Can I rant for a minute about the once-again-fashionable dog-piling on Rob Bell? He’s been circulating Twitter and FB feeds recently, first because of his new show on the Oprah channel, and second, because he has a new book coming out about marriage called The Zimzum of Love.* Most recently, I read this RNS story bewailing how these two things are further signs of how far he’s fallen from evangelicalism.
I am truly baffled at how evangelicals, of all people, can’t see the positive possibilities that Rob Bell creates by engaging lots of people– lots of non-Christian, agnostic, atheistic, skeptical people– in discussions about God. Consider: The OWN channel is in 85 million homes worldwide. Oprah reaches millions of people every year, and sometimes in a single episode. What kind of confused evangelical would look at those numbers and say, “You know what would be terrible? If a Christian had his own talk show on that network. That would be really awful news”? What’s more, Bell is known for being someone people enjoy listening to. He’s engaging, he talks in normal English, he illustrates and weaves stories together masterfully. Of all people, evangelicals should know this, because they almost single-handedly are responsible for the 2.5 million Nooma videos that were sold, not to mention his sold out speaking tours and multiple best-selling books. Apparently, that was all okay, but now that he’s planning to bring that same energy and message to people outside of the walls of mega-churches, to the millions of people who haven’t yet heard him talk about God or the Bible or Jesus or pursuing this beautiful, justice-and-mercy-filled way of life, it’s not OK?
That makes absolutely no sense. Not for anyone, but certainly not for evangelicals.
If Oprah calls you up and invites you to share your thoughts on your faith, what kind of a moron would you have to be to say no? Would evangelicals really rather someone NOT be talking about God? Is it really that dire? Is Rob Bell so bad, so different from you, that silence is the better option? Because that’s what evangelicals currently have with broader culture: silence. Crickets. The vast majority of America has tuned them out. What kind of special prize do evangelicals think they are getting by not connecting with the very people they say they want to reach?
I know evangelicals are upset in part because they say they don’t believe the same gospel as Rob Bell, now that they consider him a heretic. I’m just going to go ahead and call BS on that idea right now. Let’s put this into perspective: We disagree on many things, we Christians, but if someone were to put together a collective sampling of people from across the world and asked us to tell our faith stories, and then asked people to classify groups by story, everyone would lump all the Christians together, regardless of who we voted for in the last election cycle, or even what continent we hail from. We share the same story. We do. We are the people who tell the story of Jesus and new life and a coming Kingdom. All of us tell that story. We differ on the details, but the idea that Rob Bell is somehow outside of his own Jesus-tinged faith skin is preposterous. It’s also really small-minded, because if you think Rob Bell is too different from you, go hang out with a group of Armenian Orthodox for a couple of hours and see if you feel differently. (Also, consider that the Armenian Orthodox practiced and thought it their way first, so we’re the ones who “evolved” past their faith expression, not the other way around.) Our story is really big, and we all live out this story different ways. So enough of the “he’s not sharing the real gospel” malarkey.
Sure, Rob Bell goes for the big picture. He sets a mood, he captivates people’s imaginations and attentions. He’s not holding lectures on minor points of doctrine. Of course, that’s why people are listening to him. Can I tell you something? Can I be really honest? The only people who care about the conversations about God that evangelicals are having are evangelicals. And honestly, a number of young evangelicals are leaving because they don’t care about those conversations, either.
Rob Bell understands how people who are outside of organized religion feel about things. He gets how they see the world. And he gets how to connect how they see the world with how he sees the story of Jesus, the narrative of Scripture, the work of the kingdom. That is fantastic news. We should all send him a holy high-five and tell him to keep talking. Because let’s be honest: American people have about had it with listening to religious anything. They are fed up with the meanness and the judging and the battles with science and the fundamentalism and it’s enough for them to tune out the whole conversation before it even gets underway. If Rob Bell knows how to talk to people about their souls, how to help people examine their lives and think about meaning and purpose and seek to love and care for others, and he can do so while reaching millions upon millions of people, he is not just an evangelical. He is a better evangelical than all the rest of us.
There are potentially 85 million homes filled with people who might just hear Rob Bell talking about God, and faith, and justice, and peace, and redemption, and reconciliation on his new show. If you think that’s a bad thing, you shouldn’t call yourself an evangelical. But Rob Bell definitely deserves the title.
*As a side note, I consider this further proof that Bell is a Moltmanniac, because zimsum, as you know from my inaugural Word post, is a term and idea Moltmann made popular by connecting it to the Trinity and God’s love. I think connecting that to the space we make for each other in marriage sounds beautiful. Well done, Bells.