Thinking Out Loud

March 1, 2011

Rob Bell — Straying From Traditional Evangelicalism: How Far is Too Far?

On January 21st, I mentioned that through a series of circumstances I had obtained a very advance copy of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived (March 29, 2011, HarperCollins, Hardcover.)  In that brief article, I suggested that by the end of March, social media are going to have a field day with this title because of its controversial subject.

I was wrong.

According to this article posted at Christianity Today over the weekend, the fur has already started flying even before key players are getting their hands on advance print copies of the book (something I’ve been told to expect in my mail within the next two weeks.) In fairness, I need to say that I doubt any of this has come as a great surprise to Rob Bell himself. I don’t see him sitting at his computer in Grand Rapids saying, “Oh, look at this! These guys apparently don’t see it this way.”

On the other hand, many of those entering into the discussion are doing so solely on the basis of the brief publisher blurb online.   Well, actually that’s been online for awhile. The weekend brought the promotional video, which you can view at Justin Taylor’s February 26th post, along with an update that the topic of  Bell’s book — and a discussion of Bell himself — has been added to the agenda of The Gospel Coalition’s April national conference, a constituency whose orthodoxy is rarely questioned, but a constituency that is probably among the easiest to offend. (They probably considered burning him in effigy, but couldn’t get the local fire department to grant a permit.) Apparently Bell has been official designated a “problem” to be dealt with.

First of all, for the two or three of you who don’t have Flash Drive and can’t watch the video clip; and the two or three hundred of you who didn’t bother to  click, here is the text of the video that’s causing the stir, plus a few extra paragraphs:

Several years ago we had an art show at our church. I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking and we invited artists to display their paintings and poems and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling.

But not everyone.

Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece

of paper they had written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’


Gandhi’s in hell?

He is?

We have confirmation of this?

Somebody knows this?

Without a doubt?

And they decided it was their responsibility to let the rest of us know?

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person will suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?

Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few, finite years of life?

This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God, it raises questions about the beliefs themselves-

Why them?

Why you?

Why me?

Why not him or her or them?

If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape? How does a person end up being one of the few?



Random selection?

Being born in the right place, family, or country?

Having a youth pastor who ‘related better to the kids?’

God choosing you instead of others?

What kind of faith is that?

Or more importantly:

What kind of God is that?

And why is it that whenever someone claims that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed-and everybody else isn’t-why is it that the people who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s ‘in?’

Have you ever heard somebody make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not one of them?

I recently heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her: “So there’s no hope then.”

No hope?

Is that the Christian message?

“No hope?”

Is that what Jesus offers the world?

Is this the sacred calling of a Christian: to announce that there’s no hope?

~ Rob Bell, from an unedited copy of chapter one “What About the Flat Tire?” from Love Wins

Since I intend to return to this a few more times in the next few weeks, I’ll just point out a few of the other comments from the weekend:

Aaron Armstrong (after whom the 1.5V batteries are named)  at Blogging Theologically writes:

In his previous books and tours, Bell has often been… squishy regarding his take on the wrath of God (even going so far as to reinterpret God’s wrath as a feeling of grief mixed with a desire to reconnect and restore). Indeed, he’s been so ambiguous that it’s caused a great many pastors and theologians to ask the question: Is he a universalist?

With this book it seems we might have an answer, in much the same way Brian McLaren dropped his pretense of trying to remain orthodox in A New Kind of Christianity.

However, I don’t know if it’s safe to say that for certain because, well, the book hasn’t been released yet. Because the material is in Bell’s typically ambiguous style so it can be taken one of two ways:

  1. He is playing “Devil’s Advocate” (oh, how I loathe that term) and presenting legitimate questions
  2. The trajectory he’s been on for years has reached it’s destination and he’s outright abandoned the gospel

Meanwhile Jeremy Bouma writing at Novus Lumen and living himself in Grand Rapids hasn’t received his advance copy yet, but decided to revisit some of Bell’s earlier works. He writes:

While some have speculated that it is universalism through and through—I have on good authority that this is the case—a recent re-read of Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis, suggests this has been his trajectory for at least 7 years.

He includes a couple of quotations from that book that are worth re-examination through the filter of recent developments.  His article also links to the blog Signature Entertainment, which has a more tempered view of things:

I’m not sure if Rob is going to take it as far as “hell is non-existent”, but the one thing that Bell seems to do well is walk the line of controversy, yet remain a consistent voice that challenges the Evangelical community. The best example of this is in Velvet Elvis where Rob Bell uses the example of questioning the Virgin birth to make a case for deconstructing one’s faith, even though he doesn’t actually make the claim that Jesus was not born of a Virgin.

I would agree that Bell loves to tease his audience. The following may or may not be part of the final manuscript, but certainly causes the reader to wonder which afterlife is up:

The apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians that ‘the Day’ the prophets spoke of, the one that inaugurates life in the age to come, will ‘bring everything to light’ and ‘reveal it with fire,’ the kind of fire that will ‘test the quality of each person’s work.’ Some in this process will find that they spent their energies and efforts on things that won’t be in heaven-on-earth. ‘If it is burned up,’ Paul wrote, ‘the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved, even though only as one escaping through the flames.’

Flames in heaven.

And while we’re teasing you, here’s a direct copy of two sentences in the version I have:

Do I believe in a literal hell?

Of course.

…But I need to tell you that I’ve cut and pasted that totally out of context. (I mean, you don’t want a bunch of spoilers, do you?)  And in case you’re wondering, yes, Chapter Three, “Hell,” does address the story of we know as “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  It’s a different response than you’ve heard in other sermons to be sure, but at the end of the day, Bell does indeed affirm “… the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

Chapter Three is in many ways the cornerstone of the entire book, and I’m reluctant to provide more of it here; and frankly, once the book is in the stores, I hope others won’t excerpt bits of it either. I say that simply because Bell’s argument has a rhythm and cadence of its own, and to just edit bits of it for a review is akin to editing a few bars out of a symphony. I’m not saying that I agree with all its conclusions, or even that its conclusions are overt and plain, but there is a passion to this particular argument that you need to experience in its full context.

You’ll probably not agree with everything, but you won’t be the same after you’ve finished reading.

Note to the 99.99% of people who won’t get an advance review copy of the book:  All of this discussion is valid and needful. But make sure it stays focused on the issues. Some of those who you will read online have come into this discussion with their minds already made up about Bell and have been looking for an opportunity to run him, figuratively speaking, out of town. The issue of Christian Universalism is a very serious and crucial issue and we need to stay on that issue, and not allow the personality or preaching style of an individual pastor to sidetrack us from gaining deeper understanding of what the Bible might be saying.

Other pre-reading comments: Josh Reich at Missional Thoughts, the blog Episcopal Café, the blog Arminian Today which sees Bell as deliberately provocative and publicity-seeking, and Maggie Dawn who relegates Bell to someone “engaging people with Christianity at entry level.”

Related post: John Shore uses an XtraNormal text-to-video to bring the conflicting views into sharp focus.

This blog post contains elements of an early version of the book which may not be part of the final copy.

July 20, 2009

Preaching as Performance Art: Rob Bell

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm

We’d been to Mars Hill (Grand Rapids) once before, but Rob Bell was away as was his worship team.   The guest speaker was from an African-American congregation on the east side of town, and he brought his  worship team with him.   “This is the first time I’ve ever experienced two different churches in one service;” my wife quipped at the time.

I wrote about the church on the old blog, but I’ll begin by repeating a few things.

The church is located in a former shopping mall.    There’s no sign outside the building to tell you that you’re in the right place.    If you want to pick up the latest NOOMA video, or Rob’s new book Drops Like Stars (just released by Zondervan), there’s a sign suggesting you do so at the local Christian bookstore.   Nothing is for sale here.

Between services, the coffee and donuts tables are buzzing.   To compliment the “Joy Boxes” for offering — Mars Hill takes no collection during the service — there are “Joe Boxes” to pay for coffee if you wish.    Kids come and go from various age appropriate rooms, which are actually the former stores of this former mall.

Mars+HillThe main auditorium, pictured here is called “The Shed,” and belonged to whoever was the former anchor tenant.   The picture doesn’t adequately attest to the large seating capacity.

Very little has been done to spruce up the room.    As someone observed recently, “When you visit Mars Hill, you get a sense right away that much of what this church is doing is taking place somewhere else.”

The worship team performs facing each other; essentially facing the same direction as the rest of the congregation.   There’s no performance/audience thing going on here.

So catching up to this week: Having missed Rob previously, this Sunday we returned for the full Rob Bell experience.   We were not disappointed.    The sermon, appropriate to it being a communion service Sunday, was about confession.    I could go into detail about the sermon itself, but hey, you can just download it.   (Always linked on this blog under “sermons.”)

Bell preaches “in the round” as they called it years ago at Melodyland in California.   “In the cube,” might be more appropriate here.   He walks around constantly, but he does favor some sides of the audience slightly more than others, and on this score, we luck out and get more visual benefit.   Plus we’re sitting just four rows back.   He’s a bundle of energy throughout.   He’s taller and skinnier than he looks on video.

Rob in person is better than Rob on podcast.    The sermon begins after two short worship songs.    No waiting.    He launches right in, with the first of four story illustrations that will carry this message.   There isn’t going to be three points and a poem at the end; really Rob has one main point which he will weave in and out of; but then again, there are a number of sub-points that are going to hit a lot of people where they live.   He works largely without notes and there are only three or four Powerpoint-style ‘slides.’

He talks about a neighbor who does standup comedy, including a routine as Father Tim, an Irish priest.    It’s a funny story, but then, who shows up walking down a main aisle, but Father Tim himself.    Rob”s description of him makes it hard for ‘the real thing’ to live up to the reputation.   The woman in front of Mrs. W. is clearly uncomfortable with this, as might be any ex- or current-Catholic.

rob_bellRob moves on quickly to talk about an art class he and his sons took this week with one of the country’s top animators.    He seizes on a unique moment in the class that ties in directly with where he’s headed.

Then he pulls a baloon from his pocket and shows how deception grows bigger with each lie that has to be told to cover an earlier lie.    It seems like a slightly different topic at first, but he’s trying to illustrate how the confession of a lie is a daunting prospect if the lie has gotten large enough; but the release of the balloon’s pressure also illustrates the pressure that is lifted when we come clean.   (Some of their kids program is canceled for the summer, so I’m sure the kids were watching closely during this part of the message.)

His final illustration is about how God responds when we confess, it involves a kid at a MacDonald’s restaurant who is — well… you’re gonna have to download the MP3 file for the rest of that story.

Communion is an absolutely beautiful experience.    Twelve tables, three on each side; and Mrs. W. remarks later there is no one ‘presiding over’ them.   You just walk up and take a wafer and dip in the cup.   But returning to our seats, I notice there was also the option of walking to a 13th station on the stage itself, at the foot of the cross there.    I watch as people do this.   One of the worship band members tells me later that they get a close-up view of a lot of special moments taking place in peoples’ lives.

Most of the worship is stacked at the end of the service while communion is taking place.   Five more songs, coming from a real variety of worship sources, with a variety of instrumentation and vocals.

At the end of Rob’s sermon, I remember that there’s a clock at the back that I  haven’t consulted since we started.   It says 11:39.    What?    Did we start at 10 AM or 11 AM?   No, we started at 11.   Has all that I’ve experienced happened in only 39 minutes?  Apparently so; it’s a commendable economy of time.    With communion and worship, the service continues on to about 12:10.

Eavesdropping on conversations in the lobby, it turns out there are a lot of visitors like us.    Some are doing a post-game analysis of the worship, trying to remember ideas they can take back home with them.   Others are visiting relatives in Michigan.    Not surprising, since Rob began the service by welcoming “all of you who woke up in a different state, and drove for hours to get here.”

It’s that acknowledgment that the church is a bit of a tourist attraction that makes me decide to skip the handshake.    After driving eight hours, I think I deserve one, but that would be entirely the wrong reason.   Besides, I enjoy my brief contact with the guy in the worship team.

And what would I have said to Rob Bell?   Probably just, “Thanks, I really enjoyed finally getting to hear you in person.”

Next:  Further thoughts from our visit to Mars Hill, under the title, “The Hundred Mile Church Diet.”

Here’s the link for Rob’s “Drops Like Stars” tour.  Click on “tour dates” near the bottom.

Had we come a week later, we would have caught the next sermon in the Spiritual Practices series, “Why We Sing.”   I’m looking forward to that download on or after July 26th.   Be sure to bookmark the link.  (See “sermons” in our linklist at right.)

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