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Re-viewing Nooma (How to use Nooma)

Nooma is by Flannel and currently features Rob Bell. Greg Gilbert, of 9 Marks, is not a fan of the short films (part 1part 2part 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:

Categories: Film Written by Arthur

Tagged as:

Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

19 replies

  1. I hate to go all postmodern here, but isn’t the point not whether the truth is propositional or not, but how it is received?

    I wonder whether Rob Bell and Nooma are more post-modern than the postmoderns themselves. Nooma may communicate in a cool postmodern way, is it received that way?

    The majority of texts in our society continue to be propositional or informational – think of advertising, magazines, newspapers, non-fiction, business reports, birthday cards, etc. (even if they belong to a greater story) I think we’re still used to reading texts as propositions and so I suspect, as you hint, that Nooma may not function as ‘postmodernly’ as we would like it to.

  2. Haha, spoken like a true postmodern, my love! :P

    I have of course taken the very modern line of the *intent* behind the text — and that may not matter as much as we might like it to! :D

  3. In my view, Nooma should never be used as the primary teaching tool.
    Now, for those who have been in my churches and have sat through a Nooma instead of a ‘sermon’ you would be wondering what I’m talking about.
    The problem with Nooma is that it doesn’t nail down anything solid. Is this postmodernism?
    I don’t know.
    I use Noomas to engage with the wider teaching/knowledge of the gospel that I hope my congregation has from our normal teaching.
    Noomas are great for, as you said Arthur, pulling us into a story. We reflect on our own story and see how it fits in the big picture (God’s story of salvation).
    So they’re ambiguous. And the theology is sometimes questionable.
    But Nooma (and Bell’s theological teaching) helps us with our theology and can help us apply it in real life.
    Let’s make sure we’re anchored in our faith before
    getting lost in the shifting nature of truth in postmodernity,
    Make sure a congregation knows the Gospel before teaching them that Nooma is the Gospel.

  4. @Joel
    I was wondering what you reckon! Thanks for commenting. :)

    I like what you’ve highlighted — that Noomas draw us into ongoing rethinking and reapplying of the knowledge of God.

    So you see Nooma as being for Christians? How might it work with non-Christians, if at all?

  5. I found Australia to feel a bit different than the US as far as postmodernism was concerned, especially within the church. I live about 3 hours from Bell’s church and have heard him teach on many occasions and I can say that his audience follows – he is not “more” postmodern than they are – he is appropriate and narrative in a city that is inundated with Dutch Reform folks who teach predominately propositionally. His style of communication is a breath of fresh air in Grand Rapids. Nooma, as mentioned here, is a tool to open discussion and not a final word. Was it McLaren who named a book, “The Last Word, and the Word After That”? Nooma is something like that. Does Bell say definitive things? Sure – as much as he recognizes we can be definitive. He tends to use words like “hope” and “faith” a lot more often than certainty. I think he stole that from somebody….who was that? Oh yeah, Paul!

  6. Hi Joey

    Great to hear your point of view. I appreciate your first hand experience of Bell’s church and his audience. Sounds like he’s right on the money for them.

    The receiving audience in Australia does seem different. So we need to ask whether this kind of ministry is transferable and thus whether it should be broadcast online/globally (and I’d lump other cultural-specific ministries like Driscoll into this question as well.) I think it’s both a missiological question and a question of technological ethics…

  7. Nooma is not a modern teaching tool but a postmodern conversation tool.

    I think that’s the theory Arthur but they get treated as teaching by many. Unfortunately Rob Bell uses post-modernism like a blunt instrument during surgery. Post-modernism is a tool, not a cultural movement or an epistemology.

  8. While I’ve only watched a few Noomas (kickball, open, rain, lump) – I’ve found them all to be extremely refreshing and engaging. If I had watched them in a disconnecting fashion, while relating them to the bible, then I can’t imagine their teaching would have been entirely spot on. But I think because I can watch them and constantly line them up with the knowledge I have of the bible, and my relationship with Jesus, then that’s what makes them so helpful and refreshing.

    After watching kickball, I have used the simple illustration about “God knowing what is best for us” countless times in my own teaching at church and youth group and just in general conversations.

    In general I agree with “In my view, Nooma should never be used as the primary teaching tool.” It really is at it’s best when it is a discussion starter and thought provoker.

  9. Kevin DeYoung has this to say about Rob Bell:

    This is just so confused and unhelpful. It is classic old-school liberalism: Jesus as the fullest flower of fair humanity. The emphasis on creation has swallowed up the biblical notion of redemption. The shocking, vibrant apostolic message centered on the life, death, resurrection, coming kingdom, and coming judgment of Jesus Christ has morphed in a banal, same-old-same-old message about actualizing our humanity.

    http://www.revkevindeyoung.com/2009/10/this-is-not-good.html

  10. Thanks for that, Luke — an interesting commentary on an interesting interview!

    It’s fascinating to see so many commenters waiting for Bell to say ‘the right thing’ and then feeling compelled to fill in everything Bell has ‘missed’.

    It sounds to me, reading the interview, that Bell is hoping to provoke a sense of ‘Come and hear more’, rather than trying to lay everything out — even in spite of the interviewer’s attempts!

    The bit you’ve quoted from DeYoung is particularly interesting, because I can’t see how Bell is saying what DeYoung is hearing! :)

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles_of_faith/2009/09/rob_bell.html

  11. Sure DeYoung is being polemical but how could Bell stuff up such an easy question. A quote from interview:

    Q: OK, how would you describe what it is that you believe?
    A: I embrace the term evangelical, if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.

    What about Sin, death, Jesus, cross, church, eternity or ultimate meaning? I would think at least some if not all of those words would make a good theological definition of evangelical.

  12. These are the twitters that Rob Bell posted after the interview. Luke, your assumptions are kind of uncharitable considering the source the interview is from – mainstream American media. Let these short blurbs from Bell give you a clearer picture:

    realrobbell: Ever done an interview and then read it and realized they left out most of what you said? Maddening.

    realrobbell: A bit of history: the word evangelical comes from the Roman Empire propaganda machine- it was an announcement proclaiming Caesar is Lord…

    realrobbell: The first Christians took the phrase and tweaked it, saying “Jesus is Lord.” That, of course, could get you killed. No one challenges Caesar

    realrobbell: To confess Jesus is Lord was to insist that peace does not come to earth through coercive violence but through sacrificial love…

    realrobbell: That is still the question, is it not? Whose way? Jesus or Caesar? Power and might and domination – or bloody, thirsty, hanging on a cross?

    Hope that helps.

  13. Hey lads
    Just before this takes off…
    I’m planning to write a post on this v soon, because of all the online hubbub (192 comments from a single Pyromaniacs post!).
    Stay tuned. :)

    Interesting info, Joey!

  14. Hi Joey,

    I don’t want to bash Bell, but I’m suspicious. What do you mean by “mainstream American media?” The interviews are on a Boston Globe blog about religion, presumably there couldn’t be such gross misrepresentation from Michael Paulson, the interviewer. I’m open to being wrong, and Bell being misrepresented, but that still doesn’t settle my confusion with Bell’s lack of theological clarity. (An another example would be his book about theology: Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile)

    Looking forward to it Arthur.

  15. Hi Luke,

    I hope my use of “uncharitable” wasn’t too harsh. Maybe it is because I’m inundated with the media’s use of “evangelical” in the United States but I am suspicious any time a media outlet (particularly one that is not faith based) tries to handle the term. It, as Bell and many others have pointed out, is used to describe a political ideology and not a theological one.

    Scot McKnight’s blog covered this in two posts and the conversations that followed on that blog were really helpful and balanced. You should check it out.

    At a conference held at the beginning of July Bell spoke of the place of the cross, the empty tomb, the resurrection hope….my friend wrote this afterwards:

    “I remember walking out of Poets, Prophets, and Preachers and thinking, “Man, if that doesn’t lay to rest the assumption that he doesn’t talk about sin and the cross and resurrection, nothing will.””

    Here is an article from Christianity today where he deals with the gospel a little more fully than he did in the Boston Globe article (that was severely cut and edited before it got printed).

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/april/26.34.html?start=1

    I’m just not convinced that this Boston Globe article did his thoughts justice and it is difficult to assess what his view of evangelical or even of the gospel is from this article. Probably isn’t fair to try to pin him down based on what he said here because he didn’t get to control what got printed.

    I’m looking forward to it as well Arthur.

    Peace

  16. Nooma should not under any circumstances be used as a primary text for teaching. Nooma does exhibit postmodern theory at many levels. One of the more alarming aspects of Nooma is it classifies Christianity as merely another metanarrative. Nooma often compares Christianity to other narratives like truth, right, wrong etc.

    One of the main failures of postmodernism is that it does not recognize itself as a metanarrative.

    I do acknowledge that nomad is tool. It is useful in looking at the way post modernity and philosophy interacts with Christianity.

    The problem is much of philosophy is fundamentally deceitful and it direct opposition to absolute truth as written in the bible.

    Honestly, let’s get back to biblical theology. Namely, repentance and faith. Rather than getting caught up in the wisdom of the world and deceitful philosophies.

  17. Hi Ash, and welcome. :)
    I have to say I find it hard to take your comment seriously, with its fire-and-forget feel, and lack of legit e-mail.
    I do hope you’ll stay around, get to know the denizens of this blog and interact with them.
    Cheers :)

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