A few — a very few — people you get to know in life are larger than life. The force of their character seems to enlarge a room when they walk into it. Of course, larger than life people can either be “black holes” that suck everything and everybody into themselves — you get smaller because they’re there. Or they can be “suns” that make everything and everybody else shine brighter — you get larger because they’re there.
Bob Webber was larger than life in the latter sense. He went on to glory this spring, and I’ve spent a lot of quiet time this summer parsing his passing. He made me shine brighter and feel larger, and I’ve been trying to understand why.
A lot of what made Webber an enlargingly large presence comes to light in the last book that was “in the pipeline” before he became ill, Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspectives (Zondervan, 2007). (Happily, during his illness, Bob was able to write quite a bit, and so this is not the last book we will see.) I’d like to offer some observations (reader beware: this is not a review … so not only will you be spared any ending-spoiling revelations, you’ll also be spoiled any real plot analysis … suffice it to say, Webber assembles essays on theological concerns by “emergent” leaders, from right to left: Mark Driscoll, John Burke, Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, and Karen Ward).
To begin, there’s the existence of the book itself. Listening bespeaks the “Blues Brothers” heart of Bob Webber. Jake and Elwood Blues didn’t get the band together because they wanted to hear themselves play — they got the band together because God gave them a mission to save the orphanage. In the latter part of his career Bob Webber spent an exceptional amount of his energy giving voice to a future generation. He put together the Institute for Worship Studies so ministers of music could receive doctoral training in theology. He launched the Ancient-Future series (Faith, Time, Evangelism) so we might all learn from the post-apostolic church. And he wrote two books that were explicitly about hearing from voices of a generation following his own, The Younger Evangelicals (Baker, 2002) and Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches. In this last book, especially, the breadth of Webber’s spirit comes to expression. It takes a guy who could graduate from Bob Jones and spend his early teaching days at Covenant College & Seminary to appreciate what a Bible-bullet shooting (and “emergent” label eschewing) Mark Driscoll contributes to the emergent conversation. And it takes a guy who has come to learn from feminine voices and to prize African Americans’ experiences to make sure Episcopal priest (and congregant-quoting, theology-as-recipe-quipping) Karen Ward is part of the conversation. It’s amazing to me how persistent Bob was in his belief that discordant voices in the body of Christ will ultimately yield harmony — to him, first and last, the body of Christ is the body of Christ. I love him for that..
To follow this last comment, Bob Webber keeps calling us to see “both/and” where we are inclined to see “either/or.” Emerging from the inharmonious voices of Listening are three desiderata of my own:
First, I want a view of Scripture that is as bold and bracing in its formal acceptance of the authority of Scripture as I see in Driscoll, Burke, and Kimball (voices more to the right and center) — and I want a view of Scripture that is as bold and bracing in its functional submission to the authority of Scripture as I see in the way Pagitt tells Scripture’s story in his argumentation and in the way Ward presses Scripture into the people under her care in the liturgy at her church (voices further to the left).
Second (a “both/and/and” that sort of emerges from the previous point), I want a style of doing theology that is a bit of a mix of all five of these writers. Despite the tensions that necessarily emerge, we need a perichoresis (to use an early church term that means something like “dance”) between three ways of thinking and being. To borrow from my friend and colleague John Frame, I long to see a Trinitarian way of being theologians:
- as existential/personal/candid as at least 4 of these 5 seek to be, and
- as attentive to the cultural/social situation as, say Pagitt and Ward, try to be, and
- as unapologetically submitted to the authority of Scripture and the creeds as each of these tries to be in his or her own way.
Third (also, a “both/and/and”), I wish we could agree that the atonement is not either Driscoll’s & Burke’s (and I think Kimball’s) substitutionary model (taking care of the guilt of violating God’s commandments and invoking his wrath) or Pagitt’s and Ward’s relational at-one-ment model (God-moving-towards-us to remove our alienation and shame), but is precisely both these because of a third dimension of the atonement. Christ is, as Bob Webber says, “victor over the powers of evil — the powers that were bound at the temptation, dethroned at the cross, and to be destroyed at the end of history” (p. 215, emphasis mine). Three wonderful benefits accrue to us at the cross, Jesus substitutes his righteousness for our unrighteousness so we are no longer guilty, Jesus embraces us in our woundedness and reorients us in our shame to his love and to love of neighbor, and Jesus inaugurates the glorious Kingdom he empowers us to actualize in his name. We are silly to settle for less than the full package.
One final word of thanks for what made Bob Webber enlargingly large: it was the way he bore in his being the “eternal weight of glory” for which he was being prepared. Bob was a Jesus-soaked man. And it was the full Jesus, the one who was book-ended by two exquisite musical selections at Bob’s memorial services: the rejected, emaciated, sinner-loving Jesus of the “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem, and the triumphant, one-day-to-return, sinner-saving Jesus of the “Hallelujah, Amen!” from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus.