built from Indian religious sources.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>

Twitter is Too Cool for School

Twitter is shutting down the development of any more 3rd party client apps. Has Twitter gone to the cool kids?

Maybe Twitter’s not really for free-form posting anymore though. Maybe what Twitter leadership really wants is to create a Hollywood-glossy, TV-comfy place for “mainstream users” to read Tweets from famous people and big media brands. Maybe they’re too cool for school and don’t need the earnest nerds that built their ecosystem in the early days anymore. Now they’ve got Charlie Sheen. If you want to build an app that helps big brands figure out how to give Charlie Sheen money to post a photo holding up your product – more power to you. If you thought Twitter was a place for outlaws, for free thinkers, for innovators – you need to tuck in your shirt, cut your hair and get a clue. Stop even risking confusion on the part of mainstream users. If that’s not the message, Twitter sure didn’t make much effort to avoid sounding that way.

It’s like when the X-Games made skateboarding cool, all over again.

But Could You Vote For THIS Mormon?

Politico reports that the NAE is trying to make nice with Mormons and that this is good news for Mitt Romney and Jon Hunstman:

The National Association of Evangelicals is holding its semiannual board meeting in Salt Lake City on Thursday — the first time the group has met in Utah. The association chose to gather in Utah precisely to open the door to improved relations between the religious groups.

The board plans to meet with a Mormon leader, in what the evangelicals are framing as an opportunity for “dialogue” that will “deepen our understanding of the Mormon faith and contribute to the ongoing work of evangelicals in Utah.”

The gathering also has clear implications for 2012 presidential politics, with two leading Republican White House contenders still facing the prospect of influential Evangelical Christians in key early-voting states viewing them warily.

At the bottom of the piece Republican strategist Brett O’Donnell claims that less and less conservative evangelicals are dissuaded by a Mormon candidate. I’m not so sure, but it will take an election to find out.

Reagan Religion

Tenured Radical is spending time at the Reagan Library:

I say in all seriousness:  if you are too focused on your own authority as a historian you will learn nothing from the people who love history and are out there practicing it beyond our scrutiny.  For example, I learn a great deal when I ask total strangers why they are visiting the RRPL and how often they come.  Informal research suggests that a great many elderly California Republicans who are hoovering up social security (while voting down the taxes that might allow anyone else to retire)  are frequent repeat visitors to the RRPL.  I suspect one reason is the desserts at the cafe, which are outstanding.  Ronald Reagan loved dessert and so do I; therefore, I often assume that other people come to the RRPL for the dessert too.

But people tell me other things too, which indicate that the worship of Ronald Reagan is approaching a civil religion in this part of the world.  “I just come to be close to him,” one woman said to me in front of the grave.  Another commented, as we looked out over the replica of the South Lawn donated by Merv Griffin, TV talk show host and closet queen, “I find this to be a very spiritual place.” Many non-Californians may visit for spiritual reasons too, as the numerous mobile homes parked outside with plates from other states suggest.

The beauty of the building and grounds itself, which look out over vineyards, mountains, and neatly kept subdivisions, project the grace and reassuring, modest, upper-class folksiness that Reagan himself embodied.  Reagan, we need to remind ourselves, cultivated his image as a cultural bulwark between order and disorder for a great many working and middle class white people who were dismayed and frightened by the determination of gays, women, and people of color for full citizenship.   Because of this, the RRPL successfully evokes nostalgia for those prosperous Cold War years of white privilege and compulsory heterosexuality that the president and his conservative allies began to dismantle for good in the 1980s.

Two things.

First, I think it’s finally time for a real deep study of Ronald Reagan in American popular culture. I haven’t read Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah book yet (it’s sitting in a pile on my desk) but I think Reagan is a cultural icon ripe for just such a gender/culture/political/sacred analysis.

Second thing, every graduate student  should read the whole post because TR reminds us all that we are not in control of history. I think those of us who study religion may be a little more aware of this because we know we are not in “control” of religion, but rather, that people will practice and believe and live in ways that confound our theories and arguments. I think a lot of historians do believe that they are the keepers of historical orthodoxy and that it is there job to smack down those that might not use history correctly. I know I feel this way a lot. But I look at TR’s post and Jill Lepore’s Tea Party book and I realize that people deploy, mutilate, repurpose, and play with history in some amazing ways (in the same ways they do with religion). I think historians should offer strong critiques of “bad history” in the public sphere and should always be ready to interrogate the relationship between historical knowledge and power. However, we should also be aware of the ways people make use of history in creative and quotidian ways.

The Colonial Roots of Modern Yoga

Wendy Doniger reviews Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origin of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford, 2010):

Contemporary postural yoga was invented in India in the nineteenth century. This is Singleton’s most provocative assertion. He argues that a transnational, anglophone yoga arose at this time, compounded of the unlikely mix of British bodybuilding and physical culture, American transcendentalism and Christian Science, naturopathy, Swedish gymnastics, and the YMCA, grafted on to a rehabilitated form of postural yoga adapted specifically for a Western audience. The Swedish gymnastics came from Pehr Henrik Ling, the physical culture from a number of people including Eugen Sandow, Bernard MacFadden, Harry Crowe Buck and Charles Atlas. Most influential was the YMCA, in the hands of which physical culture was eventually elevated to a position of social and moral respectability.

There is an ancient Indian yoga, but it is not the source of most of what people do in yoga classes today. That same history, however, also demonstrates that there are more historical bases for contemporary postural yoga within classical Hinduism than Singleton allows. The Europeans did not invent it wholesale. But they changed it enormously. They changed it from an embarrassment to an occasion for cultural pride, and from a tradition that encouraged the cultivation of “aversion to one’s own body” to another, also rooted in ancient India, that aimed at the perfection of the body. The modern Indian and American yogis didn’t take their methods from European physical culture; they took them back from physical culture. What Mark Singleton does prove, with massive, irrefutable, fascinating and often hilarious evidence, is that yoga is a rich, multi-cultural, constantly changing interdisciplinary construction, far from the pure line that its adherents often claim for it.

 

When Grading Graduate Student Papers, Kick Ass and Leave Comments

This is exactly what I liked seeing from professors on my papers:

So the graduate paper deserves extensive comments, like those of a peer-reviewed article. I just write about a single-spaced page outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. Everything is fair game, from the format and prose-style to the substance of the argument. I’m looking for a strong, distinctive thesis backed up by some kind of convincing evidence. What I really want to see is a level of engagement that leads to some strong thinking: ideas that I would not have come up with myself. I don’t really hold back in outlining the weaknesses. It is not really being “nice” to do this. I might exaggerate a bit on the strengths just to provide some encouragement, but I am the professor who is going to kick your ass on the final paper. Yes, I am that guy.