I just got home from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. Nothing like 14,000 theologians and biblical scholars to make a weekend wild. The best part of going each year (other than connecting with great friends) is the massive book fair. Every religious publisher in the universe is there rolling out their latest books.
I bought several. (I usually take an extra suitcase to bring books home in). But the first one I read was an interesting little book by James Wellman on the ministry, life, and impact of Rob Bell on American Christianity. It was honestly very hard for me to put down and I had it finished by the time my plane landed this afternoon. Wellman does a great job of being fair but critical. The beauty of the book is that he not only researches Rob and his ministry but thoughtfully reflects on what the resonance his ministry has had with so many says about the nature of American Christianity.
Rob is a spiritual hero for many and a major source of contention for many others. (So much so, that I considered not writing this review. I am trusting the graciousness and maturity of most of my readers). But whether you love Rob or hate him, I think Wellman's book will give you important insight into the way he thinks and the vision of ministry he carries with him passionately.
There is a lot that could be reflected on, but let me just mention the thing that I treasure (and honestly envy) most about Rob, and then the thing that troubles me most.
I love and frankly covet the artistic side of Rob Bell. What has made his ministry both unique and powerful is that he is an artist and not just a preacher. He thinks of preaching as a form of art. I love, as Wellman points out in several places, that his vision of the kingdom does not begin as just an answer to the sin problem of Genesis 3 but as the way to reconnect people with the image of God they were created to be in Genesis 1. Wellman points out that what transformed Rob's preaching ministry was when he connected with the deeply Jewish aspects of the gospel. Traditionally Judaism is okay living in tension with questions that go unanswered (just read Job). Judaism doesn't usually invite believers simply into adherance to particular doctrines, but like Jacob (Israel) it invites people to wrestle with God in places they did not expect and in ways they never dreamed.
I am jealous of Rob's ability to paint with words. I envy his ability to invite people into the mystery of a God who exceeds all of our formulas about him. And I love that his primary desire is to reach people who have no interest in the gospel - but to do so in ways that don't coerce them with fear but draw them into the depth and breath of God's love.
Wellman's exploration of Rob's creative impulse is fascinating. It is his amazing creative ability that in large part drew people to Mars Hill so quickly and it is that impulse that has moved him to explore new avenues of creativity and art in LA. I wish I had more of that.
Although I have points of difference theologically with Rob, my primary point of concern is not so much theological as ecclesiological. According to Wellman, Rob has a beautiful Spirit-led, mission-centric, movment oriented view of the Church (with a capital "C"). In fact, Rob deeply resists thinking of the Church as an institution. For example, Mars Hill does not have a church sign nor does it do any advertising. If you come to the church it is because the Church (the people that are the Church) invited you to come and join in.
There is something beautiful about that view, and it is obviously a view that resonnates well with instituition-phobic postmoderns. My concern is not about his desire to keep the Church from becoming overly institutionalized in the future, but his disconnection with the church as an historic tradition. It isn't that he is not connected with or profoundly aware of the tradition of biblical interpretation or theological development - he is. It is that he rarely acknowledges that he is. I could be wrong, but it is my sense that in the constant attempt to be the innovator and creator he sometimes (maybe often) has failed to recognize the shoulders of saints that he is standing on.
If you made a list of the theological ideas that have caused people to dismiss him as a heretic - a non-foundationalist epistemology, a post-liberal reading of Scripture, a Spirit-ecclesiology, a questioning of substitutionary atonement as the only way to think about salvation, God's redemption of all of creation, the affirmation of the goodness of embodied life through creation and the resurrection of the dead, and even wrestling with questions of the nature of heaven, hell, and judgment - NONE of those questions are unique to him. In fact he is picking them up from folk as far back as the Eastern Orthodox Fathers, and as recent as Nancey Murphy, Miroslav Volf, Jurgen Moltmann, NT Wright, George Lindbeck, Rene Girard, and a whole host of others dead and living. Even the questions he raises in Love Wins - questions for which he received the most negative attention - were far from new. As one colleague of mine said after reading Love Wins, "Apparently all these people who are fired up about Love Wins either didn't read C.S. Lewis' the Great Divorce or they didn't understand it."
My point being, in books like Velvet Elvis or Love Wins he rarely if ever references some of the saints and scholars who stand with him in both his many questions and his few conclusions. But because he tends to stand alone as the artist and prophet, he also gets dismissed as a rogue in blogs, tweets, and books. I am fine if people want to take on a book like Love Wins. But when they do it they ought to know that they are taking on a few of the heavy-weights of Christian history also and not just a forty-something celebrity preacher from MIchigan.
(Parenthetically, I kept thinking while I read the book about Rob that it's too bad he wasn't Wesleyan instead of Reformed. He mainly gets ripped by Reformed folk like Piper and Driscoll for not supporting a Reformed theological agenda. I'm not sure Rob's questions would cause much of a ripple at the Wesleyan Theological Society. It would be interesting to know if he would have planted a Methodist church - like Adam Hamilton - in Leawood, Kansas rather than a Reformed church in Grand Rapids if he would have received the level of criticism he has gotten. There would certainly still be a few Wesleyan, Holiness, and Charismatic folk that would diagree with various points of his teaching, - and who would be jealous of his success - but we may have had tent big enough to hold him).
My point is that Rob doesn't really care that many evangelicals have demonized him. He pays very little mind to the criticism from the institution. I admire that a bit, but it also concerns me. I love the (big "C") Church not just as a movement but as a people with a history. I love it enough to take bruises from it and still stay inside of it. I love it enough to want to move it forward at a pace it can hear and respond to. I am not there yet, but I also want to love it enough to be willing to die at its hands if necessary in order to speak truth to it.
Tony Jones calls Rob the "Jason Bourne of evangelicalism." I am a little envious of his strength of conviction to go it alone if necessary. I am too tied to this thing called the historic body of Christ to know how to be that independent. Somewhere there is probably a happier medium to reach between the Church as Spirit movement and Church as institution.
Whatever else Rob is or has done, he helps the church try to reawaken the reality of God's redemptive work going on in every one of us are Christ's disciples. Again, whether you think Rob is a saint or heretic, you will find the book a fascinating read. Here is my favorite quote from Rob's farewell letter to Mars Hill:
i write this to you because of how many of you have been challenged about your participation in the life of this church, often with the accusation: but what do they believe over there at mars hill?
as if belief, getting the words right, is the highest form of faith.
Jesus came to give us life.
a living, breathing, throbbing, pulsating blow your hair back tingle your spine roll the windows down and drive fast experience of God right here, right now.
work taking on flesh and blood.
and so you've found yourself defending and explaining and trying to find the words for your experience that is fundamentally about a reality that is beyond and more than words.
so when you find yourselves tied up in knots, having long discussions about who believes what, a bit like dogs doing that sniff circle when they meet on the sidewalk, do this:
take out a cup and some bread and put it in the middle of the table,
and say a prayer and examine yourselves and then make sure everybody's rent is paid and there's food in their fridge and clothes on their backs
and then invite everybody to say 'yes' to the resurrected Christ with whatever 'yes' they can muster in the moment and then you take that bread and dip it in that cup in the ancient/future hope and trust that there is a new creation bursting forth right here right now and
then together taste that new life and liberation and forgiveness and as you look those people in the eyes gathered around that table from all walks of life and you see the new humanity, sinners saved by grace, beggars who have found bread showing other beggars where they found it
remind yourselves that this is what you believe.
remember, the movement is word to flesh.
beware of those who will take the flesh and want to turn it back into words.