Labels

Another busy week last week, but yesterday Tree took a 50 mile journey from the forest to hear Rob Bell, an American church leader and teacher, speak on his “Drops Like Stars” tour of the UK. It was an evening very well spent,as Rob spoke about the arts of suffering, honesty, elimination, failure and more, and about the place of God’s redemption in our lives. The Victoria Hall was packed and Rob spoke for over an hour and three quarters. Who says the art of the sermon is dead?

Tree has long admired Rob. My first introduction was through watching one of his NOOMA videos.  For those who have not come across these, they are short films (usually 10-15 minutes) presenting a Christian viewpoint (Rob’s) on various life issues.  They are excellent for use either as discussion starters for home or youth groups, or as reflections for prayer and meditation.

Over the past couple of years I have regularly listened to his weekly podcast from Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michegan. He has a passion both for understanding what the Bible is actually saying and for applying the message of Jesus to life in the 21st century. Some of his stuff, of course, requires translation from the US to UK context, but that is not his fault. What he says is always challenging and firmly rooted in the Biblical text. He also speaks in terms that connect with that age-group so often missing in the UK churches, that is, anyone under the age of about 40. It was great to experience Rob’s teaching through the medium of his physical presence rather than as simply a disembodied voice.

Sadly, Rob’s desire to seek out what the text actually says in its own context has (perhaps inevitably) brought him into the crossfire of those who like their interpretation to fit a particular theological scheme. Although I am not sure quite where he would fit himself into the Emerging/Emergent Church “debate”, others are very ready to pin the label on him, as a quick trawl through the web will show. And as with Brian Maclaren, the word “heretic” is regularly flung in his direction.

Tree wonders quite where the H-word fits into theological debate.  Certainly Christian history is littered with the accusation from the earliest times. “See how these Christians love one another” seems too frequently to have become “see how these Christians label one another.” It happens wherever theological and ethical questions are debated*. Whilst labels can sometimes serve a purpose in providing a shorthand way of describing differing viewpoints, they almost invariably lead to stereotyping and, at their worst, can absolve us from having to do the hard work of taking someone else and their ideas seriously. For this reason Tree has always disliked theological labels and has tried to avoid pinning them either to himself or to others (not always successfully, I must confess).

Once we can do that we can also ask ourselves what God might just be trying to say to us and teach us, not only through those with whom we naturally agree but also through those who might actually challenge us – and then leave the rest up to God.

* I use the word “debate” rather loosely here as there is often a lack of both rationality and structure about these arguments.

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