It is an unfortunate but oft-repeated habit that trends and fads in the world tend to be slavishly picked up and replicated by the church, even if a few years down the track. Instead of setting the pace, we too often as believers simply follow the secular world in its various twists and turns.
Often this is done in the name of ‘relevance’. However, as has been noted, those who seek to keep up with the times tend to be forever out of date. Thus Christians need to take care not to imbibe too deeply from the spirit of the age.
One of the most influential trends of the past few decades has been postmodernism, and its equally problematic step-sister, deconstructionism. At the risk of over simplification, one main tenet of these two isms is the idea that absolute truth does not exist, or at least it cannot be known. All we have is interpretation. We can never get to authorial intent. Whether the text in question is a book, a poem, a piece of art, music or what have you, we can never discern what the author actually meant by the work. We only can read into it our own interpretations.
It is interesting that many voices are saying that postmodernism may already have peaked, and may be on the way out. Yet parts of the church act as if it is the wave of the future, and we must get on board. This is especially true of one major recent movement in American evangelicalism known as the Emerging Church. This movement seeks to implement the postmodern mindset in the way Christianity is understood, expressed and lived out.
American pastor Rob Bell is a leader in the movement, and his recent book, Velvet Elvis, seeks to apply the principles of postmodernism to the contemporary church. The result is a mixed bag. Much of the book is simply a call to love Jesus more, to rediscover the wonder and mystery of the faith. As such, it is just another book on Christian living, and cannot really be faulted. But it is the over-reliance on the postmodernist framework that is cause for concern.
This comes out most clearly when Bell speaks of our understanding of scripture and truth. Consider statements such as this: “…we have to be honest about our interpretations. Everybody’s interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. Nobody is objective”
Here the PoMo/DeCon idea that there is only interpretation, never final and knowable truth, is unnecessarily embraced. Yes, it is always true that none of us have the whole picture, that all our views will be slanted to a degree. Given that we are fallen and finite, this must be so. And we did not need postmodernism to tell us that.
Yet what about the other side of the coin? What about the many passages which speak of truth, and our ability to know it, and seek after it, albeit imperfectly? What about where it says that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth? Is there no place for objective truth?
Again, no one has all the truth, and all of us need each other as we seek truth. But the overemphasis on our inability to fully understand God’s word, to fully comprehend truth, is simply unbalanced. We acknowledge our need to be humble, to be constantly on our knees, to recognise our limits, yes. But we also have a God who is true, and who seeks to convey truth to us.
Bell also speaks of the need to be content with wonder, with mystery, with uncertainty. Again, in one sense this is quite correct. None of us have God all figured out. None of us have a corner on the truth, and too often we try to rationalise and intellectualise our faith. There is a place for mystery and even mysticism. And whole chunks of the church have long embraced this, such as our Eastern Orthodox brethren.
But this must not be allowed to get out of balance. God has revealed true truth to us, and it is often propositional in format. There is a place for doctrine, for theology, for the use of the mind. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water here, but find the biblical balance.
Unfortunately, it is often just not clear what Bell is getting at in this book. At times, for example, he seems to be making the case that all truth is God’s truth. This expression, when rightly understood, is something we can affirm. If something is true, then God is the author of it. But Bell’s unwillingness to commit to any propositional forms of truth, and his idea that all interpretation is ultimately relative and subjective, leaves one in a morass of uncertainty as to ever finding any truth. Or it allows any truth claim and experience to go unchecked.
Indeed, he seems to wander here and there, taking pot-shots at orthodox Christianity, our understanding of truth, the place of reason, and the nature of Scripture. One is not quite sure where he actually stands on many of these issues. Often vague and confused statements are made, leaving the reader unclear as to just what is being claimed.
This can be found in various passages throughout the book. At one point Bell makes this startling assertion: “we got the Bible from the church voting on what the Bible even is”. This sounds like something found in the Da Vinci Code. It is simplistic at best and mischievous at worst. While the story of canonisation is a complex one, the early church recognised the authority of what became the New Testament documents over a period of time. They did not vote on this, nor arbitrarily pick and choose.
And consider this someway puzzling remark: “Whatever those things are that make you feel fully alive and like the universe is ultimately a good place and you are not alone. . . .These moments can’t exist on the edges, because they are a part of our faith.” Taken at face value, we could decipher this to suggest someone experiencing an hallucinogenic drug trip is taking part in biblical faith.
This kind of vague and imprecise meandering runs throughout the book. The reaction often is, Just what is he on about? If by the above remark he means something like what C.S. Lewis wrote about when he spoke of experiences of joy as signposts to God, then this is not problematic. But it is often unclear just what Bell is trying to get at, and so he opens himself up to all kinds of weird and whacky ideas, that seem to veer way off line.
But given his insistence that all forms of interpretation may be equally valid, I suppose if a drug user wants to find comfort in his remarks, he is entitled to do so.
In the end, the reader may be challenged in their faith because of this book. I hope so. But for this reader, the book was simply confusing, imprecise, lacking in direction and ultimately frustrating. Perhaps that is just me. But if I had to suggest a title to give someone to encourage them in their walk with God, I am afraid this would not be it.