Regardless of how many tasks I'm juggling, I will always take time out of my schedule to address contemporary Christian issues that demand attention. In the past two weeks a firestorm has erupted concerning a popular Christian preacher and writer named Rob Bell. He has just released a new book entitled, "Love Wins," that minimizes the role of hell in Christian theology. Much has been written on the interwebs about the hubbub, so my two cents might seem irrelevant. While I don't intend to pave new ground in the conversation, I believe I have a unique perspective on Bell himself as I've been tracking his career for more than a decade now. This is a lengthy post, but I figure if you're still reading, then you're interested.
HE'S PRETTY GOOD.
One of my wife's childhood friends settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan after attending college there. In one of her visits to Cincinnati after our wedding, she told us about the church she was attending. It was a newer congregation which, at that time, was meeting in something that resembled an airplane hanger. "Steve, you'd really like our minister. He's pretty good," her friend told me. I didn't think much of it until that winter when I heard her minister speak at a conference I attended.
Yes, Rob Bell was pretty good. He's a phenomenal orator. He has incredible command of his diction (especially when rehearsed) and usually has sufficient content to keep his teaching compelling. There are few Christian speakers like him today, who can leave the audience hanging on his every word.
Later that year, we took a trip to visit Kelly's friend in Grand Rapids and attended Mars Hill Bible Church for the first time. They had recently purchased an old mall and were converting it for their ministry purposes. Back then, they had a sermon cassette tape booth (cutting edge, eh?) and I bought the entire first year of his preaching; he taught through the Old Testament book of Leviticus. This is precisely why I appreciated Bell at the time: he was a younger evangelical minister fully embracing biblical preaching. A decade ago, this was novel.
HE'S A THINKER
In January 2003, Bell (who was growing in popularity but still wasn't mainstream) and his church hosted a preaching study conference centering around the Ten Commandments. I convinced my friend Aaron Burgess that it would be worth the drive to Grand Rapids to hear this, so we braved a Michigan winter for some knowledge. There were only about fifty people at this gathering—many Michigander clergy folk and a few people like us sprinkled in—consisting of three days of Rob Bell talking with us. He went through his thought process on preaching, developing theology, and anything else that we cared to ask him. Some reflections from this experience are worth noting to understand the current controversy:
1. It was here where I found out where Rob harvested much of his best material. Ray Vanderlaan is an author and Bible teacher who specializes in the Holy Land and Jewish rabbinic culture. Himself a compelling speaker, Vanderlaan said many things that I had heard in Rob's sermon tapes. Vanderlaan is a sharp man, but not really a biblical scholar, so some of his assertions have been refuted by those with more letters after their names.
2. Rob also revealed his library. At the time, he had many books that were Jewish in nature. One, for example, was Abraham Heschel's God in Search of Man. I made an effort to read many of these texts. The majority of them stood in opposition to orthodox Christianity. Obviously, there's nothing with that; when teaching in the Old Testament, I make sure to utilize Jewish scholarship fully understanding the different perspectives. But some of the concepts he articulated in this forum, derived from these and similar texts, were likely the path of development towards his current theological positions. I even have notes on Redemptive Theology (also known as trajectory theology), which helps solidify his position.
3. While in Grand Rapids, I believe I determined the rise of Mars Hill. Rob was an associate minister on staff of a megachurch in the city. Obviously, his oration skills were phenomenal, so when he stepped out to start a new church it was an event. I've read before in articles, where Rob decried church marketing, even having the church sign removed from the front of their building (it was true back in 2003). I always found this interesting because they were able to start their church with almost 1,000 people. I'm not discounting the Lord moving to grow that congregation, but they didn't really need a church sign because Mars Hills was the coolest church in town.
4. The concept that "Love Wins" was created in the first year of their church. In response to a powerful gospel sermon (not sure if it mentioned hell or not), he concluded by throwing open boxes of bumper stickers with the two word sentence printed on them. As we drove around town, we could see many of them affixed to car bumpers. I am uncertain as to whether or not he had fully conceptualized what he meant by that phrase when he promoted it to his church a decade ago.
5. This was soon after the Nooma series had been created. It was interesting to see it on the bottom floor in light of what it became. We met the guy who came up with the concept, who apparently knew exactly how to match Rob's talent with this medium.
6. Kind of a sidebar here, but Aaron was hilarious at this conference. In one of the early sessions, Rob said something about philosophy (Aaron's wheelhouse) and proceeded to correct him publicly on a couple of concepts. At the time it was awkward, but now it seems extremely funny to me. Later that week, Aaron asked one of the Mars Hill staff members about sheep stealing and the dude blew up at him. Besides wearing cool glasses, Aaron wasn't buying into the hype.
7. Since it was a small gathering, I did have a chance to talk with Rob for about five minutes. Although he seemed really gracious, he was somewhat socially awkward. I remember dropping a couple of jokes in front of him and he just stared at me. And since he's really tall (and I'm not), and since he had really cool glasses (and I did not) I do not have warm fuzzies about our interaction. I don't think he's rude, he's a thinker. I've met many a pastor who are outgoing and personable on stage yet more reserved during one-on-one interactions. I could be way off on this, however, but that's how I pegged him.
I must admit that it was a memorable experience. It took me a few months to digest all that I took in there. And it was, after this fact, that my intruigue with Bell began to wane. See, when he started the church, he was preaching through books of the Bible (Leviticus and Ephesians). After the Ten Commandments, he started to depart from this and engaged in more topical preaching. Honestly, I'm just not convinced that his content was as good as it once was, leaning towards opinion and conjecture. I honestly never watched a whole Nooma after the second one. And though I own three of his books, I only read one all the way through. And, since those early days, more and more of his theology has emerged, leading me to question where he really stands.
One more anecdote: a year or so later, my wife's friend got married and we made yet another trip to Grand Rapids. Many of the attendees at the wedding attended Rob's church, so we had some good conversations with them at the reception. But I remember one conversation very clearly: it was with a twenty-something woman who was clearly excited about Mars Hill. As I asked her some questions about the church, she responded in utter admiration of Rob. I wish I could remember the exact phrase the woman uttered, but it was something to the effect that he was prophetic. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with respecting you pastor, but these opinions transcended mere appreciation. Unfortunately, some of the woman's terminology seemed borderline cult-like. She believed that Bell was one of the holiest, most profound people in the world. While this isn't an indictment on Bell (I'm certain he didn't demand this adoration), I wonder if he truly realized such a culture existed where someone could make those statements.
I always assumed the Bell would parlay his talent into a larger situation; Grand Rapids, while nice, is a small midwestern town lacking in influence. But Mars Hill provided Rob the perfect safe haven to develop his thoughts without fear of theological repercussion. While there was a leadership team over the church (at least this was the case in 2003), Bell was a part of this governing group. I am pretty sure that he won't have to fear the wrath of the church leadership in espousing these controversial thoughts in book form because the leadership team shares them. So why has he stayed in Grand Rapids? It offers him a shield of protection it would be difficult to find elsewhere. He's continuing to claim association with orthodox Christianity while moving further away. But as long as he has that church, he'll have stability.
So yeah, there's a little bit of a background for ya. I've mentioned nothing of the book here, but I think for many people it will reveal more about what's behind it.
I'm working my way through the book now. I'll have a critique about its content out soon.