Same Story, Different Teams
This weekend, we had our first family trip to the emergency room for my two-year-old which meant that I missed out on the fireworks in the Christian interwebs over Rob Bell. If you didn’t catch it either, Sarah Pulliam Bailey at CT did a great roundup and here’s the summary: (1) Rob Bell released a trailer and provocative synopsis for his new book on Heaven and Hell, (2) Justin Taylor, Denny Burk, and others wrote that it outed Bell as Universalist (but later backed off on more negative language), (3) Christians took sides and went nuts on everything with a “Publish” or “Post” button.
Most of us have probably forgotten by now, but a nearly identical set of events happened about 18 months ago to John Piper – the only difference was the teams were swapped. Piper said something vague and controversial, famous people who already don’t like his stuff denounced it, and then lots of emergent and neo-reformed types signed up for Twitter accounts.
As is my custom, I’d like to sidestep the actual theological issues at play and ask: How and why does this keep happening?
The Medium is the Message
Now I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Justin Taylor in person, and I have to say he’s one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. However, I know Rob Bell about as well as I know Brad Pitt which means two things: I don’t know anything about his heart, and I’ve seen him on TV enough to know he’s very gifted in the area of rhetoric and creating vivid images.
Because he understands and teaches the art of using speech and images to move people into action, it’s hard not to think that he didn’t see any of this coming.
Of course, whether or not he actually planned what happened we cannot (and should not) say, but it takes only a moment to see that it had all the elements of a perfect storm. Everything was left unanswered: the trailer is a series of questions, the synopsis is designed to pique interest, the bloggers were only sent selected chapters, and so on.
By never directly stating what he really thinks and releasing just enough to get everyone excited, Bell and Harper Collins hit a home run. Bloggers just couldn’t resist being the first to weigh in, and everyone else couldn’t help but weigh in on their weigh ins.
In terms of publicity, it doesn’t really matter what Bell actually thinks. The longer he stays silent, the more traffic the blogs and tweets generate, and the higher Bell’s sales go.
The result? Love Wins wins.
If Bell does, in fact, espouse Universalism he can say, “Wouldn’t you rather side with me – the nice guy?” And if he ends up clarifying himself and denying full-fledged Universalism, he can still say, “See, not jumping to conclusions is part of how Love Wins.” (Remember, however, that when Piper clarified his statements, his frenemies didn’t care – the blood was already in the water).
A brilliant and successful publicity effort.
But a sad and predictable fallout.
The Law of Christian Media
Back when the tornado hit, I mentioned an interesting piece of Internet lore called Godwin’s Law which states:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
And back when I used to run a Christian message board, I liked to say that the Christian version was,
As a Christian online discussion grows longer, the probability of calling someone a heretic or false teacher approaches 1.
Now be careful you don’t misunderstand this. It isn’t meant to downplay the fact that some people do in fact espouse heretical views (while it’s not en vogue today, the Scripture say are to reject not only false teaching, but also false teachers – yikes!). These “laws” aren’t statements about the truth, they are simply observations about the nature of online debate.
In the old days of the Internet, message board discussion threads would go on for (p)ages, no would budge, and eventually someone got angry enough to play the Nazi/heresy card.
But in the social media world, it works in reverse. The key metric is no longer the length of time people spend discussing something, but the amount of time between a current event and when someone pushes a “publish” button about it. The result is that something like this is true:
As time for reflection grows shorter, the probability of a conflict between truth and love approaches 1.
Speedy Responses Are Like Gas on a Fire
Of course, there is certainly a place for posting things in a timely manner even if they are controversial. For example, Justin Taylor posted an obituary of controversial theologian Clark Pinnock a few days after his death that included a sober assessment of Pinnock’s views and impact. It was important, necessary, and accurate.
They key difference was that when Pinnock died, everything about his life and thought was known. However, when current events are still unfolding – unrest in Egypt, Michael Jackson’s death, a half published book, etc. – the opportunity for misinformation or accusations of misinformation is huge.
With Love Wins, this is exactly what happened. It certainly appears that Bell wants you to think that traditional non-universalist views are problematic, but until those final chapters are out there and Bell makes a definitive statement, we’re left to speculation.
For now, if anyone says something negative about Bell’s ideas, it’s subject to the “You’re not loving” defense. If, on the other hand, you defend his views you get slapped with the, “You’re not on the side of truth” attack.
But who can wait until the book comes out? Who can keep silent on such a juicy, explosive topic?
In the end, technologically driven priorities like speed and distraction win, while Christian virtues like truth and love lose.
The Most Dangerous Button on Your Computer
In today’s world, when something important happens there is no searching for a notepad, no finding a pen that works, no saying, “Aw shucks, the mailman already came today. I guess I’ll have to sleep on it.” Instead, we are surrounded by dozens of shiny buttons enticing us to “publish,” “post,” “comment,” and “send.”
Facebook asks us:
And Twitter says,
but James warned us that we should be,
“Quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19).
This is especially true when there’s nothing definitive only intentional provocation to listen to. In that case, the words of Admiral Ackbar are are quite apt.
Addendum: Remember, I’m not pointing the finger at the best selling authors, major bloggers, or public theologians (their responsibility, I think, is different). This is about you and me, the little guys who in under 5 minutes can create a blog and say whatever we want. In 30 days or so, we’ll all know what Bell thinks. In the mean time, will we answer the constantly beckoning call of Facebook and Twitter, joining the storm of controversy and distraction, or will we display the fruits of the Spirit like patience and self control? More importantly, when the next storm comes into town, will we stay inside until it blows over or go outside and play in the wind?