Progressive Christian Channel
Bell's Ten Big Ideas and the Future of American Religion
The waters of American Christianity are churning right beneath our feet, and Rob Bell's ideas are at the very crest of the wave that the changes are producing. Here are ten things I've learned, gleaned from my book on Rob Bell and a New American Christianity and from talking with him about his recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.
1) "Love God and do you what you want." St. Augustine's magnificent phrase is much quoted but rarely tried. Bell does it. He is not afraid "to swing for the fences." From this audacity comes a special delight and joy that, for many, is literally intoxicating. This is the freedom and liberation that Bell lives so well. Says Bell, "I have nothing to lose, so why not try the next thing."
2) God cannot be domesticated by the church, so don't try it. As Bell told me, "Church should be a catalyst for the kingdom; it is not the kingdom of God." What I most respect about Bell is that he didn't build a cathedral at Mars Hill; he bought an old rundown mall for $1 and painted the walls black, set up chairs, and did church. He left it without debt and today the church remains a catalyst for charity and for the incarnational love of Christ.
3) "Ordain everyone." For Bell, clergy worship defeats discipleship. Everyone, as he loves to say should be ordained—teachers, business people, lawyers, and custodians; each is called to holy life. Imagine what Lehman Brothers would have done differently if their CEOs were ordained.
4) Dog circles, in which competing theologians compare doctrines, are embarrassing and ridiculous to outsiders. The internecine conflicts of petulant church thinkers are sad and decidedly not good news. Bell rejects all of these theological labels, refuses to identify with liberals or conservatives, and simply preaches and lives the good news.
5) Performance counts. Bell is an artist in his presentation of the gospel. He argues that a preacher can be knowledgeable and competent in the gospel, but if she doesn't show rather than explain the gospel, no one will listen. Follow Jesus. He invented a new literary genre—parables—and through his artistry changed the world.
6) Jesus rejects "religion" as something that separates the profane from the sacred. It encourages the practice of identifying with the winning Christian tribes, theologies, and moralities. I think Bell would say that this is anti-Christian. Jesus despises tribalism. The Christian community, by definition, must be one community. Otherwise it is divided against itself and betrays its very soul.
7) Everybody thinks that Bell came out on gay marriage, and I suppose he has. But as he said, he doesn't believe in "announcements." What he has always said is that he supports faithful, loving relationships between adults, who are committed to each other, straight or gay. But he has also said that we should move on to the real problems in our world, where two-fifths of the earth's peoples don't have enough food or water.
8) Science is your friend. Scientists, artists, poets, and thinkers outside the church are the true cultural leaders of our time. The younger generation, according to Barna, perceives the church as anti-science and committed to playing it safe. Bell's new book shows how science frees us to think in more expansive ways about faith. Bell has never played it safe and expects others to take risks for the gospel.
9) Bell ignores critics and does not read reviews; he sees this as a waste of time. Randall Collins, a leading sociologist said this about powerful figures in culture: "Winners focus on the goal, losers focus on the winner."
10) For Bell, Jesus is the best story. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom. He died for everyone. He rose from the dead, and in so doing; he conquered sin and death—bringing new life and a new creation. Go and proclaim that good news.
Two unexpected thing happened to me while writing my book on Rob Bell: 1) Bell's fearlessness inspired me; 2) we became friends. Some ask whether I admire him and his work, and the truth is over the course of the project, I came to respect and love him as a human being. He has integrity. He loves his family; he serves his community. As he said in his final sermon at Mars Hill, "Faith only becomes true when incarnated." Bell is living his faith.
James K. Wellman, Jr. is Professor and Chair of the Comparative Religion Program in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His most recently published book is Rob Bell and a New American Christianity, (Abingdon, 2012). His forthcoming book (Oxford, 2014) is High on God: How the Megachurch Conquered America. Wellman can be followed on twitter at wellman4444, and reached on his author Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman.