When a Roman Catholic Reads About Rob Bell, What Does He See?

A few years ago, while I was in graduate school, I sang and played guitar for the contemporary services at Peace Lutheran Church in Gahanna, Ohio. After being there for nearly a year, the assistant pastor introduced me to Rob Bell. He gave me a copy of Velvet Elvis and told me I could keep it if I gave him a full report. (A review. The same thing that got me to read this book.) He wanted to know what I thought. I did my duty. Pencil in hand, I worked through the whole book in an hour and a half. Maybe two hours. Not long. I absolutely detested the book. I wasn’t offended by its theological claims. I was bored mostly. It had no theological rigor whatsoever, no thought really. It was full of easy assertions, truisms, cliches, and logical contradictions. It was also written in a rather tortured, choppy, and insulting prose, the sort of thing that would make Dan Brown look respectable. Tabloid quality writing and layout. Purposefully bad. I went back and gave the pastor my full report.

Rob Bell, I said, strikes me as a kind of Joel Osteen 2.0, an edgy mega-pastor more related to a rock and roll, white middle class version of Oprah than anyone else I could think of. He sort of gave me an awkward shrug and suggested I check out more substantive writers in the “emergent church” crowd.

And, no, by the way: I didn’t write that to recant it later. No redemption here. But there is more to the story than that. This is what I appreciated about James K. Wellman’s book, Rob Bell and the New American Christianity.

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Wellman makes a strong case to take Bell seriously, for aesthetic, not theological reasons. His book triples as biography, qualitative research, and religious endorsement.

These three strands come together in the undeniable fact that, in certain respects, Bell seems to be doing what us Catholics have been calling “the New Evangelization.” He has managed to communicate — within a the rather narrow niche of American post-protestantism. Bell has cultural resonance. While his religious instincts are often woefully under-read and rather simplistic in their breadth and depth, despite Wellman’s attempt to show them as otherwise, his voice and ministry appear to be strategically embedded in a cultural response to the times as they are, warts and all. And his finishing note, so Wellman argues, is a call to an aesthetic vision of Christianity, an evangelical call to see the Gospel — and Christ — as beautiful.

There is surely something going on here that is serious. Wellman convinced me of that much. The question is whether it is religious. I’m not choosy. I buy the idea that the secular is sacred — I’m a Franciscan after all — but there is something about Bell’s ministerial math that still doesn’t add up. There is a difference between a simple, perfect, masterpiece and its simplistic, flavorless converse. If we measure religious impact in terms of sheer popularity, Bell deserves some short-term recognition. It is certainly less fake and facile than the prosperity gospels that still linger somehow. But many of Wellman’s own questions often seem to miss opportunities to show that depth, opting instead for the controversy and the publicity. His rather odd discussion of whether Bell is a charismatic or a virtuoso, based on rather arbitrary litanies of loosely related word banks, is a key example.

In the end, Wellman makes a convincing argument that Bell understands the art of the matter. Art is all about timing, and Bell’s timing thus far has been uncannily well-placed. But Wellman does not convince me, perhaps because he realizes this too, of Bell’s ability to understand the full religious weight of the matter. Bell simply redefines the terms and rolls from there. Is he anointed or opportunistic — or both?

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I’ve often wondered what the University of Oregon’s flashy-Nike-uniform-clad football team will wear for their vintage, throw-back look in ten or twenty years. I wonder a lot of the same things about Bell. Wellman’s book left my mind wandering to Joseph Smith, the original gansta of the New American Christianity, and I don’t know quite what to make of the comparison.

What I do think a Catholic could learn from this book is that the New Evangelization needs artists, and good ones. Even good ones by today’s popular standards. We need a Catholic Questlove. As I’ve written before: we need Catholic jazz.

Wellman’s book is best read, I think, as biography. Here we meet a celebrated and despised man who seems to recognize the genius in speaking directly at that hyped imagery and calling it by name. Today’s evangelists are great at this, Bell included. Authentic self-effacment shocks and disarms and opens doors to honest talk and community. But it only lasts so long when it becomes aware of itself and strategic. But why opt for anything less than real?

These personal challenges spill over into the religious discussion, but I wish they didn’t move there so quicky or easily. I wish there was more of a psychoanalytic reading of Bell here, a darker and perhaps more self-reflexive glance at a person who’s final verdict is still wide open.

Bell will not go down in history for his religious or theological contributions. Time magazine is right place for him in that respect. But he might be memorable and instructive to us for his testimony: his struggle to live a life in times when that is hard to do.

In the end I appreciated Wellman’s book as an existential and confessional text, an unfinished story that seems, in this reader’s view, on a collision course with the tragicomic.

  • Bob

    Isn’t being able to communicate exactly the power of Scott Hahn for Catholics and those interested in Catholicism?

    • srocha

      Or course it is, in differing degrees. I think the audiences of Bell are radically different than those of Hahn, but I also think that — despite my critical opinions of some of Hahn’s popular works — the scholarship and rigor of Hahn’s ministry is also very different, and much, much better, than Bell’s.

  • Barbara Nicolosi

    Is Catholic jazz like Catholic baseball? Or Catholic surgery? I’m pretty sure I don’t know what any of those things could possibly be. Catholic is not an adjective. Certainly there can be defining Catholic precepts that underpin certain works of art, but they tend to be much more articulate than something you could express in certain inarticulate art forms like jazz. I don’t even think it makes sense to strive for a “Christian” jazz nevermind a “Catholic” one.

    This piece delivered very little in terms of the promise of its title. To say that Bell is like Osteen isn’t helpful. It’s like saying that Snooky is like a Kardashian. You are presuming that people know what is wrong with Osteen from a Catholic perspective. I wish you would take another crack at the errors in Bell as apparent to someone with a Catholic theology. I would link to it for all my Evangelical friends who are so caught up in Bell as yet the latest guru/pope in their Magisterium-less desert.

    • srocha

      On Catholic jazz: maybe you’ll have to read the book and see?!

      On Bell and Osteen: you’re right, I am assuming that people understand what is wrong with Osteen. Although my comparison was more stylistic, in terms of their way of projecting themselves and so on.

      If it’s a Bell take-down that you want, this surely isn’t it. I’m sure I could do it. But then I’d have to read more of his books. Too bad I gave away my notes on Velvet Elvis.

    • Adams

      He meant Claude Osteen. It’s Catholic baseball.

    • Elizabeth Duffy
    • Bryan

      “Catholic” is an adjective. It comes from the Greek “katolikos” meaning “universal.” It is applied to the noun “Church,” as in The Church founded by Our Lord, the universal one, in distinction from schismatic/heretical/protestant traditions of this one Church. Its use as a noun is a relatively modern application.

  • Steve

    I was first introduced to Rob Bell in, believe it or not, an RCIA class last year. We were shown the video called “Breathe” which I thought & still think is a very powerful video. I recently read his book “Love Wins” which I thought was good, but not really groundbreaking. He has a lot of Christians pissed off so maybe he’s on to something…

    • joe

      “He has a lot of Christians pissed off so maybe he’s on to something…” We could say the same thing about Glen Beck. “Love Wins” is on to something, alright, an old heresy, even as it takes a page from von Balthasar and the latest Popes, none of whom are very Catholic in this one specific regard, despite their praise of each other. Just saying.

  • http://www.bede.org Stefanie

    I’ve read a lot of Rob Bell — and transcribed some of his videos — over the past few years. He inspired me from time to time — although I find in the notes I scribbled within his books, I was mostly arguing with him and the “Christian” heresies he was re-introducing though slyly, they were re-packaged and seemed shiny-new for New Agers.
    In essence, with Rob Bell, ‘by your fruits, you shall know them’ — and the house-church-gone-mega-church that he founded and wrote about with such passion in “Velvet Elvis”…he recently walked away from it.
    Now he is merely a self-promoter of ‘how to connect with people’ via images/new media outreach/technology. In other words, no more Jesus, instead, all-about-Rob. You could take anything new he is writing/producing –and remove Jesus and have a great recipe for business success. This he has done. Someone must have told him that he was wasting his time, promoting Jesus when he could be the next-big-marketing guru. All things to all people.
    I say this not to criticize Rob – hey, everyone needs to make a living — but that he is no longer relevant as an “edgy” pastor.
    In a way, he reminds me of the latest James Bond movie — beautiful to look at, but cold-cold-cold and no soul alive within.

  • ann

    I met Rob Bell last year because I wanted to figure out the kind of person whose work I was so drawn to. I can only say that I am not convinced he thinks he deserves all of this attention and that his commentary on the back of Velvet Elvis really seemed to sum his ownership of his opinions up, “God has spoke and the rest is commentary.” It seems like he is similar to the rest of us who are trying to articulate a message and meaning to our Christian faith. Does he sound convinced in his own brilliance at times, sure…that is passion for his topic. But I think his take has added a great deal of value to the conversation as a whole. I think that what some dismiss as simplistic is a welcome change to the over thought theology out there. As a Catholic, I love the great minds of our faith but I also think that there are a lot of people who marvel at their own insights so it is refreshing to have a simple approach. Does he have longevity? Who knows. But for the groups I have run, his material speaks to them and draws them deeper into a desire to know Jesus better. I really can’t figure out how that is wrong.

  • C J Dull

    As someone trained as an ancient historian (and who also once lived in the Columbus, Ohio, area), I think talking about “rigor” and such things for essentially popular level writers is hoping for a bit much. In the Roman Catholic Church’s long tradition, many of these writers can be peacefully buried under the “devotional” column, but most others tend to simply be forgotten over time. I imagine Charles Sheldon is still read (his circulation supposedly is about the same as Valley of the Dolls), Norman Vincent Pearle is now probably best known for performing the wedding for David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. Harry Emerson Fosdick is mostly a name, if even that. Do Catholics still read Bishop Sheen (almost a rock-star-like celebrity in the fifties) or Fulton Oursler. In short, the genre seems to have built-in limitations, and I think we do ourselves an injustice by taking Bell and those like him seriously.

    C J Dull

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  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    I’m a Methodist pastor who celebrates mass every Monday at the National Shrine in DC. If Catholicism could have jazz, I would probably be Catholic, but when James has to be Jesus’ cousin even though adelphos means “of the same womb” in order to preserve the papal infallibility of declaring Mary’s perpetual virginity, that’s like playing jazz with a guitar player who only knows three chords. It is the same magisterial inertia that would keep my wife from being a priest if we converted which I would otherwise do (can’t speak for her). Perhaps you guys are the bass-line and evangelicalism is the lead guitar. We certainly need to listen for the bass more than we have. When you read Bell uncharitably, you exude a certain fruit, just not the ones from Galatians 5:22-23. Yeah he’s annoying, starry-eyed, etc, but he opened the way for many of us to question the Neanderthal-ish doctrines of evangelicalism, which has led many like me to read people like Balthasar, De Lubac, Schmemann, and Lossky.


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