Mar 16, 2011

Rob Bell Reveals His True Colors

If you have been connected to social networks like Facebook or Twitter or watch trendy news programs like "Good Morning America", you have probably heard a brouhaha that has arisen in the evangelical world over the release of Rob Bell's new book "Love Wins".  (I would link to it, but I don't want to encourage anyone right now to actually read it."  A few weeks ago the buzz started on Twitter as several popular pastors and bloggers like John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Denny Burk began to react to the release statement and video that Bell shared about his new book.  In the video, Bell hinted at questions that suggest that he doesn't believe in the existence of a literal hell where God's wrath of sin will be poured out for eternity and that he rejects the idea that the vast majority of humanity will spend eternity there for rejecting God.  While I don't have time or space in this post to share some of my reactions (I hope to do so later), I did want to help those who follow me to know a little about it.  Let me be clear and fair, I have not read Bell's book yet.  I cannot post a critical review of it here and do not intend to.  However, I value men like Kevin DeYoung and Denny Burk and their reviews give me a good idea of the content of the book. 

Up until last month, most church members in the traditional evangelical world had probably never heard of Rob Bell.  I bet there were less than 10 members of my small church that have heard of him.  Rob is a gifted and passionate communicator who leads a church called Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, MI.  From the beginning, Rob's primary associations were with leaders of the Emerging Church (like Brian McClaren and Tony Jones) and he became one of their rising stars.  He has in recent years tried to distance himself from that moniker.  However, it is apparent that he is closely identified with the liberal, neo-orthodox steam of that movement.  I first saw Rob at a Catalyst Conference years ago.  He spoke very eloquently on the Jews and prayer and intimacy.  It was obvious that he was a creative communicator.  It was also obvious that he was more interested in the mystical elements of the faith and not too concerned with exegetical accuracy.  One of the tenents of the emerging church is a rejection of foundationalism and the authority of Scripture.  They reject the idea of preaching and prefer to talk about "conversation".  Rob's style fits this very well.  He loves to preach from the standpoint of "questions" and painting in theological abstracts.  This is classic post-modernism. 

Rob's youth, artistic eye, and passion helped him secure a video deal with Zondervan to produce a series of videos called "Nooma" which are short films where Rob tries to deal with theological streams and abstract Christian ideas.  The acting, music, and camera work in the videos appeal to older teenagers and young adults.  Their lack of theological certainties are very appealing to a generation of 20-somethings whose nature is to reject heritage and try to forge their own paths.  I saw Rob preach again at Catalyst 2 years ago and was disappointed in his message.  His recent revelation about his views on hell and salvation are really not a surprise to those of us in the evangelical world who have watched him for the last 4 years.  I think Rob has a good deal of narcissism and enjoys the controversy because it sells books and attracts people who want little theological certainty to his church.  He's in an area of the country that has long lacked in strong evangelical churches.  Rob is building his movement on the backs of people that want benefits of heaven without the personal accountability for their sin. 

I have longs said that just because you can amass a crowd doesn't mean that you have a church.  Bell is the latest person to validate that belief.  I really do like Bell and his personality.  I think as a communicator I can learn a lot from Bell's ability to connect with an audience.  I admire his compassion for people.  He has a very attractive sense of humor and uses wit and sarcasm very effectively.  However, his theological beliefs scare me.  They scare me because he has gathered an audience because of his trendy books so far (Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians).  I give "kudos" to Zondervan for dropping him as a publisher.  However, there will always be publishers that are far more concerned with book sales than theological accuracy.  He rebounded to find Harper Collins quickly and found someone who values currency more than heresy. 

Last night, I saw a post to this interview that MSNBC's Martin Bashir did with Bell.  I think even though Bashir is a secular journalist, he does a great job pressing Bell on his theological ideology.  As you watch the video, notice how Bell seems to squirm when pressed and never really gives clear answers to the questions.  This is classic Emerging Church uncertainty.

Here are some thoughts:
1.  Bell never really answers the question about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.  His theological foundation doesn't allow him to choose between whether God is "all-powerful" or "all-loving" - which he is both.
2.  "When we shed a tear, God sheds a tear." - Is Bell suggesting that God's compassion is ruled by our human emotions?  Can he reconcile this God with Jesus lament over Jerusalem's unrepentance when they didn't seem to shed any tears over their condition?
3.  Is salvation and "the dominant story of the Bible" really wrapped up in that God "is going to fix this place"? 
4.  I absolutely love how Bashir exposes Bell's ultimate theological flaw about the relevance of choosing Christ in this life.  While Bell may want to espouse the pollyanna belief that talking about God's love will win over people, he doesn't seem to grasp that the foundational problem of humanity is "idolatry" and the rejection of God's love in favor of the loves of 1000 lesser lovers.  The problem with Adam and Eve wasn't that they didn't experience God's love.  They experienced to a level that nobody on earth since has.  Their problem was that in their hearts, they exchanged God's love for the fruit that would make them "like God."
5.  I love Bashir's comment that "you are asking for it both ways."  He also has a great comment when Bell says he doesn't want to speculate about what happens after death by showing that Bell's whole book is founded on that premise.  He says "you're the one who is speculating about the afterlife."
6.  Bell says he believes our decision to trust Jesus in this life has "tremendous bearing", but never explains it and then tries to shift to question to a woman's inability to trust Jesus because she was abused by a pastor.  If he really knew theology, he would be able to point that woman to the fact that no matter how strong the love of God, there are people (including pastors) who choose to follow sin and flesh that end up causing tremendous pain for others.  God has to pour wrath on that sin in order to be just.  The question is: who bears God's wrath - you or Jesus?

I hope to one day read the book.  I think that Bell's book will not open up a new door to Universalism.  It will actually force many of us pastors who are more concerned with preaching shallow sermons in order to keep the numbers up to have to pull out the Bible and deal with some difficult texts.