Dear Rob Bell, the Episcopal Church Welcomes You

Not long ago I was on a road trip, travelling winding highways that passed through endless small towns.  In many of these towns there was a sign, small but visible, with a shield, a cross, and the words: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”  These signs would lead to a church with an open red door—a church that is a part of a tradition that  from the reformation until now has sought to be a middle way, guided by the three fold mix of reason, tradition, and scripture.

I thought of those signs as I read James Wellman’s Rob Bell and a New American Christianity.  The book is a fascinating picture of one of the most complex figures in American religious life—a man who has been loved and hated within both Evangelical and Mainline Christianity.  Wellman is a scholar of religion and he approaches Rob Bell as such—this is a book about a man and his impact on religious life that should be of interest to anyone who wants to understand American culture.  But it is also a deeply personal book that is at times touching.  There is no academic language here—only the clear and fascinating portrait of a charismatic leader.

Coming into the book I knew little of Rob Bell.  I had read only one of his books, Sex God, which I found helpful, but it didn’t leave me wanting to read more.  I’d never seen a Rob Bell Nooma video, though I’d heard they were good and knew of both Mainline and Evangelical churches that had used them.  I was fascinated by the response to Love Wins, but it didn’t seem like Bell was saying anything really new and I’d long ago stopped caring about the opinions of people like John Piper.  The most fascinating thing about Rob Bell to me was the fact that he could fill a megachurch while preaching a gospel not all that different from the one I heard in often dwindling Episcopal churches.  What made Rob Bell different and why should I care?

Wellman’s book answers that question by pushing Rob Bell as the archetype of a new middle way—beyond Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism.  Bell is presented as a man who cares deeply about following Jesus and the evangelical mission of fulfilling the great commission.  And yet, the kind of discipleship Bell is about isn’t one that centers on a one time salvation event to stay out of hell and get into heaven.  There is salvation to be sure, but for Bell “Salvation is the entire universe being brought back into harmony with its maker.”

I was continually surprised by Bell whether it was his rejection of advertising his church or his very public and costly preaching against the Iraq War or his move to Hollywood.  Bell’s continual work to live into the gospel of Christ is heartening and his desire to make an art of preaching is inspiring, but by the end of Wellman’s page turning profile, I felt sorry for Bell.

Wellman, in painting Bell as a charismatic leader, offers this telling quote from one of the leaders at Mars Hill:

“He’s more comfortable in a group of a hundred people or a thousand people than he is in a group of two if he doesn’t know who you are.  A thousand strangers is fine for him, but close up, it’s a little tougher.”

Bell, as Wellman pictures him, is a man who loves a crowd and yet is lonely inside of it.  “Hello, my best friends!” Bell once said to his congregation numbering in the thousands.  This is the kind of statement we must judge as either sad or insincere and I don’t think it was the latter.  I’m sure Bell has circles of close friends, but Wellman speaks frequently of Bell’s lifelong feeling of being an outsider, even as he is embraced with bestselling books and TV specials.

And this brings me back to those signs by the roadside.  I share a good bit of history with Rob Bell.  I grew up in the Evangelical tradition and when it came time to go to college I chose Wheaton.  Like Bell, I found Wheaton to be a rich and challenging place, a place where I was pushed to new theological positions far beyond the Evangelicalism of the administration.  It was in my second year there that I first began attending an Episcopal Church and I became a confirmed Episcopalian taking confirmation classes alongside other Wheaton students and taught by a Wheaton professor.  In the Episcopal Church I found a broad tradition that welcomed my questions and yet called me closer to faith.  I had become a part of a tradition that was both ancient and future.

Rob Bell did not find his way to the Episcopal Church while he was in college and so he kept going on the evangelical route toward the non-denominational megachurch—albeit of a very different kind.  This church model offered Bell a canvas, for as Wellman writes: “Every artist needs time, the rough edges of reality, and inspiration to make their work come alive.  They also need a canvas.  And Bell’s canvas has been Mars Hill church.”

This image of Bell as an artist is one Wellman returns to frequently and it seems one that is appropriate to his loneliness.  The modernist ideal of the artist is that of the lone genius—the pure creative mind who makes art, almost ex nihilo, standing outside of tradition.  Bell seems to embrace this vision, saying that a great sermon should “create new worlds” and speaking of a constant need to move and grow.

But this view is problematic.  No artist is a creative force independent of others, separate from a tradition.  The best kind of beauty comes from within a tradition, working and reworking the old forms to find something new.  This is not to say that there should be no growth or change, but that there is no such thing as an artist creating ex nihilo and the artists who think they are creating as such are likely to do much damage.

This is my worry for Rob Bell.  He is doing much good, creating much beauty, but it seems to be grounded in neither community nor tradition.  It has certainly been successful for Rob Bell and in many ways it seems to have carried forwards many into a deeper discipleship of Jesus.  But like a glittering new suburb, I wonder how long it will last, how long the consumer fascination of today will hold onto its place before receding again into the abyss of fashion.  The old traditions will wax and wane, but in them there is beauty and substance, there are roots.

So as an Episcopal admirer, to Rob Bell I say, the Episcopal Church welcomes you and more than that we need you.  You seem lonely preaching the gospel that Love wins, but we have been preaching that gospel a long time.  You will find a welcome place for your theology in the Episcopal Church, but you can also find a new canvas for your artistry.  We need good preaching and we need people who keep their focus on the only place it matters—Jesus Christ.  But we can also offer you a tune from which riff, samples to remix, masters from which to copy and adapt.  Remember that the really great artists worked within the tradition—Bach was a church organist, Michelangelo a church artist.  You don’t need to be alone, working out your vision of God in the loneliness of the evangelical lie of faith alone, scripture alone.  The Episcopal Church welcomes you, we can offer you a tradition, but you will also need to find a place where that tradition is grounded and living.  You need a local church to be a part of and I’ve hear good things about several in your neck of the woods.  Settle in—you’ll find a tradition gives you friends and an incredible opening to new creativity.

Making Hell or Welcoming Heaven: Keystone XL and Our Disordered Desires
Training in Christianity
Cycling as an Eschatological Activity
Following Rocky Balboa into the Wilderness of Lent
About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey Into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith (Convergent/Random House 2015).

  • jason greene

    as a Methodist (we are your unruly spiritual brothers) I say bravo, bravo, bravo. I am mainline, evangelical, open and questioning. I wish that we Methodists were as open and welcoming as the Episcopalians

  • Barbara Wilson

    Well Jason, as we are kin, just know you too are welcome anytime! For it’s courage to keep preaching the Gospel (love does win!) and remain grounded in beautiful liturgy and good scriptural scholarship–The Episcopal Church is wonderful.

  • Brad

    “We need good preaching and we need people who keep their focus on the only place it matters—Jesus Christ.”

    The question is can we “keep our focus on Jesus” if we reject something Jesus deeply believed, like an eternal hell. And what happens when we reject something Jesus believed all because we are uncomfortable with the social ramifications of joining Jesus in his belief?

    • Ragan Sutterfield

      What Jesus believed about hell is very much at the heart of the question, but I suspect Bell would disagree with you on what Jesus actually believed about hell. Like questions of whether or not there is a soul, this is no cut and dry area of doctrine. Perhaps there is some punishment, but is it eternal? Can justice demand an eternal punishment for a finite sin? These are hard questions that must be worked through and we have to do more than simply extrapolate from the very few mentions of a hell-like place by Jesus (is Gehenna really hell?). We have to reason through the whole of scripture, the completeness of Jesus teachings, etc and always, always we must be willing to hold our interpretations lightly. Bad interpretations, when taken too strongly and literally, can have very bad consequences–just ask Origin. It is actually in trying to get at what Jesus believed that Bell developed his position. I have found that hell is actually a quite socially acceptable position, depending on who your society is. It is a cheap argument to suppose that someone like Bell came to his views on hell, which I might add are not all that different from St. C.S. Lewis, simply because he wanted to fit in. As is made clear in the book, Bell has paid dearly for his positions and lost many friends.

  • Ed

    During today’s General Audience(11/28) Pope Benedict XVI summed up what it means to be a Christian:
    “In Jesus of Nazareth”, the Pope said, “we encounter the face of God, descended from Heaven to immerse Himself in the world of mankind and to teach ‘the art of living’, the road to happiness; to free us from sin and to make us true children of God”. He continued, “speaking about God means, first and foremost, being clear about what we must bring to the men and women of our time. God has spoken to us, … not an abstract or hypothetical God, but a real God, a God Who exists, Who entered history and remains present in history: the God of Jesus Christ … as a response to the fundamental question of why and how to live. Therefore, speaking about God requires a continual growth in faith, familiarity with Jesus and His Gospel, a profound knowledge of God and strong passion for His plan for salvation, without giving in to the temptations of success. … We must not fear the humility of taking small steps, trusting in the leaven that makes the dough rise slowly and mysteriously. In speaking about God, in the work of evangelisation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we must return to the simplicity and essential nature of proclamation: the concrete Good News of God Who cares about us, the love of God which Jesus Christ brought close to us, even unto the Cross, and which in the Resurrection opens us to life without end, to eternal life”.

  • B. Myers

    Thanks for sharing.

    Just out of curiosity, who are the “people like John Piper” you were referring to? Care to give some examples? And what led you to stop caring (carrying) about their opinions?

    And a few minor but hopefully helpful grammatical comments/observations:

    You said: “I’d long ago stopped carrying about the opinion of people like John Piper” Caring?

    You said: “I don’t think it was the later.” Latter?

    • Ragan Sutterfield

      Thanks for catching my typos. The “people like John Piper” are those who would rather charge others over a speck heresy than consider the log of overconfidence in their own beliefs. Rob Bell isn’t pulling his questioning of the recent view of hell out of no where. The afterlife is no easy, cut and dry area doctrine. I think Piper’s voluntarism is every bit as suspect as anything Bell has said and yet he thinks he can confidently call folks like Bell and Greg Boyd heretics. I see a humility in Bell and Boyd about their positions that I do not see in John Piper and many like him. Criticize, question, challenge, but don’t just say Greg Boyd is a heretic and try to get him ousted from teaching at a seminary just because he questions God’s exercise of foreknowledge (a position that has strong precedent in the tradition and can be reasoned from scripture, even if one doesn’t agree with that reasoning). While those on the “liberal” side are all too open to whatever new idea comes along; those on the “evangelical/conservative” side are all too confident in their positions. God is in the whirlwind.

  • Spengler47

    As a lifelong Episcopalian, I appreciate the author’s kind words about the church. However, in recent years I think the church has become quite a bit less welcoming. The people who dominate the Episcopal Church today are people with very liberal, indeed radical, theological and political beliefs. They make the church very welcoming for people like themselves, but much less confortable for people with even moderately conservative views.

    • Ragan Sutterfield

      I think the Episcopal Church hasn’t gone completely to the theological liberals, but there is that danger. That is why we need those who hold outlying positions to stick it out and not go the way of schism. Someone like Rob Bell, who is by no means a liberal, would help enhance a much needed diversity within the church.

      • Spengler47

        I agree that Episcopal parishes and diocese than secede from the national church are taking exactly the wrong approach. In the first place, they can’t win. The church has the law on its side when it disposseses them of their properties. But it’s also an ineffectual strategy that just concedes more and more control over what’s left to the Left.

  • H. (Bart) Vincelette

    I’m no theologian, but grew up Catholic during the last years of the Latin Mass, & recall a few expressions about religion. There should be neither liberal nor conservative in church practices. The church is supposed to be a hospital for sinners; not a museum for saints.Those claiming to be theologically conservative are the most unpleasant, judgmental, & intolerant people one could ever meet.