Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rob Bell's Nooma Videos 1-5

Nooma is the Anglicized version of the Greek word pneuma, which means spirit, breath, or wind. This word is presumably chosen for the series of short videos Rob Bell is producing signaling the fresh winds that are blowing through the church and the world in part through the Emergent Church movement. Each of these short films have one word titles like 'Rain' or 'Flame' or 'Trees' or 'Sunday', and each center on some elemental concept or idea about which Rob can give some Biblical and spiritual reflection. In the liner notes of the first video we learn that the first of these films was in fact being shot on 9-11-2001 and was about the storms we have in life. That is truly an interesting harmonic convergence. As Sting once said "when the world is falling down, let's make the best of what's left around."

There is an edge to each of these videos which is partly conveyed by the often eerie stripped down background music (the lyrics of which are often not decipherable---think some of the darker stuff by Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or even the circus organ in some of Eminem's music, or even some of the elemental Punk stuff by the Pixies or Violent Femmes). Rob's background in a punk band comes through in his stripped down or back to basics approach to Christianity, as is evident in these films.

Filmed, (it would appear), in high def and focusing like a laser beam on Rob himself in various settings and scenarios each of these well produced videos is somewhere between nine and perhaps 14-15 minutes in length-- perfect for those with short attention spans, or used to channel or website hopping. The colors tend to be stark or primal (black, blue, green, white) with bursts of normalcy here and there, some of the shots are aerial, some are deliberately fuzzy, some are grainy, some are quite artistic, the cinematography itself is carefully thought out and by no means amateurish. The medium and the message co-inhere in their elemental character.

Each DVD comes with a little booklet that reinforces some of the thoughts conveyed in the video and provides the citations and quotations from Scripture that are crucial to a particular film. Clearly the target audience is primarily those who do not know the Bible well or at all, those who are not likely to find appealing the normal approach to Christianity and church, and also primarily those who are 35 and under. From all accounts I have heard these videos are enormously popular with high school youth groups and college Christian fellowships or Sunday school classes as conversation starters. I can see why. They are clear, direct, and Biblical. One thing that is very characteristic of Rob Bell's ever developing work is that he is the most clearly and profoundly and uncompromisingly Biblical in content of the Emergent Church folks I have encountered.

And interestingly it is very different in form and substance from other popular Evangelical trends such as Dispensationalism, or resurgent Calvinism in the Passion movement. Rob Bell is a very different sort of guru than John Piper or say folks like Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, or Pat Robertson. Not only is his approach more counter cultural in form and substance that these aforementioned folks, in comparison to Piper, Rob is definitely not Calvinistic.

Rob says things in these videos like " God doesn't force himself on anyone". There's no theology of irresistible grace here. Or as he stresses in "Velvet Elvis" Jesus died for everyone, atoned for the sins of everyone. And then there is that profound stress throughout out on the importance of this life, this world, and how we respond to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the diseased, here and now. This is not 'beam me up' escapist theology. Indeed it is ecologically and environmentally friendly theology (we even see Rob planting trees in an urban area in the 'Trees' video). There is a reason for this-- Rob believes that God intends to come back down here, having transformed this world into the new heaven and new earth, to dwell with us forever. It thus behooves us to clean up our room down here to show we are preparing for his return and dwelling amongst us.

A few comments on the first five videos are in order here, and there will be two more posts on the second, and then the third five. Hands down, the most creative and interesting in every way of the first five short films is "Noise" (number 5 filmed in 2003). The video begins with us seeing Rob sitting on a sofa in a living room channel hopping but there are all these lines across the screen. Suddenly you realize you are looking at Rob from inside the TV (!) and then you see the little channel numbers inverted in the upper right corner of the picture. Rob is talking about the value of silence and listening to God and why we have such difficulty with silence in a noise laden culture. All of a sudden Rob turns off the TV and we no longer see or hear anything-- for about a minute! Its just a blank black screen. Then we have words appearing on the screen-- some Scriptures about silence and the need for quiet and rest. Some comments by Rob on the importance of this. Some reminders that we keep using our technology to put more noise and cognitive dissonance into our lives (cell phones, pagers, voice mail etc. etc.). Rob is listing the things that get in the way to listening God. He very aptly alludes to the story of Elijah on Horeb in 1 Kngs. 19-- and how the message of God was not in the conflagration, or earthquake or wind, but in the silence and the still small voice. And the chaos around him needed to subside before he could hear it. This is a compelling little film, and thought provoking, and it taps into a lot of the current emphases in spiritual formation literature. One of the things you notice about Rob is that he draws equally on the OT and NT and is equally adept at getting at the heart of the message from either Testament.

Part of the 'lets get back to basics' approach can be seen in a video like 'Sunday'. Rob asks why we do the things we do. Why do we go to church, why do we give money to the church etc.? What do the habits of our hearts and lives tell us about ourselves? This is the film (no. 4) where we get the message, so characteristic of the Emergent Church approach, about the dangers of empty rituals, rules, and behavior where there is a disconnect between the outer and the inner, between where the heart is and where the body and behavior is. Heart piety, and really caring about the things God cares about are where the emphasis lies, but not at the expense of action-- its just that Rob wants heart felt, God motivated, enthusiastic service to God, not going through the religious motions. Here we are meant to think of some of the sterner stuff in the minor prophets about God despising our solemn assemblies if our hearts have gone far astray from Him.

'Rain' and 'Flame' (videos 1 and 2) provide us with the yin and yang of the storms of life vs. the passions of life. There is some interesting teaching in Flame about the three different words for love used in Song of Songs, and the very effective point is made that in a marriage, friendship love, erotic love, and companionship/ family love all coalesce into one and that makes the flame all the more potent and powerful (and indeed potentially life changing either in a purifying or a destructive way). I must say that I like all these shorts films. Some are more compelling than others, but all of them are useful and edifying in various ways, and Rob does a good job of integrating his own experiences with his teaching of the Biblical text.

Here is a fresh voice for the Lord, who has a vision and an understanding of what he is trying to accomplish, while remaining himself and true to his Lord. When one watches Rob with his painful honesty and genuineness and contrasts this with some of the tele-evangelists who seem so phony and unbelievable as if they are just putting on a show, it is refreshing. Maybe these Nooma winds will blow away the competition and the flotsam and jetsam that clutters up some of our lives and our churches, and particularly our young folks lives. If that's the impact of these films, it will be a breath of fresh air. Indeed, one might say it will be truly pneumatic-- Spirit inspired and empowered.


Beloved said...

Nooma's been around for a while. I'm surprised you're just now reviewing them...

I'm just giving you a hard time. ;-)

Actually, of the videos, Noise had a pretty profound impact on me as well. I always "knew" that God spoke to us in the silence, but through Noise the Spirit convicted me of it. To this day, I have flashbacks of that video when my spirit is battling against all of the distractions that seek to steal me away from Him. In fact, I've been so impressed with this reality that it grieves my heart deeply to see others so addicted to sound and movement that they cannot survive 5 seconds without it.

While leading worship at First Baptist, Springfield, MO, I constantly butted heads with the interim music director about the nature of the worship service, particularly the corporate worship songs. His comment was, "Keep it short and sweet. People get bored when you spend too much time on one song. In this hyper-stimulus culture, people have short attention spans, so our worship service should reflect that." UGH, I thought. Are you kidding me? I responded, "Actually, God speaks to us in the still, quiet moments, not in the rush. The best medicine for hurried spirits is not a hurried experience of God, but quite the opposite. Church should be the place where people are sheltered from the incessant demands of hyper-media on their attention. It should be an oasis they come to to detoxify their souls and put their minds at ease. We should do everything we can to encourage the type of environment where people can 'settle into the presence of God'."

His response was a straight-mouthed shrug, as if to say, "You're entitled to your opinion, but that's just the way things go around here." Don't worry, I became stifled before very long at all and quit wasting my time.

On a side note, I just found your blog via Scot McKnight's blog, and I'm glad I did. I have nothing to contribute to the theology discussions as of yet, but maybe once I start classes at Trinity in the Fall, I'll have a little input here and there. On that note, I aspire to be the kind of pastor Rob Bell is. I connect with his holistic vision. I am very missionally, incarnationally minded, and extremely friendly to most things emerging church (except bad theology). I don't care if I ever pastor a huge church, but I do want my life to count maximum glory for God. I want to truly understand His word and be able to equip my congregation to do the same. But I have zero pastoral experience, besides leading an inner-city house church ministry for a year and serving in a variety of (volunteer) youth ministry positions. I'm pursuing my MDiv, as I mentioned, in the Fall, but I can't help but feel that this isn't enough to be a truly great pastor who connects with the "emerging" generations. Are there any other things I should be doing? Specific books I should be reading? I would appreciate any feedback you have to offer.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Beloved:

I would urge you right away to get the wide angle lens perspective by reading Philip Jenkins book on the 21rst century Church. That's a good place to start. Blessings on your M Div.


Bethie said...

Hey. Have you heard of Alicia Chole at all? She just finished writing a book called: Anonymous: Jesus Hidden years and yours. She's a lot like Rob Bell's style and thought you might want to check out the first six chapters for free. If you'd like...e-mail me at Also, if you want to give a quick review of the few chapters, you can receive a free subscription to SO, just let me know...

PamBG said...

I so do not understanding the whole "Emerging Church" thing. I suspect it's my age.

I did buy one of these DVDs - I can't remember which one off the top of my head - and I thought it was an absolutely outstanding sermon.

But it was a sermon. On DVD. Or, have I missed something? Rob was sitting at his desk preaching and being filmed. There were some other interesting photos that were also projected whilst he was preaching; the same thing that could be done with a video projector in church.

I'm just guessing but it seems to me that the "emerging" bit here is the fact that these DVDs can be watched individually or with self-selected groups rather than actually having to participate in a church community. And I'm not sure how I feel about that.

One definite positive that's almost impossible to acheive in church, though, is having the ability for the group participants to have a discussion.

Can someone please explain "emerging church" to me? Most of it doesn't seem that different from "regular church".

Steve said...

I'm at a church just down the road a ways from Rob Bell's Mars Hill. He, and the Mars Hill community are definitely a breath of fresh wind (nooma/pneuma) to the "Bible beltish" west Michigan.

I had briefly e-mailed you maybe half a year ago to get your opinion on the theology between many of Rob Bell's teachings. He relies heavily on Dwight Pryor ( and Ray VanderLaan ( for his Jewish roots research. You weren't familiar with any of them at the time and emphasized for me that "the Jewishness of Jesus should not be confused with turning him into a Hebrew speaking rabbi -- he was a prophetic sage which is a whole different ballgame." I kept your e-mail as reference material... plus I like to name drop that I had Ben Witherington as a professor in seminary when I feel like it'll get me somewhere :)

Since you've read Velvet Elvis, do you have any precautions or correctives to any of Rob's assertions that are based on a Hebraic understanding of the gospels? Does it matter that he refers to Jesus as a first century Rabbi without spelling out a distinction between post-temple rabbinic Judaism and first century "prophetic sages?"

Thanks for your insights and your movie reviews! I always enjoy them.

Beloved said...

Steve, thank God that's not your self-portrait.

Ben just posted some thoughts on Velvit Elvis a few days ago, so check them out.

approvedworkman said...

Interesting that Chris L. links to his own posts. :-)

Bell does nothing to define what God's silence actually is.
I don't care how noisy the world is today. Any believer should hear God, that is if they are rooted and grounded in the Word.
God speaks through His Word by the holy Spirit. So whether or not your worship is fast slow or in between; the only relevant question is what is God acvtually saying.
The ecm and its fringe components are focused solely on methods which happen to be devoid of the Holy Spirit. Gnostics All!!

Beloved said...


The Philip Jenkins book you recommended--was it The Next Christendom (2007) or The New Faces of Christianity (2006), or something else?

cjrothschild said...

Our Sunday School class, ( a fledgling and diverse group who don't seem to connect with the other, more established classes) has been using these videos with great success.
As class facilitator, I am now faced with the challenge to find something compatible to ease into. We have just 3 videos left and I find myself wanting to slow down, as if reading a delicious book.
I'd welcome suggestions for other curriculum to follow up with. The group is very sporadic and probably not quite ready to put in the time to pre-read lesson material. Perhaps we could be called "lazy", and "easily distracted", but these people are people are being reached and I don't want to break the cycle!

Alva Baptist Church said...

even though Rob Bell may believe that God is coming back to this place, it doesnt take into account that there will be tremendous cataclysmic destruction on a global scale and that there is in fact a promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Which is not a rationalization for shrugging off our stewardship responsibilities and the call to Justice and Mercy.

I find that the emerging church movement chucks solid doctrine because some of it is associated with stoic, loveless orthodox christians.

We need both relevance AND absolute truth.

I dig Rob Bell,