Sharks, Dolphins, and the Curious Progressive Theology of Rob Bell

Why do sharks and dolphins have similar body shapes, even though they aren’t closely related? What about snakes and worms? Why do bats and birds solve the problem of flight in similar ways? And why does Rob Bell sound so much like a progressive Christian?

One of the really interesting things about the process of evolution is the phenomenon known as convergent evolution. Convergent evolution describes what happens when two living things that are not closely related, like the pairs above, adapt to similar ecological niches with similar structures. Dolphins are not fish, yet they have evolved very fish-like structures—like flippers—to suit their environment. Bats are not birds, and yet they have wings. These animals are not in a lineage with one another (at least not until you get far, far up the tree of life), and yet they resemble one another. What gives?

I had the pleasure of hearing Rob Bell speak last night. He is making the rounds with his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I haven’t read the book yet, but his talk hewed closely to its argument, and I am familiar with Bell from his Nooma videos, and from the controversy over his last book, Love Wins. (“Everybody loved it,” he told us last night, tongue in cheek.).

As I listened to Bell speak—and it has to be noted that he is one of the most compelling speakers in all of Christianity—a question kept percolating to the surface of my thoughts. The question took many different forms throughout the evening, but the most basic form was this: Where does this guy get this stuff? I don’t mean that question in the way many conservative and evangelical Christians would ask it, as a rhetorical question, which for them has an answer something like, “the devil.” I mean it as a real question—a question of lineage. Who has he been reading? Put another way: Does Rob Bell stand in the lineages commonly claimed by progressive Christians, or does he represent a new evolution of similar structures?

I first started wondering about this when Love Wins was published. In it, Bell dispenses with the notion of hell. This caused an uproar in conservative and evangelical circles, which have long claimed Bell as one of their own, but it barely provoked yawns in progressive Christian circles. Yeah, many of us don’t really believe in hell either. Even those of us who do believe in hell are familiar with the arguments against it. It was amusing, really, that people found Bell’s claims so outrageous. And for me, Bell’s argument called to mind the thought of another pariah of a Christian, Origen of Alexandria, who 1800 years ago articulated the notion of apokatastasis—the idea that all that falls away from God would be rejoined with God in the end. Universal salvation. Love wins. Did Bell read Origen, I wondered? Or did he come up with this on his own?

And last night, during his talk (one could say “lecture,” and one could say “sermon,” so I’ll go with “talk”), Bell riffed on faith and doubt, and the idea that doubt is a necessary part of faith. For me, like so many other people trained in the progressive Christian tradition, Paul Tillich alarm bells started ringing. Bell lists Tillich in the back of his book, with respect to Tillich’s description of God as the “ground of being,” so perhaps here he’s reading Dynamics of Faith when he thinks about faith and doubt. It’s been said that all 20th and 21st century Protestant theology comes from either Tillich or Karl Barth; conservatives tend to follow Barth and liberals tend to follow Tillich. I can’t decide which is more interesting to me: the idea that Bell started with Barth but now finds a more natural home in Tillich, or the idea that Bell’s ideas are a new evolution, coming from Barth but converging on Tillichian structures.

And then there was the Process thought. Oh, the Process thought! If there is one really vital direction in progressive Christian theology, it’s Process thought, and if there was one strong theological tone undergirding Bell’s words, it was Process thought. Process theology takes as its starting point the thought of Alfred North Whitehead and has grown to encompass much of the science-religion conversation Bell wants to join. It’s a strong and vital movement, but even within progressive Christianity, some people look at it sideways, uncertain of how to think of it. Does Bell embrace it? Or better yet, does he know he embraces it? Or—and again, here’s the evolution question—did he arrive at Process theology all on his own?

Most of the “evolution” I describe here is welcome news to progressive Christians. Bell’s event last night was attended by an earnest mix of hipster Christians, seminary students, old radicals, and gawkers wanting to see if Bell would reaffirm his stance supporting marriage equality. (He did, and he does). This mostly-progressive crowd loved him, and gave him a standing ovation. Conservative and evangelicals, however are not so pleased. They see Bell as a turncoat, a heretic, and a false prophet. And I can see their point. As a member of the Christian left, I’ve been called all those things too. To use a slightly different biological metaphor, they’re saying that Bell looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck. He’s no longer one of them. He’s a progressive Christian. Or, worse yet, a liberal.

I tend to agree. And I think it’s great. But my biggest question is: how did he get there?

Or, to return to the metaphor of evolution: Rob Bell has long swum with the sharks. Everyone assumed he was a shark. But now the sharks are angry, and I can see why: Rob Bell sure looks like a dolphin these days. And my question is: where did he get these new flippers?

The Rev. Eric Smith is Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Denver, CO. He has a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School and is currently a PhD candidate in Biblical Interpretation in the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007. 

About Eric Smith

Eric Smith, PhD, is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and is the Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Denver, CO.

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  • Tracy

    When we’re all done putting God in a box, do we have to put one another there too?

    I’m a Smith. I’m nothing like my sister or my two brothers. But its the family I grew up in, the family I know and undoubtedly, you’ll find some Smith-like characteristics in me, even if I don’t vote like them or eat like them.

    Maybe we can let Rob name himself, and call it good-enough. If he wants to call himself an evangelical, fine. Evangelicals often love CS Lewis. But he never called himself an evangelical. He wasn’t a Biblical Literalist. And he was a quasi-universalist. Can’t we just say, “it’s messy?”

    As to wondering where Bell got his ideas — fair enough, maybe, but haven’t you ever had an idea and then read it elsewhere? Why don’t we consider that maybe he is smart enough to arrive at an idea on his own? I once heard a Presbyterian wax eloquently on the his tradition’s notion of the independence of the conscience, only to have a Catholic reply, “we have that too!”

    Do we really want to spend a lot of time wondering whether Bell got his “ground of being” type ideas from Tillich or Hildegaard of Bingen. I have no idea if Tillich knew about Hildegaard, but he sure sounded like her, didn’t he?

    • Frank

      There is nothing smart or correct about Bells theology.

      • LMeiring

        Here, here!!

    • spiritanointed

      “Why don’t we consider that maybe he is smart enough to arrive at an idea on his own?”

      I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what this post did. Wondering if Bell came up with this on his own or if he’s been reading. o.0

      Personally, I find it interesting to speculate upon because it mirrors my own experience. I was a shark; but now I’m a dolphin. And I came to it through a horrible dark night experience. And then after deciding on things such as universalism I started finding others who espoused the positions and started reading them. So, I believe I was led there by God and then feeling ever so alone in my new found theology, God let me know that there were others like me. Kind of like Elijah being fed in the wilderness, when he felt so alone and then was told that there were 6000 others.

      Bell is far braver than I, however. I’m a dolphin who wears a shark costume every Sunday. *sigh* I’m not going to be able to do that much longer…

  • Brian P.

    One of the interesting things that’s starting to go on is that everybody is getting exposed more directly to everybody else’s stuff. Chalk that one up to the Internet in many ways.

    In the old world (prior to the last few years), it was much easier to be sheltered in one’s youth group, one’s small group, one’s church, one’s Bible college, one’s seminary, one’s denomination, one’s circle of often theologically homogenous acquaintances.

    That’s harder to do today. Last year, for instance, I read Eusebius’ church history on my Kindle. I downloaded it in seconds, read it for free. I suppose if Bell has read Origen in his own words, he did it very easily, in technologically contemporary ways.

    It’s becoming harder and harder for isolationist worldviews to remain isolationist.

  • http://huffingtonpost.com/greg-carey GregC
  • Eva

    Definitely off to find this new book; sounds fascinating.

  • Beth

    Many of his ideas are rooted in Judaism; which seems like the right place to be rooted. Jesus was an observant Jew His whole life here on Earth.

  • Aaron B.

    I know Rob Bell and I went to the same college…we read Origen and had a long mostly positive convos about him in class. I’ve always seen Bell as seeking to translate the insights from theology to mainstream evangelicals. He knows how to speak to those of us that have grown up in a narrow tradition, but are looking for a more liberal Christianity.

    • Michael Teston

      I think Aaron you are exactly right. I’ve been in this thing for almost 30 years leading, teaching, preaching etc. Raised Catholic, wandered through all the typical evangelical and non-denoms trying to find a church home in my very early 20s, eventually pastored for 27 years in a main-line denom, read scripture till I was blue in the face, Bible Studies etc., read Tillich, early church fathers, just a plethora of people, formed by guys like Brueggemann, worked as a V.A. Chaplain early on in my training . . . I found myself in contexts with some very “left” leaning folks and very “right” leaning folks. Depending on the context, I would lean one way or the other to gain balance and appreciation for something other than either/or. Our need to paste labels is killing the witness. I would argue that Bell is doing exactly what all of us are doing, taking ALL the insights he has gleaned over the years and “translated” them to the mainstream, not just religious right or left, but the mainstream person, the typical person on the street. It is quite clear to me that Bell understands that person in our culture because everytime I hear him, I’m nodding in agreement. And I for one find that marvelous. The problem with most religious types is they have lived in their “churh-theo-bubbles” for so long they hear Bell and think, “never heard that or heard that and its heresy.” I was taught many moons ago that as a leader you would have to make much of what is learned in the academy accessible to most who won’t do the hard work to grasp it all. Bell, being the artist he is, uses images/metaphors that certainly resonate with me. But there is a bias against such creative types in places called “church.” I have spent some time recently trying to get my mind around the recent works of Science ie. quantum physics and the like to begin to integrate biblical-theological stuff with mainstream, again making it accessible. Bell is on that trajectory as well. My suspicion is that Bell is so far ahead thinking, imagining, and linking these “illustrations” with core theological stuff that others can’t keep up and so they label it nonsense or worse. The “shots” that Bell takes because he is doing just that are essentially unfair and unfounded. To say this guy doesn’t know the “scriptures” or worse is just ridiculous. Almost everything this guy puts out there is an attempt to speak to the depth & breath of things spiritual, theological, and lived. I’ve stepped away myself from the “church” because it got way to claustrophobic and spiritually, mentally, emotionally reductionistic. What I began to realize in my own attempts to spread the “goodnews” as opposed to the bad was that people outside the confines of “church” were more receptive to the “message” than insiders. Not just receptive when actually expressed in really “good” news but excited about it. The “abundant life” offered cannot be confined to ridiculous labels. Rob Bell is Rob Bell a human being made in the image of God and I think a wonderfully creative teacher who has assisted people in finding their way and find the Way.

  • mike h

    I came from the evangelical fold. Conservative. One of the sharks. A couple years into Seminary working toward an M. Div. and my thoughts began to change. At that time I had never heard of Brian McClaren or Rob Bell or any other progressive. Yet, I was evolving into one of them. It wasn’t until my last year in that program that a professor unwittingly assigned McClaren’s A New Kind of Christianity as a required text. His reason was to show us the heresies we may come up against. I found a new language to articulate what I had already begun to think. I don’t think it’s a matter of policy or labels. Who knows? Maybe it’s something like the Holy Spirit. Go figure.

  • Mick Jagger

    Rob didn’t say anything in Love Wins that NT Wright and CS Lewis have not said.

    He’s not doing anything radically different than what has been done – he’s just doing it in a more outspoken, vocal, and thoughtful way. And he has a massive following, which has drawn attention to his words in a way that other authors have not experienced.

    No, this is not an evolution of a new way of thinking.

    Perhaps Rob’s avoidance of citing sources in his books is his undoing. He claims, in Love Wins, to be within the folds of Orthodoxy – which I believe is true. And other’s might, too, if he have listed contemporary examples of people who share the same beliefs.

    • Christine

      ” He claims, in Love Wins, to be within the folds of Orthodoxy – which I believe is true. And other’s might, too, if he have listed contemporary examples of people who share the same beliefs.”

      You need to quote enough ‘experts’ in order to convince people a stance is Biblical, rather than letting the scripture stand for itself? That’s news to me, and kind of sad if true.

  • dave

    Just skimming through the footnotes of any of his books gives the impression that Bell is well-read and deeply formed by historical theology and those deemed progressives. I recall even seeing Marcus Borg referenced in one of his books. But, I’ve know many to come out of Fuller with a well-informed background like this. I think he’s very good at communicating theological viewpoints that are often bogged down in academic language.

  • Keith

    This article sounds like a man who absolutely has no idea what he’s talking about (and trying very hard to sound like he is intelligent) trying to discuss the views of another man (Bell) who really has no idea what he’s talking about. You guys should stick to the Word and get away from books.

  • Joe Hagy

    Sharks go into a stupor when turned upside down, a sleep state. Killer whales and other dolphins will hit sharks hard enough to stun them and then turn them upside down. A shark has to swim to breath. Holding them upside down they die. Then the orca, at least, eat them. Now this a real life fact. If there is a metaphor here, I’ll not follow up on it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

      Is it Shark Week already?

  • Brandon

    I enjoyed this post. First time to your blog. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • http://livingequipoise.blogspot.co.uk/ Celia Kozlowski

    I’m not a theology devotee, but dear husband sees a lot of Tom Wright in Bell.
    What I have always loved about Bell is his focus on the love of God, and his sense that God lies in truth, including the truths brought to you by Science. And I think many people love that he has always understood that many people have been hurt by hypocritical churches that judge, exclude, and focus on their own bank accounts or churchy issues (music styles; gay marriage) rather than continuing the most conspicuous work of Christ — feeding, clothing, visiting, healing, freeing the oppressed etc. I think Bell’s book, in showing the arc of progress (led by the Old Testament and then continued by Jesus) away from tribalism, is also making the case for not putting labels on himself… He doesn’t want to encourage progressives or emergent churchers or evangelicals or post-evangelicals or Tillichians or Barthians or anyone else to assign him to a tribe (or reject him for being in another tribe). I’m happy just to let Rob be Rob (and am sitting on my hands to keep myself from a fistpump, YESSSSSS. That would be very wrong.)

  • http://www.convergingzone.com Robert Ricciardelli

    I think Rob Bell is a thinker and we need more of them. Also, if he stood alone in his thoughts, there might be reason for great concern, but he does not. As one who regularly communicates with thinkers both inside and outside the box of Christianity around the world, I am able to see trends. Rob is one of the early adopters of a trend that is becoming widespread. Embraxe the truth you can digest now, give grace to what you cannot, and love regardless because God is Love, and Love does win.

  • jerry lynch

    I see the usual same response from a couple of true-blue “sharks” in here: no engagement with the material just the final judgment of he’s wrong and so are any of you who agree with Bell or the author of the piece. Plus the usual insult to the character of the writer. This is my same experience with the two Christian forums I used to frequent: unabashed hatred of liberal theology that included personal unsults. I must have a deep and wide streak of naivete because each time I come across this attitude I am shocked and flabbergasted. Taken aback each time. It is thus tempting, once I recover a little, to believe that their faith is highly questionable, for who could really know Christ and behave in such a fashion, and thus their demeanor tends to support my views on Biblical truth. But when my recovery is complete I see there is no direct correlation and need to keep my eyes and mind open despite the attacks.

    • renee altson

      indeed. thank you jerry.

      the way they behave really makes me want to be as less like them as possible.

  • http://www.fulc.com Susan Strouse

    Wow, my thought (almost) exactly when I heard Rob Bell in Berkeley last week. I was mostly taken with all the process theology I was hearing. My question, though, is: how do those of us who preach this every Sunday convince the crowds coming out to hear Bell that they can get it every Sunday in a church near them? They may have to look around a bit, but we’re here!

  • http://curtisbronzan.com Curtis

    Good thoughts here. The book reveals some definite influence from Tillich and Process.

  • Jerry Fallguy

    That the author of this post & many readers of it are ascribing the term “sharks” to conservatives & “dolphins” to progressives demonstrates that few if any of you are as loving or tolerant or fair-minded as you think you are. You’re perpetuating a hurtful stereotype, and that falls way short of building bridges. If that’s “dolphin-like,” then Flipper can dry up on the beach. Of course there are plenty of sharks among conservative evangelicals…but I’ve encountered enough progressives (and have read their blogs, etc.) to know they have fangs, too…and they frequently show them & use them. I’m with Chief Brody; the rest of us “need a bigger boat.”

    • jerry lynch

      the “shark” reference was incidental and not inntended as a slight. It could have salt and pepper shackers or any two things bearing same resemblance but essentially different in nature. But I can see how you could take offense. If you read the above comments, you will see what I was referring to: the two conservative posters just said anyone who agreed was wrong and one had to insult the writer.

  • Dumbsheep Thoughts

    I have to agree with Jerry Fallguy. The “progressive” arrogance is deafening. The attitude of “when you grow up you will understand” toward the broad spectrum of evangelicals condescending and anything but loving. Come talk when you are ready to listen with some humility.

    • Dean Chang

      How loving and humble of you to make such a loving and humble offer to all of us dumb sheep so in need of your wisdom.

  • Samir Dawlatly (@SDawlatly)

    Well written article, thank you Eric and interesting in a bible/theology-geek way.
    Fascinating comments as always on these blogs
    Love the way people can only ignore trolls for so long…

    We were just discussing in church today how difficult it is to be non-judgemental about fellow Christians with different sets of beliefs to ourselves and hard it is to discuss things without getting angry/upset/annoyed/unChristlike.

    Peace x

  • http://dmdutcher.wordpress.com D.M. Dutcher

    Hello, basking shark here. Om nom nom.

    You mentioned doubt and faith, and what is interesting to me is that Bell has actually removed it, not embraced it. For us sharks, very few of us really like the idea of hell. It’s troubling, and we don’t know how to reconcile it with God’s mercy. But that trouble is good; it keeps us from falling into complacency, and assuming that we know everything is going to be all right. Remember the parable of the ten virgins? It’s like waiting up with the lamps. Even if our Master relents on those with unlit ones, it is not for us to wave away His words entirely. Or like in the other parable, we don’t want to get lazy and beat out fellow servants thinking that. God gives mercy to who He does, and we need to be humble.

    But progressives to me don’t doubt at all. Marriage equality? God’s okay with it! Hell? No way! Their explanations are too neat, and too often seem to be dangerously close to what people who think Christianity is an outmoded religion believe for comfort. God does A,B, and C, and for all the talk about doubt, I really don’t see it.

    To extend the fish metaphor, us sharks are wary of you dolphins because you like human snacks too much, and we worry one day you’ll sacrifice your freedom in the deep blue sea for a shallow pool at Sea World. Bell has just learned how to backflip and bounce a ball on his nose, and he’s showing off for us sharks, who are edging away from him. Hopefully this will help explain our mindset.

  • The Fonz

    Jumping the Shark

    I like the shark analogy, but with a slightly different spin. Mr. Bell’s latest turn from the truth of the Bible (Hell, marriage, etc.) is another example of him “jumping the shark”! The cool kid that everyone wanted to be like has just proven he is not to be taken seriously. Mr. Bell’s evolution of thought has taken him from the Truth of the Word, to the point that he now decides the truth as he sees fit. Each step of his evolutionary process is taking him closer to secular humanism, and farther from Biblical Truth.

    It really is disappointing; instead of working to bring the world closer to God by pointing out sin and grace of Christ, he is moving farther from God and closer to the world and providing justification for sin, no need for Christ. Unfortunately, I’m sure he’ll jump another shark soon….

  • Noel

    When I viewed Bell’s youtube video on the ressurrection, i had tears in my eyes. It was beautifilly done.

  • http://liberty21.org Mike D’Virgilio

    I’m all for faith backward! J. Gresham Machen had it right in 1923: liberal Christianity isn’t Christianity at all! I know that will tick off liberal or “progressive” Christians, but orthodoxy is orthodoxy for a reason, and Rob Bell is increasingly distancing himself from it. Popularity is a big price to pay.

    • Christine

      “Orthodoxy is orthodoxy for a reason”

      And what reason is that?

  • http://christiannationbiz.fatcow.com/ Cory Konners

    Lets see, He was once a shark, now a dolphin. The conservatives arent happy, the progressives love him. The big question from the author is “where did he get this stuff”. What religion did you guys say this was?
    The Rev. Eric Smith is a left winger, which basically means he takes Biblical theology and twists it, where ever it may lead, but stay away from the truth of course.
    And then, the evolution of progressive theology to “process thought”. What happens when your curiousity wanes after a minute or so? It all seems like more art than science,though. Artists, with a B.S. included, perhaps.

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