Rob Bell first appeared to many in the early 2000s via a series of short films called Nooma. The films were remarkable in that the images and soundtrack told the "story" as much as Bell's narration. They were real films, not just recorded sermons or recreated Bible stories. And they centered on questions rather than doctrinal statements.
These Nooma films appealed to spiritual seekers of all ages, young and not so young, who discovered in Rob Bell someone willing to ask questions in public they had been asking privately their entire lives.
The Heretic, a new documentary from filmmaker Andrew Morgan, explores the reasons for Bell's appeal. The film tells Rob Bell's professional story from the time he and his wife started Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, up to the present day. It uses the history as a framing device. The film is principally concerned with Rob Bell's teaching - why it appeals to so many and also why his teaching has branded him a "heretic" among others. In addition to "on the move" interviews with Bell himself, the film also includes interviews with a few of his more famous friends, like Elizabeth Gilbert, Pete Holmes, Carlton Pearson, and Peter Rollins, as well as with Bell's wife, Kristen.
The Heretic is brief, only an hour and eleven minutes long, and while a more thorough exploration of either the objections of Bell's critics or a window into what Bell is like when he's not "performing" would have been welcome, the film's survey of Bell's teaching is both concise and compelling. By the end of the film, it's clear why so many people are so taken with Rob Bell.
Generally, Rob Bell is adept at identifying the two extremes that many people tend to gravitate towards on any theological or social issue. Then he charts out an alternate path that bypasses both of them. He's a "third way" kind of guy. This tends to antagonize both the disaffected secularists and the entrenched fundamentalists. He invites the cynics to risk belief and the dogmatists to admit their doubts. This is freeing for many.
Bell's provocations are based in study and research and tradition—he's seminary-trained—so even if he is disinclined to work footnotes into his performances, what he says is difficult to argue with when one deals with his actual statements and not the characterizations of them by his opponents. The controversy over his book Love Wins is typical. People rejected the very idea of reconsidering our concepts of Heaven and Hell while the book itself merely recounted what various Christian groups have believed about Heaven and Hell across history. The only assertion the book made was that we should know our history better. Bell excels at communicating complicated ideas in entertaining and convincing ways. Sixteen years later, he's still doing Nooma-like things. He's just doing them in person now and with a brighter spotlight turned on him.
If you are unfamiliar with Rob Bell, The Heretic is a good introduction to both the substance and style of his teaching. If you are a fan, you'll appreciate the attention given to his progression over the years. If you used to find Bell helpful but left the party when other notable Christians bid him "goodbye" a few years ago, The Heretic is an invitation to come back inside. It's a more lively party than it used to be, and Rob Bell still has more to teach us.