Critiquing Rob Bell’s Analogy of the Trampoline Spring

Posted: May 4, 2010 by Josiah Batten in Book Reviews, Current Issues, Emerging Church
Tags: , , , , , ,

As I have made very clear many times, I am not supportive of the Emergent Church in regards to their attempts at remaking Christian doctrine.  Even so, I try very hard to read books by the leaders of the movement so I can fully understand it. 

Rob Bell isn’t truly Emergent, but he is incredibly influential within it.  By that I mean he is often referenced and cited as an authoritiative voice by Emergents.

I don’t dislike Rob Bell, though as I’ve said in the past I think he has some cooky ideas (which he may be backing away from, much to my delight).  Even so in <i>Velvet Elvis</i>, Bell presents this idea that we treat theology like a brick wall when it should be treated like a trampoline.  This is a type of analogical reasoning (indeed, analogical reasoning from the work of an artist to the work of the church inspired the whole book), that is, Bell is saying theology and doctrine are relevantly similar to both brick walls and trampolines.  And as such these relevently similar aspects of trampolines and brick walls can be extrapolated and used to draw conclusions about theology.

Bell’s basic extrapolation is this:  Brick walls are basically defensive and used to protect us, if even one brick is missing, the whole wall will collapse.  And again, trampolines are flexible, they bend and stretch and each spring supporting the trampoline may be removed without much consequence on the trampoline and its function.  Thus, there are people with theology like a brick wall, it’s neat and organized and systematic, and if even one doctrine is compromised the whole wall collapses.  Likewise, Bell says our theology should be like a trampoline.  It should be flexible, questionable, we should be able to remove some doctrines without much consequence. 

At face value this seems like a good idea.  But upon examination the flaws of this type of analogical reasoning are readily apparent.  First, the idea that a brick wall will collapse with even one missing block is absurd.  Bell must have never played with Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs or Jenga Blocks.  While it is true with certain structures that a specific piece will be so important that the whole structure collapses without it, it isn’t true with every structure.  I’ve built many things out of Legos and blocks that could survive quite well even if several pieces were missing.  In fact, I can design Lego and block structures to have gaps in them. 

The point is, our theology and doctrine isn’t exactly like a brick wall, and even if it were we wouldn’t be permitted to draw the conclusions Bell draws.  There are certain things in my theology I could lose, middle knowledge, for example.  If the doctrine of middle knowledge were shown to be false it would have a very minimal impact on my theology.  Other doctrines, like the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, would cause the complete collapse of my theology if it were false.  Not every “brick” in my wall is as important as the other, and not every one occupies a strategic location that could cause the collapse of the whole structure.  At the same time, some beliefs are the very foundation of my faith, and without those beliefs my faith does not exist in any recognizable way. 

I also want to address the idea that a trampoline insolates us from what Bell views as the weaknesses of the wall.  Bell says that doctrines are the springs of the trampoline, and that some of them are expendable and all of them are stretchable.  They allow us to jump high and have fun while not being too restrictive. 

There are several problems with this analogy.  First, the springs on a trampoline are all of equal importance (or roughly equal importance).  For the most part they all bear the same amount of weight and undergo the same amount of stress with each jump.  This is not the case with doctrine.  There are clearly doctrines that are more important then other doctrines.  The two analogies are not relevantly similar.  Secondly, the idea that certain doctrines (springs) can be eliminated without consequence is false.  If a spring breaks, the trampoline is not safe.  It may still work as long as you stay away from the exposed area, but if you go too close to the spot without a spring you can fall through and break your leg.  Unlike a wall, a spring on a trampoline is vital, because all springs are of equal importance.  Secondly, while it may be possible to survive with the loss of one spring, the cumulative effect of the lose of many springs would impair the ability of the trampoline to function at all.  Maybe one or two springs can be lost; but if several are lost then the trampoline is not only dangerous but ineffective.  The springs hold the trampoline up and are vital to its function. 

Now there is an exception to what I said, namely, if a trampoline had many more springs then a traditional trampoline.  If a trampoline had say, 100 springs, instead of 50 (without an increase in the size or diameter of the trampoline), then more springs would be expendable.  But if the trampoline and doctrine are relevently similar then Bell would have to accept many more doctrines then he presently does and to hold that all of them are of equal importance.  This would be an absurd position, no body thinks that being premillennial or amillennial in eschatology is of equal importance to belief in the Resurrection of Christ.  Not to mention, if too many springs are added they will require more force to make them all budge and expand and as such Bell is stuck with the very rigid doctrine that he is trying to avoid. 

Given this I think it’s safe to conclude that Bell’s analogy of the trampoline is not relevantly similar to doctrine.  If this is the best argument advocates of post-modernism have for adopting their views and applying them to theology then I’m not concerned in the least.  The problem is not close-mindedness among orthodox Evangelicals, but absurdities in reasoning among those advocating major revisions of our doctrine. 

God bless!

  1. Señor Jefe says:

    I am presently re-reading Velvet Elvis. While doing a google search about the whole brick wall vs. trampoline analogy, I stumbled on your critique.

    I found it amusing how much thought you put into the specific logistics of an analogy that promotes freedom of approach. It may not be a perfect analogy. But isn’t that kind-of the point?

  2. sweetswede says:

    Thanks, for coming by Senor Jefe.

    I get your point. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Obviously it is true that this is not a perfect analogy. If there were perfect examples than I guess we wouldn’t need analogies.

    I put a lot of thought into this for two reasons: 1. Bell is making an argument from analogy, and since he is making an argument the argument should be subjected to the logical rigor all arguments from analogy are subjected to, and 2. Bell’s analogy serves as the sort of foundation for the whole book, so while it is only one analogy, it’s a very important one.

    My main point was just to show that doctrine is not the way Bell describes it. Yet, that doctrine is that way is the whole basis for his book and his exhortation to “re-paint” the Christian faith. So I viewed it as an argument and gave it the treatment any argument from analogy should be given.

    God bless!

  3. First of all, I think the fact that we can argue this point lends credence to Rob Bell’s point. The flexability of doctrine in this very matter is much more trampoline than brick wall.

    I recently had the chance to have lunch with Rob; my brother works at and attends his church, and I spoke with him on this very matter. He said he wished he’d expanded more on this and included, in summary, this:

    The point I left out was that a trampoline isn’t just a mat and springs, but has more important legs and a frame and a protective net. Christ’s cause is the frame and things like the reserection and death, the innocence of Christ, and Christ’s deity are the legs, salvation is the net.

    That’s a rough paraphrase, but the point remains. I’d love to hear your comments.

    In Christ,
    Brennan Ritchie

    P.S. I’d love to keep in contact on Twitter, @BrennanRitchie9 if you’re interested.

  4. sweetswede says:

    Thank you Brennan! I really appreciate you sharing that.

    If I had been given that understanding when I read the book, this critique would have been much more approving. Honestly I liked a good deal of what Bell said in “Velvet Elvis”, but certain points like this one concerned me. But given this new information I’m happy to admit much of my critique probably misunderstood Bell’s point.

    I can accept this frame/net/legs addition. Certainly some doctrinal issues are like springs that we have room to bend on (e.g.- like Calvinism/Arminianism). While others (like the resurrection and other things you mentioned) are the legs that are more rigid and central to the whole structure.

    I’m happy to learn that Bell said that.

    God bless!

    P.S. -I’m not on Twitter, I know, that’s an egregious sin 🙂

  5. […] these doctrines and concepts also springs, open for […]

  6. Interesting take on the analogy. I just heard someone talking about Rob Bell’s trampoline, and that prompted me to google it. Hence I’m here now. Good stuff. If you ever do join twitter, follow me @JoelSettecase.

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