Wednesday, 23 March 2011

How do you read controversial books?

Thomas Stanley’s blog post has been twittered in the #lovewins stream because he suggests 5 tips for reading controversial books, and Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived specifically.  You can read his post here.

His five points are:
  1. Chew the meat, spit the bones
  2. Don’t discount the 2000 years of thought
  3. Don’t believe it just because it’s Rob Bell. Don’t ignore it just because it’s Rob Bell
  4. Use this book as an opportunity to deepen your perspective on this issue
  5. Consider the larger perspective
I read the list yesterday and felt uneasy about it… but couldn’t quite figure out why… having had time to sleep and reflect, here’s some thoughts…
Assume for a moment that there was no controversy surrounding Bell's book, should the advice be the same?  I think it wouldn’t be and here’s why.

1) It’s the Holy Spirit’s Job to illuminate truth

What is the role of the Holy Spirit here?  If we approach a book simply with a subjective 'take what is good' approach, aren't we in danger of doing that with the Bible too?  wouldn’t the net effect be that the things we find difficult to understand/apply we would simply reject?
And how is someone to know what is good and what isn't?  Imagine for a moment that we're talking about a book on occultic practices. Now imagine that as part of that book there was a chapter on meditation and centering, which got you to breathe in a certain way, and open your mind to the possibility that what you know is real, isn't and that the consequence of spending time in this state would be a greater appreciation for your fellow man. Now image that book had been given to everyone in your christian community. Can you still take what is good?

2) Major Doctrines have been debated and decided already

Church history is littered with theological branches right back to 4AD.  There is some academic interest in reviewing the what and why's of these arguments, but isn't it preferable to start from a thorough knowledge of what is established doctine/statement of faith now?  Since Bell doesn't paint one, it's difficult to reflect backwards.  What the church suffers from is clarity of belief expressed in communicable action.

3) It’s the narrow gate that leads to life

I mainly agree here, but what concerns me isn’t that Rob Bell wrote this, it’s what it says or doesn’t say.    We don’t need more skeptics, we need more believers.. who can clearly communicate the loving Gospel.

4) Perspective isn’t it… it’s what you believe that matters.

  • Scientific research suggests you start with a hypothesis which you rigorously try to disprove. Only when you can't disprove it do you consider it can be true and try to confirm it.  If you can both not disprove it, and reproducibly prove it, the probability of it being true increases.  
  • Christian research however starts with a belief. That belief is by faith, built on your understanding of the bible, illuminated by the spirit, and experienced through relationship with the risen Christ.  
While we can approach some validations of scriptural truth scientifically, the key element required for ‘belief’ is faith. Faith needs to be built on what is dependable.  Perspective isn’t faith.

5) Perspective of what?

We can change the actions of christian culture where we have become lax in applying sound biblical doctrine. Certainly I could agree [with Bell] that we should be more loving and more serving in our dealings with people, and certainly less closed off to the world..  But when we’re talking about christian culture aren’t we really talking about ‘what the kingdom of God looks like?’  In that regard, shouldn’t that be based on dependable truth?  Such as we all have sinned, we all deserve punishment, that punishment is total permanent separation from God, But Christ who was fully God, fully perfect, took on himself the penalty of sin for us all as the sacrificial, substitutionary, atonement. In taking the punishment, He defeated death and enabled a restoration of relationship with God which, if we respond to his forgiveness, justice and mercy, enables us to enjoy that relationship with Him forever?  Isn’t that the Gospel that nearly all of us subscribe to who call ourselves part of the kingdom of God?  And isn’t it from that understanding that our hearts and our actions are compelled to live differently (if imperfectly)?  
Finally, I would not encourage new Christians to read any book that is not consistent with mainstream christianity and to be read ‘within’ the context of membership within a church community. There is a place and time for debate around issues and it's important to have that debate, but movement leaders need to be clear to be giving direction, straight answers to questions and being crystal clear on beliefs and conclusions.   The apostle Paul encourages us to 'have a reason for the hope we profess' and this reason shouldn't come from what you've read from Bell, McClaren, Piper, Keller, or the Daily Planet but should come from the Bible, illuminated by the Spirit.

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