Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and the “Jesus tea-strainer” in action

July 22, 2014

Years ago, when the New Atheists were still a cultural force to be reckoned with, I watched a debate on YouTube between an atheist—I can’t remember who—and a Christian apologist. They reached the point in the debate at which the Christian apologist said, quite correctly, that apart from God, objective morality can’t exist. At this point the atheist loudly protested, pointing to the many places in scripture in which God commands or condones what he believed to be immoral actions.

(As usual, the atheist misunderstood the apologist’s point: for the sake of this argument, it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t considered “moral”; apart from a transcendent law-giver, the indignant atheist has no moral high horse to saddle up. He’s using God as an objection to God.)

Then the atheist took an interesting turn: with derision, he said that Jesus himself was a horrifying moral teacher by today’s standards: he pointed specifically to Jesus’ many references to hell, and his apparent comfort at the thought of God’s consigning people to it.

To say the least, I could take issue with every characterization and generalization that the atheist made. But in his small defense, he gets closer to the truth regarding one aspect of Jesus’ teaching—his words about judgment, hell, and wrath—than many theological progressives.

Take, for instance, this Rob Bell interview with one liberal theologian, Richard Rohr. In talking about the “incarnational” aspect of the Bible, by which Rohr means to say the Bible is riddled with mistakes, he says:

This is how God trusts incarnation. God allows us to see God and uses that as his word. It’s through us. Therefore the text itself is three steps forward and two steps back. It gets it, it loses it, it get it it loses it…My Jesus hermeneutic is like this: Jesus never quotes Joshua and Judges. Most of Joshua and Judges are two steps backward books. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the Bible, I’m fine with that, there’s a lot in my life that’s two steps backwards. The text mirrors human development and growth and understanding.

“Jesus never quoted Joshua and Judges.” Therefore what? Jesus knows that they’re… wrong? Aside from arguing from silence, this is a bizarre “Jesus hermeneutic.” It is, in fact, an example of what theologian Andrew Wilson calls the “Jesus tea-strainer” (which I referred to a couple of weeks ago).

Here’s Wilson (my emphasis in bold):

I had an interesting series of debates with Steve Chalke recently, on Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement and sexuality. There are all sorts of things I could say about them (and I probably will, in time), but for me the most striking feature of Steve’s presentation was his continual reference to “the Jesus lens”. In his view, the Bible should be read through “the Jesus lens”, that is to say, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text – say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger – figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to.

He goes on to cite several examples of Jesus speaking about final judgment and hell.

I see the “Jesus tea-strainer” hermeneutic at work all the time. While I didn’t use the phrase, it was near the heart of my criticism of Jason Micheli in my guest post on his blog last week.

The rest of Bell’s interview is a disaster. Rohr (a Franciscan) says that we Protestants completely misunderstand the atonement. He says that it’s “actually heresy” to say that Jesus is God. Actually it isn’t.

4 Responses to “Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and the “Jesus tea-strainer” in action”

  1. Lauren Says:

    Hey Brent, the most asked question in any of my classes is how to understand the Old Testament and God’s actions in light of the Canaan conquest – how could God condone all the violence, etc… Lately you have touched on this subject but haven’t gone very deep into it. How do you view God’s actions in the OT versus the teachings of Jesus? The connection, the continuity…. Any help in answering this question for my students would be greatly appreciated.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Good question, Lauren.

      First, I would say that a lot of violence in the Old Testament isn’t sanctioned by God—I’m thinking, for instance, of much of the horrifying violence in Judges. Not that that gets us off the hook when it comes to the conquest of Canaan, etc.

      Still, given the Andrew Wilson post I linked to, I wonder if you’re not setting up a false dilemma between Jesus’ teachings and the Old Testament. (Read Wilson’s post if you haven’t already.) The point is, Jesus himself seems to endorse violence in the Old Testament, in some cases. And Jesus’ own words about judgment and hell endorse violence, at least insofar as it’s perpetrated by God.

      A while back, I reflected on Miroslav Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace. Volf seems very nearly a pacifist, or at least committed to non-violence in most cases. But Volf goes on to say that non-violence doesn’t apply to God: God may want us humans to be non-violent in most cases, but that doesn’t mean God is non-violent. (Remember: final judgment is necessarily coercive and therefore violent.)

      It’s not an unfair double-standard because, unlike God, we are unable to carry out justice perfectly. So we can wait patiently on God: “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.”

      Volf says that the Christian tradition that emphasizes pacifism the most, the Anabaptists, is also the tradition that emphasizes God’s vengeance the most. Their pacifism is conditioned upon their hope for divine retribution.

      I’m not a pacifist, but if I were, I would be this kind of pacifist.

      All that to say, I believe that God, as the author of life, has the right to end life however and whenever he chooses. Life is a gift from God, not a right. But I also believe he’s perfectly just, and he’ll make sure that the scales of justice are balanced, whether in this life or the next.

      I believe that when we read difficult passages of scripture in which God seems to act unjustly, we ought to give God (and the scripture that bears witness to him) the benefit of the doubt. Take it at face value and know that God will ensure that justice will be done and that unjust suffering will be vindicated—again, even if that only happens in heaven.

      Does that make sense?

      Try listening to this excellent podcast, which hits on some of these themes:

      • Brian Sassaman Says:

        Well even Jesus suggests that it’s better to tie a millstone around your neck and be dropped into the sea than to cause some types of harm. That’s no fun.

        I think that God views the value of our earthly lives in one way – and we view the value of our earthly lives in another, far different way. How could He not? How could we not? We see life through a steamed up mirror.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Sounds about right.

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