It was tough to read James K. Wellman’s astute assessment of Rob Bell and a New American Christianity.   His research is thorough, rigorous and insightful.    The writing is smart and on point.   It offers a great window into Bell’s conservative upbringing and his first forays into punk rock.  It chronicles the remarkable rise of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.   I learned about the origins of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos.  But more importantly, I learned why the successful series ended so abruptly.

Wellman paints a clear portrait of Bell’s subversive tendencies so representative of my generation.    He chronicles how a book intended to invite people into faith, Love Wins, became a fulcrum for those seeking to police (and maybe even suppress) Bell’s increasingly progressive theology.   While Wellman highlights the spiritual shifts that Rob Bell initiated, I came away depressed that yet another gifted pastor ultimately left the church he clearly loved and nurtured.  What should be a celebration led me to lament.

Twenty years ago, I was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary.   Amongst my classmates were a host of talented women and men (like Carla Barnhill and Tony Jones), eager to revitalize local congregations.    We graduated around the same time that Rob Bell was arriving at Fuller.    As young ministers, we were invited into mainstream congregations to focus on our peers, the cynical but spiritual cohort otherwise known as Generation X.    A key word in our calling:  “relevance.”  We brought fresh ideas about how to incorporate elements of pop culture into the worship setting, how to make church accessible to an emerging generation.   Unfortunately, many of us found the elders who hired us resistant to the changes they invited to initiate.   We left pastoral ministry frustrated by dwindling denominations that did not want the prophetic gifts we offered.

I am pleased to know colleagues still leading churches from Charlotte to Seattle.    They are everyday heroes, marrying, burying, and baptizing parishioners.    Some have chosen to serve as social workers or case managers, coming alongside foster youth or those with disabilities.   But plenty tried to make a difference within established churches, only to discover there was almost no room at that inn.   I do not think they were called away from ministry.  They had profound insights to share, but found more space to follow God in what became derided as the emergent movement.

As a faithful Gen Xer, Rob Bell eschewed the emergent label.   We aren’t really joiners; we’ve always been more comfortable on the margins.   James Wellman does a great job of describing Rob Bell as an ‘edgeman.’   We are drawn to the rebel Jesus who was murdered by a cabal of religious and political leaders.   We see through attempts to domesticate Christ, to make him conform to a pre-established agenda.   We have witnessed the rise and fall of the Moral Majority, the failed attempts to establish Christendom in America.   We hate to say we told you so, but….

Wellman also captures the creative side of Rob Bell’s theology.   He highlights how artistic metaphors, “repainting faith,” dominated his teaching.   He sought to tear down the sacred/secular divide that was placed upon us.   What an older generation of Christians feared, we embraced.   We have always found movies, music, and television a source of solace and inspiration.    Things considered radical in relation to mainstream evangelicalism appear increasingly self evident to us.   And so, even though I’ve never met Rob Bell, I sense a remarkably deep bond.   I continue to be inspired by his words and his path, but saddened by those who sought to steal his joy.   The Church lost a remarkable leader, shot down by self-appointed defenders of the faith.   (Seems like I’ve seen that pattern somewhere before.)    While I’m sure Bell will find creative outlets, I sense he may not focus them on the institutionalized church.  And that is everybody’s loss.    I take some comfort in the closing words of James K. Wellman’s potent book, “In the end, the only true test of a faith begins and ends in an incarnation—love made real through actions.  All else is straw.”

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is a filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator who has been featured on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ABC's Nightline and in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He blogs as "Doc Hollywood" for Patheos.com.

  • Kutter

    Great thoughts here. I too feel a strange bond to Rob Bell even though I have never met him.
    His story is so much like mine, like yours, like “ours.”
    I am actually on the tail end of Gen X, so I am bit less cynical than you :), but I too find myself more comfortable on the margins.
    But as I lament with you regarding our fractured relationship with the institutional church, I also see a crop of younger people who are (like we were) once again excited about the possibilities of this thing we call “church.” They are passionate, articulate, creative, and ready to invest themselves in just about anything that might breathe life, justice, or peace into their little corner of the world.
    I know you are around students like this all the time and probably feel, just as I do, that they need some wisdom and guidance as they start walking down the same road that we once walked (and continue to walk).
    Maybe this is another blog entirely and not a simple response, but it would be great to hear your answer to a question I have been wrestling with lately: how might we as cynical, disenfranchised, wounded, subversive Gen-Xers lead, love, and empower this group of future ministers? How do we prepare them in such a way that, even if their church experience does not match up to their hopeful expectations, their joy and passion for God’s gathered people are not stolen from them?
    As a cynical Gen-Xer, I am not really surprised about what happened to Rob Bell (which might say something about those of us in Generation X).
    But for me, the real tragedy would be if the same thing happened to those who are following in our wake.

    • craigdetweiler

      Great, great question, Kutter–full of hope and possibility. I love how you turned this post around on me. Generation Y is definitely geared towards service, quite interested in doing good things. We definitely don’t want to pour cold water on their (literal) enthusiasm. I guess I see things in a bit of a holding pattern. You have a remarkably teachable generation of millennials who are just coming into positions of leadership. They are inclined to preserve the status quo, not rock the boat, generally prefer keeping things light, bright, and positive. They are comfortable joining. I am amazed by how many students are willing to join dance troupes and put on a show. So that may buy ten or twenty years of stability in which churches can adjust/catch up/shift. But behind Gen Y, you will have a smaller wave of young people who aren’t likely to be as patient or compliant. And that is where I see the real stress test coming. If leaders like Rob Bell presided over that twenty years, I’d feel more confident. As it is, I see more of a return to the 1950s in church settings (or maybe the Peter, Paul, and Mary folk era) which by 2025 or so, will make evangelicals look like the new Amish. And who knows, maybe that will look so radical and refreshing, it will be strangely appealing…:)

  • Tracy

    I dunno. Maybe I find the “I am young and gifted, and nobody appreciates my awesomeness” a bit wearying. I think Bell is fabulously talented guy, but I’d hasten to add that not every guy or gal in skinny jeans and earbuds is as gifted as he is. And when they fail they frequently attribute their failure to dotty oldsters, rather than dig a little deeper to figure out whether they are in fact as remarkably compelling as they think they are.

    Bell has particular skills — he’s a great orator, and maybe something of a visionary. But pastoring a church is a whole other skill set. Instead of deciding that “pastoring a church” is inherently a different gig, too many young pastors seem to think the problems all belong to those people in the pews. If THEY are so fabulously talented, it must be the pew sitters — THEY’RE the problem!

    But perhaps you are making a more narrow point — that the theology of the evangelical world is too constrictive. In which case it isn’t talent people reject, it isn’t their openness to culture either. It is particular ideas. Okay. Maybe. But I think that needs to be made clear. After all, Driscoll does the same “cool dude” thing that Bell does — but the message is very, very different.

    It is also fair to ask, “what do you expect?” If Bell came to Grand Rapids talking about getting your soul saved and maintaining sexual purity, but then CHANGED, well, sure, people are going to have a problem with that. They aren’t all on the same journey. But what if you started out with those views — and tried to gather a church. Would you be wildly popular?

    • craigdetweiler

      Great comments and insights, Tracy. Yes, there is plenty of blanket complaining and displacement of blame to go around. I don’t really think Rob left Grand Rapids and his pastorate because of any inherent problems there. It is the outside attacks that take their toll and cause a permanent burn that take a looooong time to heal.

      My basic point is that a generation of aspiring church leaders were essentially silenced and cast out resulting in an array of outliers from Mark Driscoll to Rob Bell with any number of emergents in between. And consequently, a generation of potential churchgoers has slowly moved toward the category of ‘nones’ or ‘nons’. None of this needed to happen. But it did. And while it is lovely to ponder ‘a new American Christianity,’ white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have mostly missed that opportunity. Thus the lament…

      When I consider young Asian-American Christians though, I see plenty of reason to hope.

  • http://www.cewilton.blogspot.com Carl Wilton

    I, too, have great admiration for Rob Bell and his communicative gifts, but am a bit mystified by those who talk about “a new American Christianity.” Much of what seems so novel to evangelicals has actually been common thought and practice in “liberal” mainline Protestantism for years. An evangelical “discovers” it, and it’s treated as some kind of hitherto unknown revelation. Just goes to show how deep the divide has been between conservative and liberal Christianity: those who grew up on the conservative side of the fence still have little idea what goes on elsewhere.

    • craigdetweiler

      Thanks for responding, Carl. There has absolutely been a deep divide–to the detriment of both camps. The evangelical community did erect a hedge to protect/insulate/inculcate certain values. The rise of the Internet tears down plenty of those barriers though. I see some positive signs of hope and cooperation here at Patheos, don’t you think?