Who Is Rob Bell?

This post is part of the Patheos Book Club. Check out the Book Club for more posts on this book, an interview with the author, and for responses from other bloggers and columnists.

I got a lot of Rob Bell this weekend. First, I read the New Yorker profile on him, then I dove into James Wellman’s book, Rob Bell and a New American ChristianityThe two intersected often, and sometime contradicted each other.

Before I proffer my analysis, let me remind you: I don’t know Rob Bell well. I’ve spoken to him twice — once in 2003ish, and once in 2011. Both were brief and passing conversations. I’ve never received an email from him; I don’t have his cell phone number. I am one degree of separation removed from him, being that I have several friends who know him quite well. I am generally sympathetic to his project, but as my reviews of Love Wins made clear, I also have problems with some of his conclusions (or lack thereof).

First, the New Yorker (the article is here, behind a pay wall):

Kelefa Sanneh (son of Yale missiologist Lamin Sanneh) has written a compelling piece on Bell. A narrative has developed around Rob — and he hasn’t done much to diminish it — that he’s always been a provocateur, always a progressive. Sanneh pored over Rob’s old sermons to paint a picture of a much more conservative preacher at the beginnings of Mars Hill:

In his early sermons, he combined emotional appeals with straightforward interpretations of Scripture. He did a series of “blood and guts” sermons, which explained sacrificial laws of Leviticus in gruesome detail. On the topic of sex, he warned dating couples against doing “things that only are proper within marriage.” And, in his eagerness to win new souls, he didn’t always avoiud threats. “Jesus is your only hope, and God cannot accept caual, passive worship of him,” Bell told the congregation. “You either are headed to Heaven or you’re headed to Hell. It’s just that simple.”

That last quote sounds almost Driscollian.

My point is this: Rob Bell has evolved. So have I. So, for that matter, has Mark Driscoll — Mark was not a Calvinist (at least not a strict one) when we all started palling around together in the mid-90s.

And that seems to be a storyline that is underappreciated by both Sanneh and Wellman. The question is, Does evangelical Christianity allow one of its leaders to theologically evolve? The answer seems to be NO.

There’s another telling paragraph toward the end of Sanneh’s piece:

From a certain evangelical perspective, Bell’s life can look like a cautionary tale: his desire to question the doctrine of Hell led to his departure from the church he built. And maybe, like many other theological liberals in recent decades, he will drift out of the Christian church altogether and become merely one more mildly spiritual Californian, content to find moments of grace and joy in his everyday life; certainly, that’s what many of his detractors expect. But it’s also possible that his new life will end up strengthening many of his old convictions. Before, he was a dissenter in evangelical West Michigan. Now he is a lifelong believer in secular Southern California. And, in that world, his faith may seem more distinctive — and more important — than his doubts.

This is another question to ponder: How much is Rob really a contrarian at heart? It’s something I considered as soon as I heard that Rob tells church planters to take communion more. The worship at Mars Hill under Rob was notoriously un-religious: 45 minutes of music, 30 minutes of teaching. That’s it. No Lord’s Prayer. Not so much as a benediction. Occasionally, the Lord’s Supper.

In the highly religious context of West Michigan, Rob spurned liturgy and religion. Now that he’s in SoCal, he’s promoting it. Is this a bait-and-switch, or a heartfelt conversion? Who’s to say?

This is a good segue to Wellman’s book, for he takes up both of these topics. Wellman writes about the unique religious climate of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Populated by persons of Dutch Reformed heritage — both ethnically and theologically — and dominated by Christian institutions like Zondervan and Baker publishers, Family Christian Stores, and Cornerstone University, Rob Bell stepped in to an often unquestioned theological system and opened Pandora’s Box. And he did it with charisma:

This is precisely what a charismatic principal does. He describes the dilemma, a system that depresses rather than releases thought and action, and then he offers plausible alternatives, ways of thinking of God as a source of energy that releases boundless forms of creative purpose in the world, announcing all the ways that a person might use these energies to express their human potential for growth, inquiry, and creativity. Most importantly, this leader acts as a proxy, showing effective ways that this message releases them with energy, love, and creative action in the world.

Talk to someone from Grand Rapids sometime. Many have told me that Mars Hill and Rob’s teaching served as a long overdue release valve in a highly pressurized theological environment. As a result, people flocked to hear his teaching.

But, again, evangelicalism has its limits. By year three at Mars Hill, the worshipping congregation was 10,000 strong. By the time Rob left, it was 3,500. In both the book and the article, that attrition is attributed to 1) allowing women preachers and elders; 2) Love Wins.

At the very end of Wellman’s book, he attacks the question that still hangs over Rob, in my mind at least. Wellman admits to pressing Rob repeatedly in interviews about what he is, an evangelical or a liberal.

I prodded and pushed him for a clear response. What emerged was his refusal to bite down on any one label. More interesting was his refusal to see himself as a leader of a movement.

The Big Question is this: How long can Rob Bell — or any of us — avoid labels and categories?

This isn’t a rhetorical question for me. I’ve maintained that I should be listed among Patheos’s evangelical bloggers, being that I teach at an evangelical seminary and affirm many of the traditional positions of evangelicalism.

Can Rob Bell — or you or I — be both “progressive” and “evangelical”?

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