What does theology look like in a world dominated by Twitter?
“Farewell, Rob Bell.”
Tweeted by John Piper (pastor, elder patron saint claimed by the burgeoning neo-reformed, neo-fundamentalist wing of Christianity -- a culturally hip, socially active doctrinal song set to a 17th Century theological folk tune).
about Rob Bell (homiletics master, emerging church leader, er, emergent church leader, er uber-skilled teacher at a really large church).
dismissing him (from a biblicist form of orthodoxy? From evangelicalism? From the Book of Life? Or just a fond parting after a Starbucks latte?).
on his then-only-forthcoming book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” (a book that offers strong advocacy for a form of redemptive universalism which offers new options on soteriology as opposed to both the harsh particularism favored by Piper’s tribe and the flaccid universalism which doomed 20th Century liberalism).
OK, OK, this pithy dismissal was decidedly not heard around the world. Our attention on revolution in Libya, disaster recovery in Japan, the NCAA basketball tournament, or those ‘wacky’ Kardashian sisters, was largely undisturbed (note: Kim has 6,836,732 twitter “followers” compared to John Piper’s still impressive 136,099).
But Piper’s blast was noticed. Rob Bell “trended” for days on Twitter. Last Sunday, a guest speaker quipped “farewell Rob Bell” as a mock dismissal of an idea and half my church laughed. For a few brief moments, contemporary theological conflict and a two millennia old theological dispute made the contemporary culture radar dashboard.
Unlike Piper, I’m not one of those people who yearns for the past for its own sake. I don’t believe that colonial America was an evangelical camp meeting or that New England Puritan farmers spent their whole week discussing the nuances of Jonathan Edwards’ latest four hour sermon. But I do think that four hundred years of modernity, combined with historical abuses by religious people, have swept theological discourse to the most distant margins of our culture. And yet, the triumph of secularism was decidedly overstated in modernity. Much of the pulse of our society orients around pursuits of spirituality, rational and otherwise. And meaningful theological discourse sits not on the sideline but in the locker room, wondering why it doesn’t have a uniform. This is a tragedy.
The British literary critic Terry Eagleton, in “Reason, Faith, and Revolution,” looks honestly at the religious landscape of our world and admits, “There are a lot of semi-deranged people called believers around the place.” Nonetheless, in writing critically against the new atheism and all forms of intolerance, Eagleton argues for the necessity of theological reflection: “The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present.” According to Eagleton, the new atheists do not understand that faith “is not primarily a belief that something or someone exists, but a commitment and allegiance -- faith in something which might make a difference to the frightful situation you find yourself in . . .”.
We desperately need thoughtful theological reflection because the scope of theology includes not only “the fate of every person who ever lived” but also the potential of transformative love in a world thirsty for generosity and generativity. Of course, we also need civil and hospitable theological discourse, a point that Piper seems to ignore. But if even a pejorative and dismissive Twitter bomb can unwittingly yield more and better theological conversation then I say, “Let it be so.”
Tim Conder is the founding pastor of Emmaus Way in Durham, NC. He also serves on the Board of Directors at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, WA. He is the author, most recently, of "Free for all: Rediscovering the Bible in Community."