18.3.11

On Good Questions and Good Books


Despite not blogging all the links to everything flying around the web about Rob Bell (though I suppose I have done enough) I have been reading plenty of reviews and comments, and watching videos and interviews. 

Over and over again, I read the reviews and thoughts of people I respect who are being very positive about Rob Bell. People like Eugene Peterson. Over and over again there is a common thread behind the positivity: Rob Bell is asking good questions and discussing important issues. 

I completely agree, Rob Bell is asking good questions and discussing important issues (I say as much in my own review). However, I also stand behind my 1.5 rating of Love Wins. 

There is a simple reason for this. I believe there is a difference between asking good questions and asking good questions well, never mind there being a difference between asking good questions and writing a good book!

Let me give you some examples of differences in questions:

Good Question, asked badly: Do you believe in evolution or creation?
Same question, asked well: What is your opinion on the scientific theory of evolution, and how does that affect or interact with your belief in a creator God? 

Yes, the second question is longer and more qualified, but it also doesn't assume an inherent opposition in the options. The first question is kind of like asking someone if they have stopped stealing yet. You could ask the second one in a simpler form, such as this: What do you think about evolution and how does it affect your faith?


Here is another set of examples. 

Good questions, asked badly: "So does God get what God wants? How Great is God?" (Rob Bell, Love Wins)
Good questions, asked well: How does God's power and desire interact with human free will? Does God's power and greatness ultimately mean that God gets what he wants, or are there other possibilities? How do we define God's greatness and what does it have to do with our eternal destiny? 


When taken in this form, Rob Bell does not even ask good questions well. If to this subtle distinction we were add to the whole host of other qualifications which go into making a good book, Bell has an even bigger problem. 

Books need to be judged according to genre, obviously. It would be pointless for me to critique a science fiction because it had bad theology, or Love Wins for its lack of plot. However, within the confines of each genre there are some easily recognizable standards that one ought to live up to. In a book like Love Wins, a pastoral text written for a general Christian (and non-Christian) readership, these standards include, but are not limited to clarity and consistency, neither of which Bell exhibits. Of course, a book should offer much more than that. It would be nice to find good biblical exegesis, proper logical thinking, substance instead of innuendo, etc. 

I don't know how to take it that we have somehow reached a point in the evangelical community where the questions asked in a book like Love Wins are enough for people to symbolically excommunicate the questioner. Where someone can clearly be confused and concerned about an important issue, leaning in a direction we don't like, and thus worthy of getting his head metaphorically chopped off. I am unsurprised, but I am sad. 

Why don't we have grace? Why isn't Love Wins being met with the outreach of helping hands from the theological community? Why aren't we demanding of our leaders that they offer more than stringent judgment and harsh response? Why are we satisfied with so little, and why do I suspect that these lines being drawn are only the beginning? 

I know, I hope for too much, but I still hope. And I hope for even more.


I don't know how to take it that we have somehow reached a point in the evangelical community where a book like Love Wins is worthy of praise for asking important questions (and doing nothing else) and is singularly sufficient to cause such a ruckus. I am unsurprised, but I am sad. 

Why don't we have good questions in all of our churches? Why isn't Love Wins being met with a yawn because we have better discussions each Sunday morning? Why aren't we demanding of our pastors that they offer us more than thought-provoking sets of implications to satiate us until next week? Why are we satisfied with so little, and why do I suspect that most of the interest in this whole issue is more about politics than theological substance? That within 2 weeks everyone will have gone back to life as usual with nary an opinion changed?

I know, I hope for too much, but I still hope.  I can't help myself. 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

> Why don't we have good questions in all of our churches?
> Why isn't Love Wins being met with a yawn because
> we have better discussions each Sunday morning?
> Why aren't we demanding of our pastors that they offer
> us more than thought-provoking sets of implications
> to satiate us until next week?

Because thinking is hard and not many have the time or inclination to do it in this context. For example, do you check the facts in what you hear in a sermon or a presentation in church? I do, and I have been (mildly) chided for it.

Example A: A video presented at a church summer camp claimed that there was a star whose radius is x miles (it was an American video), the radius of the solar system, and large enough to contain y billion Earths. Did you check that y was plausibly correct? I did a quick mental calculation to verify that it was so, and later found on the Internet that there was such a star.

Example B: In a sermon, Pastor I. described the story of violinist virtuoso Joshua Bell busking in the Washington subway for 45 minutes during the morning rush hour. He asked the congregation how much money Bell received. I whispered to my neighbors in the pews, $50. Pastor I. gave the answer: $32.17.

It bugged me that I was not closer than I was, so I looked it up. You can find the Pulitzer-Prize-winning story here. It turns out that I was closer with my guess, because the actual amount was $52.17, but the writer excluded the $20 given by someone who recognized Bell. (This hardly seem fair! ☺)

Example C: In a sermon, Pastor T. said that the baseball player Reggie Jackson, Mr. October, was so-called because of his performance "in the clutch", having twice hit 3 home runs in World Series games. Now my memory isn't what it used to be, and I don't have sports stats at the tip of my tongue, but I know that hitting 3 homers in a game is a fantastic feat; hitting 3 homers in a World Series game would be the accomplishment of a lifetime; hitting 3 homers in two different World Series games would be ... impossible. (Impossible because the opposing pitchers, facing Jackson in a World Series game, would "pitch around" him knowing that he hit 3 homers in a World Series game once.)

So imagine if I questioned facts that are more central. For example, imagine that this was the 1600's and I questioned the geocentric theory espoused by the Church.

Roger Hui

Andrew said...

It would, of course, be incredibly tasking to chase down every fact in every presentation we receive. There needs to be a certain level of trust, grace, and judgment. However, when we come to central ideas, the point of a sermon for example, I do believe we ought to put thought into it, to do the hard work of discernment and judgment, while still being open to conversations, questions, and other ideas.

Of course we can't do this with everything, but if core doctrines of our faith are not important enough then what is?

Yes, I know that the actual answer to that is whatever will practically improve our lives in whatever way we value, but I think that is a wrong approach which reflects the pragmatism and commercialism of our time.