Sunday, February 18, 2007

Jim Packer in the 80s, Rob Bell in the 00s?

Tell me the truth.

First, to understand this post, you must read THIS - It is Ben Witherington's post on Rob Bell's speaking tour. (You'll need a few minutes). Read the comments too.

Amongst lots of thoughts on reading that Blog, I have this one:

When we were at University, everyone I know read people like Stott, Packer, Carson and Wright and others like them to learn and explore difficult things from the Bible. If we needed to know what the Ancient Jewish traditions were, it was scholars we turned to -- people whose academic 'runs were on the board'. We 'listened' to them debate. And if we didn't read them, we talked and listed to those who had read and digested these guys. The scholars may not have been particularly creative writers or outstanding speakers. But they spoke the truth with some level of authority. They wrote the proverbial book on these subjects. And they showed all their 'working out' in endless footnotes and bibliographies.

Now, more and more people are turning to Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll and Brian McLaren and others to educate us about theology and 1st century Jewish history and how they relate to the interpretation of Scripture and culture.

I know that popular speakers have always made clear what the academics have said. We all went to Katoomba Conventions and loved it. We all had good pastors teaching us the Scriptures faithfully within community and in creative ways that we could understand.

But now its global.

At least three things have changed:
  • We are getting to be impatient readers -- They've all read Blue Like Jazz and Velvet Elvis, but try handing a student today John Stott's The Cross of Christ. Too much theology for some.
  • A distrust of authority -- Academics get it wrong all the time. If they can get it wrong, then it doesn't matter whether a person is proven to know their subject. Especially if they 'connect' with young people and 'connect' with culture.
  • The invention of iPod and iTunes, togther with the 2 minutes it takes to download any old junk.

Am I right? And have we taken a turn for the worse? And is there any hope?

I'm not sure. All I know is that Ben Witherington III sat waiting in a packed house ready to watch Rob Bell speak about the history of Judaism and its impact on Christianity.

Methinks it should have been the other way around.


jodi said...

oh Justin - no you're not wrong (in my opinion) in fact i think you're right on track. More and more I'm seeing and realising these things on campus... it's easy for many of them to come and want to be spoon feed the simple and immediate answers because that it the pattern that they have grown up with from school (just get the right answer for the HSC) to youth group (just get the right answer to look good in front of your peers).

Less and less is there an engagement of the mind - hence why you can rightly say that it is easier for them to swallow a nooma video (I'll save my opinions about them for another post - my rants would take too long here!) than to grapple and wrestle with something like the Cross of Christ - or in some worse cases, the bible itself.

I just read the link to Ben Witherington's post and found it very helpful and insightful - and as many of the commentors said, i think he was very gracious in his expression of what went on.

But I'm holding our hope - i think the challenge is for us (as minister's or just mature Christians?) to model what it means to take the time to engage and wrestle with God word (and with the academics who have taken the time to engage with it). He, after all, is the One who gave us brains to do this, not just depend on others or i tunes...

Louisa said...

Good comment Jodi, and to you Justin. I think we are dealing with people in a new era. It applies even to those in our congregations who have come to faith later in life, not just students or the '20-somethings' - trying to encourage and help them to develop and grow in the foundations of faith and discipleship is a challange, the disciplines seem much harder to apply, or they are applied at a much slower rate... and is it just me or does all this somehow increase the own 'cost' we pay as ministers?

Justin said...

Thanks for your comments guys.

Two points of clarity on reflection, and then a question.

1. For the record, I do not mean any student I know!! They are all wonderful people who 'dig deep'. :)

2. The reason I say all this is that I remember no book as popular and defining like 'Velvet Elvis' when I was at Uni. Maybe it existed and I didn't know. That was my point. And I'm wondering what has happened. One of the things that has happened is, according to McLaren and Bell is that we have moved into a new age -- PoMo etc, rather than Modern. And we need a 'repainting' that reflects the changes. Maybe my post betrays me.

My question --

Did others think this way about us? Did they worry that things were getting fluffy for our generation?

SUDS said...

Hey Moff et al,

Me thinks this is a general trend through out society. It's just fast-food for Christians. Quick, tasty, addictive, easy to share but provides little to no nutritional value for growing and maturing.

A bigger problem on this side of the Pacific, where Bell and others aren’t as huge is when people put down their Bible in exchange for the latest sermon podcast. Sermons on the net are great... but they shouldn't be used as a substitute for wrestling with the word in your own QT.

Things will head back to the 'dark ages' real quick when Christians stop reading his Bible and just chow down on what the latest pop preacher is serving up - hook, line and sinker.

I’m with Jodi on Nooma DVDs, please don’t get me started…

michael jensen said...

mmm, fast food.


Bruce Yabsley said...

Did others think this way about us? Did they worry that things were getting fluffy for our generation?

Justin for what it's worth, I thought things were getting fluffy for our generation, and that (say) the sort of thing that Rob Forsyth was doing in the Foundations course at Sydney Uni should have been the baseline (if not the minimum standard) at university, with a tower of more serious stuff above it. But back then, that was for extra-keen folk, and it has long since gone the way of all flesh.

In a discussion on Michael's blog I earlier mentioned that Moore seemed to me (in my day at least) to have a "not in front of the children" attitude about doctrinal disagreements, which might be understandable in first year but was indefensible in second or third. This is related, I think.

Martin Kemp said...

Dumbing our Christian thought down is a problem. However I would want to add that we shouldn't seek a solution which is simply a call to return to the good old days, 'cause the the good old days have gone for good. Any solution needs to conceede and submit to that fact that things are now very different.

I remember hearing a talk by David Wells on Post-modernism which argued that P.M. is wrong, and the best way to fight it is to just throw more modernism at it and to stick to our old methods of doing what we do.

Nup, that ain't gonna cut it. You ain't even going to get a place at the table with that attitude.

Dave williams said...


When I was a student in the 90's Josh Mcdowell was as investigative as people got and no-one was that bothered about Judaism's impact on Christianity!

I wonder... you probably will always have people who want it on a spoon and those who are willin to dig deeper. We need to get each other encouraged to read. A few of us here (at Oak Hill) were sat reading Athnasius on line whilst discussing him on Skype the other day!

Ben Jonker said...

"Zondervan seems to know its got a tiger by the tale. And not a tame one either, so they've boldly decided to let him out of his Grand Rapids cage."

Just interested in knowing whether Dr Witherington believes that the tiger has been caught by a "report, narrative or story", or whether he believes it was caught by a "ficticious or false statement". These are the options my dictionary gives.

However I concede it could be possible that he believes the tiger was caught by "the region of the vertebrate body containing an elongation of the vertebral column". In that case he might be using a metaphor.... but he ought to have spelt it correctly if that were the case.

cyberpastor said...

Justin, I too wonder about the dumbing down of Western culture in general and Christianity in particular. Perhaps it is an indication of how little distinction there is between the two. It seems to me that the influence of writers like Nietsche and Heidegger have meant that abilities and acquaintances (experiences) have trumped information as the key to knowledge. At a more mundane level, education processes are focussed on the child's discovery as an antidote to the perceived evils of a culture of reception.

In the end the displacement of any authority and disengagement from others means that I just need to know what will get me through the day without too much inconvenience.

Craig Tubman said...

Not sure where you're directly getting the idea that uni kids don't engage with Stott and Carson any more?
Certainly Bell and Miller, etc have been gaining popularity recently, but they're filling a hole - they provide easy to read, conversational muses on spirituality. Some muses are really good, some, not so good.

But I'm just not convinced we've dropped Stott for Bell yet.

What is certain is that we are a society infatuated by the shallow. It is mindless to just throw deeper books at a shallow audience and demand they LOVE them. Rather we need to not only teach good, deep doctrine, but disciple depth in those we pastor.
Perhaps our role is increasingly to create depth and fill it. Rather than just fill it. Would it not be a beautiful testimony to Jesus if Christians get a reputation of living life 'deep'! Perhaps that is just another way we shine like starts in the 21st & 22nd Centuries.

I love most of the Nooma's, I love almost 5 of Velvet Elvis' 7 chapters. And I agree that these are both 'surface level'

In my mind they lead us to something meater like Stott, and that is where we should be guiding people. Using the shallow to hook and drive people to the beautiful depths of the biblical doctrines.

Bell hooks the postmodern kid, Stott shows him how deep the rabbit hole really goes!

Louisa said...

Craig, you have a gift! It amazes and inspires me. The words you communicate with inspire me to see all this with optimism and hope. Thanks for the blessing.

Martin Kemp said...

Yes Craig, I totally agree with you. Just talk to any current SUEU'er, they make you feel very dumb. Incredibly well read.

Justin said...

Tubeo -- You are good with words, my friend. In every right and powerful way. :)

Not sure where you're directly getting the idea that uni kids don't engage with Stott and Carson any more?

Of course, this is impossible to quantify. How would I quantify this?? Some students I know here in the US from IVCF (EU) are, at the moment, reading "The Cost of Discipleship". Marty has just pointed out that many EU-ers at Syd Uni are well read. Of course, some are basically only reading/listening to Bell and McLaren and Driscoll. Interestly, Stott and Carson et al are not particularly encouraged here in the US. Although some preachers will quote them, and some students read them -- but they are not widely promoted as lay material.

It is mindless to just throw deeper books at a shallow audience and demand they LOVE them.

Of course. It is not only impossible to achieve what you'd like, but it somehow misses the PoMo age we live in. And it is pastoral suicide. People have to have a reason to dig deep, as you say.

But I'm just not convinced we've dropped Stott for Bell yet.

You may be right. My point is this:

That Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, in particular, are -- to use Bell's own words - 'Repainting the faith'. I've read Velvet Elvis and listened to 5 talks on the net. And when he approaches a topic, he speaks as a scholar. I don't mean that he sounds like a scholar, but that he is engaging in scholarship in almost every talk etc (Jesus the Rabbi, Jesus in his Jewish context, creating arguments based on a Hebrew word etc). There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. On the contrary, it is what we are all required to do.

But Bell, I think, is now being treated by some as though he is the authority on these subjects (I'm sure he doesn't feel that way). I'm wondering if his star power means that he is now in over his head. And it's our fault, by the way, not his (Or Zondervans...)

So Witherington, the actual NT expert, is sitting in the crowd knowing ALL THIS stuff, as Bell tours the country 'repainting the faith', and the (Xn) world is taking their cues from him.

This comment on Ben Winterington's site had some insights that I resonate with:

While I am basically optimistic and supportive regarding the emerging church, I have not been able to extend that optimism to Bell. Zondervan sees some star quality and is overlooking some serious problems. I appreciate Bell's heart, but posing as an "expert" on the Judaism of Jesus is over Rob's head. And your critique of his approach to sexual ethics is also on target. I join Rob in much of what he is feeling, but that is a problem with how we love and respect people. It's NOT a problem with the Bible's clarity on sexual ethics. It's Hebrews 13:4.

Come back at me, Tubeo. I like the dialogue.

Dave Williams said...

I agree with Craig...again I wonder how wide the depth ever was. I don't know about the states but here in the UK we've got to very careful about comparing the average university student today with 10-20-30 years ago. Here when I read my first degree 11% of school leavers wnet to university. Here they are targeting 50% in Higher Education. My 11% was massive compared with my dad's day -you will always have ...bluntly an elite who are reading...but I bet the rest wouldn't hav ebeen reading 50 years ago. At least they have the popular guys to make them aware of stuff that anyone unread probably never even considered. Mind you go back a 100 years and they probably would tell you that Stott and Carson are populist lightweights :o)

On a further point a search through the blogs on line show people reading patristics (primary sources), Calvin, Luther....and on I actually think there is a rennaisance in Theological scholarship going on :o)

Louisa said...

I remain inspired - however at this ridiculous hour of the morning I am also starting to kick start my brain and I wonder if those that Craig, Marty & others are ministering to through AFES are a unique group of students - more evangelical in their approach to faith and the Bible - and trained and encouraged to be so? Could this be part of the issue? Organisations such as AFES are committed to strategically and faithfully 'going deep' as Craig put it - helping students to engage with God and think about some of the profound truths which Stott, Carson and others expound so brilliantly. Some of the most theologically challanging teaching I heard was at the SUEU An Con each year. It consistently pushed me to think more deeply and closely about Scripture. Something I've discovered is rare - esp as you get out of Sydney. Whatever the limitations of the Sydney approach (and I think there are some, but won't discuss it here) the approach to teaching does push you and encourage you to grow: length of sermon, depth of exegesis etc... Personally speaking - the couple of years of student ministry I did here in Melbourne showed a great difference in the theology & depth of those who were part of a CU group and those who weren't. If this is the case, or at least part of it, then point that - though Bell may not consider himself an expert he is being held up as one - becomes much more relevant, depending on your theological background. Yet perhaps there is an upside? I'm thinking of the Hillsong set etc. and wondering if perhaps it's relative? For EU types then Bell is a soft alternative and while he can be refreshing they mustn't substitute him for Stott etc. but for the Hillsong set perhaps he takes them to a deeper level and that's a great thing?! I am losing my thoughts now in this small little box. Tell me if I've lost the plot.

jodi said...

can i just throw my few cents back in to something craig said for a moment?

craig - i believe that the problem with Noomas and Velvet Elvis (etc) is that they would claim to be deep rather than surface - if anything many emerging church/Bell followers would say that they are 'deeper' because they're on the mystical journey to live a life that is in tune with God - yet it's a life that's predominantly based on feelings and personal experience rather than letting scripture guide. (and just so you know i'm not just speaking from a hearsay perspective - i've read the books and watched the dvd's too. i just disagree with you and think that they were really poor in content).

Bell may 'hook the postmodern kid' but he tells the kid to find his own answers rather than directing him to something deeper...

Martin Kemp said...

Mind you go back a 100 years and they probably would tell you that Stott and Carson are populist lightweights

This is an interesting point. Since when is Stott a heavyweight? Heavy compared to Bell, but to Barth or Moltmann? Surely if we are to get people to think at the deepest level then these are the guys they should be engaging with. Or is there such a distinction between undedrgraduate theologians (Stott) and postgraduate ones (Barth)???

I'm also reminded of a song written by my good friend Tom Hanna (now studying at Oxford), sung to the tune of Modern Major General:

I am the very model of a modern evangelical
I have a Bible knowledge which is really quite incredible
I know my Stott and Carson and I keep a copy by my bed
Of Calvin's Intitutes which I have not ... well which I might have read...

And so it goes on. Very funny.

Justin said...

Dave and Craig,

I am sorry. I certainly didn't mean to sound elitest, and nor do I really want to get stuck in comparisons between then and now(despite my post!!). Any of my mates will tell you that I don't really have that right anyway. I'm no brilliant reader. Nor am I a scholar.

But then again, I'm not travelling the country repainting the faith. That is my point.

Do you agree that it seems odd that at the pop level, the 'repainting of the faith', with all its implications, appears to be in the hands, it would seem, of a few mega-pastors who do not have the runs on the board. That is my point.

And secondly, do you agree that it seems odd that Rob Bell is travelling the country packing out the hosue, repainting the faith, while Ben Witherington sits in the audience?

Have we put some of these guys where they ought not yet to be, simply because they 'resonate'?

dave williams said...


I think that put that way it raises a more important debate. Over in the UK I think we found the risk to our cost when Steve Chalke was allowed to run away with himself.

I suppose it is ok to have Ben sat in the audience...if...Rob knows he is there is reading and listening to him and getting and accepting feedback from him. If the two are not talking then that's not a good thing! Also there needs to be some acknowledgement from him that he is only skimming the surface and a pointer towards where to go next. If he's the frontman that hooks people in...great...if he is just himself and that's it then oops!

Craig Tubman said...


I hear your comment and agree that if Bell is claiming to be deep (i.e telling people to look no where else or driving people away from a slighty deeper theological study) then we are in trouble. Perhaps they are doing that.

But Bell does speak to a society who doesn't even know what 'God' means. Tim Keller makes a good point in the '06 Desiring God conference when he states that the western world is no longer in a state of religious apathy (as it was in the previous century when people just needed to be roused to follow the Biblical God they had heard/been taught in.)
Now, the western world has a more profound problem. The whole notion of the Biblical God is gone.

Bell teaches in 'Nooma, Rhythm' that God is real and, as his creatures, real life can only be found when we live in time/rythm with God's heart and God's will.
I think that's a pretty good description for God dry, biblically naive society.

I would say; 'great to hear, thanks for rolling the ball, I want to pick that up and keep it going deeper.'

Should we wave the flag for Bell leading the deep theolgical teaching for our faith in the West? No, ofcourse not. He does not have the gift to do that, as I think the comments here and Justin's post has recognised.

But lets not throw out our hooks as we try to be fishers of men.

Maybe we don't 'show nooma', but let us at the very least consider why Bell connects with the modern kid and see how we can continue to preach the deep Gospel in a way that communicates.

Craig Tubman said...

Sorry, it's getting late - but I just had one more thought.

I feel as though there is pressure to paint Bell as either good or bad and to stake our flag on either end.

But what I'm trying to express is that I'm just not sure that I can live on either extreme at this point.

As this stage of my life, if I was to meet Rob Bell, I would
1. Give him a word of encouragement and spur him on in the faith and the ministry.
2. Give him, through love, a word of warning. To hold up a touch and think of the base on which he is building.

....for what it's worth.

jodi said...

i guess i just worry that bell's things are aimed more at Christians than being a hook - whether that's his intention or not i can't say. worries me even more when i hear that some churches are replacing biblical sermons with nooma dvd's...

but i totally agree with you on the last part - "let us at the very least consider why Bell connects with the modern kid and see how we can continue to preach the deep Gospel in a way that communicates". We definitely need to be doing that!

(ok sorry justin - i'll stop taking up space on your blog now and just leave it for my own - thanks for making us all be thinking though!)

Justin said...

Craig --

I've only got a moment to contribute. But yes -- yes. Yes. I do not want to paint him as bad or good. Yes. Agreed.

That may be the pressure you feel in Sydney, Craig. It certainly is not a pressure here in the US, save some Reformed Bloggers. Most people I speak to do not have that issue here.

And the reason I linked to Witherington is that he didn't do that -- he didn't paint Bell as good or bad. And was a deep pains to make sure he didn't go down that path.

Will repsond to more later (including Daves and others.)

Justin said...

Jodi -- Keep contributing. I love it. But happy for you to start a new comment on your Blog.

Craig Tubman said...

I hear you J. Good point, I think that is why I loved the Witherington blog

And I agree Jodi that Nooma instead of sermon is scary!

Q: Are we really that tucked away from the rest of the world here in Sydney?

Ans: um....yes!

Justin said...

Q: Are we really that tucked away from the rest of the world here in Sydney?

Maybe. But don't despise it. Discernment, when it is lacking, is painful. Like a car crash.