Trampoline vs. Brickworld
The opposite of Bell’s trampoline metaphor of faith is what he calls “brickworld”. In brickworld, “you spend a lot of time talking about how right you are. Which of course leads to how wrong everybody else is. Which then leads to defending the wall.” In describing the structure of Brickworld Bell says,
“… a brick is fixed in size. It can’t flex or change, because if it does, then it can’t fit into the wall. What happens then is that the wall becomes the sum total of the beliefs, and God becomes as big as the wall. But God is bigger than any wall. God is bigger than any religion. God is bigger than any worldview. God is bigger than the Christian faith.”
The trouble with these metaphors is that they too narrowly imagine the spectrum of belief. They unfairly characterize them as polar opposites, and as such there is an impression that these are the only two options. You either have a flexible faith where everything can be – or should be – constantly questioned or you are an arrogant theological blowhard with set beliefs and positions that you are not willing to change – ever!
That segment of Christianity does exist, but it certainly is not the only alternative to the trampoline metaphor of faith. Bell’s dissatisfaction with some modern theological systems is understandable and something I share, but substituting a postmodern thought system for one of many faulty modern ones is only replacing bricks with water – one can’t changed, the other can never be pinned down.
In effect, Bell exchanges the hope of authoritative interpretation for the liberty of extreme personal interpretation. Forget the centuries of belief and wrestling with the Holy Spirit that brought about many of our doctrines. Not, as he clarifies, that he doesn’t believe in them but are they really THAT important? This hedging of the bet is not effective in this situation. If certain doctrines turn out not to be true after all, a great many things will change.
Bell affirms his belief in the virgin birth and the trinity, but of what possible value can this affirmation be? If he doesn’t consider it essential to our faith, why should we care that he says he believes? What are the criteria for setting the things that ARE essential? Is there ANYTHING that IS essential?
There is a way to minister to postmoderns but it is not by adopting the philosophy of relative truth and individual interpretation and offering them a theology that values pragmatism (what works) over clarity (what’s true). As much as anyone, I am overjoyed when “what works” and “what’s true” are the same thing, but that isn’t always the case. A great weakness of liberalism is that it imposes 21st century political correctness on the gospels and by doing so robs the gospel of much of its power. It avoids the reality that the content of the Gospels offends the rich and the poor alike, and does so on the grounds that we are all sinners.
We cannot offer people a “what works for them at the moment” in place of a “God has said” and expect them to see God. Christianity might work for them for a time but if it’s working primarily on their terms it will fall away as soon as those terms are offended.
Eric Wyatt is a smart guy I know. He said:
Christ wasn’t a self-help guru for the Jews. Even less so is Christ the self-help answer for the post-modern era. Following Christ will change your outlook, not your luck. Yes, the Father wants to give His children what is good for them, but what He considers truly “good” often has nothing to do with what we think is good.
Words, words, words
In today’s religious and political climate, the word “Christian” deservedly carries a lot of baggage. But let’s not kill the carrier at the expense having him drop that baggage. The way to rid the word of baggage is to do simply that – go after the baggage. We need to contextualize in a way that gets into people’s cultural baggage and shows them that the gospel is versatile enough to lighten their load, not in a way that attempts to adapt the gospel to their baggage.
Half of my generation, anyone who grew up in the church anyway, is so totally burnt out on information (theological and otherwise) that many of us have this sinking feeling that if so many people passionately believe so many opposing positions that there must not be objective truth. In short – we don’t know whom to trust. The other half of my generation is so theologically illiterate they can’t tell the difference between clear truth and obvious error and are thus easily led away from the truth.
The trampoline metaphor seems to place all doctrine on equal footing and therefore of equal “take it or leave it” value. Can each person’s Christianity be so radically different, like a choose-your-own-adventure story?
What it says, or what you think it says?
On page 54 Bell advises:
When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true. They are telling you what they think it means. They are giving their opinions of the Bible… The problem is, it is not true.
This is paradoxical to say the least as Bell then proceeds to tell us what the Bible actually does say about a great number of things. If he tells us unequivocally that something is “just not true”, is he claiming to know what IS true and what the Bible really IS saying… and if he is, isn’t it just his opinion? Isn’t it just what he THINKS it means?
The questions that follow are obvious:
Is his opinion truer than everyone else’s?
Should we approach his teachings with the same skepticism he’s just advised to approach everyone else’s teachings with?
On what authority does he claim that his “opinions” are any more valid than everyone else’s?
Is it all relative?
This is part 4 of 5 in the series Smashing Brickworld. Go to Part 5.
Go to the series index page. This page contains other links and the option to download the series in one Word of PDF file.