Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Taking a Punt on Rob Bell

The Rob Bell story hasn't had much coverage in this neck of the woods, but it has certainly cranked up the cranks in the upper hemisphere. I'm a tad puzzled why.

The thing is, a card-carrying Calvinist like Neal Punt can promote "Biblical Universalism," and nobody bats an eyelid. His book "Unconditional Good News" has been out for donkeys' years. F. F. Bruce, Edward Fudge, Richard Mouw and others wrote nice things about it. Problem, what problem? The reaction: "Oh that's interesting. I do have some serious reservations, but Neal Punt has certainly raised some important issues and shouldn't be ignored."

Then along comes Rob Bell and "all hell breaks loose."

Chewing that over, I was reminded of the reception "soul sleep" has traditionally had in fundagelical circles; i.e. total rejection. A Seventh-day Adventist opines that it's a much more holistic approach than the standard heaven/hell nonsense (which it is, given biblicist assumptions) and outraged shrieks of 'heresy' can be heard (accompanied by foaming at the mouth) from the cheap seats. Along comes a toffee-voiced Anglican bishop with evangelical tendencies, and the response moderates immediately. "Oh that's interesting. I do have some serious reservations, but Tom Wright has certainly raised some important issues and shouldn't be ignored."

Say what?

The inconsolable wailing by certain bloggers over the Bell book is not unlike a fumbling thirteen-year-old who drops her new i-Pod down the toilet bowl. Can we all say tragic?

So why the difference in reception between Punt and Bell? I suspect it has something to do with the intended audience. Like Wright, Punt was writing principally for the cadre of clergy and other over-educated church clients. It was a limited audience of refined sensibilities, a comfortable and discerning elite. Say what they like, the self-elected insiders can afford to concede a point or three with a gracious wave of the hand, and then go back to the default settings, congratulating themselves on such broad-mindedness and superior knowledge.

No such luck for those class-traitors who insist on addressing the plebeians directly! The Great Unwashed, the simple people, the commoners, pew-potatoes and serfs of Christendom; in other words (and let's drag out the most offensive term we can think of) the laity!

The motto seems to be: keep 'em dumb!

Would Bart Ehrman be a bête noire of apologists if he only wrote for academia? Would the Jesus Seminar be infamous if they met in an ivory-tower and published in obscure journals? Would Rob Bell raise hell if he restricted himself to a Puntian rehash?

"Serious" scholars occasionally diss the populists. I thank God for them. For mercy sake, the first followers of Jesus were fishermen! No, these über-dudes, whether in the academy or the pulpit, are (with honorable exceptions) defending lucrative territory. Knowledge is power, and if the dumb laity are allowed to catch on, the game could well be up.

I expect they'll continue to pee on Rob Bell for some time to come.


  1. Oh, nice one :)

    Jim West should love this, ir's almost Zwinglian in tone, though since it's Anabaptist in sentiment he also may foam at the mouth ;)

  2. What's that verse again about a prophet receiving no honor in his own country? :)

  3. This essay was great. Thanks for compelling thoughts.

  4. Check out what I say about Bell's book.

    Cordially, Neal Punt