This past weekend, when Twitter lit up with the name "Rob Bell" as a trending topic, my first instinct was to jump into the fray. But I waited. What I wanted to write required that I do so.
Rob Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan—which is not to be confused with the very different Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Youth groupers around the world know Bell from his NOOMA films, but he has also written several books including Velvet Elvis and Sex God. Bell is a controversial figure with often-unorthodox beliefs. For this reason, it should not have surprised anyone when his publisher set up a promo page for his new book, Love Wins, which says, "Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith --the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering." And yet, some people were surprised. Very, very surprised.
Justin Taylor got the furor started with hasty comments about the book on his blog at The Gospel Coalition. Taylor essentially called Bell a universalist and stated that Bell is "moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity." This set the spark for a conflagration of comments and tweets, which was fueled even further when John Piper, the famous pastor and author of Desiring God, tweeted smarmily, "Farewell, Rob Bell." With that, what one blogger said about a book he hadn't read, went viral. To date, Taylor's post has over 1200 comments and was "recommended" by over 24,000 people. Rob Bell became a trending topic and the victim of all kinds of slander.
In the intervening days, many commenters, including my colleague David Sessions at Patrol, have made an effort to understand and interpret Saturday's events. Sarah Bailey at Christianity Today has a helpful roundup, and Jason Boyett has a reasoned interpretation.
I'm sure there's much we can learn from the flurry of responses to Bell's not-yet-published book. Since evangelicalism is a many-headed beast, it's often difficult to get a sense of the whole at once, but it is never easier to see the whole creature than when it stands in the klieg lights of controversy. Although I agree with many of my friends and colleagues who saw some unsavory qualities come to light in these events—the lack of humility, the meanness of Christians in discussions on theology—I think the clearest and most disturbing lesson may be that evangelicals are just as quick to comment, in a prideful desire to be noticed, as the media at large.
Recent months have seen much discussion on the souring of American public discourse. After the Arizona shootings, many blamed the prevailing negative tone of political discussion.When it became clear that the shooter was less a radical influenced by rhetoric than a sufferer of mental illness, however, what had begun to take shape as a concerted effort to change the tone quickly evaporated. A few weeks ago, it formed again around the attack and sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan. On an ABC News "Focus on the Faith" panel discussion, my fellow panelist Reverend Susan Sparks rightly noted that the vitriolic responses to the reporter's rape, like those of former NYU fellow Nir Rosen and blogger Debbie Schlussel, were largely motivated by a desire for attention via valuable Twitter followers and priceless links and retweets.
I fear the same motivation led Justin Taylor to get out ahead of the ball and critique a book he admitted he hadn't read. As others have noted, it's not that one cannot have an opinion about an unreleased book, but certainly of all opinions those should be measured and held with a "wait and see" air. They shouldn't lead to pronouncements on distorting the gospel or teaching false doctrine.