On Patheos, Tony Jones writes about Rob Bell talking on a Christian radio show. This clip is entirely about the Biblical attitude to homosexuality, and pits Rob (looking tired and dishevelled) against a chap identified as a theologian from New Frontiers, Andrew Wilson. That clearly wasn’t what the on air discussion was supposed to be; no doubt it was to promote Rob’s “What we talk about when we talk about God”. Don’t you just love ambushes?
I don’t view Rob as being a theologian, and I think that comes over well in this clip. What Rob does seem to me to be is a spirit-filled, convicted Christian with a gift for communication. He speaks wonderfully well in scripted situations and, I think, well in this non-scripted one too. Indeed, he sounds to me a lot like an idealised New Frontiers person might be, if neo-conservative theology didn’t get in their way. He speaks from his personal experience of God and from his personal observation of many other people, matters to which he is entirely qualified to testify.
He was being inclusive throughout, entirely in the spirit of the God of Love whom Rob clearly experiences. What I heard from Rob was someone witnessing his faith, which is what I want to hear from a Christian.
On the opposite side of the table, Andrew sounded like a theologian. I worry about the whole concept of a New Frontiers theologian – what can they find to theologise about, given that the whole of scripture has already been explained entirely adequately from their point of view, and there is no new ground to cover? I heard from him regurgitated argument, and while he was pleasant in his manner, various points sprang out to me.
He starts with asking if Rob considers homosexual sex to be sinful (and chooses a guy with a guy as his example) and pushes the issue. I recognise the technique; it is lawyerly, and is looking to define Rob into a corner. In the process he exaggerates the difference and sets up a contrast between God forbidding homosexual sex and God positively approving it. Tick box 1 for forensic courtroom technique.
He then refers to Jesus saying of Leviticus “all things are clean” but that from the heart comes matters of morals, with clear reference to Matt. 15:18-19. I note the matters of morals mentioned there are adultery and fornication; Rob is not being a theologian and not being a lawyer, and does not therefore come back with any of the obvious rejoinders, most notably that this passage does not mention homosexuality, and that the clear topic (of blessing monogamous homosexual relationships today) is actually implicitly approved by this passage as it prevents adultery and fornication. But no, we are apparently using that passage to say that Jesus was talking about sexual morality and therefore an unmentioned aspect of sexual morality is condemned.
And then we get the sexual abstinence argument, and Andrew claiming that lots of gay men have been baptised in his church and want, in their “new creation” to cease to be sexually active. I do wonder about this, as any gay man would be far better advised to join a church which has a different theological stance from New Frontiers – who are these idiots?
Again, Rob does not come back with the comment that, from Paul’s point of view, it would be better if all of us gave up sexual activity and (probably) married status. Are the rest of us also going to be enjoined by Andrew to be celibate on that basis?
Then we have the host introducing the idea that Rob has “gone liberal”. And Rob asks us to consider what it looks like if it’s “lived out”. Again, we are looking at witness, not argument from him.
Again Andrew stresses that old ways have to be abandoned, and here we get hate introduced. Luke 14:26 is an old favourite of hardline evangelicals, and like a charm, here it comes. How can we best exclude and condemn? Rob here mostly manages to stick to the line of Luke 6:27 and love those who hate him, though he does display a little irritation. We see Andrew claiming, although he concedes it may be a matter of individual interpretation, that he is more orthodox – apparently “nearly every scholar” supports him. Not those I read, and I ask myself if I could have resisted the temptation to jump down Andrew’s throat there. I probably couldn’t have, but Rob largely does.
Here’s a good one from Andrew “Unless the definition of what freedom looks like is clearly established, we’re going to be on very different pages of how to go about it”. Really? You get to DEFINE freedom? How can it be free, in that case? But no, Rob doesn’t really rise to this one either. Despite frustration, he keeps asking for toleration and a “little wider tent” and stressing brotherhood with Andrew (which Andrew is not necessarily delighted with).
In this last section, I think we see Andrew disclosing where he really comes from; he asks Rob to consider his position, and (implicitly) how Andrew feels about being in a Church in which people are talking toleration. Clearly it frightens him. Here is the fountainhead of his aggressive, defining, excluding stance (cloaked in apparent niceness) which pervades the whole interview; he feels personally threatened and has to defend, and the best form of defence is attack and exclusion.
What is he frightened about? Well, the simple answer is “homosexuality”, and that would just be common or garden bigotry, and that’s the cheap gibe. But no, I think a clue is given earlier in the discussion when Andrew starts talking about the whole sweep of the story from Genesis to Revelation. He has his metanarrative, his template of Scriptural interpretation, his locked down definitions of what everything really means. This is why I question whether New Frontiers really has “theologians”. I suspect very strongly that he feels his basis of Scriptural interpretation is threatened, and that means his faith is threatened because it’s based in intellectual acceptance rather than in a loving relationship with God.
Sadly, Rob does not get the last word.
Now, I am a lawyer (thankfully retired) and I suppose, as people keep introducing me as a theologian, that I should own that label too; this makes me admirably qualified to adopt a position caricatured in the gospels as that of the Pharisees, or, if you will, like that of Andrew. I try hard not to use these facets of my skill-set to be adversarial, more to be able to move within adversarial debate and promote reconciliation, but all my instincts were itching to meet Andrew on his own ground here.
Actually, however, this background allows me to understand this exchange as, on Andrew’s side, a lawyerly, theologically based attack, and on Rob’s a Christian witness which seeks to be loving, tolerant and inclusive.
And love wins, Rob. But you knew that already.