On December 10th, a blogger named John Pavlovitz posted an article titled, “What the Continued Crucifying Of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity.” The article quickly went viral. Relevant Magazine even re-posted the article. After it popped up in my Facebook feed a couple of times, I decided to give it a read.
While I can appreciate his sentiments about Christians shooting their own, I couldn’t help but fundamentally disagree with his interpretation of Rob Bell’s rise and fall in Evangelical circles.
Also, it struck me as extremely odd that writer of the article would choose to use a variation of the word “CRUCIFY” to describe what is happening to Rob Bell. In blogging, choosing your title is essential in getting readers. So bloggers put lots of thought into the exact wording.
I know it’s a figure of speech, but when talking about former pastor and the churches negative response to his ideas, is “crucify” really the appropriate word?
THE RISE AND FALL OF ROB BELL
If you’re unfamiliar with Bell (then I’m not sure why you’re reading this), back in 1999, he founded a church named Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (absolutely zero connection to Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church). The church grew very quickly. A few years later, he started a series of teaching videos called NOOMA. Once again, they quickly gained popularity in evangelical circles. They were extremely well made videos which artfully communicated thought provoking ideas.
Not surprising, as his popularity grew, Christian book publishers started pursuing him. In 2005, his debut book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, was released to much praise and criticism. It intentionally challenged many of the assumptions of American Christianity. Once again, it was artfully crafted and thought provoking.
The release of this book marked the start of growing tension in Evangelical circles as to what to make of Rob Bell. There seemed to be essentially two teams:
- Rob Bell is a creative pastor/author/thinker willing to ask tough questions and challenge our assumptions.
- Rob Bell is a closet heretic whose true beliefs are starting to show.
At the time, I found myself torn between the two positions. His books and videos as pieces of art were masterfully produced, and I appreciated his way of creatively approaching everything. Likewise, he’s extremely well versed in Jewish history and customs. Therefore, his sermons and writing were packed with fascinating cultural context.
At the same time, Velvet Elvis certainly made me suspect he was a closet heretic waiting to come out.
Looking back, Velvet Elvis probably was the last thing he created which I enjoyed and got something out of. With each new book or DVD, his beliefs seemed more and more distant from my own.
- At first, I believed Rob Bell was an evangelical who challenged the boundaries.
- With each new book, it seemed more like he was on the fence as to whether HE wanted to be within the boundaries.
Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Zondervan, 2005) ISBN 0-310-26345-X
Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality (Zondervan, 2007) ISBN 0-310-26346-8
Everything is Spiritual (DVD) (Zondervan, 2007) ISBN 0-310-28556-9
The Gods Aren’t Angry (DVD) (Flannel, 2008) ISBN 0-310-29074-0
Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Zondervan, 2008) ISBN 0-310-27502-4
Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering (Zondervan, 2009) ISBN 0-310-32704-0
Then, in 2011, he released Love Wins. The book (which I have not read) challenged the idea of an all-loving God setting up a place of eternal torment as a final destination for the people He loves.
Here is a quote from the book:
It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as conscious, eternal torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
In the end, he didn’t make a definitive statement about what he actually believes about Hell, but he believes in the end that love wins.
Naturally, the internet exploded with opinions on the book. Countless evangelical authors came out of the woodwork to write their opinions on his opinions. Francis Chan even wrote a response book, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up.
The response was swift and harsh. The pressure became so intense that Bell stepped down from pastoring the church he had founded. In an interview he claimed the church quickly dropped 3,000 people in weekly attendance. Soon afterward, while doing an interview on gay marriage, he stated the church in America is “a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized Evangelical subculture.”
It was the final straw. He left the evangelical subculture which brought him fame.
But, by this point in time, he had lots of peoples attention.
- In 2011, TIME named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world!
- In 2012, he worked with one of the producers from the TV series LOST to try and develop two different new TV shows based on Bell’s ideas.
- In 2013, Oprah interviewed him, and put his latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God at the top of her “Book of the Month” club.
- In 2014, Oprah put a six week life course called “Rob Bell’s Practical Guide to Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life,” on OPRAH.com.
Now that you know my take on Rob Bell’s rise and fall and rise, that brings us to December 10th…
“What the Continued Crucifying Of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity: Will we ever learn to disagree without immediately resorting to “heretic”?
If you haven’t read the article, I would highly encourage you to do so. This post won’t make much sense if you haven’t.
The central premise of the article is that evangelicals championed Bell during his rise, but ate him alive as soon as “He didn’t stick to the script. He deviated. He dared to ask questions. He challenged the status quo. He moved against the grain. He went rogue and everything went South, (or rather, went to Hell). …In many parts of modern Evangelical Christian subculture, that’s simply not something to be tolerated. It wasn’t long before Rob Bell was being crucified by his peers.” The author celebrates Bell’s bravery in asking tough questions, his new platform on Oprah, and utterly rejects the idea that Bell is watering down Christianity.
This leads to his central idea:
“The problem isn’t when Christians disagree, it’s when they lose the ability to disagree without dialogue. It’s when they lose the ability to welcome diversity of thought. The Church has become a members-only club, defined by the narrowest of doctrines and a singular understanding of God and Scripture.
There are two religious menu options when it comes to orthodoxy: Totality or Heresy.”
He finishes by talking about how Bell’s new rise to fame in secular circles is because, “They’re looking for a faith community that doesn’t dismiss and eliminate and destroy those whose conclusions don’t all line up neatly with the party line.”
Who Moved Away From Who?
As I read and re-read the article, I think my big problem with the article is that I fundamentally disagree with the narrative he presents about the “rise and fall” of Bell in evangelical circles.
The article suggests that he fell from stardom for asking too many questions which challenged the Evangelical “script.” I would argue that asking questions was KEY to his RISE.
His NOOMA videos were all about questioning why we think the way we think. In Velvet Elvis, he asked extremely controversial questions about the Trinity and Virgin Birth. This is a quote from Velvet Elvis:
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus has a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?
I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. . . But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it? (26-27)
His questions were THE THING that launched him to Christian celebrity status. But, at the time, he still presented himself as being within the realm of Evangelicalism. He was one of us asking hard questions about why we believe what we believe and why we do what we do.
However, in more recent years, it seems his true colors started to show. What once came off as challenging questions started to come off far more like statements posing as questions.
Rob Bell really likes to ask provocative questions, but he (and I would suggest his fans) doesn’t like it when he gets traditional answers.
- If you start a conversation by asking a controversial question, PEOPLE WILL ANSWER.
- If you don’t want to hear their answers, don’t ask the question.
- If you do this enough times and play the victim enough times, it starts to look much more like lecturing than discussion.
The entire point of the article was that the rejection of Rob Bell demonstrates how close minded and closed off to discussion we are. However, I would argue that his rise to fame makes the case for the opposite; He was celebrated for asking questions.
- His fall isn’t because he was asking questions about the boundaries of evangelicalism.
- His fall came because he made it clear he was not within the boundaries of evangelicalism.
John Stott voiced annihilationist views (that non Christians are annihilated upon death instead of spending eternity in Hell) but, at the same time, is a favorite amongst evangelicals. The difference is that he presented himself as an evangelical who had some controversial views. Rob Bell currently presents himself as someone wanting to deconstruct fundamentals of evangelical Christianity.
Rob Bell’s Fall and Rise Tell Us More About Bell Than The Church
Just think about it!
The church he founded and pastored for over ten years responded so negatively to Love Wins that he left the church.
- The people who heard him speak the most…
- The people who would call him pastor…
- The people who knew him in person…
- The people who got their spiritual discernment and guidance from him…
They were uncomfortable with what they were reading in Love Wins.
Possibly even more importantly, it seems blatantly obvious that RED FLAGS should be shooting up all over the place if your own church rejects your new ideas, but Oprah wants you to share those same ideas with her millions of fans. I know she claims to be a Christian, but I have no idea what that actually means.
Finally, just a couple of months ago, Bell and his wife released a book on marriage called, The Zimzum of Love. Once again, I have not read the book, but his website describes the book this way, “Rob and Kristen Bell introduce a startling new way of looking at marriage, The Zimzum of Love. Zimzum is a Hebrew term where God, in order to have a relationship with the world, contracts, creating space for the creation to exist. In marriage, zimzum is the dynamic energy field between two partners, in which each person contracts to allow the other to flourish.” The book describes zimzum this way, “God had to contract or withdraw from a certain space so that something else, something other than God, could exist and thrive in that space, and the word a rabbi from the 16th century used for this divine contraction is zimzum.” Their book on marriage is based off of 16th century Jewish mysticism.
The Gospel Coalition’s review/critique makes this observation about the book:
The Bells have happened upon—and thoroughly embraced—a deep, transformational truth from a Jewish rabbi (who presumably rejects Jesus, the New Testament, and the mystery of marriage as revealed in Ephesians 5) that unlocks “the deeper mysteries of marriage” (viii). …
Jesus, by the way, is mentioned once (103). …
In Love Wins Bell introduced us to his “new” way of understanding heaven and hell. At least he used the Bible. In The Zimzum of Love, the Bells reference the Bible a total of three times, one of them being a reference to John 3:16 signs at football games (25). But then, why ground ideas in the Bible when zimzum offers so much uncharted territory for authorial exploration? And this is where Rob and Kristen blast off from planet Christianity for galaxies unknown.
Let that sink in for a moment…
A former pastor/Christian rock star with a mDiv from Fuller Seminary wrote a book on marriage based off the thoughts of a Jewish rabbi where he only references Jesus once and the Bible three times.
We didn’t leave Rob Bell!
He left us!
At What Point Can You Call Someone a Heretic?
The articles subheading was a simple question:
“Will we ever learn to disagree without immediately resorting to “heretic”?”
It’s a fair question, but I don’t think it applies in this situation. Bell has been in the spotlight for over ten years. He has published nearly ten books. The evangelical rejection of Bell wasn’t cooked in the microwave in three minutes. This was slow cooked in a crockpot with lots of ingredients.
My questions for the author of the article and those who sympathize with it are:
At what point can you call someone a heretic?
- What does he have to do?
- What beliefs would he have to reject?
- Who would he have to partner with or get an endorsement from?
We Were Destined to Break Up
Like it or not, Evangelicalism has some firm doctrinal boundaries, but there is a tremendous amount of diversity within those boundaries. I’ve heard it compared to national borders versus state borders. Christianity has some firm national borders, but very loose state borders. Bell used to be a guy who looked like he was within the national border, but he liked to test the borders and do lots of travel. Now it seems very clear he’s not within borders, he just visited a lot.
At the end of the day, Rob Bell was never headed in the same direction as evangelical culture. Evangelicalism was shaped in a deeply modern context while Bell’s thinking has always been highly post-modern. The idea of clearly defining doctrinal boundaries is a modern way of viewing doctrine and theology. Post-modern thinking aims to deconstruct those boundaries.
Bell’s flirtation with evangelicalism appears to have been his attempt to remove the modernism from Evangelicalism. The problem is that Evangelical as a way of viewing Christianity is built on modernism. He was actually pretty explicit about where he was coming from, “I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. . . But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it? (26-27).
- This is exactly why people were drawn to him.
- This is why he quickly transitioned into secular success.
- This is why I was intrigued by his early writings.
There’s a lot of people out there who want a form of Christianity which isn’t so rigid and defined.
While I can respect his desire to remove the modernism from Evangelicalism, my problem is that Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament seemed to take truth and sound doctrine very seriously. Modernism may do that too systematically and rigidly, but post-modernisms dislike for defining things makes doing so remarkably difficult.
Bell and evangelicalism were destined to breakup from the get go.