Why Rob Bell Matters

Why Rob Bell Matters March 20, 2013

My dear, curmudgeonly, friend David Fitch posted the above on Facebook yesterday. Before I respond to David’s question at face value, let’s get some things out of the way:

1) David could possibly be accused of professional jealously. Both he and Rob Bell had books come out last week. Both claim to say something fresh about God and the future of the faith. Rob has been on Morning Joe, Fox News, and many other outlets. David, uh, has not. (I have recently been accused of professional jealously of Rob and other authors, so I know that this accusation stings.)

2) David and I and others have a right to be frustrated by Rob’s style. I started reading Rob’s book this morning. 90% of the paragraphs are one sentence. It’s typeset in a san serif font. There’s a double carriage stop between each paragraph. There are no footnotes — Rob doesn’t show his math. Who is he reading? Who is influencing him? We’re left to guess and surmise. It’s not how I write books, but it works for Rob.

3) David and I and others have a right to be frustrated that Rob doesn’t engage with us. David and Rob and I are all the same general tribe of Christianity: post-evangelicalism. I engage with David (here) and he engages with my work in his book. Rob doesn’t engage with either of us, at least not in his writing. I got word to Rob this week that I’d like to interview him about his book on this blog, and I heard back that he’s not interested. That’s fine. That’s his prerogative. But it doesn’t engender warmth either.

Nevertheless, Rob Bell matters. Here’s why:

Many Christian leaders are completely hamstrung by their employers. Yesterday’s post showed that, and it’s a well-known fact. When you work at an evangelical church or college or non-profit and you’ve got progressive views, you must engage in constant self-censorship. (No one has written about this more forcefully than Peter Enns.) Rob no longer suffers under the watchful eyes of an employer.

Rob Bell became a leading spokesman for evangelical Christianity because 1) he planted and quickly grew a mega-church, 2) he wrote best-selling Christian books, and 3) he spoke captivatingly at all of the top pastors’ conferences. Rob was A-list in all these venues — David and I were B- (or C-) list. Rob’s brilliance was quickly recognized by the kingmakers of evangelicalism, and he attained a big platform very quickly.

David may not like the fact that Rob has largely maintained that platform, even since he’s left the pastorate, but he has. Platforms sometimes evaporate very quickly (just ask Jay Bakker). But Rob’s hasn’t. Reports from those who attended his recent 2-day creative jams on the beach were overwhelmingly positive. He can still pack out a theater for a book release event. And he’s getting national media attention for his book and his affirmative statement about gay marriage.

Honestly, David Fitch’s Facebook post sound like sour grapes, and I really don’t think it’s professional jealously. In David’s new book, he takes his usually radical, anabaptist stance toward church and culture. But he takes a surprisingly narrow, conservative — dare I say, retrograde — stance toward human sexuality. It’s surprising because David (and his co-author, Geoff Holsclaw) seem willing to rethink just about everything else in contemporary evangelicalism, except homosexuality.

To whom and for whom is Rob Bell speaking? Modern-day Americans, many of whom love God and Jesus but feel less and less connection to any organized form of Christianity. Make no mistake, the rise of the “Nones” is due in large part to the retrograde sexual ethics promulgated by evangelicals, Fitch included.

Rob Bell, no longer shackled to the conservatism of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Mars Hill Bible Church — yes, MHBC is a conservative congregation — is free to speak his mind on many issues, including heaven and hell and the nature of God and human sexuality. And thousands (millions?) of people are listening, much to the consternation of evangelicals.

Further, I think that David’s implicit accusation that Rob Bell lacks accountability is a bugaboo. Years ago, a Christianity Today reporter called me and many of my friends. She was preparing an article on my divorce, trying to make it a news story. I asked her, “What’s your angle? How is this news?” She told me that my divorce shows that the emerging church lacks accountability; had I been in a denomination, I would have been put under church discipline and my marriage might have been saved.

Of course, this is bullshit. I received more support and love and care from my friends at Solomon’s Porch and emerging church leaders around the country than I ever would have gotten from a denominational bureaucracy. (The story never ran.) You don’t need a local congregation or a larger denomination or network to have personal accountability. Rob is accountable to his readers. If he stops being relevant to their needs, they’ll stop buying his books.

Finally, this: Rob Bell has a special ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the moment. More, it seems, than David or I or many other authors, Rob is able to sense what questions people have, and to provide a poetic meditation that they find helpful. We may get frustrated with his style or his lack of engagement us, but, as I’ve written before, Rob Bell doesn’t care what you (or I) think. He’s happy to speak with and for millions of others.

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