A palatable, comfortable Christianity?

I don’t watch MSNBC much but quite a few readers and friends sent along this video of host Martin Bashir interviewing Pastor Rob Bell. This one interview has turned into a kind of media event in and of itself.

Bell, of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, recently wrote Love Wins. The marketing campaign for the book led some folks to believe it might espouse universalism. That led to some of the hottest pre-publication date discussions we’ve seen for a religious book. The debate among competing camps of evangelicals even made the New York Times.

Once the book was published, criticisms intensified. Since the critique was coming from those who retained more traditional beliefs, you might figure that media coverage might be favorable toward the author and his book. And much of it was.

But not the short video embedded above. (A loose transcript available here.) Bashir is known for his tough interviews. Here’s an example of a brutal chat with P. Diddy from Nightline. If you think celebrities should be handled with kid gloves, you would hate the interview. If you don’t, you might like it better.

As soon as I saw the interview with Bell, I realized it was one of the more interesting interviews I’d seen of a religious figure. But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. On the one hand, some of the questions indicated an understanding of theology that is unmatched among many journalists, much less broadcast journalists. On the other, the tone was very aggressive, perhaps unfairly so. If you didn’t know that this was Bashir’s style, you’d definitely think it’s unfair.

One reader who submitted it to us wrote:

Yeah, I was pretty impressed by how Bashir did his homework in this interview with Rob Bell. It was a confrontational interview, which gives me pause. On the other hand, I doubt any other mainstream journalist would have asked the pointed questions Bashir does.

Bell’s media tour went from stories using the typical template (general support for anything disagreeing with traditional Christianity, a livechat with Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller that takes Bell to task for not being inclusive enough, etc.) to discussion of how much he flailed during the Bashir interview. And then that became a discussion of whether Bashir’s questions (or Bashir himself, in some cases) should be the focal point of discussion.

One Christian radio program interviewed Bashir about his questions, and you can listen to that here. If you’re a typical GetReligion reader, you’ll likely find the interview interesting. Bashir begins, for instance, by pointing out that most people who do interviews such as this haven’t even read the book. He says he did read the book, also went to two academic libraries, and interviewed three scholars (including two with no religious affiliation) and found the book to be evasive, disingenuous and ahistorical. Much of the interview gets into discussions of theology, history, the challenges with the type of evangelicalism Bell was raised in, etc. The questions aren’t the most interesting but Bashir’s answers do give lots to think about journalism and how it is practiced.

It also brings to mind the questions in that old tmatt trio (three questions that can help reporters explore the differences between competing versions of Christianity), with an obvious emphasis on question No. 2:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Tmatt has written extensively about how much information can be gleaned from someone by how they answer these questions. In that light, it’s interesting to compare Bashir’s interview and his own radio interview with Lisa Miller’s chat. Bashir was Muslim but is now married to a Christian and is himself a Christian. Miller is Jewish and says she finds the idea that Jesus is central to salvation offensive.

Perhaps we’re used to seeing so many softball interviews of Harry Emerson Fosdick-like figures because of how reporters themselves answer these questions. And perhaps we’re completely unused to seeing more skeptical interviews such as Bashir’s.

So what type of interview would you like to see more of? What are your criticisms of the various styles? What would be a better way to discuss these issues journalistically?

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  • Sarah Webber

    Thanks for the link to the long interview with Bashir. It was the fascinating, calm and rational explanation of the issues with Bell’s book that I have been waiting for.

  • Sandra Hall

    We must always read things in full to get the context.
    When text is missing we’re left with con.

  • Jerry

    So what type of interview would you like to see more of? What are your criticisms of the various styles? What would be a better way to discuss these issues journalistically?

    I want a reporter to ask the questions I would ask :-) I don’t think the reporter has to be verbally assaultive when asking such questions, but I do think it’s perfectly proper to ask serious questions.

    I do fault Bashir for not asking better questions. For example, he asked:

    Bashir: one critique of your book says this, there are dozens of problems with love wins. the history is inaccurate, the use of scripture indefensible. that’s true, isn’t it?

    That’s much too broad a question and in fact is a compound question. There should have been two questions, one on history and another on theology. The question on history should have had a couple of real examples. And even if there are some historical issues, the question is whether or not these are incidental issues or central to Bell’s thesis. A great interview would have included that level of detail.

    So, while this might be better than a typical road-show “interview”, it’s far from what I would consider an ideal interview.

  • Matt

    I was distinctly unimpressed with both Bell and Bashir in this interview, but I’ll stick to Bashir since my objections there are primarily journalistic.

    1) To be fair, a tough question needs to be specific and to allow space for a constructive response. Bashir’s contention that Bell’s book is unbiblical and unhistorical, followed by “That’s true, isn’t it?” was not such a question. It would have been great for Bashir to give some specific criticisms and let Bell respond to them, but that instead was simply name-calling.

    2) When you ask a question and your guest gives an unsatisfactory answer, the proper thing to do is rephrase your follow-up question so as to zero in on what the guest is trying to avoid. Bashir put it to Bell that his book implies it does not matter what one does with Christ in this life, and Bell somewhat evasively responded that, yes, it does. But rather than asking the obvious “How does it matter what we do with Christ in this life?” (I would actually like to know what Bell would say to that, and I still have no idea), Bashir just repeatedly asked the same question he had already asked, and repeatedly got the same unsatisfactory response from Bell, and nothing moved forward or got illuminated.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Grillings of religious and political leaders like Bashir’s by reporters can be valuable for getting to the truth. …

  • Matt

    Is it really true that Bashir is a Christian? Wikipedia says so, citing this 2003 article that simply calls him such. But maybe he has changed since 2003?

    I’m asking because of Bashir’s opening question about Japan. I thought the question (“Which is it? Is God not powerful or does He not care?”) was combative but fair enough. The obvious response (which Bell failed to give) is that Bashir has posed a false dilemma between God’s love and omnipotence. The question is whether Bashir himself believes in the dilemma he posed, in which case it would be hard to imagine him as a follower of a powerless and/or unloving God. Or, perhaps, was he actually hoping Bell would be smart enough to strike at the question’s root?

  • http://augustiniandemocrat.blogspot.com/ John W Brandkamp

    There are two things that jump out at me about this whole thing. First, it is difficult to do journalism well when it comes to religion, and especially when it deals with detailed issues of dogma/theology. Also, trying to report or interview the figures involved in the emergent movement, which Rob Bell clearly is a part of, makes it even more difficult, since they seem to specialize in evasive language, as the Bashir interview illustrated perfectly.

    Typical journalism is concerned with the “who, what, where, when and why” of a story, whereas the emergent crowd is all about asking questions, but much less concerned with finding answers. It’s a different mindset at work. Traditional journalism is basically modern in its outlook, where as emergents are quite post-modern. Thus they talk past each other instead of with each other.

    The other thing that I’ve been fascinated by in all of this is that Bell and his new book are a Rorschach Test. I’ve now read dozens of reviews of his book (I haven’t read it myself) and each person seems to “read” something quite different, depending on their own tradition of Christianity. Again, this is due to the vagueness typical of emergent writers/pastors in their writing/preaching, so that it’s very hard to pin them down as to what they actually believe.

    So while a journalist would find it difficult but not impossible to describe the differences between the sides in the Episcopal/Anglican split, because both sides have been quite clear in their affirmations and denials, it’s that much harder to engage religious leaders who specialize in evasive/fuzzy language, which is again typical of the emergent movement, whether it’s about sexual ethics or salvation.

    Reporting on competing narratives within religious traditions cannot be done in a sound-bite media culture which cable TV exemplifies to the nth degree. That’s why even though I initially liked the Bashir interview, I’ve since seen it as deeply inadequate.

  • Roberto

    Reporting on competing narratives within religious traditions cannot be done in a sound-bite media culture which cable TV exemplifies to the nth degree. That’s why even though I initially liked the Bashir interview, I’ve since seen it as deeply inadequate.

    I’ll go one step farther: I don’t think that these kinds of discussions are a proper matter for “secular” news coverage at all. That it is one is further evidence of the extent to which religion has become a subset of politics, to the detriment of the former.

    What we have here is an intramural debate within one branch, albeit the most influential branch, of American Christianity. What Bell is said to have written and/or said is literally old news in what TMatt likes to call “ancient churches.” The difference is that these churches know that these debates are to be kept between the faithful whereas contemporary evangelicalism seems to be under the sway of a bunch of show ponies whose raison d’etre is to draw attention to themselves.

    This includes blurring — no make that obliterating – the line between between what properly belongs to the church and what belongs to that area where church and the larger society intersect. In other words, it’s none of the MSM’s business except that the show ponies insist on inviting them to the discussion. That being the case, any distortion, inaccuracy, etc. is to be laid on the feet of those who crave the attention and aren’t content with what the Gospel of John calls eis ta idia, his own things.

  • Bram

    It’s usually orthodox Christian apologists who find themselves taken to task by liberal journalists in interviews like this, which was a case of turn-about-as-fair-play, in which a liberal Christian apologist got taken to task by an orthodox Christian — quelle suprise — in the interviewer’s char. I’d love — love — love to see Bashir and Lisa Miller in a formal debate on Bell’s book. I’d pay, indeed, to watch.

  • Matt

    Bashir is theologically orthodox? Evidence please? Again, how do you explain his first question under such a theory?

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I’m not sure it is accurate to call Mr. Bell a ‘universalist’. As I understand it, universalism means the belief that all WILL, eventually, be saved. What Mr. Bell appears to believe is that all people will eventually have the opportunity to be saved, and that those who haven’t accepted Christ in this life may have a chance to do so after death.

    There’s a difference between saying ‘Heaven will always be open to those that genuinely want to repent’, and saying ‘Everyone will, in the long run, genuinely want to repent’. I would agree with the former, but would strongly disagree with the latter, and I certainly wouldn’t call myself a universalist. For the record, Dostoyevsky (and quite a number of the mystics and visionaries through the history of the church) apparently believed in the possibility of repentance after death, it would be hard to call any of them fluffy postmodernist liberals.

    Mr. Bell isn’t a ‘liberal Christian’, as far as I know, he seems to be squarely in the evangelical tradition. I’m not in that tradition, myself, so I’m not all that familiar with him, but he seems to be good at what he does.

  • Bain Wellington

    Posing a question doesn’t go near defining anyone as orthodox or heterodox, and whether or not Bashir is a Christian at all is irrelevant; the significance lay in Bell being challenged from a theologically orthodox viewpoint. It was sufficient for Bashir to allow Bell to contradict himself on the question whether our temporal existence has any relevance to our eternal destiny. A follow-up question would only have offered Bell a chance to muddy the waters further.

    Something of the same goes for the 2nd-hand accusation of historical inaccuracies and exegetical and theological errors. Bell had a chance to defend himself (by reference to, say, his scholarship) and instead he took refuge in his focus on his “pastoral” approach. This more or less conceded the charge of inaccuracies.

    The genuine surprise was the strap reading “Bell accused of committing heresy”, which might be true, but it was an accusation Bashir did not make. It situates the “news value” of the interview in the mind of someone at MSNBC (even if only a sub-editor).

  • Bain Wellington

    Apologies . . “our behaviour during our temporal existence”.

    As I understand Bell’s position from the interview (I hadn’t heard of him or his book before today), people will be saved not because they will have an opportunity to repent after death, but because they will be “won over” by God’s love in the hereafter . A celestial love-bomb. If so, that makes nonsense of free-will including, especially, in Bell’s own terms (he said: “God is love and love demands freedom”).

    The best part was where Bashir nailed another contradiction: Bell asserts that what happens after death is entirely in the realm of speculation, and yet his book is precisely an account of what will happen in the hereafter (Love will Win).

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    I would like to see someone like John MacArthur or Albert Mohler interviewing a LibProt or a secular liberal.

  • Kamal

    That interview was British-styled hard interviewing at its best. That isn’t to say that it couldn’t’ve done with improvement; it definitely could have. But I loved it all the same. I wish more interviews were that explicit about the issues.

    The strangest thing about the interview, though, is that the truth of Christianity seemed to be assumed. That isn’t something one generally gets from mainstream American media coverage.

  • Bob Smietana

    Wish Bashir had brought up that most of Bell’s critics are NeoReformed Calvinists–who emphasize God’s wrath and human sin in their atonement theology, which they argue is the only way to interpret the Gospel. Bashir appears to be using that neo reformed understanding in his interview.

  • Bob Smietana

    Bad interview. Bashir is takiung the New Reformed definition of the Gospel and presenting it as the orthodox position. And instead of asking Bell to explain his theology, Bashir in essence kept asking Bell the theological equivalent of, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

  • http://recreative.wordpress.com Recreative

    One thing is for sure – the conversation about heaven and hell in the evangelical world is coming to a head with the publication of Bell’s book. It is certainly a conversation worth having. Please join some of us who are gong through the book chapter-by-chapter at http://recreative.wordpress.com.

  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Bad interview. Bashir is takiung the New Reformed definition of the Gospel and presenting it as the orthodox position.

    The funny thing about many evangelical/reformed Christians, is that when you talk to them about some other topics (about Mary the Mother of God, for a start) you suddenly realise just how un-orthodox they are. And yes, Bashir’s ‘interview’ was almost as farcical as Lisa Miller’s. A thoughtful interview does _not_ mean asking ‘have you stopped beating your wife’, either from a liberal or a conservative perspective.

    Re: As I understand Bell’s position from the interview (I hadn’t heard of him or his book before today), people will be saved not because they will have an opportunity to repent after death, but because they will be “won over” by God’s love in the hereafter .

    If that is the case, then Bell’s position is indeed pretty silly, and it does make a mockery of free will. I think it’s possible to hold that those in hell will have some kind of post-mortem opportunity to repent, and that such opportunities may, indeed, be eternally on offer. I’d hold that view myself, and I would refer back to things like St. John telling us that the gates of heaven will be always open. But to say that eventually everyone _will_ be won over, is to obliterate free will. Freedom means the freedom to remain unrepentant, forever.

  • Bram

    Hector St Clare writes:

    “If that is the case, then Bell’s position is indeed pretty silly, and it does make a mockery of free will.”

    “[To] say that eventually everyone _will_ be won over, is to obliterate free will.”

    “Freedom means the freedom to remain unrepentant, forever.”

    I agree.

    But I have to ask Hector St Clare why he’s spent so much energy here in defending Bell, without even knowing what the case is that Bell has tried to make.

    Whatever objections Hector St Clare may have to Martin Bashir, Bashir did at least take the trouble not only to educate himself on Bell’s ideas, but also to read Bell’s book in its entirety.

  • Wrigley Peterborough

    The interview may seem “confrontational” by Yank standards, but this is common journalistic practice in the Brit press. Just watch England’s highly rated “Hard Talk” where even celebrities are taken apart by the hosts. I think an adversarial press, provided they are open about their allegiances, as they are in Europe where there is no illusion of the media being an honest broker, is a good thing.

  • http://stewedrabbit.blogspot.com Edwin

    The problem with Bashir’s interview wasn’t that he was confrontational, but that he simply beat Bell over the head with Bashir’s preconceptions about what Bell was saying, instead of forcing Bell to answer specific questions. There was really no way, in a limited time, for Bell to answer Bashir’s questions. This was not an honest interview.

    And yes, I’ve heard BBC reporters act this way, and I don’t like it. It’s counter-productive, because the target has no way to respond constructively.

  • Jerry

    I loved Mr. Bashir’s style. I wish every journalist would use this hard hitting, no BS style to get to the truth. Had this been done with the Bush administration perhaps we would not have invaded Iraq. Politicians know that time is on their side with interviews. They know if they evade the question long enough the interviewer will move on to another question or time will eventually give way to a commercial break. Even the better politicians when posed a question that they don’t like will answer one of their own choosing in place of the distasteful one, Michele Bachmann and David Axelrod are good at this. At the very least journalist should study some of Jon Stewart’s interviews of pundits and politicans.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I appreciated Mr. Bashir’s willingness to take the book seriously enough to read it, research it and then ask tough questions of its author. Whether or not he accepted Mr. Bell’s conclusions himself, he took them seriously and I really think that’s what Christians (and everybody else, while we’re at it) should be able to expect from reporters who want to interview them or write about them.

  • keljeck

    I thought the interview was incredibly frustrating to watch. And this is a good example of why:

    Why do you choose, for example, to accept and promote the works of the early writer Origen and not, for example, Arius who took a view of jesus’ deity as being not God? Why do you select one?

    This question is nonsensical. It shows Bashir doesn’t have a firm grasp on what he’s talking about. I have read Love Wins, and Rob Bell doesn’t “accept and promote the works of the early writer Origen.” He accepts Origen insofar as Origen believed all would eventually be redeemed. But this is hardly “Origenism.” And the hope that God would bring all to salvation is hardly a slippery slope to Arianism.

    The problem is not the style, necessarily. Bashir’s questions are either ill informed, too all-encompassing, or on a totally different wavelength. It makes for a frustrating interview.

  • Bram


    Bashir wasn’t implying that Bell’s recuperation of aspects of Origen was a slippery slope to Arianism. He was simply asking why Bell rejects the Church’s judgement parts of Origen’s thought, while accepting its judgement against parts of Arius’s as own. I think the concern was that Bell was cherry-picking for recuperation only those points of theology –like Origen’s here — that are conducive to the new-model liberalism he wants to promote as the “emergent” Church. Tradition gets overthrown and ruled invalid in Origen’s case, but not in Arius’s case. I think what Bashir was getting at, though maybe not as clearly as would have been good, is the question of what criteria — if any — there are in “emergent” theology to evaluate Arian theology and reaffirm it as heresy. Another way of putting that would be to ask if there even is such a thing as heresy in “emergent” theology, or whether, instead, it is more or less “Katie bar the door,” in theological terms.

  • keljeck


    What annoyed me was the belief that if Rob Bell doesn’t agree with what’s considered orthodoxy, in this case, there’s no reason to fall into one heresy over another. Why not accept both heresies? “Why do you select one?” “Slippery slope” was the wrong way of putting it, but it’s not like all heresy’s flow into each other, and orthodoxy is a great ship keeping us all dry. He can reject Arianism because it is against his interpretation of Scripture. Just like he believes he’s following Scripture right now.

    Also, the Church never condemned Origen’s belief in the redemption of everything. They condemned other aspects of Origen’s teaching, but Rob Bell does not accept any of them. This makes the question particularly egregious.

  • PM

    Martin Bashir was a terrible, terrible interviewer. It sounded like he was cross-examining a hostile witness in a courtroom. Bell handled the interview very well – he just didn’t give the answers Bashir wanted.

    What I find fascinating is how many members of what slacktivist calls “Team Hell” are pushing this interview. Does Team Hell really want to identify itself with a bullying interviewer who keeps ending questions with “isn’t it?” and “aren’t you?”?

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Bell handled the interview very well – he just didn’t give the answers Bashir wanted.

    Actually I thought Bell handled the interview terribly. His answers were pretty vacuous and devoid of serious theological scholarship. (Of course, Bashir’s questions were largely vacuous as well). He could have responded to Bashir’s question about Arianism (which is, at bottom, the same fundamental question that a lot of Catholics and Orthodox ask of Protestants) with a lucid, compelling case about the authority of conscience, the authority of reason and experience, and the like. There are many good ways to answer that question. Unfortunately, Bell didn’t supply any of them.

    I wasn’t particularly intellectually stimulated by either one of them, to be honest, and I can think of many better ways I could have spend those five minutes.