Rob Bell as Gateway Drug, but in which direction?

Rob Bell is back in the news with his new marriage book and his connection with Oprah.

While John Piper said “Farewell Rob Bell” another recently proclaimed him as an Uber Evangelical, emphasizing the understanding that evangelicalism is an attempt to popularize Jesus to America.

I think many who self-identify as evangelical fear that Rob Bell is a gateway drug leading evangelicals into his new-agy outlook. I can understand that fear, it follows Bell’s personal narrative. His mega was a spin off of Calvary Non-Denom in Grand Rapids, a popular evangelical church even with Calvin College students when I was there in the 80s. Bell’s personal narrative reads as evangelical nightmare: Son of a Ronald Reagan appointee judge, degrees from Wheaton and Fuller Seminary, selected by Ed Dobson to be the uber successful mega church star of Mars Hill in Grandville. Those of us with West Michigan CRC connection can fill in a lot of color to this story including oral tradition about conversations with CRC notables like Richard Mouw and the faculty at Calvin Seminary.

For Rob Bell to go all Oprah on us, be “churching” all the time without an actual church looks like disaster for the “bible believing” crowd and win for the “spiritual but not religious”. Hard core evangelicals fear that Rob Bell is going to give permission for a generation to do what evangelicals most fear, lose their theological acumen and slide into the world of Oprah folk spirituality. Well, my friends, if you’re counting on using fear and coercion to prevent that slide you’d might as well grab a sign that says “I’m a Pharisee” because you both know what that means and your mission will be just as futile.

Finding A Place in God’s Economy for the Sub-standard Jesus Sellers

A close reading of the New Testament leaves the impression that right from the very start there were unauthorized or substandard promoters of Jesus to the world. According to the gospel of Mark this seemed to start very early indeed.

Mark 9:38–41 (NET) 38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me. 40 For whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For I tell you the truth, whoever gives you a cup of water because you bear Christ’s name will never lose his reward.

We see similar things popping up in Acts and the Epistles. We know from church history that all sorts of heretical Jesus sects flourished in the ancient world. Most of us are used to dealing with this on the folk religion level. We’re used to the health and wealthers (Osteen), the faith healers (Benny Hinn), the legalists (Jehovah Witnesses), the 19th Century Real Religious Mericans (LDS). Why not add Rob Bell to the list, but now to the Oprah world? I don’t get the sense it would bother him much at all.

Bad Reputation

I don’t know if many of us deep inside the church world have any idea how bad a reputation the church has in the land that loves Oprah. Whether it’s science (the Galileo narrative) or the “church” portrayed bloodthirsty brute looking to dominate and control the world, for many people who don’t actually know many Christians there isn’t a lot more harm that can be done. See the Ira Glass video above.

How Regular People Explore

Again, for those of us who are deep into church and the theological landscape if we were to research something we’d have an entire theological filter we’d use to automatically select or de-select churches, books, leaders in order to do our exploration. Normal people don’t work this way. Why is it Walgreens and CVS are trying to put up a store on every corner imaginable? Because they know that people take one idea “I think I need something” and start with someplace close at hand. “Oh, there is a church over there, I’ll call them or stop in there.”

Again for those of us with highly selective tastes this is horrifying. I was recently sharing with a friend that if I weren’t a pastor and didn’t have a network of church planting friends I don’t know where I would begin if I had to try to find a church to go to. I know too much. The seeker, however, knows too little.

Rob Bell in all of the ways that irritate me is going to put Jesus on the map for millions of people in an attractive way. Yes, I know. You can find some diatribes on this blog about Love Wins that probably express my insecurity and envy of Rob Bell’s traction with a group of people I very much love.

As a pastor I see people coming to Jesus through the strangest ways. I know a guy who found me because of the Harold Camping signs. I know people became Christians through Jim and Tammy Bakker in the height of their foolishness. I know Christians who love Joel Osteen and who sneak out to get healed by Benny Hinn. I regularly talk about God with my bipolar alcoholic homeless Mormon friend.

Of Logs and Specks

Does Rob Bell make me cringe? Yes. Do I wish him well? Yes. I’ll let Jesus sort it out.

The bottom line might be that we are all substandard Jesus promoters and that you and I like to get upset about the gradients of sin differentiation we see as vital in draw lines between friends and foe. It’s standard Calvinist preaching to declare that God sees all as substandard as we defensively demand that the sin of the other is worse. In God’s eyes, perhaps, the same dynamic holds for our credentials and standards as Jesus promoters. Yes, Peter condemned Simon and John had plenty to say in Revelation. I certainly have my thoughts about who I trust and who I don’t but perhaps I’m more like the insecure disciples in Mark 9 and less like Jesus. They HAD Jesus. They had 3 years with him as close as any of us could imagine, but in that moment seemed to value what more than Him? Their reputation? Their egos? Jesus was regularly disappointed by the promoters he personally authorized and selected.

Maybe we need to spend more time looking for the log that we can’t seem to find and try to control our irritation with the Rob Bell speck. Again, trust me, this is probably as hard for me as it is for you.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to Rob Bell as Gateway Drug, but in which direction?

  1. PaulVK says:

    I guess part of my question is what is the most effective way for the us to talk about Bell, or Osteen, or the LDS, or … Iron ink gave more examples.

    I had a guy in one of my small groups. He was a miserable fellow who had spent some time at a large Pentecostal church in town and had a run in with one of the pastors there. Another guy in the small group was currently attending that same church. The second guy is a very happy, positive guy, but every time he’d say something about his pastor the first guy would loudly declare “he’s a false teacher!”

    I don’t subscribe to Assemblies of God theology but the form of the rebuke and the context of the rebuke to me seemed unhelpful.

    I think about the Campingites who wander in. Harold’s empire has crumbled yet folks still have fondness for him. I’d certainly categorize him as a false teacher, in some ways more consequential than Bell, he actually told people to leave their church, but if I was going around constantly reminding some of the folks that Harold is a false teacher I wonder whether this would help or harm my ability to hopefully, gently critique what was false in Harold’s ways and help them settle in some better pastures.

    I can get as worked up as the next guy on all sorts of things, large and small. I’ve also seen that sometimes, it is in the emotional acting out, which is often more about me than anything else that I do damage. My acting out really then becomes a form or emotional selfishness, an expressionism. I want to color the world with my ego rather than understanding the needs of others. In that way maybe I’m a teacher of the truth but a really bad shepherd. In the Bible being a bad shepherd is at least as bad as being a false teacher.

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  3. Dave Wassenar says:

    “Does Rob Bell make me cringe? Yes. Do I wish him well? Yes. I’ll let Jesus sort it out.”
    Yea – that works for me too!

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