In amongst the cat photos, baby photos and Christmas memes, my social media feed has contained a number of articles about Rob Bell over the past couple of weeks. The particular two that have come up most frequently are this one by Sarah Pulliam Bailey and this by John Pavlovitz over at Relevant magazine. The first is a good summary of what has happened to Rob over the past few years; well worth a read if you need a quick précis. The second is… well…
The second makes some good points, is emotive, and is easily shareable because it makes both the author and the sharer look nice and compassionate. Pavlovitz is of course right that,
For a people whose go-to ideas are love for God and love for others, we Christians can be pretty horrible toward one another.
I agree, and I’m sure we could all point to examples of things said about Christian leaders that are un-Christian in tone and content; which are not kind or edifying or Christ like. (Then again, I’m sure I could also point to bits in the gospels where Jesus confronts religious leaders in a way that would make Pavlovitz squirm!) But anyway, point taken.
But that’s where the positives end. In many other ways it is a woefully misleading piece.
I have been a fan of Rob Bell. Back when he preached sermons, I enjoyed them. I found them fresh, creative and thought provoking. His talk ‘The goat has let the building’ remains in my top 5 sermons ever, and his talks on the art of communication are gold dust. It is undoubtedly the case that he is a very skilful communicator and a fascinating thinker. He is fiercely intelligent, he deserves to be engaged with seriously, and I dearly wish the sermons on Leviticus, to which Pavlovitz alludes, were still available, as I would love to hear them! I will continue listening to him, and I’m sure there is much I can still learn from him.
I’ve enjoyed some of his books. I found Velvet Elvis disconcerting the first time I read it, and more enjoyable the second time, as I started to understand better what Bell was trying to do with it. What we talk about when we talk about God, likewise, was very good in places, and with little in it that I found objectionable. (Note, that book was post Love Wins.)
But whilst I’ve benefitted from Rob’s work across the years, I’ve always had reservations. I think his use of the Biblical languages is selective and the methodology around his use of the Rabbinic sources is questionable; I think some of the conclusions he reaches are unwarranted, and he often skips a few logical steps in getting there, which is nicely masked by his excellent storytelling ability, which allows you to follow along with him happily, and only after the fact thing “hang on, how did we end up here?!”
And in recent years those reservations have become more concrete. So yes, I think aspects of Rob’s teaching are less-than-orthodox these days. Yes, on the basis of the things I have heard him say or seen him write (and claiming no knowledge of his inner thoughts, beliefs, or motives) I think he has largely abandoned what could be called Evangelical Christianity. Yes, I think he still deserves respect and a hearing and kindness and an extension of general human decency. I still want to think the best of him, and I suspect he is a moral, decent, generous human being. And I suspect I would enjoy meeting him and having a conversation with him, though I wouldn’t be inclined to ask him to preach at my church.
But anyway… having said all that, and since I must limit my word-count somewhere, let me just restrict myself to saying three things I found frustrating about the Relevant article.
First, Pavlovitz writes,
Christians will root like crazy for one of their own to reach the masses on their way up, but once they do, Christians will often as willingly and passionately go about the work of ripping them from their lofty positions; discrediting them, ridiculing them, shaming and shunning them in the process.
Really? Christians cheer on the rising stars and tear down the successful, for no other reason than they’re successful? I think that’s naive. Nobody that I am aware of is lambasting Rob Bell for being successful; for the size of the stages on which he’s walking. Sure, some critics might be motivated by jealousy, but is it not more the case that Christians cheer on the rising stars, but then get increasingly nervous as they begin to see the compromises that have to be made the higher they climb? The people, or in Rob’s case the doctrines, that have to be jettisoned or trampled on to reach the upper echelons?
I think this is a ridiculous premise, and the reason I think it’s so problematic is because it sets the tone of the article in an intractable groove from so early on: evangelicals are fickle, jealous and cruel; Christian Rock Stars are pure in their motives and only seeking the best for everyone. It’s a tired trope. It is unbalanced, clumsy, emotive rhetoric and it fails to see the real problem that irks evangelicals – it’s not the numbers, it’s not the success, it’s not the size of the audience. It’s whether the message is still getting communicated faithfully as Jesus told his disciples to do (Matt 28:20)!
Second, I thought Pavlovitz’s chronology was misleading. That is, he has framed the series of events in a way to once again paint evangelicals as reactionary.
A decade ago, Rob Bell was a flat-out Christian Rock Star…
The relationship turned toxic when Bell wrote a book called Love Wins, in which he challenged the idea of Hell; a seemingly untouchable, immoveable pillar of the Christian worldview. In the book, Bell asked some questions about reconciling eternal punishment with a loving God, and he examined matters of life and faith that had become foregone conclusions to most believers.
In the now infamous and pivotal volume that caused the Church to break-up with him, Bell didn’t give many answers. He only asked people to ask the questions. He set a table for a conversation. He invited inquisition.
Was it really the case that evangelicals were perfectly happy with Rob Bell until suddenly, out of the blue, Love Wins popped onto our shelves, and the relationship turned sour? I think not. Cast your mind back to before Love Wins and you will remember that the evangelical knives were already out for Bell! People felt they knew what was coming in that ‘infamous and pivotal volume’ before it was even released. And why? On the basis of the trajectory his teaching had taken over a number of years.
Now, of course, Mr Pavlovitz may well think that the scenario I’m suggesting is worse than his, since it suggests evangelicals were anti-Bell even longer than he has portrayed. But my point is this: whilst Love Wins may have solidified fears or concerns that evangelicals already had, it was not the out-of-the-blue, relationship-breaking, knee-jerk-inducing book that he’s made it out to be. It was one more step on the journey that people had been nervous of for many years.
Rob was not the unexpected-martyr who just made one misguided move and got punished for it. He knew exactly what he was doing when he released the book. To suggest that he was merely innocently ‘raising questions’ without recommending answers is an insult to Rob’s intelligence, or a wilful failure to see the real game that is being played.
And by the way, the use of the word ‘inquisition’ is either clumsy or ironic. I suspect it was unintentional on Pavlovitz’s part, but somewhat like Caiaphas, he spoke more profoundly than he knew (John 11:51) since an inquisition in the technical sense of a ‘heresy trial’ is exactly what Rob got. And, I would suggest, exactly what he did invite…
…because third, this article puts the sidelining of Rob Bell solely on the shoulders of the evangelical community, without ever asking whether Rob might bear some of the responsibility himself.
Before too long, Bell was a virtual leper to his own community; the same community that had carried him proudly to prominence just months earlier.
As so often happens in the modern Church, he was intentionally and mercilessly pushed to the margins of the Christian community, just a few feet from irrelevance.
Again, I don’t think this is an especially accurate portrayal. Sure, the conference invitations may have dried up, I don’t know. But Rob actively chose to leave Mars Hill, and has clarified in subsequent interviews that whilst Love Wins made things difficult for him, nobody at Mars Hill ever asked him to leave. It is Rob’s choice to no longer attend a church, as he expresses in Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s article. I’m not aware that any church has mercilessly rejected him from their congregation, and I certainly would not if he attended mine.
Rob’s choice plays a large role in all of this. He did indeed invite ‘inquisition’ because inquisition gets people talking! And whether it is Rob himself, or a marketing machine behind him, or a mixture of the two, he is thriving on being the outcast. Which is why the title of Pavlovitz’s article is so woefully wrong. This is not crucifixion, this is crucification. This is the making a commodity out of being the rejected outcast. This is marketing oneself as the radical, free-thinking alternative to the traditionally evangelical voices.
You only have to look at the book sleeves to see this: Love Wins looks at unpopular traditional views and offers ‘a courageous alternative answer.’ What we talk about when we talk about God is ‘the explosive follow-up’ in which Rob ‘does for God what he did for heaven and hell’. And have you read an advert for The Zimzum of Love that hasn’t labelled it an alternative to Driscoll’s Real Marriage?
The fact is that if the evangelical world were still embracing Rob as they once did, many of these doors to bigger stages would not be so open to him, for he would lose his edge and carry too much baggage by association. He needs to be ‘crucifiable’ and seen to be ‘crucified’ by unpopular people. So he is billed as ‘controversial’ as if it’s his middle name.
In the film The Social Network, a lawyer tells Mark Zuckerberg, ‘every creation myth needs a devil.’ The creation of Rob BellTM is no different. Though ironically, ‘the devil’ in this scenario is just about the only remaining crowd that believe a real one exists!
So do I think people have been unfair to Rob Bell and cruel in their critique of him? Undoubtedly. Do I think that in so doing, they (we?) have failed to accurately portray the love of Christ to him and to the world that is watching? Yes, at times. Do I think therefore that Christians ought to say nothing about disagreeable teachings? That kindness must equate to acceptance or silence? No. Because the same canon of Scripture that says that people will know us by our love for one another also instructs leaders to stay true to the gospel and guard against unhelpful teaching (compare John 13:35 with 1, 2 and 3 John, for example). The same chapter in which Jesus tells us not to judge, also tells us that we will recognise truth and falsehood by its fruit (Matthew 7).
What does Christianity need right now? It needs a little more love and a little less devouring of each other. Agreed. But I think it also needs fewer rhetorically-charged articles that contribute to the continued polarisation of Christianity and crucification of Rock Star Preachers, and more articles that wrestle hard with the tension between love and faithfulness. We need some well-thought through help on how people from every Christian tribe can apply the kinds of verses in the previous paragraph in a pastorally appropriate, biblically faithful way in our twenty-first century, social-media-soaked world.
I’d be very happy to see articles of that sort of article displacing cats on my Facebook feed!