The Pantheon's Embrace

by Matthew Raley The Romans achieved cultural durability not through military force, but through the embrace of every god in their empire. They appropriated Greek culture wholesale, and affirmed the other traditions they conquered. While their broad piety was generous toward foreign gods, the generosity was motivated by shrewdness. If a conquered city could keep its gods, and if Rome could endow those gods with cosmopolitan nobility, then the city would be less resistant to control.

As a tool of empire, the pantheon works really well. Better than armies.

Time, the American century's literary temple, gave its blessing to Rob Bell last week in the form of a cover story. Author Jon Meacham is both a journalistic eminence (the former editor of Newsweek) and a serious observer of our religious life. To whatever spiritual trend he devotes his keyboard, there is a higher order of national attention. The controversy over Bell's teachings about hell might have remained a matter of small interest to non-evangelicals, but not anymore.

I'll write another post about Bell's book, Love Wins. I don't want to examine his doctrine based on the blast of writing for and against him. Also, I won't draw any conclusions about Bell's teachings based on Meacham's piece. The analysis belongs to Meacham, not Bell.

My interest here is in the Time artifact itself: how Time presents Bell, how Meacham frames the theological issues, and what sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals by the American pantheon.

How does Time present Bell?

He is a rock star. The photo of him is edgy. Meacham describes him as "a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following." The message in this package seems to be, "Don't mess with Bell. He's way beyond other evangelicals in style. We embrace him."

How does Meacham frame the theological issues?

Meacham treats heaven and hell seriously, being careful to say that Bell only claims to question theological rigidity, but also pointing out the implications of Bell's ideas. Of Bell's suggestion that everyone may end up in heaven, Meacham asks, "If heaven, however defined, is everyone's ultimate destination in any event, then what's the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?" Meacham accurately says that Bell is "more at home" within the "expansive liberal tradition" of Harry Emerson Fosdick.

R. Albert Mohler notes, "This may mark the first time any major media outlet has underlined the substantial theological issues at stake."

So, hat-tip to Meacham.

What sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals?

The American pantheon is opening the front door wide and proclaiming, "All ye who are weary of theological rigidity, come unto me and I will give you rest."

The invitation is pointed. Meacham's theological literacy has the effect of posing a clear choice to followers of Christ: keep your father's Christianity (with no blessing from Time), or drop that traditionalism and be sprinkled with the holy water of sophistication. Bell's Christianity is "less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient assumptions." Adopting Bell's attitude will get evangelicals the "seat at the table" they have coveted.

Further, the invitation is backed by power -- the power of perceived cultural inevitability. Meacham asks, "Is Bell's Christianity ... on an inexorable rise?" Then he quotes Bell himself: "I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air." Whatever that quote means, it at least signals that Bell is using March-of-Progress inertia to advance his ideas.

The heavily implied victory of the New stands behind Time's invitation to evangelicals. You know you can't hold out forever. Bell is a plausible enough theologian for you and for us. Let us embrace you and be done with it.

The reason Jesus never entered the Roman pantheon, of course, was that his exclusive claims invalidated all rival gods and goddesses, and threatened the durability of Rome's culture. The Jesus of the New Testament was never amenable to broad, cosmopolitan pieties. If he were turned into a statue, an abstracted symbol of Goodness, then he would have fit nicely. But 1st century Christians understood that accepting the pantheon's blessing was a surrender to imperial control, and that the real Jesus did not need the emperor's permission to rule.

This is Bell's moment. He mounts a rostrum of significant cultural authority, and what he does with this moment tells what he believes most deeply. Is Christ alone the Savior? From what exactly does He save us? The American pantheon has always been willing to embrace Jesus, so long as Jesus' followers do not deny the other gods their place.

What is Rob Bell's creed?