I have blogged about Rob Bell before (Hell and Rob Bell), but he hardly needs any introduction. After the President, he may be the person many conservative christians in the US most “love to hate”.
I have been checking out a few of his videos lately …..
Where he came from
Rob has impeccable evangelical credentials. He was raised in a christian family, obtained a degree from Wheaton College (which Billy Graham had attended decades earlier) and a M.Div degree from Fuller Seminary.
At age 29 he founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church, Seattle, where Mark Driscoll is the Pastor), which grew to about 10,000 people in just a few years. As a result of this success, plus his innovative style of preaching, his subtle NOOMA videos and a few books, Bell became famous.
Bell had quite a few critics even at this stage because of his indirect approach to Bible teaching that didn’t tick all the doctrinal boxes of some conservative commentators. But in a culture that values success, he was a hit.
Taking the path less travelled
But Bell seemed restless and unable to stay within the restrictions of evangelical faith. And so he crossed several lines of acceptability:
His 2010 video Resurrection is a passionate call to believe God is making all things new, and we can, and should, be part of the action. But it was criticised for not making the clear statement that Jesus was resurrected bodily, even though Bell quotes Jesus predicting that if they destroyed this temple (his body) he would re-build it in 3 days, and mentions the empty tomb.
But it was his 2011 book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, that really set the cat among the pigeons. In typical fashion, Bell asked more questions than he gave answers, but left everyone with the suspicion that he didn’t believe anyone went to hell (“universalism”).
In 2012, Bell quit the church he had established, saying Love Wins had led to tensions with the congregation, leading him on a “search for a more forgiving faith”. Megachurch pastors don’t normally leave lucrative positions except for sexual failings (which wasn’t the case here), and people wondered what he would do next.
The great taboo
Bell wrote another book, conducted leadership seminars and began negotiations for a TV show – first a drama he would co-write (which didn’t get of the ground) and then a talk show. But during interviews and seminars, Bell dropped his next bombshell – he supports gay marriage.
Conservative christian concerns
The reaction of those opposed to him seems to have been excessive:
- His oblique manner of teaching, often asking questions or leaving listeners to think for themselves, isn’t all that different to the use of parables by Jesus. Critics looking for definite statements to satisfy their hang-ups miss the fact that he’s aiming at a different generation and people who don’t relate to the critics’ doctrinal precision and pedantry.
- There are some strong New Testament teachings on universalism, and the evangelical case for hell is nowhere near as strong as is claimed (see Hell – what does the Bible say?). I have come to a different conclusion to Bell, but he is asking legitimate questions.
- His stance on gay marriage is at first sight similar to what many other christians are saying (see Tim Keller, gay marriage and Bible interpretation) – that whatever view we hold on homosexuality, we should not impose that onto civil law. Bell probably has a more accepting view of homosexuality than that, but that too is a legitimate question that needs to be considered and prayed about.
- The manner of the criticism he has received reveals a nasty underbelly to some aspects of US evangelicalism. We are supposed to speak what we believe to be the truth in love, not with anger and personal attacks.
Christianity is changing
I believe Rob Bell is a sign of things to come for Protestant christianity in the developed world. These are the lessons I learn from watching his videos and reading commentary on him:
- Old style evangelical christianity can have its nasty side, and this is not a good look in a world which tends to judge people by their fruit (I wonder where they got that idea from?).
- Even when evangelical christians remember that “love is kind”, they can easily come across as boring, out of touch, pedantic and disinterested in people except as “souls to be won”. Bell has shown us new ways to communicate: more open, more caring and more effective to Gen X and Gen Y.
- There will increasingly be questioning of old doctrines such as hell, homosexuality, the exclusiveness of christianity and the inerrancy and interpretation of scripture. Younger christians may not always be willing to accept “the Bible says so” as an answer, especially if it seems that the established doctrines are as much a product of tradition as scripture. Christians, especially leaders, need to learn to be less threatened by new thinking, more willing to pray and consider whether innovators like Bell may sometimes be right.
- And if they conclude that they cannot change their views on a new teaching, they must develop better ways to express that view, humbly and less dogmatically. Certainly, they must be more loving and open in their attitude to those who question.
Christianity is changing, and some of the changes will be more from God than others. Like we used to say in the old game of hide-and-seek: “Coming, ready or not!” Let’s be ready to open our hearts and minds, listen to the Spirit, and pray for discernment.