Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Thoughts on Rob Bell

Say what you want about Rob Bell: heretic, herald, saint, sinner, prophetic, antichrist (yeah…there are those that go that far), Bell has captured the attention of the faithful across the spectrum. Heck, he has even captured the attention of those who casually observe the Church from the outside. As I reflected on Rob today, one word kept returning to me: thankful. I am thankful for Rob Bell…and you should be too.

Bell is challenging status quo. He is speaking out beliefs that have been at the margins for years and bringing them front and center. Some say it is clever marketing. Some think it is Bell flitting from hot topic to hot topic. Regardless, when Bell speaks, people still listen.
That said, let me take a step back and say, this is not me endorsing Bell’s theology. This is not me saying that his exegesis is impeccable. This is me saying that the Church has need of men like Bell to come along and shake things up. Whether you agree with him or not, if you are being challenged by what he says, if your pastor is having to respond to what he writes, then you should be thankful.

Bell is making a lot of pastors work. Challenging typical evangelical interpretations of Scripture, looking at various saints through Christian history, and talking about lived theology, Bell has caused men and women to respond; whether to come alongside Bell or to refute what he has written. And pastors in both circles should be thankful.
That is the first thing I thought of. The second was…this dude has a better understanding of Church and the overarching ideas of our faith than I ever gave him credit for. If you haven’t seen it, which I think a lot of us have, you need to watch this clip from youtube:

Bell and Andrew Wilson had a conversation about homosexuality on Justin Brierley’s radio show. The conversation got a little heated. Jay Bakker and Tony Jones say that it shows Bell at his best. David Ould over at Stand Firm ( uses the same video to show how shady Bell is in his eyes. Ould even critiques what I believe to be one of the most important things that Bell says. I have copied that particular part of the transcript below:
ROB BELL: Well, Andrew's my brother--like if we got out the bread and wine, we'd both take it.
BELL: That's right. So I don't--I understand it one way, I read it one way--
BELL: --he reads it another way--is that it, then? Do we just part ways? Or do you take the bread and wine and does Christ hold us together--is there something that trumps whatever differences we have? Like that's the question. Like, literally you're asking--and this is part of, like, sort of the [EXPLETIVE DELETED] that really, really, really pushes people away--is when, you have a particular conviction, and all of a sudden--your orthodoxy or your faithfulness to Jesus is all of a sudden called into question.
Ould, and others on his website, agree that this is a ploy used by progressives to cover their lack of knowledge and true argument. Eucharist apparently is now a cover up. Apparently inviting others to the table is now less about love, and more about wolves wearing their sheep skins. And that is something worth pondering. The centrality of the table, the Christian family and deception. I just don’t get what Ould and the others are saying. If there is any more prophetic act than partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, any more important part of our faith that expresses unity, excuse me for not being able to recall it.
The Catholic Church finds this act of worship so important that those who are not Catholic cannot partake. I understand that. I don’t agree with their stance, but because I agree with the importance of table fellowship I abide by it. Maybe what Ould wants to communicate is that the wolves will go after our most sacred symbol. Maybe he wants us to believe that appealing to the Eucharist is clever positioning.

But I think what Bell does here is say, “Look…how are we letting one issue destroy the fellowship of Christianity? How is this one issue so divisive that we can no longer celebrate Jesus together?” And that is where Bell’s exegesis and understanding of faith trumps Wilson. Wilson could whip my tail in exegesis, but seems to lose the heart of the Gospel (in this specific interview) by concentrating on a specific detail.
If the faithfulness of Jesus to the details of his day was important in establishing his kingdom he failed. He healed on the Sabbath, he consorted with women, he associated with and healed Romans, he hung out with prostitutes. He didn’t do a great job of following the prescribed theology of the day. He broke the rules of the Torah. Plain and simple.

I think that Ould, Wilson and so many others have fallen prey to the same problem that is rampant throughout the Church: we are about the negative. We are more concerned with the don’ts, the excluded and the no’s that we lose focus of the positives. There is much more time and energy spent saying, “Homosexuals don’t enter the Kingdom. Church of Christ’s do not receive salvation. Baptists don’t get the Holy Spirit, etc. etc.” than there is finding commonality and burgeoning love for one another. We are so focused on maintaining the status quo of the childlike faith of our youth, that a challenge, feels like we are losing ground, and more importantly losing control. And we simply cannot abide it.
Again, I am not showing my cards to how I line up, or don’t line up with Bell, but I am thankful for him. I am thankful that he has decided to spend his time asking hard questions, he has contemplated the life that is before him and reconciled it with his faith. Those are big things. He has worked really hard to understand the relational nature of God instead of creating a checklist of which Scripture verses should be followed and which shouldn’t. Because, as he pointed out in Leviticus we are also told not to combine two different kinds of fabric, women have to leave the camp when they have their period, and I don’t know about you, but no dad has come offering money for me to take his daughter under my roof.

Bell is wrestling with how to faithfully live out faith in Jesus. And in that wrestling he has ended up with some beliefs that just don’t line up with what a lot of us have accepted as truth. But at the same time, just as John Howard Yoder challenged the marriage of politics and faith in our American folk religion, Bell is throwing down the gauntlet saying, “Why won’t you at least see this through? Why don’t you at least look to see how we can reach the world?” And as long as you do, as long as you go back to Scripture, back to prayer and see this as challenge for growth, then you should be thankful.


  1. I really like your take on Bell, especially the point that because he's willing to tackle tough issues, he's forcing other pastors to do the same. As someone who preached on a regular basis, I know the temptation to give the most vanilla, non-controversial messages.

    I'm also reminded of something a friend who is an Anglican priest told me. He had attended some non-denominational conference that culminated with taking communion. He found that strange and said most Anglican conferences he attended began with Eucharist. That is, no matter what else gets discussed or debated, the fact is that we all begin at the table, affirming Christ's Lordship and our unity.

    1. I really like your friend's view of the Eucharist. Keeping it the first word is amazing. I'm enjoying your book and blog btw man. Sad it has taken me that long to get around to it.

  2. Thoroughly agreed. Interestingly enough, there is a laconic quote from Bell himself which has stuck with me for several years now. It essentially summarizes this post, and accentuates what I believe to be one of the greatest problems in the Church today:

    "Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death."

    Sad, but true.

    1. I really like that quote. I hadn't heard it before. It reminds me we need a balance somehow. We need to live in the midst of reality here and in for eternity.

  3. Good reflection here, James! Many people are afraid of asking difficult theological questions particularly when they get close to orthodoxy, or what they have always recognized as orthodoxy. I, like you, really appreciate Bell's willingness to challenge the mainstream. I really like the idea that Bell's work prompts pastors everywhere to work harder, to study more, to have an answer. He makes us think and I'm pretty sure that is his goal.

    1. Thanks man. I appreciate the encouragement. I hope life is treating you well.