But I'm worried. Hear me out. There are plenty of culture warriors who won't give Rob Bell the time of day, especially now that he's publicly declared his support for same-sex marriage. I think the topic of same-sex marriage deserves careful, thoughtful, and kind dialogue. But I'll save that topic for another day.
To me, the most disconcerting aspect of what Bell said is this: "I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs--I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are."
I realize this is a soundbite from an off-the-cuff answer to a question. But still, what concerns me is not just what Bell says, it's his reasons or the basis for what he says. "The ship has sailed" is never an argument that a Christian should use for any issue, especially for an issue that's hotly debated. Now, if he just means that many people in our culture support same-sex marriage, and that cultural warriors should perhaps focus on strengthening on marriage within the church, I'm open to hear that view. But that's not how I hear what he says. To my ears, it sounds like he's saying "our culture seems to be headed this direction; therefore, because of this, Christians should embrace this position."
My response would be something along the lines of N. T. Wright addressing the issue of ordaining women (the video's poor quality, but interesting). On that issue, Wright calls for both sides of the debate to have a deep, careful, biblically-based argument on the issue. He takes to task those who refuse to do so simply based on tradition. But he equally takes to task those who would say that the "political winds" have shifted, and so the church must go along with what seems acceptable to the broader culture (that is, ordain women). If that's our posture, says Wright, and the basis of our view, then we might as well cease to be the church. I think he's right.
And this is why what Bell concerns me: he's appealing to what the broader culture thinks on an issue to help settle the debate. Whatever you think about Love Wins, that was not his approach in that book. He attempted to ground his position in Scripture and at least somewhat sound theological reasoning. To me, he sounds different now.
This is a crucial distinction: those who argue and reason based on the authority of Scripture and those who don't. I realize that the "authority of Scripture" might be off-putting to those who grew up in hermeneutically-naive communities that basically connected their interpretation of the Bible to "what the Bible says." But the fact that there are hermeneutically-naive communities who do this doesn't change the fact that a key distinctive of Christians is that we do (or should) present arguments based on what Scripture says. Rooting yourself in tradition is never enough, even if the tradition you are rooting yourself in is the tradition of tomorrow (i.e., the prevailing winds of the present culture).
My second issue with what Bell says is that it's obviously a distraction from the dialogue around this issue. Can anyone who agrees or disagrees with him take his remarks seriously? If I were an advocate of same-sex marriage, I think I'd be upset at someone tossing out such an obviously weak rationale. For many people, this just confirms their suspicion that the only way one could hold to Bell's position is simply to ignore the Bible. After all, how would history look if Christians had used Bell's rationale?
William Wilberforce: "Well, I was going to fight slavery, but I realized that ship had sailed. The majority of people are in favor of it. I don't want to be left behind in my Oldsmobile."
Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I was going to hold the line in favor of nonviolence as a way of following Jesus. But then I realized that the majority of people are in favor of a violent revolution. I also realized that I just need to go along with the majority of Southerners on civil rights issues, and give up the battle."
I think these quotes demonstrate the absurdity of making any kind of moral argument on the basis of where culture is or where it's going. So why would Bell do this? I suspect (and actually hope) that he holds the position he does on grounds other than what was stated in this off-the-cuff remark. But if so, then I think people on both sides of the debate would want him to further clarify why he holds the position.
Now, why would I call Rob Bell "the new James Dobson?" (Sorry it took me a while to get around to this) Both Dobson and Bell seem to think that the culture will be (or should be) a coherent whole regarding views of sexuality, marriage, etc. Christians and American culture as a whole should basically have the same view and account of what marriage is for, how to understand sexuality, etc. But when I read the Bible, I don't see that. The New Testament seems to assume that a Christian understanding and practice of sexuality is probably going to be drastically different from the surrounding culture. 1 Corinthians 7 is a prime example of this. Everything Paul says about marriage, sexuality, and singleness draws a clear line between the broader culture's practice and the practice of the church. Dobson wanted to force a Christian view on the broader culture; Bell wants to force the broader culture's view on the church. Both fail to recognize the church/world distinction. In my mind, that's the first mark of a culture warrior. So I suppose instead of Focus on the Family, Bell would give us Focus on the Modern Family (shout out to Phil Dunphy!).
I'll continue to follow Rob Bell. I think he's an interesting barometer of where many people are at. If so, though, I'm worried. Not because of the issue of same-sex marriage, but because of how he grounds the positions he's holding.