rob bell author of what we talk about when we talk about god Rob Bell on Re Defining EvangelicalismThere’s perhaps not much new here other than making explicit what has heretofore merely been implicit.

But in a recent discussion at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Rob Bell responded to a question about same-sex marriage and evangelical political engagement:

I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. And I think the ship has sailed. This is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.

That last sentiment in particular is of special note, as Bell’s comments come within the context of his rebuke of what evangelicalism has come to mean in the American context. Before answering the question about same-sex marriage, Bell said, “The beautiful thing would be if ‘Evangelical’ came to mean buoyant, joyful, honest announcement about all of us receiving the grace of God and then together giving back to the make the world the kind of place God always dreamed it could be. Let’s reclaim it, all of us.”

The portrayal of evangelicalism as “a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized Evangelical subculture” is reminiscent to me of the historiographical caricature of Puritanism, popularized by Mencken as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” No doubt there are many conservative evangelicals who have wedded their politics and their religion too closely. But to portray someone like Jim Wallis as representing a “new” era of evangelicalism is really to ignore the significance of the Religious Left, and particularly the evangelical Left, over the last half-century.

Even if Bell’s depiction of evangelicalism is a caricature, his own reclamation project of the evangelical identity is a perverse inversion of the gospel, something he accuses conservative evangelicals of doing. Bell compares the ancient Roman evangelion, a “military announcement that they had conquered one more land and subjugated one more nation-state,” a kind of “global military superpower propaganda,” with twentieth-century North American evangelicals. “So when evangelical becomes associated with global military superpower and coercive military tactics, it’s the exact opposite of the origins of the word,” he said. The origins are found in the early Christians, who “co-opted it for their own purposes. And they said we have good news. Their good news is that the world is made better through coercive military violence like the Roman Empire. Our good news is that the world is made better through sacrificial love.”

But Bell’s assertion that the ground motive of evangelicalism really is “to affirm people wherever they are” is, by curious contrast, “the exact opposite of the origins” of Christianity and the gospel. God does not affirm people where he finds them, in sin and on the road to perdition. As Augustine, who coined something quite close to the meaningful phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin,” put it, only a particular vision of love really wins:

If any of you should wish to act out of love, brothers, do not imagine it to be a self-abasing, passive and timid thing. And do not think that love can be preserved by a sort of gentleness – or rather tame listlessness. This is not how it is preserved. Do not imagine that you love your servant when you refrain from beating him, or that you love your son when you do not discipline him, or that you love your neighbor when you do not rebuke him. This is not love, it is feebleness. Love should be fervent to correct. Take delight in good behavior, but amend what is bad. Love the person, but not the error in the person: God made the person, but the person alone made the error. Love what God made, not what the person made. If you love one thing, you remove another. When you esteem one thing, you change another. But if you are severe, let it be out of love, for the sake of correction. This is why love was represented by the dove which descended upon the Lord. [Matt. 3:16] Why did the Holy Spirit, who pours love into us, take the form of a dove? The dove has no bitterness, yet she fights with beak and wings for her young; hers is a fierceness without bitterness. In the same way, when a father chastises his son he does so for discipline. As I said earlier, the kidnapper inveigles the child with bitter endearments, in order to sell him; a father, for the sake of correction, chastises without bitterness.

In fact, the gospel is all about God not affirming us where we are, but taking decisive action to amend our situation: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Love affirms what is good but amends what is bad. This calls for discernment.

On one level, Bell must understand this, since he isn’t content to merely affirm evangelicals where they are. He wants to change them, and not all of what Bell is against is incorrect. But Bell’s selective rebuke towards evangelicalism really does show the incoherence of the position that everything must be affirmed in the name of love, except that which is not all-affirming.