On the Shiny, New & Improved Rob Bell
(Note: I am going to be blogging here on the band’s site somewhat regularly, on issues of faith, music, etc. These views are mine, and not necessarily those of all my band mates. Also, read to the end for an update from this morning, after this blog was written, that might shed a bit more light on Bell’s recent decisions.)
Full disclosure: I am, and have long been, a pretty big fan of Rob Bell. At 22 years old, Velvet Elvis was both liberating and challenging. It gave me language for much of what I had been struggling with as a philosophy major for 3 years at a state college. I even liked Love Wins a great deal. Although I’m not 100% comfortable self-labeling as a universalist, I definitely lean that way for a number of reasons (I’m sure we’ll get to a post about that sooner or later), and I thought Bell’s explanation was the best I had read in full-book format (admittedly, I haven’t read many full books from that perspective). All this to say: I like him, and tend to give him a chance to explain what he’s doing before dismissing him.
You may have heard: former “emergent” church movement megastar Rob Bell has a new talk show debuting Sunday on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Last night I watched his interview on Access Hollywood, which I assume the producers (predictably) framed as a Dr. Whomever-style self-help segment called “Three Tips for Better New Years Resolutions.” Three separate things stood out to me about this interview and the clips/promos for his show:
1. The packaging/marketing of it all is fairly sickening
2. Everything he said I believe to be true, that is to say, accurate; furthermore, it went a lot deeper toward what I would call “ultimate truth” than 99% of similar segments on these type of shows
3. Jesus is not explicitly denied, but definitely not mentioned or embraced
Let’s break these down, because it’s good to separate out issues that are indeed separate.
PACKAGING: As a jaded, 31 year old non-consumer of most cloying American mid-day media, there is approximately a 0% chance that I will enjoy the way that the New Improved Oprah-stamped Spiritual Leader Rob Bell is marketed, sold, and packaged. No way, and that is a given. This does not mean that Bell won't still sling some serious truths, it just means that his promo's will continue to contain terms like “Rock Star Speaker” and “Fresh off of Oprah’s The Life You Want Tour,” which provoke in me an automatic gag reflex, and make me want to travel back to a time before advertising existed. Since there is no hope of change in this area, and since it is ultimately not as important as the content of his message, I’m going to set this to the side for now. Bell decided to sign with Oprah, and he may have had great reasons for doing so, and I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on that one.
TRUTH: For the most part, I actually agreed with everything that Bell said. We do want to answer life’s most basic questions, and we need language for that. (I would also add that much of the church does a poor job of converting classic “Christianese” language into useable modern language.) We need to learn to forgive and to teach our children, and these things are directly related to God’s plan for our lives, both individually and for the human race as a whole. It’s also true that “Everyone has their own version of God” – when he asks church members or friends how they see God, Bell says he gets wildly differing answers. I especially liked what he said about recent events in Ferguson, essentially encouraging a non-violent response a la Dr. King. And it’s true that all of this relates to our individual internal lives.
During his actual “Tips” presentation, he hits on some great points, like the fact that we have desires much deeper than consumer goods, and that “we aren’t our feelings,” but rather, we can stand apart from them and look at them critically. Any time that Bell is pushed for some practical advice, it ends up sounding pretty therapeutic. I believe strongly in the power of therapy and counseling, and I found all his statements in that arena to be accurate and indeed helpful. There is a still a big question, however, especially for those who have followed Bell for years: where is Jesus in all this?
JESUS? Host Billy Bush spends some 30% of the interview gently pressing Bell to acknowledge his specifically Christian faith and perspective, and Bell does a very diplomatic job basically avoiding doing so. He says that if you “take the Jesus story seriously, it ends up being about everyone,” and that “all faith comes down to ‘loving your neighbor’ and making a better world.” The latter claim seems a bit dubious to me, but I’m interested to see if, through his show and his new platform, he can make a compelling case that taking Jesus seriously takes us in a more ecumenical and universal direction.
I can only speculate a reason as to why he is consciously avoiding being grouped in with Christians on national TV, but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched: it’s a pretty rough group to be associated with these days, and he wouldn’t really fit in anyway. Osteen, Warren, Duck Dynasty, the Religious Right… am I forgetting anyone? Bell likely only believes 30-40% of what Rick Warren believes, for instance, so to come out as a member of the American Evangelical SuperMovement would probably be unwise. What are his other options? My guess is that, even if Bell is still a completely orthodox Christian thinker (and maybe he isn’t), there may still be some compelling reasons to be very careful, especially in these early days of his new public ministry (yes, I’ll call it that), to stay as far away from easy categorization as possible. Indeed, if we all have divergent and interesting answers to “who is God?” then maybe we also have those for Jesus.
It’s probably worth noting that it is indeed possible to be orthodox, to believe that Jesus is the only way to God, and still believe that specific knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth is not required for salvation. C.S. Lewis believed this, and so do I. Of course, Bell is a universalist, so maybe that’s a better framework for understanding his current position: If you truly believe that God will save everyone, then your time on earth may become less about convincing people of the particular truth of Christianity, and more about bringing God’s Kingdom to earth in a practical sense. This seems true on the surface, but even as a so-called “hopeful universalist” myself, I still believe that knowledge of the life and teachings of Jesus is the single most powerful tool we have. So it’s hard for me to imagine skirting those Jesus questions so conspicuously, but for now, I’m going to give Bell the benefit of the doubt. Let’s see what he’s trying to do.
UPDATE: this morning, Bell released this teaser/trailer/short film for his show on “The Cross:’ In it, he claims the cross as the thing upon which Jesus died, but that the story didn’t end there, and that the cross is the item through which God is reconciling Himself to the world. Sounds a lot like N.T. Wright to me, and I’m 100% on board with his rephrasing. It’s curious that he doesn’t explicitly mention the Resurrection, but it’s definitely implicit, and maybe that was an editing decision for a short video, I don’t know. The second half the video is more therapy-style talk, so maybe this is a peak into what we have to look forward to? Some smaller percentage of open-minded Christian thinking, followed by 50+% general therapeutic talk. If that’s what we’re getting, it’s definitely not the worst thing in the world, and may even be some of the best stuff that a good chunk of his TV audience will ever hear. I’m interested; that much is for sure.
P.S. When my wife was reading this over for me, checking my grammar and whatnot, she was not at all happy that I originally used the phrase “benefit of the doubt” three times (I replaced one of them on her insistence). But really, are there any good synonyms? A Google and thesaurus.com search revealed nothing. So if anyone has any ideas, please leave a comment.