Rob Bell and a new American Christianity (book review)
In 2010 we hosted a debate for our theological college: Will the real Mars Hill please stand up? The debate invited the audience to compare and contrast two well-known American megachurches and the leaders behind them, Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll, whom we saw as representing powerful and differing forces in American Christianity — check out the comparison chart Dave Hughes produced for the debate. For us as Australian students, American Christian culture is often novel and foreign, yet also strangely influential — a source of both familiar comforts (Chris Tomlin) and bizarre terrors (Joel Osteen!). It also seems like a hyper-coloured version of the fate of Christianity that we’re witnessing in our own Western context, even though Australia has gone further along the post-Christian road.
And so we continue to watch for developments. Although I’ve written about Rob Bell here a few times, I’ve not followed his work especially closely, but I’ve certainly been interested in his motivations, methods and audience rather than simply his content (which is all that seems to matter to some critics!). James K Wellman’s short book, Rob Bell and a new American Christianity, takes all this into account. It’s an unusual mixture of anecdotes about Bell plus summaries of his work, interspersed with sociological categories and commentary. Wellman takes us chronologically through Bell’s life and work, surveying his preaching, publications, tours, and films (including Nooma). It makes for a good overview of Rob Bell, but also an accessible spiritual snapshot of America today.
Wellman’s field is sociology of religion, and he’s at his best when summarising Bell’s theology and setting this in context of the present-day American cultural landscape, apart from which it’s impossible to make sense of Bell. Fundamentalism and evangelicalism are on the wane, religious diversity is rising, and ‘religion in general, and particularly the Christian faith, is up for grabs’. Bell is interested not in preserving Christianity as it is, but in taking the figure of Jesus beyond established denominational and institutional circles. His example stands as a challenge to a new generation of professional Christian ministers (like me) who, despite all our Post-Christian Blah Blah Blah, are still being subtly squeezed into becoming Maintenance Men.
A key to where Bell fits in can be seen in the title of one of his tours, Everything is spiritual, or a favourite phrase, ‘God is in this place, but I didn’t realise it!’ (Genesis 28:16; our college debate drew attention to a similar idea in Acts 17, that ‘God is not far from each of us’). If all of reality is Christocentric, then the old sacred-secular divide crumbles.
Bell can be seen as a prophet to American Christianity at various levels. The theologies which he subverts — particularly dualisms like soul/body, heaven/earth, eternal/temporal, which he refers to as evacuation theology — are ingrained in Christian culture, including in evangelical circles. These might not always be total caricatures, but Bell wants to explode our limited theological repertoires. He has also engaged with those who have been casualties of American religiosity in various ways. (Without a recognition of this key audience, some criticisms of Love Wins were misplaced.)
Bell doesn’t seem to care if you’re for or against him, and what comes through instead is his repudiation of human structures and mechanisms. He wants the focus to be on the character and purposes of God in Christ. Much of American religiosity is really about stability, revolving around institutions, prosperity, fixed categories, and in-groups — to which Bell’s approach seems to shrug, This was never the point. Representative of this is his refusal to even engage with the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’.
For some time, Tamie and I have used this blog to cultivate an ethos of self-criticism, attempting to critique our evangelical tradition without distancing ourselves from it. However, there’s a point at which you have to go beyond getting the plank out of your eye and be constructive, and this is something I admire about Bell: his entire outlook is a response to the edifice of American religiosity — including his own Reformed background — and yet it’s persistently creative and forward-looking. Rather than being associated with organisations, platforms, or causes, he’s an imaginative voice, rising above the fray of positions and counter-positions to present a tantalising vision. While others have spent their time analysing and organising, Bell has been creating — or ‘repainting’, as his first book puts it.
As Wellman says, Bell seems to be at heart a performing artist and itinerant evangelist. At present, he is no longer the leader of a local church, Nooma has finished, and Bell is poised in Hollywood to create ‘a place in the middle of culture for a really beautiful Jesus:’
I want to show it to you, when everyone else is having a conference about how to present Jesus to the world, I want to do it — in the belly of the beast — a beautiful Jesus, and people will say, ‘Wow’.
As he documents Bell’s tenacious efforts to show rather than tell, Wellman puts a question to Bell: ‘It almost feels like you’re more in love with just the process of communication than with whatever you want to call it, the gospel.’ But hand in hand with this passion for communication is Bell’s compulsion as a learner. For Wellman, Bell’s preaching is his most important creative canvas and avenue of communication, and it reflects Bell’s own alteration through exploring the Bible. By modelling this exploration, Bell promotes ‘a rich field of inquiry into the Christian faith that celebrates thought, questions, and doubts about the deepest aspects of faith and scripture’. Snapshots of several different sermons form an important part of Wellman’s book.
In the early chapters, the book affects the tone of an intimate biography, although Wellman doesn’t always seem to have the details to make it count. The writing is earnest, sometimes indulgent, even gushy, and from time to time I felt as if Wellman was over-interpreting Bell’s background. When Wellman relates Bell’s ability to connect with the marginalised, he frequently alludes that Bell himself has experienced frailty, struggle and alienation, although there’s little elaboration of this. Maybe this is because Wellman hasn’t been all that close to Bell apart from ten hours of interviews. At any rate, what it makes for is more a celebration of a public figure than an authentic biography. One of the events that does move beyond the level of backstory is Bell’s separation from Flannel, the Nooma production team, as it became more conservative.
But the book gathers momentum and, by the end, Wellman’s positivity has become coherent and even infectious. His conclusion eloquently outlines Bell’s focus on the incarnation: Christ’s birth and resurrection not only halts the evacuation of Earth, but means that truth is embodied, and so the word is powerful because the word is flesh (not the other way around), and so the way of Jesus is ultimately something that is lived and practiced, rather than something that can be abstracted and assented to (and formalised and fought over). In his closing acknowledgements, Wellman reflects that Bell does indeed seem to have made something beautiful of the gospel.
In light of this, for Bell, organised Christianity always treads a perilous path. God cannot be domesticated or belong to one particular tribe — something which is profoundly disturbing, says Wellman, ‘because it works against the boundary-making patterns of group identity’. It’s fascinating that Bell’s work has provoked exactly this sort of boundary-keeping behaviour in Reformed circles, making Bell a sort of walking juridical parable, leading some of his critics to unwittingly bring judgement on themselves. This is also the point at which Wellman connects Bell with ‘nonreligious Christianity’ and the trend of spiritual-but-not-religious. However, Wellman is keen to distinguish Bell from plain old liberal toleration, because of Bell’s passionate fixation with the Christian story: the destruction of boundary-making and the beginning of true charity can only be possible through the revelation of Jesus.
There’s a big question for me here: what of the community to which God has bound himself by the Spirit of Christ? I’m talking about the church, and I don’t mean the institution. Protestant Christianity has long struggled with unity, and Bell’s avoidance of alliances and labels hasn’t exactly done anything to address this. And, in spite of all of Bell’s iconoclasm, has his invitation to faith ever really undone the individualism of his American context? Bell may have fundamentally questioned Christianity’s organisational trappings, but where is the dynamic body-family-temple underneath? I’m not sure.
As Wellman says, this book is only a midterm evaluation of Bell’s work, but it’s a very welcome and accessible read. I wouldn’t really know whether or not Bell is a new kind of American Christian, but to me he seems a bit like an older kind of evangelical, a sort of neo-revivalist in the vein of Whitefield and the Wesleys. The ‘heart faith’ and conversionism of traditional evangelicalism has been tainted by fear-mongering and politicking, yet Bell represents a renewed quest for ‘vital piety’, a faith with a tangible and living connection to Jesus. Don’t look to Bell for theological precision or comprehensiveness. Instead, watch on as those who might otherwise be turned aside find themselves drawn a little nearer to the Bread of Life, the one whose story, to whatever degree we apprehend it, lies at the heart of the Universe.