Is Rob Bell a Provocateur, or a Surfer?

A letter in the New Yorker following up on the Rob Bell profile:

Kelefa Sanneh’s Profile of the ex-megachurch pastor and ersatz theological liberal Rob Bell provides a fascinating glimpse inside the struggles of American evangelicalism (“The Hell-Raiser,” November 26th). Bell’s “evolving faith” in many ways mirrors my own: I graduated from Wheaton College several years after Bell, and his formative experiences with Christianity and his subsequent efforts to come to terms with the strengths and weaknesses of an evangelical subculture resonate deeply with me, and perhaps with many others of my generation.

But I wonder if Bell is truly the “provocateur” that Sanneh portrays him to be. Is he a catalyst for meaningful change, or is he riding the crest of a larger movement that has been developing for some time? One need look no further than the recent documentary film “Hellbound?” or the writings of Christian thinkers such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones [cough, cough], and John Shore to realize that a modern Christian reformation is already well under way. For many people, Bell has come to represent this movement, but his struggles with faith, though refreshingly honest, hardly place him at the forefront of theological change.

What seems clear is that evangelicalism has come full circle, and is now being forced to come to terms with its fundamentalist roots. Those who cling to the failed religious beliefs of the past will slowly fade into irrelevance, and those who struggle to embrace a new and more meaningful faith, as Bell seems to be doing, will carry on a tradition that is anti-establishment, radically inclusive, and deeply loving.

Daniel Wilkinson

Great Falls, Mont.

via The Mail: Re: The Hell-Raiser : The New Yorker.

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  • Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Kenton

    Does it matter?

    So he’s been “riding the wave” instead of “leading the charge.” What difference does it make?

    I give RB props for bringing some of these issues to the forefront. The truth is, while you and Brian have been saying these things longer than Rob Bell has, neither of you got everyone to stand up and take notice like RB did when he wrote Love Wins. So I guess I would answer the provocateur/surfer question with, “yes.”

  • Kenton

    BTW, it’s a nice letter Dan. And props for not only getting it printed at the New Yorker, but major kudos for it getting noticed/excerpted by Tony. 🙂

  • Craig

    There’s thrill in the base jump from fundamentalism, but eventually you just get some hung up in some dusty thicket of religious liberalism, or you tumble all the way to ground level to join the atheistic masses, among whom you’ll have of any real interest to say.

    • Kenton

      Proof reading time?

      • Craig

        Jeez that is terrible. This was what was in the mind:

        There’s thrill in the base jump from fundamentalism, but eventually you just get hung up in some dusty thicket of religious liberalism, or you tumble all the way to ground level to join the atheistic masses, among whom you’ll have nothing of any real interest to say.

        • Slippery slope fallacy?

          • Craig

            I did put some thickets on that slope. What more do you want?

          • Maybe an interesting topic would be “what actually differentiates ’emergent/emerging church’ from ‘religious liberalism’?” (where it’s not simply “some dusty thicket” of the former, or maybe it is?)

        • Eventually you just get hung up in some dusty thicket of religious liberalism, or you tumble all the way to ground level to join the atheistic masses, among whom you’ll have nothing of any real interest to say.

          I think this is a profound observation. To which those of us trying to differentiate ourselves from “religious liberalism” in many different ways would want to say but…

          For now, I’m comfortable being uncomfortably stuck between the two.

          • Brad C

            I do think we have left the idea that somehow we stand on a “solid foundation”
            I don’t think “absolutes” ever existed – only the idea of an “absolute” existed and that is the core issue.
            I don’t think emergent = liberal. Many liberals are just as foundational as consverative fundametalist.
            Since the idea of a foundation is gone – we are once agagin back to believeing by faith (we should have never left this position).
            emergent = theological exploration in this new world. Yes, it is a new world (once enlightened – you can’t go back).
            Not a slippery slope at all – we hang in a web of belief and much is by faith.

          • Brad, so would you say that moving beyond foundationalism is THE identifying feature of emergent? That seems to be part of the perception of folks like D.A. Carson as well about emergent.

          • Brad C


            I do think much of what is emergent is the theological exploring without a foundational approach. Emergent started with the idea that much of the philosophy and theology built over the last 500 years was built using the modern assumptions of foundationalism (a place of irredcuible certainty), absolutism (humans can undersand our existence with complete understanding), certainty (irrefutable propositions), omni-competence of human reason (human conceptual realm is unlimited), etc. etc.

            I know it is hard to question theology that we hold dear and meaningful – but it is still worth looking at and question to see if it still works or not. The critics of emergent just say “it is just liberalism” and dismiss it. I am suggesting it is not liberalism – it is discarding the arrogance of the modern assumptions, mixed with the caution of avoing the nihilism of many postmodern thinkers and careful considerations of the beliefs of the historic Christian community – and emerging a theology that honors God (from our limited understanding) and works for the people who follow God (walking in faith).

            emergent isn’t riding the wave of current trends – it is careful consideration of what it means to be a christian in this current world.

          • Brad, much of what you’ve said here is what has kept me interested in emergent for the past 10+ years. But, building on what Tony said in a previous post, I think many people may just use emergent as a transition out of “the church” and/or Christianity altogether. For me, it’s been a tight rope walk between “this might all be bullshit” and “yeah, this is probably all bullshit.” That is a mighty might.

        • Dean

          Are you implying that the better alternative is to hide in the safety of fundamentalism? I think you’re assuming that all of us just “decided” to “jump” one day. Some of us fell or were pushed. The real problem is once you’ve left fundamentalism, I don’t think there’s a way to go back. In fact, at least for me, I’m not even sure it’s a real place anymore.

          • Craig

            Goodness no! I guess I’d be a voice calling down from the atheistic masses below: “It’s really not so bad down here; there’s nothing to be afraid of!” I’ll do what I can to guide you out of the tangled thickets, or to soothe your scrapes and bruises if you tumble out your own. But it true, I think, that Rob Bell will be nothing special down here. So he’s got that to think about.

        • Henry M Imler

          That three level setup is a construction of the past, it assumes the questions of the last 100 years. There a more complex options out there. PostConservative and PostLiberal options that branch out and wrestle with all sort of different questions.

          • Craig

            The thickets are a tangled and dusty mess, sprawling inward upon themselves with rabbit trails going every which way. You might even find for yourself a cozy little burrow. No denying that.

  • Todd

    Rob bell is a heretic and a fraud, so is Tony Jones. They have created a God of their own imagination and I fear they will one day hear the terrifying words of Matthew 7:21. It is such a shame because both are very intelligent, thoughtful men who raise many good points. They for some reason are blind to the truth of God. They reject the plain truth of God and lead others astray while doing so.

    • Fox News or The Onion? I can’t ever tell the difference…

    • Oh great. Another troll on Theoblogy. :-/

    • toddh

      Perhaps you should hear the terrifying words of Matthew 7:1. I guess it’s a good thing TJ doesn’t claim to cast out demons in Jesus’ name!

    • Todd, are you sure you’re not one of those J.C. is talking about?

  • Chris

    I think he’s a surfer cuz he looks like he’s been working out.

  • Dan Hauge

    I found this pretty interesting up until the last couple of lines, beginning with “Those who cling to the failed religious beliefs of the past will slowly fade into irrelevance . . . ” This sounds like a re-run of triumphalist progressive views that have been around at least since Voltaire. If anything, history shows that fundamentalist religion enjoys periodic robust resurgence throughout the world.

    • I guess it depends on how one interprets the word “irrelevance.”

  • megan

    I think he’s riding the wave but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think Dan meant it as a criticism. I think he was just making an observation. But inevitably the discussion goes in a critical direction. The “see, you’re not so new” thing is usually used as a criticism from those who generally agree with Rob but are mad about how he’s going about his business…or, perhaps, are angry that this latecomer is more popular than they are. Or, it’s used as a criticism by those who disagree and want to paint Rob as a poor soul too stupid to realize that he’s nothing more than an out-of-place theological liberal.

    Let’s be honest. Most of evangelicalism’s recent favorite lightening rods aren’t saying anything all that new. Not new historically, and not even new in the current theological climate. But they were able to take advantage of that confluence of time, place, culture AND to speak in a voice that resonated with others ( I see this as the “representation” Dan refers to). I’m thinking of the Rachel Held Evanses and Don Millers and Rob Bells here. But again: I don’t think their wave-riding is a bad thing.

    While we often behave as though outrage rises in direct proportion to the out-there-ness of an idea, I think the hyperventilation over Rob or Don or Rachel is actually a function of the fact that their ideas aren’t all that out there. If Rob Bell were in fact some random provocateur on the fringes of Christianity, he’d be much more easily dismissed. No need for multiple Christian publishing houses to rush out half-conceived rebuttals or anything like that. He’s controversial precisely because the theological gatekeepers implicitly or explicitly realize that Rob is right smack-dab in the middle of something that’s happening right smack-dab in the middle of their little evangelical kingdom.

  • Dean

    “Not a slippery slope at all – we hang in a web of belief and much is by faith.”

    Brad C, this is something I’ve only recently come to realize, well said.

    • Brad C


      not mine – Quine.

      I do think it is interesting that many young people who no longer assume we can find a foundation of irreducible certainty – are attracted to neo-calvinism. It seems that the fear of living without an absolute foundation is so scary that they are grasping to the comfort of the current idea of “sovereignty” that has emerged in neo-calvinism.

      I will suggest that we should live with the fear that comes with faith. Believeing without empirical evidence and recognition that God is far beyond human concepts or language.

  • I still haven’t figured out why there’s so much focus on this Rob Bell guy. I’ve read his stuff. I’ve read plenty of things written about him, seen interviews, etc. And honestly, his ideas have never inspired me nor ever provoked my thinking. And the man himself does not impress me. That’s not a slight on him personally, but is just a fact of my how I take him.

    So perhaps someone could enlighten me as to why there’s so much popular interest in this guy.

    • Rob Bell’s “audience” seems to be evangelicals who start questioning, doubting, etc. So, if you’re not in that camp, I highly doubt that you’ll find him that interesting. Personally, I think the work he’s done is important if it makes people “less evangelical” to any degree. But, I’m definitely not going to rally around everything he touches.

    • Dean

      Simply put, Rob Bell is probably the reason I’m still a Christian. I happened to have come across Love Wins and Velvet Elvis at a time in my life when the last vestiges of the Christian fundamentalism that I’ve been inculcated with since my youth were starting to fall away and his books provided me with a new framework to think about Jesus at precisely the right time for me. So it’s not that I think folks like Brian McLaren, Don Miller, Greg Boyd, etc. are any sort of intellectual or theological giants, it’s just that for me, they’ve completely reoriented how I perceive Christianity and spirituality, which has allowed me to arrive at a place where I can still proclaim the centrality of Jesus and his message in my own life, but without the baggage that has become associated with modern American Evangelicalism. They’re attempting to broaden the notion of Christian orthodoxy, which I think is a courageous and long overdue thing for the Church. No doubt, folks like Rob Bell appeal to a very specific subset of Christians, but I think it’s a group that the Church has simply ignored or denied the existence of for far too long, which I think partly explains his popularity. Maybe you are a in very safe and secure place with your faith, and that’s great, more power to you and glory to God, but for those of us living daily on the border of theism and nihilism, the badlands of Evangelism you could call it, folks like Rob Bell have provided me with the only road map that makes any sense to me anymore, and it is much appreciated.

      • Craig

        Outside of both theism and nihilism there is a lot of beautiful country, with plenty of pleasant, thoughtful, and fulfilled inhabitants. For those who have found their way to it, Rob Bell has nothing to offer. The idea that there is only a fence to straddle between theism and nihilism is a piece of bad philosophy that religious culture warriors been drumming into everyone since God knows when.

        • Dean

          Craig, you might be right, but that’s not where I’m at right now. And what happens after you die? That’s still pretty important to me (and this life too of course). 🙂

          • Craig

            Dean, I appreciate your honesty. What we believe about what happens when we die is probably not going to change a damn thing about what really happens. I know how the loss of the afterlife, when you’ve been expecting it, can be disappointing. It’s like expecting summer vacation only to find out you only get the weekend. Only it’s a lot worse–especially when you add the losses of those you love and the promises of heaven and the heavenly father. Those who were raised as atheists maybe can’t fully realize the heartache. But, in my own experience, hopes and expectations do adjust, and life can be quite meaningful and fulfilling without the promise of an afterlife. I know it is difficult to believe.

          • If anything, I would think that what matters more about “what happens when we die” is the kind of life we live while we are alive (i.e. “faith without works is dead”…anyone?), not some intellectual “belief” about anything (including about the afterlife). So, even if there is a heaven and a hell (which I don’t personally believe), why not spend the life we’ve been given trying to create heaven on earth? Beyond that, I think it’s a ridiculous question (the kind that I think only a fool would be haunted by).

  • Curtis

    Luther wasn’t on the forefront of the Reformation either. He was riding the wave others started. What made Luther unique is he was one of the few surfers of his day that didn’t get killed for surfing, partly because he was willing to make some fortuitous political alliances, partly because he was lucky. Plus, Luther was really good at leveraging the disruptive information technology of his day.

    Same cane be said of Darwin.

    Often, the figureheads of a movement aren’t the provocateurs, but the ones who are able to synthesize and communicate the movement in a way that resonates with others. A little luck along the way helps too.

    More significant than whether Bell is actually making the waves or is merely surfing, is the fact that the waves exist. It is getting harder and harder to deny that God is up to something new.

    • Kenton

      What Curtis said.

    • Curtis

      Ultimately, it is God who provokes. The best we can do is catch the wave and hang on.

  • Charles

    Rob Bell is a provocateur only with the evangelical/fundie crowd. I find him barely outside that corral.

    Rob D. and R. Jay seem a bit more further along the path (slope?) toward understanding (enlightenment?) of the the “Source of All.”

    …and I agree with Brad, emergent is NOT liberal theology/thinking.

    • Chris

      Rob D. and R. Jay seem a bit more further along the path (slope?) toward understanding (enlightenment?) of the the “Source of All.”


  • Todd

    Dean, if Rob Bell is the reason you are still a Christian, you might not be one at all. Rob has exchanged the truth of scripture for a lie. We have all earned eternal damnation by our own rebellion and sin. God sent his son that instead of getting what we deserve we get the free gift of eternal life through his sacrifice.

    • hahahahaha

    • Dean

      Todd, the problem I have when fundamentalists talk about the “truth of scripture” is that, to take a page out of NT Wright, if the truth of scripture was really as clear as fundamentalists make it out to be, then God gave us exactly the wrong type of Bible. If “orthodox” Christianity needs to be teased out of a set of 66 books written by many different people hundreds of years ago that contains mostly narratives, poetry and some letters, then I think your God probably made a really big mistake don’t you think? Pick up a History of Christianity by Latourette, Christians have been arguing about doctrine since right after the first Easter. God really should have just given us a 10 page pamphlet so we wouldn’t have to fight about it all the time and save us all this trouble, but he didn’t do that. Why do you think that is? I actually think the power of the Bible, and it’s resiliency, is precisely because it is open to varied interpretations, but clearly you don’t agree. So who’s the arbiter of sound doctrine then? You? John Piper? The Pope? The Paper Pope? And where does this person get this authority?

      • Nathan


        Thank you. This issue isn’t really about the ideas of “reliability” or “perspicuity”, etc. etc.

        It’s about “interpretive authority” and who gets to wield it and on what basis is it constructed.
        It seems some communities just don’t want to face this.

        • Curtis

          I think most communities face the issue of interpretive authority, but they have different answers.

          • nathan

            I agree, but I think “facing the issue” means understanding that there is a human locus of interpretation.

            The basic assertion that the Bible is a hermetically sealed self-interpreting authority isn’t actually facing the question, nor is it an “answer”.

            I can understand how it “works” for some communities, but they’re largely denying that they chose as community/stream/whatever to accept a certain kind of approach to interpretation, etc., not something that actually inheres in the text in question without their decision to treat it as if it does.

  • Todd

    Dean, there is plain, straightforward truth that all Christians agree on in scripture. It is true and reliable. Jesus was a historical person who did and said what was written. If that were not the case the enemies of the gospel would have found a way to disprove it. That hasn’t even come close to happening. Jesus lived a perfect life, died for the sins of the world and gives eternal life to those who repent and put their faith in him. That is the simple truth of scripture that all can agree on. If God can allow such a miserable, judgemental, sinner as me to believe that then it must be possible for anyone. As for Matthew 7:1, that is about hypocrisy. We are called to remove the plank in our eye then go remove the speck in our brothers.

    • Curtis

      Look at and please state the “simple truth” of Christ’s resurrection. What are the facts? Exactly what happened, and when?

      Yes, Christians can agree on the truth of the resurrection. But to expect non-Christians to agree Biblical accounts of the resurrection is expecting too much. Calling it “simple truth” is to over-simplifying the issue.

    • Todd, the only people who agree with you are believing Christians. Irony? So, no, we (the “enemies of the gospel”) haven’t been able to “disprove” your claims entirely, but they are historically improbable (according to everyone who doesn’t already believe them to be objectively true). Confirmation bias.

      What if the “plank in your eye” is your ridiculous assumptions about people posting comments on a blog?

      • Chris


        “the only people who agree with you are believing Christians.”

        “your claims … are historically improbable (according to everyone who doesn’t already believe them to be objectively true).

        Possibly. But in a way you’ve really said nothing at all. It’s kind of like saying circles are round. It’s essentially true by definition. Yes Christians will agree with Todd because they are Christians, by definition (ok, “evangelical” Christians). But were they always Christians? And did they change their minds and come to their conclusions honestly, and even rigorously? Lots of people who have not believed actually come to belief and are convinced through a process of a fair-minded evaluation of the data. This isn’t a process that convinces or is even appealing to everyone. Especially if you are prone to a philosophically postmodern mindset, which in my view is highly eccentric. But lots and lots of people still do not have an impoverished view of history (and what it does or doesn’t say) or induction/deduction and come to their conclusions differently than perhaps you might.

    • Dean

      Todd, I actually believe all those things. I think Rob Bell does also. Does that mean we’re in? 🙂

  • Todd

    Dean, I don’t know Rob’s heart, I only know what I hear him say and preach. It seems to be a theological stew of a little sound doctrine and heresy. I have my opinion about him and my opinion can be wrong. It just pains me to no end to see people who are looking for answers look to Rob or Tony Jones for that fact. They are puffed up, arrogant, and engage in meaningless drivel.

    • Phil Miller

      Opposed to your meaningful drivel?

      I’ve not heard Bell preach anything that could honestly be labeled heresy. Heresy does not mean some secondary doctrine that you disagree with. It doesn’t even mean a different soteriology. People throw the word around all the time anymore, and it’s almost has lost all meaning.

  • Todd

    Phil, have you listened to Bell’s video on love wins! Any of his interviews? Both Rob Bell and Tony Jones worship a God of their own creation. They search the scriptures for ways to deconstruct it not defend the plain meaning. Tony has gone as far as to redefine sin. If you read Tony jones you will see that the only thing sinful is to disagree with him. If Bell and Jones aren’t heretics who is. If redefining sin, death, and hell is not heresy, what is?

    • nathan

      Actually, i was just at a conference where I witnessed Tony directly affirm and celebrate the push-back and disagreement he was getting in the QandA after his presentation. And that’s the Tony I’ve witnessed in real time over more than a decade. So it’s not “sin” or disconcerting to him.

      If you want to ask about the heresy thing…well, I’d say that low-church evangelical luminaries in Minneapolis and Louisville and Seattle who basically assert that a particular high modern theory of epistemology is now a reliable marker of Christian identity are adding to the Gospel and are heretics. (no matter how much they trumpet their oh-so “Gospel-y” coalition).

      Or adding YEC to those markers, or belief in eternal conscious torment, or saying that everyone who did the work of giving us our basic Christology and Trinitarian theology are somehow sub-christian and suspect because they don’t believe with them that the Holy Spirit was held in reserve until Anselm’s theory of atonement, all these are adding to the Christian message and, in the broadest sense, are heretical assertions.

      I’d say reducing the humanity of Christ to some pragmatic means to just get a body on a cross and always hammering on and parking on the divinity of Christ makes them soft-Docetic heretics at best.

      Demanding re-baptism is heresy.

      Most evangelicals believe an escapist soteriology that denigrates the human body and the material world as the object of God’s salvation. Can you say “Gnosticism”?

      You probably know a ton of people who ascribe to all these things, at least in practice.
      So you can add them all to the list along with Rob and Tony. 😉

      I mean…I could probably do this all day.

      My point is that word “heretic” is really nothing more than a rhetorical bludgeon used to silence people who don’t say things the same way you would say them.

  • nathan

    oh, here’s one more:

    Nobody on the planet actually believes in the substance ontology the whole doctrine of Trinity is founded on. Most Christians are functional modalists. So there goes the whole thing…

  • Leah

    Rob Bell is JOKE, period!

  • Todd

    Jeremy, if I am not it is by God’s grace, the blood of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, alone.

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