Friday, June 16, 2017

All the Bells and whistles

The first time that I fully realized that "Rob Bell" had become a distinct indicator of a particular worldview within Evangelical Christianity was just before I moved back to Saskatchewan. Sure, I was aware that he had become persona non grata in many circles when he published Love Wins - I even wrote a blog post about the controversy when the book was released - but I was not quite as aware as to how deep the anathema toward Bell ran, particularly in the Bible belt here on the prairies - and believe me, it's deep.

It seems as though when people hear that I like Rob Bell, they have one of a few reactions, of which the most direct and obvious are those who are virulently opposed to him and what they perceive that he represents - namely, a "watered-down" Christianity that they believe does not (and cannot) represent a life devoted to following Jesus Christ. They may react with the aforementioned repulsion and disgust at his heresy, and they may lump me in with his lot. Or the reaction may be softer, despite the fact that they still believe that he is a heretic, and they may more gently wonder and question how I can like him and his work when he seems to them to be far from the Christian worldview they know.

There are some people, however, who react with far less vitriol, derision, or vehement opposition. Their responses vary: confusion ("He was that pastor in Seattle, right?" "No, that was Mark Driscoll. Bell was at the other Mars Hill..."); mild recollection ("Wasn't he the NOOMA video guy?"); slightly fond nostalgia ("Oh, so that's what he's up to now - I read that Elvis book a long time ago"); or even mild interest ("Huh. Sounds like he's up to some interesting things - maybe I should get his new book").

And then there are those of us who have stuck with Bell over the years. We have journeyed with him as he left ministry in the wake of the furor over his supposed universalism of Love Wins. We have continued to read his books and follow him on social media as he has partnered with Oprah and Carlton Cuse and written some very interesting books and generally been freed from some of the shackles of the expectations and limitations of being a prominent author in the Evangelical Christian world. It has been a fascinating journey, and I thought it would be valuable to recount how Bell's journey has interacted with my own over the years.

My journey with Rob

I first read Velvet Elvis a year or two after it was released, sometime in 2006-2007. It was a period in my life in which I was working through what I thought about church and Christian culture, and in which I was really starting to expand my worldview and the way in which I thought Christians and the church should interact with the world. Bell, along with authors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Bruxy Cavey, started to give me a new lens through which to see the world around me and a new language with which I could express the ways in which I could already sense my previously narrow Conservative Evangelical worldview expanding.

I appreciated Bell's early works, including Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. I should actually revisit those works, since it has been a decade since I have read any of them, and I read them all before I started writing reviews on GoodReads. I particularly identified with his work on creativity and suffering, Drops Like Stars, as an artistic endeavour, and I have recently been feeling a need to return to that work as inspiration on my own creative journey.

And then there's that crucial book in his journey, Love Wins, which was superficially about hell. It was the book that marked the turning point in the general attitude toward Bell, as he was accused of being universalist and turning his back on Christianity by more conservative Christian authors and leaders. Bell went from being the mostly innocuous bespectacled NOOMA guy - although there were some pockets of Evangelical Christianity who had virulently opposed his work from the beginning - to a divisively heretical force who was distracting people from Jesus and Christianity and acting as a poison in the church - at least according to his critics; as a result, he (and arguably the reader of his books) was summarily "excommunicated" (or at least ostracized and delegitimized) from fellowship in the general Evangelical ether.

Here's the thing with Love Wins: I read it at the time, and I appreciated it for what it was - a conversation starter. I did not think at the time that it was his best work, and I think there are more problems with the book in terms of his presentation and even some of his arguments than with any other books, but I still appreciated that he was putting something into the conversation. And although I understood how it was controversial, I did not think it should have been.

What he was saying was not what he was being criticized as saying, and it became clear that there was a lot of agenda on the side of the people who were attempting to exclude him. There was some legitimately interesting dialogue at the time, including Francis Chan's response book Erasing Hell and Hellbound?, a documentary from a Canadian filmmaker who had already been working on his project and was able to use some of the controversy to promote his film.

But I lost track of Bell for a few years after that, and I do not really know why; I was not avoiding Bell, but I was not really engaging with his work, either. I can look back at the books I read in that time using my history on Goodreads, and although I owned his next book - What We Talk About When We Talk About God - for several years, I just never got around to reading it. But I still considered him to be very influential on my life and one of my favourite authors - enough so that he was often one of the first names I would list when I was asked about my favourite people who were writing about faith.

Then, last fall, I read Bell's then-most recent book, How To Be Here, and it reignited something in me and inspired me to catch up on what I had missed in those intervening years. I have since read his previous two books - The ZimZum of Love, which is about marriage, and What We Talk About When We Talk About God, which is about, well, God - and I am looking at revisiting several of his other books over the summer; after all, they are all very easy to digest, and they will make some great summer afternoon reading (not to mention great fodder for a future blog post in which I rank his works).

I am also planning on finally watching all of the NOOMA videos, of which I had only watched a couple when they were popular back in the early aughts; it's kind of funny, actually, that I never really caught on to Bell through the series that made him popular. For that matter, it's kind of funny that I have rarely interacted with Bell through his audio/visual presentations, including his current podcast, the RobCast (I'm too full on podcasts right now to integrate another one, but his would be at the top of my list), considering that he is arguably much stronger a speaker than he is a writer.

It has been a lot of fun catching up with him and seeing how his space connects to my space; it has been kind of like reconnecting with a long-time friend after a few years - one of those friends with whom you just lost touch for awhile until you found a really meaningful point of contact. And then once you have reconnected, you start to have a really significant relationship again and you wonder how you ever were not in contact and you realize that this person is really important to you. That's where Rob and I are at.

What is the Bible?

Part of the reason I have been excited to catch up on Bell's bibliography (pun intended) was the release of his new book this spring: What Is The Bible? I was excited to see where he had been and where he was going, so I made sure to read his earlier books before starting on this new one. Here's the review I posted about What is the Bible? on GoodReads:

What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About EverythingWhat Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"What is the Bible?" It's a big question, and it could be very problematic for someone like Rob Bell to wade into these waters. But Bell seems to fully have embraced his status as someone who is not received by much of the church, and he is pushing ahead with writing the things he needs to write for the people who will receive them; I, of course, am one of those people, and I have been since I first read Velvet Elvis well over a decade ago.

There's a point well into this book in which Bell relates a story about delivering a sermon when he was in school. He knew he wanted to do something different from the norm, so he did, and as he tells it, his professor's reaction was: "You can take it further". Well, in What is the Bible?, that's what he does, and I think he does so with great success.

In fact, this might be the furthest that Bell has ever gone - or at least as far as he has gone since Love Wins - and there is an argument to be made that this is his most significant work, period. Velvet Elvis might still be the best entry point to Bell, as he brings up many of the ideas that he explores in further detail in his later works in that book, but I would posit that What is the Bible? might be the one that I recommend people read once they make it through Velvet Elvis.

He spends the first 70% of the book working through the idea of why the Bible matters, as well as how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible (so to speak), but his point really boils down to one emphasis: the Bible is a collection of stories written by people with a particular cultural lens about their understanding of their experience with the divine.

He spends a lot of the book repeating variations on this idea, but it's worth the repetition, since he is quite deliberately working against some very entrenched ideas in the way that the Bible has come to be understood by a large segment of its adherents. Bell is much more in line with a post-modern deconstructionalist view of the text, and he seems to be much more cognizant of current literary critical trends than many other faith-based writers are.

The final section, in which he processes some of the key questions he often receives, is bound to be the most problematic for people; of course, anyone who starts a Rob Bell book is usually already on a certain track of thinking, but it's the final portion in which he really takes it further. Bell really digs into some of the ways that the Bible has been treated and perceived and the descriptors that are used to defend and argue the validity of the Bible - authoritative, inspired, inerrant - and he moves toward some very interesting and valuable interpretations of those concepts.

As usual, I find myself agreeing with most of what Bell says, and I am able to see past the 5-10% that I find somewhat problematic. I really appreciate how he states things, and I often find that he helps me have language to describe my own positions. I think the best takeaway I had from What is the Bible? was when he wrote that we are to read the Bible "literately", rather than "literally"; in fact, I think that short statement essentially sums up the entire book.

I love that Bell continues to frame his work in a pastoral and conversational lens, and that he writes in such a way that his books serve as a valuable entry point for much more discussion. That said, he himself acknowledges in a short epilogue that people reading this book in particular need to be ready and able to engage in a different way of thinking, and that not everyone is ready to go there. I am glad that he continues to take it further, and I think that What is the Bible? is invaluable for helping a new generation approach this text in a new way.

View all my reviews

For whom the Bell tolls

I know that even reading Bell's books - much less writing a post like this in praise of Rob Bell - could be problematic for me, since it further entrenches me in a particular corner of the Evangelical Christian world - one that is perceived as being further from "the truth" - and, quite frankly, I am okay with that. I'm not in the same camp as much of the "Gospel Coalition" or contemporary North American Evangelical churches, and I, for one, tend to think that's a good thing.

Even if you do not know me well enough to know that I share a lot of Bell's viewpoints, you can get a good sense of where I am at by taking a look at the kinds of authors on my shelf: Brian McLaren, Matthew Paul Turner, Shane Claiborne, Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Peter Rollins, for starters. I recognize that there is a lot of criticism toward Bell and these authors from a segment of the Evangelical church, but it does not matter to me.

I appreciate the fact that these authors - among many others - are exploring new ways of living out faith and expressing themselves and finding themselves in new contexts and constructs. I find a vitality in their journeys that mirrors my own experience in my faith journey, and I am excited to see how Bell and these other writers are wrestling with many of the same big questions which which I find myself confronted.

And look, I get that Rob Bell is not perfect, and I am not saying that I think he is. I do not agree with everything Bell says or does, and it would be ridiculous if I did; I doubt even Bell himself does. But I can say that I agree with a lot of what he says, and that the value that Bell brings to the general dialogue is not just in what he says, but the very fact that he says it. He is engaging some very difficult issues, and I generally think he does so in a way that is responsible and gracious and intelligent and well-informed and beneficial for those who are willing to take the journey with him.

Perhaps what I continue to appreciate most about Bell is that as he writes and speaks and lives, he continues to cultivate a pastoral presence as he seeks to guide others to Jesus. He has never wavered from that goal, as critics have accused him of doing so, and he just happens to be "pastoring" a much different community in his current life in California than he did when he started writing books over a decade ago.

I consider myself to be part of that community by extension through his writing, and I am glad that Bell has been a pastoral influence on my life, as I strongly believe that he has been integral in my own journey with Jesus. I am glad that he continues to "take it further", and I am excited to be a part of his journey and to have him be part of mine.

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