The Danger of Evangelicals Who Don’t Really Read

I’m a fan of C.S. Lewis. Not a fanatic, but a fan. I’m thrilled a new generation has been exposed to the Narnia books through the recent theatrical movies. I also like some of Rob Bell’s stuff. I know statement that will drive some of my friends wild. Please let me emphasize some. What surprises me this past year is how angry some of my friends and acquaintances at Rob Bell while remaining big supporters of Lewis.

I had the opportunity to write a few papers on Lewis during the school years. This led to lots of background research on the man and his beliefs. There were a few things that stood out. (1) He generally hated evangelicals. He had no tolerance for people who dug their heals on their theological stance and wouldn’t at least discuss the possibility of being wrong. Which leads to a second issue, (2) He changed what he believed many times. The story of Lewis’ journey of faith is powerful. (See the movie, Shadowlands, if you are unfamiliar with his personal life.) The willingness to discover new truth and adjust his personal theology was what led him to a deeper understanding of God, especially as it relates to suffering. (Go read The Problem with Pain if you’re unfamiliar.) He had unkind words for anyone who nailed their doctrinal statement to the wall or chiseled it in stone. This led to a third shocking reality (for me), (3) He greatly disliked American evangelist Billy Graham. One of Lewis’ many comments on Graham was that he (Lewis) didn’t trust teetotallers (those who don’t drink alcohol). And, finally, (4) Lewis had some decidedly un-evangelical theological positions. His “doctrinal statement,” forgive me Mr. Lewis for saying you had one, included the idea that he was open to a level of universalism. In other words, he believed it was within God’s power to forgive people and welcome them to heaven, even if they died without recognizing their need for a Savior.

Yet, with all these differences, we evangelicals rally around C.S. Lewis with fervor while condemning Rob Bell as the greatest heretic of our time. Doesn’t that seem a little duplicitous? I remember when a C.S. Lewis collection went on display in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. The man who had voiced great dislike for Graham was being celebrated at the storehouse of all things Graham. I recall seeing one of Lewis’ beer drinking steins on display and thinking he’s get a huge laugh out of that display in a building named for Graham. I remember seeing a picture of Lewis that wasn’t centered and wondering why they’d mount such an odd picture. I later found that picture in a book and realized it had been cropped because Lewis had a cigarette in one hand. Jack (Lewis) would probably have another laugh and some choice words for those who set up the display; and they probably would be words evangelicals would condemn. So, why is it we don’t have a problem with Lewis, but want the Christian bookstore to pull all the Bell books from the shelves.

The general answer, in my opinion, has to do with out inability as evangelicals to find value in anything that isn’t 100% endorsable. We’ve fallen into a mindset of creating our own, exclusive culture within this world. Granted, we should live in the world, but not of the world. I read plenty of “Christian” books. I also read books that present perspectives from other viewpoints. I even read, gasp, “secular” books. I especially enjoy autobiographies of non-Christians because it helps me understand how other people see the world, families, politics, relationship, and this world from another direction. It doesn’t change my theology, but it does change my heart. It helps me understand what other people are thinking, and think of new ways to talk to those who are hurting and/or far from God.

I’ve read Bell’s book now. I disagree with it. But, having read other things by him and heard him share his view of the gospel in person (and, at the time, it matched a solid evangelical approach), I didn’t walk away as convinced that he was trying to lead people away from Christ as he was struggling within himself to understand a God who is fully perfect and loving. Any theologian/pastor/Christian worth his salt will struggle through understanding and applying difficult doctrinal positions. I think Bell is wrong in opening the door to a looser view of salvation. I disagree with his application of scripture to that point. And I think he’s running the risk of leading people away from Christ instead of to God.

The main difference between Lewis and Bell, in my opinion, is that Lewis made Christ the center of his beliefs, then tried to be open to understanding everything else around that truth. Bell seems to be questioning what he believes at the center of his faith, which makes him confusing at best and heretical at worse and intentionally deceptive at worst. But, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read and discuss books like his to know what people are thinking.

The whole issue reminds me of a quote I’ve long remembered from either a theology or preaching class: “Think out loud, but not from the pulpit.” In other words, question and dialogue with others about things you’re thinking and wrestling through, but don’t present your confusion as teaching. It’s ok to say you’re struggling with something or trying to understand a difficult idea. It’s good to get together with others and talk – even argue – through those issues; but don’t make your deepest question the point of your public teaching. The people who depend on your teaching will become confused and start to take your questions as their personal doctrine. An example for me is the issue of the return of Christ. (Oh man, I’m walking into it.) I’m firmly pre-trib/pre-mil. If you talk to me personally, I’ll tell you why I believe what I do. But, I’ll probably also say, “If Jesus doesn’t return pre-trib, I’ll switch to a mid-trib stance. And if he doesn’t return mid-trib, I’m definitely a post-trib guy.” It’s the doctrine I get the least dogmatic about because if Jesus can say even the angels don’t know when that return will happen, I have a little trouble being sure I’m infallible on when I think it will happen. However, I do have a doctrinal stand on the issue (pre-trib) and that’s what I would teach publically. I have a position I’m willing to teach publically, and fully convicted about, but one-on-one I’m willing to talk about room for doubts. It’s good to investigate and study, but to leave people confused from the pulpit would be wrong.

In this day and age, you can put your every thought out for public consumption. (Blog, anyone?) You can find a sermon I preached and likely find some questionable things. I mistakenly believe when you hear this week’s sermon, you’ve heard that last 50 and know how this particular message balances out with the rest of what I say throughout the year. (I know, big mistake.) Sometimes I simply say something backwards. When reviewing my sermons I’ve found words I’ve juxtiposed that completely change what I mean to say. I’m usually shocked no one said anything about it. (Do people really listen? Or do they give me grace because they understand what I meant?) There are also some things I would explain different today, understand better today, or have even adjusted exactly what I believe about it. You could find the right quotes/posts, and enough of them, to build a case for my dismissal from the evangelical camp.

Do I have an application? If so, it would be to constantly be reading. Read widely. Read those with whom you disagree. Pinpoint with what you agree, disagree, and should consider. Learn to be able to share a book with an explanation that it’s got some good stuff and stuff you don’t like. Learn what you believe so you’re not influenced by bad-unbiblical theology.) Don’t fall for garbage that belongs on the fiction shelf. (I’m talking to you, Dan Brown. It says FICTION in the library listing for Da Vinci Code.)

Oh, and if you have books by both Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis, do what I do and put them on the bookshelf next to one another.

***UPDATE:  While researching the quote I used, I discovered this article on the difference betweeen Lewis and Bell. It’s a much better article. Go read it at this link:

The Unexamined Life and All



Posted: November 10, 2011 
Filed under: Deep Thoughts with Pastor Jeff, Leadership, Pastor Jeff, Spiritual
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