Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Confused all the Way Down: Rob Bell on Sex, God, and Connection

Do you want to be sexy? Pastor Rob Bell, prominent in the Emergent movement, thinks he can help you. He has written an essay called, "How to Be Sexy," which is taken from his new book, Sex God. The elasticity of the word "sexy" in has come to concern me of late, and reading Bell exacerbates this concern. He redefines the word to mean connectedness of a bodily sort, as when he is swimming with his son on his back amidst a pod of dolphins. (How one arranges these exotic--and for Bell, erotic--events is beyond me.)

He speaks of committed and celibate Christians as "sexy" because they are connected to ministering to the poor and oppressed. He laments that mere sex--such as sex on demand on Holland, where prostitution is legal--is not really sexy. Then he says: "You can’t be connected with God until you’re at peace with who you are. If you’re still upset that God gave you this body or this life or this family or these circumstances, you will never be able to connect with God in a healthy, thriving, sustainable sort of way. "

This is exactly backward in several ways. One comes to God on God's terms, as revealed in the Bible: repentant faith in Jesus Christ and ongoing sanctification by faith after one is justified by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). (Bell says nothing about the Bible, which is all too common in contemporary Christianity; it is biblically impoverished, and thus full of self, experience, memoirs, and hype.) We don't find some erotic connection to the universe--through dolphins, concerts, or otherwise--and then connect with God thereby. God is not the creation, but transcends it (while being present in it). Yes, God is the giver of every perfect gift and the designer of sexuality (Genesis 1-2). We are not Gnostics, but should celebrate the creation (on God's terms). But we come to God because he is God, and because he can transform us to do God's will, whatever that might be.

Bell to the contrary, sexuality does not encompass all of the sensual. That is a category confusion of the highest magnitude, and would only be suggested by one besotted by the contemporary sexualization of everything. Taking communion is sensual in the sense of tasting and ingesting real wine and real bread (at least in the better services), but there is nothing sexual about it. If you think there is, there is something wrong with you.

Moreover, those who suffer from chronic illness or who are put in nearly impossible relational situations cannot be blissfully "connected" (what an overused and underachieving word that has become) to their circumstances. Instead, they, like many biblical writers and characters, must lament--lament their broken bodies, lament their fractured relationships, lament the political chaos of their African countries, lament that 300 million in India are "untouchables" (the Dalit people). They call out to a listening heaven because earth has become a living hell. This "disconnection" has produced some of the deepest and richest spiritual beings on the planet. For example, how "connected" was John the Baptist to his culture or to "the sensual"? He was an ascetic for one thing: his diet was sparse; his clothing rough. He had little social adhesion. But he spoke courageous truth to power and paid the highest price imaginable: his head ended up on a platter before a ruler. Jesus commended him with strong praise (Matthew 11:1-11).

Bell's "spirituality"exalts the sensual over the spiritual and then transmutes the sensual into the sexual. If that is what "being sexy" means, let us find another teacher. See Titus 2:7-8.


Anita and Bruce Hensley said...

amen and thank you. this is why you should keep blogging- these are the thoughts we need expressed in this day and hour.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Thank you, but why the aversion to CAPITALIZATION?


Michael Glawson said...

Dr. Groothuis, I really appreciate your blog, books, and lectures that I have learned from, and your passion for truth has inspired me to live differently. Sometimes though you seem very rude in the way you interact with others (though only on your blog, and I have a friend who knows you and says you're very nice in person). It's often hard to read a person's tone through a single written sentence, but it might be worth giving a thought to how you may be percieved in comments like the above one. I mean, I hesitated to even post this fearing that you would point out a comma splice.

With love,
Michael Glawson

QNormal said...

Was it Milton that distinguished between sensate (possessing senses), sensuous (affecting the senses), and sensual (affecting the senses in a sexual manner)? I wonder if you mean sensuous when you say sensual. I wonder if Bell means sensuous when he speaks of being sexual.

Beth said...

Michael Glawson/Anita:
Perhaps Doug was a little embarrassed by Anita’s praise. Sorry to psychoanalyze you, Doug, and I could definitely be wrong, but my observation is that people who are hard on others are hard on themselves as well, and Doug has very high standards. Having had the pleasure of getting to know Doug in person over the winter, I can testify to the fact that he is humble and approachable in person.

Aaron Snell said...

This is why I am comfortable dubbing this segment of the emerging church movement the "New Liberalism."

Ken Click said...

I appreciate your straightforward analysis. I’m at a loss as to why some think your statements reflect a rude manner.
Perhaps as our culture moves steadily deeper into postmodern subjectivism it is losing its ability to distinguish actual “rudeness” from unequivocal clarity?

Daniel said...

I echo Michael Glawson. Your most recent post on etiquette was convicting, albeit unnecessary for most readers.

Ken: the issue is devoting a whole blog post regarding an isolated incident (mine...a misspelling on a previous post...not deliberate of course...just hurried).

But of course Groothuis will say that it is his prerogative to write what he wants because its his blog and we can't really dispute that.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

"Perhaps as our culture moves steadily deeper into postmodern subjectivism it is losing its ability to distinguish actual “rudeness” from unequivocal clarity? "

Quite! But the response was to my correcting Anita, I think, not my critique of Bell.

Dave said...

I agree that we come to God on His terms. I haven't read Bell's latest work, so I can't offer a critique. However, permit to say that I don't think the concept that we cannot experience a truely vibrant spiritual life without loving ourselves is wrong. In order to experience the abundant life of which Jesus speaks in John 10:10, we must appreciate who He made us to be and how He made us...that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made." After coming to God on His terms, we must then accept who we have been created to be...to love ourselves...in order to truly experience an abundant life.

Something the emergent movement emphasizes is that we aren't Christ-followers simply for the promised after life, but for this life. In fact, life cannot be truly experienced until we are Christ-followers. I would even venture to say that we can't love ourselves apart from the Holy Spirit, but it is a part of having a passionate relationship with God.

While we aren't to place ourselves before others, we certainly aren't to devalue ourselves, either, as Paul so eloquently penned in the Scriptures.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Rob Bell's book certainly sounds very pop-oriented and a bit shallow - at least the clips you cited. However, I might point out that on my reading Romans 1 makes an explicit connection to God through the creation. We have no excuse for not understanding who God is because knowledge of God "is evident" through creation. So, in this sense I would agree with Bell more than I would agree with the Constructive Curmudgeon. To speak of connectedness with God through the creation is not Gnostic, et al, it is very Pauline.

Having said that, I imagine your interpretation of Romans 1 might be more rationalistic (small "r"). From your general apologetic approach I would presume that you interpet Romans 1 on a strictly intellectual level. Personally, I follow Calvin (and more recently Plantinga) on seeing something of a sensus divinitatis element in Romans 1. If your interpretation is more rationalistic, then I can see how you might be inclined to cast an eye of disdain towards anything that smacks of emotion or existentialism. But, Doug, wouldn't you say that the majestic sounds of that blessed pagan, John Coltrane, usher you into the presence of God?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

I never said Bell was Gnostic; I was qualifying my own view. We do apprehend God on many levels through creation: rational and intuitive. You're painting me with the wrong brush.

But I still disagree with Bell for the reasons cited.