A riff on Genesis hits a few sour notes
A review of Rob Bell’s Everything is Spiritual
Published: 20 March 2012 (GMT+10)
Rob Bell has received acclaim for his Nooma videos, criticism for a weak soteriology in his book Love Wins, and is perhaps one of the most controversial figures in Christian circles today. His DVD Everything Is Spiritual has been around for several years now, but it still warrants a review because of his influence, particularly among the youth in the church.
To fairly critique Bell, one has to realize that he never really claimed to be a scholar or a serious exegete. He’s primarily a communicator—his messages seem more like performance art than sermons. In a way, his popularity in the church is more an indictment of the church’s discernment than on Bell. But when Bell speaks publicly and makes money from bad teaching, we have a responsibility to critique that teaching when it’s warranted.
Bell opens by quoting Genesis 1—unfortunately Scripture doesn’t feature as heavily throughout the rest of the video. And almost as soon as he starts interpreting Genesis, things go badly awry. He calls Genesis a poem—despite the lack of essential characteristics of Hebrew poetry—and he promotes the framework hypothesis.
He also displays a fondness for numerology, highlighting recurrences of 3, 7, and 10 in the creation narrative. However, some of them (such as words in a particular verse) are artificial constructions (because the chapter and verse divisions were added thousands of years after the original text was composed), and others seem coincidental. To put it another way, if I took a chapter from Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy's famous book Anna Karenina at random and made four my ‘special number’, I’m sure I could find it in all sorts of significant places. It seems mainly a product of the human mind’s tendency to look for patterns. Interestingly, Bell doesn’t cite the most obvious seven in the creation narrative—the seven days (which incidentally are responsible for nearly all the other sevens)!
Bell’s presentation is engaging, but sometimes the connections aren’t as plain as they could be. It’s as if someone is mapping a route from Chicago to Los Angeles, and somehow ends up on Mars—you didn’t expect to get there, and you’re not quite sure how you got there or how this relates to Los Angeles. One moment Bell is giving an exposition of Genesis 1, and then he’s giving an astronomy lecture. There’s certainly a very ‘post-modern’ feel to the disconnectedness of it all.
The scientific portion of Bell’s presentation contains factual errors in literally nearly every sentence. Bell claims that each galaxy has 100 billion suns, and each of those suns has 100 billion stars—apparently Bell doesn’t know that the sun is a star. Bell says that each galaxy has 100 billion black holes, but the largest estimate I could find in an Internet search is 100 million-1 billion.
His argument for the fine-tuning of the earth’s placement, rotation, etc, is overstated a bit. For instance, he says that the earth is 93 million miles away from the sun, and a million miles in either direction would result in no life on earth. But in actuality, the earth’s orbit is slightly elliptical, about 91.5 million miles away from the sun at its closest and 94.5 million miles away at its furthest. He claims that the earth’s axial tilt is unusual in that the other planets have no axial tilt—actually, all of the other planets have axial tilts (Mercury’s and Jupiter’s are very slight).
It would be tedious to list all of the errors in Bell’s scientific analysis—to sum up, one would probably want to double-check any facts before using them. But Bell is a pastor, not a scientist, so the theological errors are really much more disappointing.
It’s interesting how often Bell in his talk refers not to Christian exegetes, but Jewish rabbis, for theological points. These rabbis rejected Jesus, so were wrong on the most essential theological point—how can they be regarded as authorities for anything else? In places, a quote from another part of Scripture would do to make his theological point, but instead he refers to an apostate rabbi.
Bell’s wrong view of Genesis leads him to other errors in his presentation. He argues that when God revealed Himself to Moses as a spirit, without form and forbidding Moses to make images of Him, that was a totally new idea in all of human history. But if we take Genesis as history, people originally would have known about the true God, and this knowledge would have been corrupted or forgotten over time. Some false gods could be a distorted form of ancestor worship, especially taking into account the long lifespans of the couple generations directly after the Flood compared with the drastic drop in the following generations.
Everything is spiritual
The title “Everything is Spiritual” doesn’t really begin to make sense until around 55 minutes into the presentation. Bell argues that everything in Genesis is either purely spiritual with no physicality (like God), or purely physical with no spirit (water, trees, etc), until man is created. Bell says that there is actually no word in the Hebrew for “spiritual”. What he fails to realize is that the lack of a certain word doesn’t mean that the idea didn’t exist. It would be like saying, “There is no word in English to differentiate fraternal love from marital love like the Greek language does, so English speakers obviously don’t differentiate the two.”
Bell claims that Genesis 1 is a chiasm, which he defines by saying that the poet hides the meaning in the middle. But chiasm is a literary device not confined to any one literary genre (it’s used in apocalyptic literature, poetry, narrative, and discourse, and in both the Old Testament and New Testament), and it’s a very strictly defined device using inverted parallelism around the climax of the discourse, narrative, or poem. Without the inverted parallelism, there is no chiasm, whether or not the climax is somewhere in the middle. For instance, there is a notable chiasm in Genesis 17:1–25:
A 17:1a: Abraham’s age
B 17:1b: God appears to Abram
C 17:1c–2: God promises a covenant
D 17:3: Abram falls on his face
E 17:4–8: God names Abraham
X 17:9–14: God gives the covenant of circumcision
E′ 17:15–16: God names Sarah
D′ 17:17-18: Abraham falls on his face
C′ 17:19–21: God promises a covenant through Isaac
B′ 17:22–23: God goes up from Abraham; Abraham obeys God
A′ 17:24–25: Abraham’s and Ishmael’s ages
This is a fairly tight chiasm on the level of the pericope (in other words, this particular section of the wider Genesis narrative).
Furthermore, Bell was earlier promoting the Framework Hypothesis which requires a very different and mutually exclusive structure for Genesis. If Day 4 is the center of the chiasmus as Bell claims, then Days 3 and 5 have to be related, and Days 2 and 6, and Days 1 and 7—trying to link them to form even a loose chiasmus would be a stretch. But the Framework Hypothesis links days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6. There is really no way to have both at once (of course, we would argue that there are problems with both, and serious ones in the case of the Framework Hypothesis). Furthermore, the climax of Genesis 1 is not on Day 4, but in Genesis 1:27, indicated by the only and brief use of true poetry in the creation account, on Day 6 (the verses before and after are not poetry).
But Bell wants Day 4 to be the center of a chiasmus to make a point about the word “seasons”, which he claims is a central word for anyone who follows God. He says that it is a reference to the Sabbath, and a lesson about what it means to be human, that one’s worth does not come from what one produces, but from being in the image of God. The problem with this though is that it imposes a gooey postmodernity onto the institution of the Sabbath. In reality Jesus is saying something much deeper (see box).
More than that though, Bell argues that Jesus came to show us that “everything is spiritual”. But while it is certainly part of Jesus’ teaching that our actions have eternal consequences, the essence of Jesus’ teachings would certainly be that the Kingdom of God has arrived, that Jesus is the one who has brought it, and Jesus is the only way into it. The center of Jesus’ message is the Gospel—and “everything is spiritual” is not much of a Gospel.
Bell is a gifted communicator—he’s fun to watch and his humor is great and well-timed. His message is memorable; one wishes that it were a better message. The thing is, the Church today doesn’t need to hear that Genesis gives us a spiritual message to the exclusion of the historical message. Of course Genesis tells us about God; of course it’s theological in nature—the whole Bible is theological. But it’s also historical, and if it’s not historical, then it doesn’t really tell us about God, because the central premise of the Bible is that God exists and has intervened and interacted with creation at crucial points to bring about salvation through Jesus Christ. And if He has done that at all, it had to be in real history.
God rested on the Seventh Day after creating the universe in the first 6 days. For that reason, He blessed it as a holy day. Directly after God brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt, He commanded them to gather the manna for six days, but to gather twice as much on the sixth day and prepare it beforehand, because they were not to do any work on the seventh day (Exodus 16:22–26). When God enshrined this command in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8–11), He tied it directly to His seventh day rest. Because God rested on the seventh day, so should they. So there is a theocentric aspect to it—the Sabbath is rooted in the actions and nature of God Himself.
But there is also an anthropocentric aspect to it—the Sabbath is never seen in Scripture as a burden or an onerous interruption of human activity, but a terrific blessing. When some of the Israelites disobeyed and looked for manna on the seventh day, God responded: ‘How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath’ (Exodus 16:28–29, emphasis added). So the Sabbath isn’t only a command or a law, but also (and perhaps even primarily) a gift of rest. This sort of thinking is prevalent throughout the Old Testament.
But the Rabbinic oral traditions, to which Pharisees ascribed an authority equal to Scripture, surrounded the Sabbath command with all sorts of restrictions—how much one could carry, how many steps a person could walk, what exactly constituted work, and so on. These restrictions turned the Sabbath day into a list of rules to follow, instead of the gift of rest that it was intended to be. This is what Jesus’ statement in Mark 2:27 ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ is intended to counter.
The beginning of Col. 2:8 warns us against [literally] becoming spoils of war--captured in intellectual spiritual-warfare battle for possibly lifetime slavery. This happens when Christians (including many pastors and theologians)-- not obeying the commmand to test every thing (every authority-figure-given truth claim)-- do not spot false speculative notions misrepresented as truth, and commit themselves to those notions. Paradoxically, people striving not to compromise themselves--having more sentitive consciences--bind themselves even more tightly to such false obligation, wrongly thinking that they have to do so in order to maintain intellectual integrity.
Such wrong notions--called "hollow deception" in Col. 2:8--create unbelievable pressure when they collide with corrective scriptural truth. Entrapped Christian leaders feel driven to degrade scriptural signal to escape that impossible pressure. When bible-text signal has been degraded to the point where the text can no longer contain scientific content, the problem has (falsely) gone away!
Many Christian leaders and commmunicators, not just Rob Bell, have gone this route for escape. Let us realize that they feel **driven** towards framework hypothesis, etc. (or even to resurrect docmumentary hypothesis) in order to give a 'rationale' (actually, invalid rationalization) justifying the 'needed' signal degradation. While often blinding themselves to what they are actually doing. Spiritual warfare, indeed!
I wonder whether Bell is aware that verse numbering in the English version translated from the Hebrew Tanakh is different in many places to that in the versions translated from the Greek Septuagint. Likewise the punctuation varies depending on the understanding of the translator. It is foolish and naive to find significance in such things.
Thanks for a very balanced presentation of Bell's lectures. Although thoroughly entertained, I too found aspects of his presentation slick and dismissive of the deeper issues. Thank you for hitting the nail on the head. The comments about the Sabbath were also very profound. Most Christians see the Sabbath as a burdensome legalistic relic of Judaism rather than a marvelous gift to bring balance into our lives and build relationship with God and our families.
Thank you for this thoughtful critique, Lita. It is good to be reminded to "be on guard" against false teaching...even when it's coming from a well-meaning source.