What’s Up with Rob Bell?

What’s Up with Rob Bell? February 28, 2011

It seems that everyone in the little corner of the Christo-Twitterverse that I inhabit was talking about Rob Bell over the weekend.  Rob’s got a new book coming out at the end of March, and it deals with heaven and hell.  More significantly, I suppose, it allegedly flirts with Christian Universalism, a topic that I have been sporadically exploring this year.

Based on a few leaked chapters, a press release from the publisher, and a promotional video, the right-wing Calvinistas went on the attack.  Justin Taylor, John Piper, and Josh Harris, among others, condescendingly tweeted that they are praying for Rob.  They compared him to a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and they used Bible verses to call him a false teacher.  You can read a nice compilation of the entire affair (so far) by Sarah Pulliam Bailey.

I’m not going to weigh in on the content of the book.  I haven’t read it.  I only know about it what I’ve read on the blogs.

In fact, I don’t know Rob Bell.  I’ve spoken to him only once, briefly, in a hotel lobby at the National Youth Workers Convention.  It was probably in about 2002, and we spoke for about five minutes.  Rob never joined up with Emergent Village — in fact, he has publicly disavowed the term “emerging church” in various interviews.  But neither has he joined any other posse (Ecclesia, Origins, etc.).  He’s not, as far as I know, an adjunct prof at any seminary or on the editorial board of any magazine.  In other words, I don’t think he’s a “joiner” — I think he’s a lone ranger.

Rob Bell is aloof.  I do not mean that in a pejorative way.  I mean that in a descriptive way.  And Rob’s above-the-fray mentality is going to bug the hell out of the Calvinistas who are trying to bait him into a debate.  He won’t bite.  He won’t debate.

NT Wright will take Piper’s bait and pen responsive books.  I’ll take the bait.  Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt will take the bait.

Rob Bell will not take the bait.

Scot McKnight, in an email to Bailey, wrote,

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

But the problem here is that, from what I know of Rob Bell, he might not even take a call from John Piper.

Scot McKnight, John Piper, and I have something in common: we tend to think that we’re all basically on the same team, the team of leadership of the Protestant church in America.  That’s why we fight over stuff.  But I don’t get the impression that being a part of that “team” is how Rob Bell thinks of himself.  He’s gone rogue.  Rob Bell is the Jason Bourne of Christianity.

Meanwhile, Piper and the rest of his tribe have been waiting to pounce on Rob Bell.  I’ve been saying in private for several years that the Evangelical Intelligentsia is looking for a reason to turn on Rob.  This is their chance.  Rob is big and influential and, since they don’t agree with his theology, they want to turn him out.  They want their followers to stop buying his books.

But, to this point, Rob has been too slippery for the Calvinistas to pin down.  His books, videos, and live tours are provocations.  They are, IMHO, verbals works of art.  Rob is not a theologian, in the traditional sense, nor is he a biblical scholar.  He is a communicator — an artist, particularly of the spoken word.  So he doesn’t tend to say things that can be categorically criticized by writers in Christianity Today or bloggers at the Gospel Coalition.

Again, I don’t have any insider knowledge here.  I know that Zondervan broke their contract with Rob Bell last year; and I know that Moe Girkins was fired as the president of Zondervan last week.  But I have no idea if these news items are related.

I do know Shane Hipps, hired as co-teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church last year.  Shane has been a long-time friend, and I have enormous respect for him as an exegete and a preacher. But I don’t have any particular insight into Rob from Shane.  I just know Rob’s written and spoken work, and I’ve watched his career for years.

So, all that being said, here’s what I predict:

  • The Calvinistas will attack Rob as a universalist
  • Rob won’t care
  • Christianity Today will write a review that expresses some serious doubt and hesitation about Rob’s new book, but they won’t entirely throw him under the bus (yet)
  • Rob won’t care
  • Lots of people like me will blog about this
  • Rob won’t care
  • Some people will even leave Mars Hill Bible Church because they don’t like what’s in the book
  • Rob won’t care

It’s a special gift to be able to be a theological provocateur and to be so un-codependent that you can say whatever you like with no fear.  It seems to me that Rob Bell has that gift.

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