Theology is Not Reducible to Soundbites


“You’re asking for it both ways: that doesn’t make sense.”

Rob Bell was interviewed about his new book Love Wins by Martin Bashir of MSNBC recently.  Everyone is already busy discussing the content of the interview, but I am more interested in the getting behind the content to the nature of the interview itself.

I always squirm a bit when I watch Christians (whether theologians or not) trying to articulate their views in big media outlets.  I squirm because most good theology is not reducible to soundbites.  (Yes, that was a soundbite about theology.)  So invariably either the host or the guest must be frustrated in what they’re attempting, and the audience is left with nothing much.

With Rob Bell, though, the situation is more complex.  A lot of very serious students of theology and pastoral ministry would love to get Rob Bell to answer these sorts of questions.  He’s the kind of guy who responds to a yes or no question by saying, “Well, let me tell you a story,” and that’s sincerely disconcerting to many Christians.  So on one level, it is refreshing to see someone assertively put these sorts of questions to Rob Bell.

on another, more fundamental level, what is happening here is not discussion, but the pre-empting of discussion.  When the question is put to you in terms that do not permit a coherent answer (e.g. “Is God uncaring or impotent?”), and you are not permitted to redefine the terms, communication is made impossible.  It does not improve communication to simply repeat the question, more loudly and insistently.

If I were in Bell’s position here, I would refrain from answering most of these questions, and resist evading the questions as well, but attempt to deconstruct the process of hard-hitting questions and 24-hour news cycles altogether.  I would say, “This is complex stuff, and good theology is not reducible to soundbites.”

That is one reasons why I am not invited onto prime time news shows.

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3 responses to “Theology is Not Reducible to Soundbites

  1. I don’t understand why this Rob Bell is such a big deal. I mean I understand that there are issues with “universalism” and I don’t know a lot about him, but I have never met a true universalist. Not that whom I have met means a whole lot, I haven’t met all that many people. But, anyway, I don’t know that he isn’t trying to simply say that God desires all to be saved.

    I’m not sure why it is so hard for so many to understand that God, omnipotent and omniscient, could possibly act with some semblance of nuance.

  2. I was disappointed with the tone of the interview as well, but I am glad that someone finally put Bell on the spot. He needs to be able to give an answer to these kinds of questions but often he dances around them. As you said, the answers are so complex that they can’t be reduced to a soundbite, but when comparing his answers to the answer N.T. Wright gave to his position on hell in a similar setting, it feels like Bell doesn’t want to really engage the issues people are questioning him about.

  3. Stephen, I wouldn’t want to engage Martin Bashir’s questioning about hell either so I don’t blame Bell and others like him for their dances. Than again, I also find direct question and answer interactions as boring and not ideal. I’m glad for this interview though.

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