"Please understand I stumbled into this gig".
So begins chapter 2 of Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis ('YOKE'), autobiographically telling the story of Pastor Rob Bell and the Bible. As he began he heard God say "Teach this book" - which is a pretty good call to ministry, much like Paul's comission to Timothy - "Preach the Word" in 2 Timothy 4.
I noted in the first part of this series that I think Bell is writing against a strange breed of 'christian'. A kind of person who holds to certain beliefs but has no experience or joy in the God those beliefs describes. I'm not therefore his audience, and neither are most of the evangelical kids who are reading him.
He's right to say that his intended audience need change. However, I'm not sure they need the pill he offers. They need the gospel. They need the Holy Spirit. My fear is that those who Bell writes against wont read him, and those who do will find medicine that will do more harm than good. The other danger is that a number of very good things he says that we do need to hear wont be heard.
Rob Bell has a problem with the way we sometimes talk about how we teach what the Bible says. He would like us to admit that we teach what we think it says - our interpretation. He insists that somebody has to do the interpreting. But it feels like he's not convinced that there is a right interpretation, and that we could know it if we found it.
We're sent in search of rabbis. Chiefly the one who said his "yoke was easy" (aka Jesus, though that's left for the endnotes). The point? Jesus is the key interpreter of the Bible. Everything has to come through him. Amen! Except when we start to say that the passage in Matthew 18 about church discipline is actually about interpreting the Bible - from that hard to get bit about loosing things on earth. It's not about prayer meetings (where two or three...) but I'm not sure it's about Bible Interpretation either. But we can talk about that. I'm reading an author who has clearly met some strange types. So called Christians who think they're always right and aren't prepared to argue that the interpretation they're teaching is actually what the Bible says. Such people do need some chiding. They need to learn to do more careful exegesis. I'm not convinced about Bell's route, but his destination is worth reaching.
The next quality insight is about the modern invention of the 'personal quiet time' vs. community reading of God's word. He notes that it's only in recent times that most people could read The Bible privately. It's a good point, well made. We do need to be studying God's word together. Obviously private study isn't entirely new and widespread Bible-access is probably a good 400 years old for English readers. Aside from my concerns Bell shows a strong commitment to following his calling to teach what he perceives God is saying. The frustration when reading Velvet Elvis that Bell seems walks the line between great insights and some strange 'logical' conclusions. Though I can't claim to always draw true conclusions myself.
Then back to interpretation. "Obviously we think our interpretations are correct; otherwise we'd change them" (p54). You'd hope that's true! 'YOKE' is very concerned with the issue of interpretation and how our contexts shape our ability to study rightly. It feels like Bell slides into a postmodern despair about interpretation. I agree it takes work, but I think we have to say it is possible... interpretations are not just subjective because God is a good communicator. He is the good communicator. We're warned to pay attention to the genres of scripture - Bible Handling 101 - and read it is a God's story not just an doctrine encyclopedia. He highlights that speaking of the Bible as data is unhelpful, this is God speaking. He also notes that we're involved in the story of the Bible - and we are, but not as creative writers. God finished writing the book. God is the author.
Rob Bell seems to have been reading the same "church history" books as Dan Brown buying into the church voting on the canon rather than recognising it. From this Davincism we quickly move to an explicit rejection of ' scripture alone'. Scripture alone because we involve teachers and interpreters in the process of hearing what God says. As I understand it, sola scripture never denied the existence or work of Bible teachers yet he thinks it does. Bell wants to be reformed and he clearly loves the Bible, but he seems more enamoured to the idea of innovation and originality than the truth-seeking goals of Luther & co.
I agree we're affected by our culture and we need to deal with this - church history and cross-cultural interactions would be two positive helps for us to find and peel back our blinkers. A Christian is not enslaved to our culture, our minds have a new master. Don Carson is helpful when he says we spiral in towards the truth and though we may not know it perfectly we can know much accurately. We look a verse and try to understand it, check it's local and wider context. Ensuring the verse contributes to the big picture and that the big picture then feedback into our understanding of the verse, paragraph and book. Slowly, gradually but optimistically in union with The Author we reform our way towards what God has spoken. And we need people who will teach this book. Loving God by loving his word.
These are reflections on Velvet Elvis, chapter 2 - Yoke. More to follow on later chapters. I think this will be a longer series than I originally thought. The link/pic above is to Mark Lauterbach's outstanding grace-packed little book the transforming community on church discipline and apply God's word to one another. I'd also commend anyone wanting to 'teach this book' to get John Piper's The Supermacy of God in Preaching.