Nooma is by Flannel and currently features Rob Bell. Greg Gilbert, of 9 Marks, is not a fan of the short films (part 1, part 2, part 3). With Gilbert’s review as a point of contact, and following this consideration of postmodernism, here is a reflection on viewer assumptions and story, and how we can use Nooma.
Misleading lost people?
From the beginning of his review, Greg Gilbert focuses on Nooma’s teaching. More importantly, he views Nooma as teaching. He notes that Rob Bell is billed as a storyteller, yet quickly moves on, stating that the films are ‘Sunday School lessons with an extra dose of cool’.
From there, Gilbert goes on to find a series of problems with Nooma. Nooma never really deals with the cross or the resurrection. It doesn’t deal with the pervasiveness and severity of sin in the face of a holy God. It focuses on Jesus’ Kingdom ethics, although it seems to leave out the difficult and offensive teachings. Gilbert sees in this a neo-moralism. Gilbert also wonders (fittingly) that if Nooma is so good at being authentic, honest and engaging, why hasn’t Nooma yet brought this approach to the most demanding and disturbing elements of the gospel? In the end, Gilbert concludes that Nooma misleads lost people, and he finds the films overall to be sub-Christian. But is this the end of the story?
Gilbert’s concern about Nooma is a concern for propositions. And because Gilbert finds Nooma to be incoherent at this propositional level, Bell is either a ‘consummate communicator not communicating very well’ or some kind of universalist. Yet Gilbert has overlooked Bell’s postmodern angle on ministry. We see this most clearly when Gilbert quotes from Velvet Elvis, and finds Bell to be promoting universalism:
We can trust [God’s] retelling of the story, or we can trust our telling of our story. It is a choice we make every day about the reality we are going to live in.
And this reality extends beyond life.
Heaven is full of forgiven people.
Hell is full of forgiven people.
Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for.
Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for.
The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.
Is this universalism? It certainly is for Gilbert — but Gilbert has read this text with a modernistic concern for propositions. Bell’s own reference to ‘story’ suggests that we should be coming at it from another angle. If we re-read it, these words are not a propositional statement but a narrative invitation. In other words, rather than claiming that all people are saved and just need to realise it, this is a picture of the salvation that becomes our story when we step into God’s story. In propositional terms, this means that salvation becomes true when we believe the gospel. This passage is not a modern truth-statement but a postmodern invitation.
Making sense of Nooma
Within our modernistic Western Christianity, we’re automatically inclined to use Nooma as a modern teaching tool. We show Noomas to our youth groups as though they’re sermons; we include them in teaching curriculums; we treat them as if they contain propositional nuggets that viewers can simply absorb, take away, and apply in their own lives.
But what exactly is Nooma? Apart from Flannel’s own explanation, we can figure it out when we look again at what happens in the films. Gilbert makes much of the ‘taught’ content of Nooma — and Nooma certainly does contain propositions, such as the benedictions with which Bell ends each film. Yet, when we take off our modernistic lenses, the Nooma films are stories. Nooma is indeed an attempt to present the gospel, as Gilbert notes, yet it’s not the kind of gospel presentation that Gilbert insists on. We should not expect Nooma to contain a watertight, ‘adequate’ set of gospel propositions, because it functions at the level of story. Nooma interacts with its viewers by providing them with a new story to interweave with their own. Gilbert is worried about ‘slippery’ language and an unclear audience, but that’s kind of the point: Nooma is messy, not neat. Nooma is not a modern teaching tool but a postmodern conversation tool.
It seems to me that the difficulty with Nooma is not the films themselves, but the way people use them. This is not to let Nooma off the hook. The questions that Gilbert raises are serious ones, and his propositional critique is still useful, because we don’t live in an exclusively postmodern world. People have not simply abandoned propositions and, as a result, Gilbert fears will undoubtedly be realised with some people. When Bell ends ‘Rhythm’ by saying, ‘May you realise that you are in relationship with the living God’, not every viewer will take up the call to explore this. People are lazy, and some will just think, ‘Well, good for me!’
Shouldn’t a short film be clear enough to use freely without fearing its consequences? Well, no. Think about a traditional channel of Christian truth: the modern teaching sermon. Do we think that a sermon’s listeners should be left to their own devices, to individually digest it in isolation? Of course not. Knowing God is not about holding to a list of propositions. Truth is both propositional and relational. Any channel of Christian truth, whether sermon or Nooma film, ought to be couched in relationship, within which ideas can be teased out and explored and tested. And, while a sermon may not have Nooma’s messiness, it can just as easily be ignored, for all its modernistic clarity. What Nooma is aiming at, however, is a different kind of clarity — the textured, tactile clarity of narrative.
Nooma will not work in a vacuum — but then, nothing does. As Flannel says, ‘Nooma is an invitation to search, question, and join the discussion’.
Part of a loose series:
- Which bridge?
- Missing the boat on postmodernism
- Further up and further in (What is Rob Bell on about?)
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.