David Crowder & Rob Bell: Fantastical Worship and Atonement Lenses

Update: The conversation continues, both below & in the comments at Bob Kauflin’s blog. Please be courteous if you decide to comment over there. 🙂

So I wasn’t at the David Crowder Band-hosted Fantastical Church Music Conference held at Baylor earlier this month, but apparently it created quite a stir. For one thing, it brought together a diverse group of people: Gugnor and Paper Route and Bifrost Arts and Mike Crawford and Welcome Wagon and David Dark and Derek Webb and the Civil Wars (!), alongside CCM worship music stalwarts like Matt Redman, Israel Houghton and Hillsongs London (along with preacher/producer scribe Louie Giglio). But amidst this celebration of aural diversity, there was apparently one voice who was the wrong kind of diversity for some folks: Rob Bell. Quoth Christianity Today:

On Friday morning Rob Bell challenged his audience to drop “blood guilt” and “three-tiered universe” metaphors in their songwriting. He said we needed metaphors that connected to people today. Plenty of people in North America, he said, feel an aching sense of loss of home and we need songs that offer Christ as their true home.

(In the comments section, someone who also attended the conference clarified that Bell didn’t suggest that anyone ‘drop’ blood metaphors, but rather to not solely rely on them.) Are there better ways to think and sing about our universe? Better ways to celebrate the meaning of Jesus? Can I get an “amen”?

Apparently not, from some quarters.

People of Destiny Sovereign Grace worship leader Bob Kauflin expresses concern on his blog:

While I appreciate relevance and clear communication, developing our own metaphors for the atonement potentially undermines and distorts the gospel. Yes, it’s important to recognize and communicate the vast and multiple effects of Christ’s death and the resurrection, and yes, Christians can overemphasize theological precision and definition at the expense of actually communicating the good news. But every description of Christ’s work on the cross is connected to our need to be forgiven by and reconciled to a holy God. If we fail to communicate this, we have failed to proclaim the biblical gospel…all metaphors for the atonement are ultimately grounded in penal substitution…[emphasis mine]

One of his comment-ers, Clarice, asked:

On Bell and “metaphors”: I’m not totally clear on what Bell is talking about with metaphors of the atonement…that sounds really abstract and confusing to me. 🙂 Does he mean stuff like Galatians 4, Hagar and Sarah, or…?

To which I replied: “Hi Clarice [which can’t help but make me think of Hannibal] – in my opinion, language about atonement (and really, language about ‘God’ in general) is metahphorical in the sense that it is not a 1:1 depiction of the grandeur, majesty, and mystery of God. So: We speak of Jesus’ death as a ‘sacrifice’ for our sins; our Reformed brethren (like Bob here) will likely refer to it as a sacrifice of the Son *unto the Father* for our sins – but these are metaphorical in the sense that Jesus wasn’t literally led to a consecrated altar, and sacrificed before His Father. (We might, indeed, condemn such gross literalism as child sacrifice, which YHWH condemns!) And so historic Christianity has seen this as a way of speaking about the meaning of atonement – one that approximates, but can never fully compass, its meaning.

This doesn’t mean that other atonement metaphors carry more privilege. Pentecostals and charismatics like me in my growing-up years always historically emphasized a ‘ransom’ metaphor of atonement – Jesus rescuing us from the tyranny of the world, the flesh, and the devil. More recently, many of us in what some call the emerging church conversation appreciate NT Wright’s retrieval of the ‘Christus Victor’ model (or metaphor) of atonement, wherein the Father vindicates the goodness and perfect obedience of the Son vis-a-vis bodily resurrection, proclaiming victory over death, and the principalities and powers. Still others, in Quaker and Anabaptist and Girardian schools, rightly empathize the ironic nature of Jesus ‘sacrifice’ as a repudiation of all violence.

While I wasn’t at the Fantastical conference, my guess is that Bell wasn’t suggesting that songwriters make up new metaphors ‘cold turkey,’ but create them in continuity with the great tradition of historic Christianity, giving ourselves the same permission the biblical writers had to seek the Spirit afresh and interpret Gospel goodness to those in our time and place. Because let’s face it, the author of Hebrews is right – Jesus Christ was the final sacrifice! Because of this, sacrifice and blood guilt terminology is a Jesus-authored anachronism, something that no longer makes sense 2,000 years later. Jesus has triumphed over sacrifice once and for all – and our worship should move on accordingly.
To explore more of the sacrifice metaphors of Scripture, I’d recommend Scot McKnight’s ‘A Community Called Atonement,’ as well as atonement links I’ve catologued on Delicious. Grace & peace to you!”

It wasn’t all controversy, though. In addition to great music, some good theologizing about music happened, including this snipped that Bob also blogs about:

At one point I quoted Harold Best: “All our musical offerings are at once humbled and exalted by the strong saving work of Christ.” We touched on how our singing is not something we originate, but flows from the relationships of the triune God who sings (Zeph. 3:17; Heb. 2:12; Eph. 5:18-19). We sing because God sings and we’ve been made in his image. I never got to mention it on the panel, but a very helpful book on the Trinity is The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything by Fred Sanders.

As someone who’s part of a new church plant in Raleigh called Trinity’s Place, that sounds good to me!

As part of my ongoing interest in the songs we sing and the God this reflects, I’ll hopefully be reviewing some contemporary worship offerings this Fall – ranging from the New Hymns movement to shoegazing emergence music and slam poetry. If you’re an independent worship artist or church who’d like their music to be considered for review, contact me via the comments section of this post.

Soli sapienti Deo!

15 Responses to David Crowder & Rob Bell: Fantastical Worship and Atonement Lenses

  1. jeffcstraka October 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    Enlightening post, Mike! I was at a Bishop Spong lecture a couple of weeks ago where he said EXACTLY what Rob Bell is saying, both on the penal atonement AND the three-tier “universe” usage in worship! And likewise, Spong is not asking to do away with the old songs and creeds but rather to see them as a place in our history (how people saw God/Jesus in their time and context. But his point (and Bell’s) is that we desperately need new songs that reflect our changing understanding of God and the universe. The thing that continues to be articulated in our current lyrics is an implication of a God “out/up there” and not “down/in here” – we need more songs reflecting a panentheistic/contemplative theology!

    I did see that Mike Crawford of Jacob’s Well in KCMO (http://mikecrawfordmusic.com/) was a presenter at the conference, so that is encouraging to see an emergent-esque artist participate! It would have been even MORE awesome to have had Ryan and Holly Sharp there!

    Judging by the comments on Bob Kauflin’s blog, the “hipster/relevant” evangelicals are not ready or willing to negotiate on their staid theology, even in song! Perhaps we are witnessing the beginnings of a “parting of ways” with Bell and the evangelicals (though I was kind of surprised to see Francis Chan doing some stuff with http://flannel.org/). I’m sure by now Bell is feeling the “Rosa Parks” in him telling him to be true to his inner calling.

  2. zoecarnate October 11, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    Very true, Jeff. And while Spong’s a bit too much to the left-for-left’s sake for me (much like JI Packer would be the converse), I can definitely appreciate what he’s saying here. I’d love to see more ‘deep incarnational’/contemplative/panentheistic worship, where even the tonality is designed to put the singers in a deeper state of consciousness (we might do well starting with the music of Hildegard von Bingen).

    There’s nothing I can say publicly about Rob, except that you’re right. 🙂 That, and Flannel is an independent company, not owned/ran by Bell or Mars Hill or anything, so they shoot who they please, video-wise. Their contract with Rob ran out awhile back. They’ll be doing no more NOOMAs.

  3. jeffcstraka October 12, 2010 at 12:08 am #

    I don’t know if you read Spong’s latest book, “Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell” or heard him speak in a while but he seems to have toned down the corrosive rhetoric and is sounding more like a wise mystic. It was so cool to see that his portrait was placed in the “Hall of Profits” at the MLK Jr. Chapel at Morehouse College after his talk there on “Religious Victimization: Are Sexuality and gender the Basis of a New Segregation?”. See http://baileysbuddy.blogspot.com/2010/09/bishop-spong-honored.html

  4. Ed Cyzewski October 12, 2010 at 1:54 am #

    Bell’s plea for different metaphors makes a ton of sense, especially since there are so many worship songs that recycle old lyrics. Fresh imagery and metaphors, especially other ones found in the Bible seem to connect well with the creator God we find in the scriptures. Thanks for weighing in here with some constructive thoughts.

  5. centenaryumcyouth October 12, 2010 at 2:01 am #

    You seem surprised that the Civil Wars would be part of the conference but Joy Williams has written songs for CCM people for most of her career — in fact, unless I’m mistaken, the Civil Wars is a side project for her songwriting career.

  6. centenaryumcyouth October 12, 2010 at 2:07 am #

    “While I appreciate relevance and clear communication, developing our own metaphors for the atonement potentially undermines and distorts the gospel.”

    Where in the world does this writer think that the other metaphors for the atonement came from? Does he think that guys like Gustav Aulen (and Gregory of Nyssa before him), Anselm and Abelard were sitting with a handbook of evangelical theology in front of them when they were expressing their own metaphors for the atonement?

    This is all making me cranky…

  7. Susan Phillips October 12, 2010 at 5:16 pm #

    Metaphors are powerful because they surprise us with their juxtapositions. When the juxtapositions no longer surprise us, the metaphor has died — it no longer has power to inspire, convict, transform or move us. This is why we need to dig into our biblical tradition and recover other metaphors (we’ve forgotten or never known), so that through other words/images we might find ourselves drawn closer to the Holy.

    G-d as midwife, as baker, as both scapegoat and sacrifice, as mother hen, to whom all creation sings praise are but a few examples! Just because certain metaphors worked for hymn writers of the 17th century, doesn’t mean we can’t sing different ones in just as faithful a key.


  8. Eric October 13, 2010 at 12:31 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for linking onto this from your facebook page. Neat to following the convo.

    For a more theological corrective to Bob Kauflin’s statement – “all metaphors for the atonement are ultimately grounded in penal substitution” – please see the following article that I found challenging (given that I was limiting my soteriology to the cross only in a penal atonement kind of way!) and also returning me to the original texts in Paul about this matter:

    “Christ as Bearer of Divine Judgment in Paul’s Thought about the Atonement”, by Stephen H. Travis
    pages 332-343 in the book:
    “Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ” Editors Joel Green & Max Turner, 1994 Eerdmans publishing

    I quote a part of his conclusion, here:
    “…Paul says that [Christ] entered into and bore on our behalf the destructive consequences of sin. Standing where we stand, he bore the consequences of our alienation from God. IN so doing, he absorbed and exhausted them, so that they should not fall on us. It is both true and important to say that he ‘was judged in our place’ – that he experienced divine judgment on sin in the sense that he endured the God-ordained consequences of human sinfulness. But this is not the same as to say that he broe our punishment…. Paul’s primary category for understanding salvation and condemnation is that of relationship or nonrelationship with God.”

  9. Apple October 19, 2010 at 5:13 am #

    When I was a little girl, I would make up songs about Jesus and God while I was working. I still think about those special songs. Now I use songs that I know like, country songs and make them fit like that too.

  10. Tim Coons October 26, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I’m a songwriter and worship leader out of Colorado. I saw the line up for this conference in the summer and was sick to my stomach I couldn’t make it. In a word it looked to be “fantastical”.

    Thanks for your article. I’m continuously surprised by the walls built and lines drawn when it comes to communication of the gospel and/or who God is. People are ok to say God is mysterious, yet when a song is written that isn’t saying the same 5 or 6 things that every other worship song says it’s somehow shocking and dangerous. In my experience the best art explores, pushes, is refreshing, and causes people to have an interaction with it… and even a sense of bringing some of their own interpretation to it. Great art has depth and presses beyond the flat 2-dimension of “let me tell you everything here”.

    Here is where I find the mindset and value-set of the dogmatic theologian to be quite different from the mystic artist. One works in black and white, the other in 1,000 grays. I’m certain there’s a balance there somewhere.

    You had mentioned in your article that you’ll be doing reviews this fall of worship music. My last project was produced by “Enter the Worship Circle” and I would love to send you some copies! I sent you an email. If you pass back an address I will put it in the mail.

    Much love,

  11. Jill November 3, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    I enjoyed reading your article and reading the conversations. I think that the old songs are great and do not need to be added to. It is hard enough to make them become apart of our lives and live them.

  12. brambonius November 6, 2010 at 10:15 am #

    you are all heretics and probably chosen by God to be predestined for eternal doom from before the foundation of the world… God only punished his son to death to be able to forgive others, not you. sorry…

    (just kidding)

    Important discussion! Going to read the other blog now…

  13. Mike Morrell November 6, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    LOL, Bram!

  14. brambonius November 6, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    It’s not funny that some people really think that way. It might be a caricature of the real theology, but still very annoying when people express something like that…

    But it’s kinda irrelevant I guess… And my reaction on my blog you’ve alreday found…


  1. Rob Bell on atonement or the bible versus (reformed) tradition | Brambonius' blog in english - November 6, 2010

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