Anatomy of a Bad Book Review
The Strange Case of Timothy C. Tennent, Ph.D
Okay, I admit I'm very grouchy right now about Dr. Timothy C. Tennent of Asbury Theological Seminary.
Recently somebody (who shall remain unnamed) DM-ed me on Twitter at around... oh, 2:00 a.m. in the morning — as a result of a controversy over Dr. Tennent's recent goofy book review of Rob Bell's What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
The review is here: Book Review: What we talk about when we talk about God by Rob Bell.
I get grouchy when awakened at night.
But, the truth is I have been getting increasingly ticked off with Dr. Tennent for some time now and that just sent me over the top. So, maybe it was just as well. My tendency has been to let him have a free pass — because of his position at the Seminary and because people often say good things about him and his work in Missiology.
But, since people are citing him as some sort of authority on the trends in the contemporary church, I guess I need to write about why I find him such an embarrassment.
Well, first just a word about me, so you can (maybe) see why I am so annoyed with him. I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and am not the least bit ashamed to admit it. I am proud of the education I received there (lo, those many years ago), and would recommend the school to anyone seeking a theological education. My earliest Christian experiences were rooted in the Holiness movement and (to a lesser degree) the Pentecostal movement. I'm not ashamed or embarrassed to admit that either. Those were the people who shared the Gospel with me — something the liberal Church did not do. When it came time to attend Seminary, there was really only one choice: Asbury Theological Seminary. And, as it turned out, it was a very good choice. I appreciate the education I received there.
But, when I read or hear something from Timothy C. Tennent I just want to do a face palm.
Don't judge Asbury Theological Seminary harshly just because of this guy. (There he is on the left. But, don’t be taken in by his lovely toothpaste smile, either….)
The latest case in point is the book review mentioned above. So, this is my jumping off point. But, please understand, I don't mean this to be a post about Rob Bell or his new book. I will have to refer to Bell and his beliefs and career as I go along, but I mean this to be a post about Timothy Tennent. In addition to the book review, I want to call attention to an address Tennent gave to the Seminary at their Fall Convocation in 2011. It was posted online by Dr. Ben Witherington here: The Clarion Call to Watered Down Evangelicalism.
Recently I posted about why I never write book reviews for this site. I gave several reasons. Here is another reason: the book review often gives the reader a mistaken impression of the nature of the book. Book Review is not the same genre as Book. It is possible that the reviewer didn't really get the book. Maybe the reviewer came to the book with the wrong expectations, or doesn't belong to the book's target audience, or some such thing. Thus, book reviews can be deceptive.
I'm not sure what Dr. Tennent read. But, he gives us an idea right at the beginning of his review. He begins by reminding us dear readers that he had previously written a four part series(!!) on Bell's previous book Love Wins, and that he "felt the book contained serious errors." But, since that book was mostly questions and (to me: annoyingly) semi-poetic reflections on God's love, life, death, heaven, and hell — it's a bit uncertain what Tennent is talking about. Things are suggested that are not necessarily asserted. It is a book that is intended to stir the pot, get people thinking creatively about the themes under discussion. It is not a dogmatic book, though Tennent's four part review obviously is a dogmatic review. Bell's book is about opening up discussion around vital areas of Christian teaching that are sometimes (in the author's opinion) hindering the Christian witness before the world. It is not a piece of indoctrination. It seems to be like anti-indoctrination — issues are often left open. At times the author's motives might be difficult to discern, since we are used to preachers practicing indoctrination. We are rarely invited to think about Scripture, ponder the meaning of the faith, and open our minds to its beauty and relevance for our time. Because Bell was poking at cherished doctrines — key to some people's very Christian identity — the response was incendiary. While it has been claimed that the book teaches universalism, it really doesn't. But, a bit of confusion is understandable, since (as I say) the book is not really a book of dogmatic teachings. And, some churches don’t even allow questions.
What did I find when I read Love Wins? I found a kind of C.-S.-Lewis-meets-N.-T.-Wright perspective. Since I appreciate both Lewis and Wright, I was fine with that. Yes, Bell has read Talbott's book arguing for universalism — we know this because he lists it in his anemic bibliography — and he gives a nod toward universalism — but he ultimately rejects it on the basis that (after all) love wins, and love will not impose its will on another. Oh, and he handles some Scriptures in a way that seems a bit questionable. That is about it. As I say, I like Wright and Lewis — and I have a certain fondness for the Eastern Orthodox perspective on the afterlife — so after I read the book I wondered what all the fuss was about.
As Jerry Walls says in the review that I posted the other day:
Bell makes it emphatically clear that love cannot be forced, that love can be rejected and perversely resisted, and if this is true now, it can be true in the life to come. This stubborn and harsh reality rules out any rosy or cheery confidence that all will be saved at the end of the day. He writes: “What we see in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (p. 79; see also pp 72, 103-105, 113-114, 117, 177).
That's the book I read.
But, Timothy C. Tennent, Ph.D apparently read a different book.
But, enough about that: let's get back into Tennent's more current review of Bell's more current book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
Tennent addresses (what he believes to be) key doctrines missing from both Love Wins and from Bell's current book. He, then, rounds this off by saying: "Several other key doctrines are ignored to the peril of his argument." What argument? This, again, tips us off that Tennent didn't understand the book for what it was. He implies that the author has "an argument" to advance in a disciplined and dogmatic way. Further (and this is more serious) it assumes that doctrines not mentioned are therefore not affirmed — or maybe denied altogether.
One of the annoying things (for a lot of us) about Bell's Love Wins book tour was the fact that he so often did not give direct answers to direct questions. He is really not a dogmatic guy who is seeking to impose his view of things on others. He clearly believes that Christians should be thinking about the vital issues of the faith together. So, if he has followers, one would most naturally expect that they would be people who think for themselves — and, by implication, would not take for granted everything Bell says either. (I’m reminded of the “you’ve got to work it out for yourselves” scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)
But, as I say, I really don't want to discuss Rob Bell. James Wellman has done a good job of outlining the contours of Bell's theology in the latter part of his book, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity. People who are curious about Bell's theology can check that out. Rob Bell's theology is very much a work in progress, but the Wellman book is the best attempt I know of to give an account of where he has been and where he is now. Wellman points out that Bell's theology is neither "liberal" or "conservative" in the usual senses. Nevertheless, Bell affirms the fundamental propositions of Christian orthodoxy.
But, that is another topic. The topic about which I am writing is Timothy C. Tennent.
And, I should say that books like Love Wins and What We Talk About When We Talk About God are not the kind of books that either Dr. Tennent or me are normally used to reading. Theological books are often long, challenging, books that teach the reader things s/he did not already know. They have footnotes citing support for the points they make. They have an extensive bibliography, not only demonstrating the breadth of the author's research, but also the resources that are available for further research.
Rob Bell's books are not theological books in that style. They are popular presentations of the Christian faith aimed at spiritual seekers, interested persons, as well as to those who in one way or another have been burned by evangelical Christianity. Speaking for myself, I wouldn't have read these books at all if it weren't for the controversy that surrounds them, and if it weren't for the fact that my wife found a spiritual home at the Mars Hill Bible Church at a time when the United Methodist Church became a hostile place for us.
So, yes, I read Love Wins. And, I read What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I don't find either of them to be revolutionary or heretical. They may be revolutionary to some people and I'm fine with that. But, I also hope those people do some further reading. Bell is just not a dogmatic guy. He is interested in provoking thought and exploration — and in saying a good word for Jesus. In the new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, he also puts in a good word for the Bible, suggesting a rudimentary historical hermeneutic (without using those words, of course).
So, what were the books that Timothy C. Tennent, Ph.D read? Apparently they were books designed to dismantle the evangelical faith.
Now we are getting to the true heart of Timothy C. Tennent's fears. He writes:
Bell seems to offer little to no resistance to the worst errors of tired old Protestant liberalism. Indeed, the adage by Richard Neibuhr about liberal Christianity is certainly true of Rob Bell’s writings: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Ah! Now, we have come to the true essence of Tennent's obsessions. Why do I say this? Because this is also the heart of his Clarion Call of 2011:
In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the message of Protestant liberalism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In the ensuing years Niebuhr’s statement has become one of the more well known summaries of the failure of Protestant liberalism to properly reflect the apostolic message. Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique is on the brink of being equally applicable to contemporary, evangelical Christianity. Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance and transformation at the feet of a crucified savior than today’s populistic, evangelical churches?
There is a common theme here. And, the implication is that Bell's book is teaching once again the tired and lifeless classical liberalism characterized in the Niebuhr quote. Bell is a stealth liberal. In fact, the Clarion Call sees these stealth agents of Scheiermacher & Ritschl everywhere. They may appear evangelical, but they are really advancing the cause of deadly classical liberalism. Really? Yes. He says this.
Could it be that Timothy Tennett objects to the idea of God's universal love for all people? That is possible, and in that case I recommend to him a reading of John Wesley's sermon entitled Free Grace. (Bell's book Love Wins, does, indeed, argue that God loves all people and will give all people a chance — whatever that might mean.)
But, if that is the case what is Timothy C. Tennent doing at the helm of a theological institution in the Wesleyan tradition? Since when were Wesleyans the advocates of limited atonement?
Nevertheless, this book continues the errors of his previous book and, in fact, extends them in new ways. It is not as easy to respond to What We Think About When We Think about God because it is not as carefully reasoned or argued as Love Wins. Instead, Bell shares a steady stream of personal experiences and stories which are used to frame the general argument of the book.
The argument Tennent mistakenly thought he found in the first book is even harder to find in the second. But, he has soldiered on! He is sure that Classical Liberalism is in there somewhere, and he is determined to find it.
This newly constructed religious structure of Bell no longer resembles New Testament Christianity, but it does generously borrow the language of Christianity to give this re-presentation the ballast it needs to get off the ground.
How can Tennent say this?
Tennent accuses Bell of denying the resurrection as an actual event. Tennent builds his case on very little.
As noted earlier, Bell tells the story of his own growing doubts about the credibility of the Resurrection (p. 12), and only brings it up again late in the book when he says, “In Jesus we see the God who bears the full brunt of our freedom, entering into the human story, carrying our pain and sorrow and sin and despair and denials of God and then, as the story goes, being resurrected three days later” (p. 145). Using the phrase, “as the story goes” leaves the reader with the impression that this is what Christians teach, rather than an historical event upon which the whole faith rises or falls. Either Bell no longer affirms the Resurrection or he has failed to understand its true significance.
This is a very serious charge! Anyone in the evangelical world knows that this is a make-or-break issue. Is Tennent reading too much into this? Of course he is. For one thing, I do not read Bell to be saying that his doubts that one Easter were about the resurrection per se — so much as they were doubts about the reality of God. Tennent has read into this that it was doubt about a particular Christian belief. But, Bell says it was doubt about the whole ball of wax (or some such phrase). And, certainly Bell has affirmed his belief in the resurrection in other contexts. It is hard for me to understand how Bell could believe in God's affirmation of our human, bodily life in this world now, if he doesn't believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus — that's how the logic of resurrection works. Whereas, a spiritual or it's-only-a-story resurrection nudges us in a more gnostic direction.
In Wellman's book we read:
For Bell, resurrection is an affirmation and confirmation of God becoming human in Jesus Christ. The resurrection validates and guarantees the hope and reality of the new creation that has started here and now — in this world — meaning that God's life is for this world. Bell documents the multiple appearances of Jesus toi the disciples after his crucifixion. he highlights the apostle Pauls's recollection of "hundreds of witnesses, even decades later, continuing to report that Jesus appeared to them in the flesh.
But, again, my point is not about Rob Bell, it is about Timothy C. Tennent. Where did he get the idea that Bell's new book denies the resurrection of Jesus, when in fact, that theological tenet lies at the heart of his this-world-and-this-life-affirming theology? He didn't get it from the book. He read it into the book! He found a denial of the resurrection in a book whose affirmation of life in this world is founded upon that very belief.
This is not just a misinterpretation. This is a vicious, unfounded attack on the author. Since belief in the resurrection lies at the heart of the Christian faith, it is a claim that Bell's theology must lie outside that faith — only borrowing Christian language to make it look Christian, in some superficial way.
Where did this idea come from? It came from Timothy C. Tennent's own imagination — an imagination in which the fundamentalist / modernist controversy never ended — and where the secret (possibly unknowing) forces of Schleiermacher and Ritschl are attacking from all sides. We must hold the fort or they will take over! (Wait a minute — is classical liberalism a weak and anemic form of Christianity or not? Does Tennent believe this or not? Why is this something to be feared, if the evangelicals have the message of a life changing, life-affirming Gospel? Why does such fear have to guide anyone’s thinking and judgement?)
The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy is the controlling myth through which Tennent sees everything. Anyone who doesn’t fit on his Fundamentalist side (the good guys) must therefore be a Modernist (Now say it together, class: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”)
The United Methodist Church still lives in the midst of this age-old struggle — and it is killing the church. People would rather see the denomination die than see their side lose power. The fundamentalist / modernist controversy — in its current guises — is a sickness that will continue to eat away at the mainline churches — until they either wake up or die.
Don’t let his smile fool you. Timothy C. Tennent’s perspective is poison for the Church.
But, this old struggle is not the essence of what is going on in the larger world of the Church. There are some who want to hear the message of faith anew — to hear the Scriptures afresh without necessarily being bound to old formulations. They are not denying them — they want to re-discover them again. They want to find fresh light and life in the Word. They want to be able to explore and learn creatively — to see if God has a word that can be freshly re-appropriated for our day.
Further along, Timothy C. Tennent says that Bell "does not call us to carefully study and submit to God’s revelation in Scripture." Again, this is something Tennent has read into the book that is not there. In fact, Bell attempts to show how the Bible does relate — how it can be read against its own history to give us direction forward. Tennent seems not to know that Bell founded a church called the Mars Hill Bible Church, where one of his early sermon series was a walk through the book of Leviticus. He has spent years preaching and expounding the Bible. Why would he now be encouraging people to shy away from it? He has not been advocating a “watered down” Christianity, but rather a Christianity which is open to hearing God’s Word in Scripture anew.
Again, Tennent is reading this into the book. It is a ridiculous and unfounded attack.
All right, all right, this has gone on much too long. But, I am very, very angry with this man for deliberately fomenting misinterpretation and misrepresentation of others to further his own (foolish) theory about the church.
If he were just a faculty member at ATS that would be one thing. He represents the school. That is really a shame. He certainly does not represent me.
(And, if there is anyone who is reading this who is on social media and is following me — please do not ever cite this man to me as an authority on anything!)
What is a bad book review? A bad book review is one that tells us more about the author of the review than it does about the book and its author. Such is the case with Timothy Tennent's reviews of Rob Bell's books. They tell us nothing of Bell (and if you care about that, read Wellman) but they tell us a lot about the imagination and obsessions and fears of Timothy Tennent.
I am not ashamed of my education at Asbury Theological Seminary. I am ashamed of its current president.
Evangelical is not supposed to mean narrow minded, intolerant, suspicious and judgmental. These are not the values of the Kingdom.
The God I know through Jesus Christ is not like the God of Timothy Tennent. The God I know does not come to us to confirm our narrow prejudices and pre-conceptions. The God I know in Christ explodes our previous ideas and teaches us to think in new ways that reflect His own Kingdom values. We learn from those who have gone before us — but we also need to carry the task forward — to look at the meaning of the faith afresh and anew. The God we know through Christ does not invite us into a world dominated by fear and mistrust and suspicion.
Timothy C. Tennent, Ph.D needs to allow himself to be discovered by that God.
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