Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rob Bell's Nooma Videos 11-15

One of the things one could wish about this Nooma series is that we knew more about the background music. But we may be thankful at least that we have subtitles to these films for those who are hearing impaired, so we must take what we can get. In Nooma 11 (‘Rhythm’) music comes out of the shadows and literally takes center stage, becoming the central metaphor for this particular film. It is filmed in a beautiful concert hall and centers around a rehearsal of a piece of music. This choice of metaphor is not surprising since Rob is a musician (indeed he is left handed and right brained, which this reviewer finds particular resonance with ).

The film begins, as several of them do, with certain misconceptions or limited conceptions about God. Rob relates how one person said that God helped them get a parking space one day, or another tells how they had been healed by God. As Rob rightly asks, this raises more questions than it answers about God--- like where was God when some real catastrophe killing many happened? Why did God heal this good person, but not that one? It would seem that God would have better things and bigger things to do with his time than to produce the occasional small miracle or serendipity. Rob sees this whole concept of a God who is distant and occasionally intervenes all wrong. He is struck by the fact that the Biblical writers believe God is everywhere, all the time—as the Psalmist says “where shall I flee from your spirit? If I go down into the land of the dead—lo you are even there”.

And so Rob draws analogy between the presence of God and their being a song which we all hear, sometimes hum, and if we are intentional occasionally sing on key with. Rob sees this life as an exercise of trying to get in tune with the song that is playing everywhere for everyone. He is not the first to have thought of this. John Donne in his famous poem “To God my God in my Sickness” says that when he faced death and “was about to be made God’s music” he thought beforehand how he ought to tune his instrument, so he could play well in his Majesty’s presence. We see here a strong stress on the imminence of God rather than God’s transcendence, and it is helpful. But most fundamentally we see a getting beyond the Enlightenment and Deistic image of a God who created a universe and then left it to its own devices, except for the occasional capricious and unpredictable intervention It was George Herbert, another English cleric who said that prayer itself is like a tune “we all hear and fear”. Rob would add—so is God.

I must confess to you that I was not prepared for Nooma 12—Matthew. This is the most personal of all the Nooma videos in which Rob recounts, and re-grieves the loss of someone he loved—a young man named Matthew. Here we see in living color Rob’s genuine love for his friends, and therefore the great sense of loss he still bears because of the untimely death in 2004 of a brilliant young man named Matthew, whom Rob had taken into his home in L.A. Matthew’s untimely death was caused by a car accident when he was only 27. The mood is not surprisingly subdued in this video, the setting is in a hotel room with a privacy please sign on the door, and the music is rather somber and ethereal. The undergirding and overarching theme of this video is that one must allow one’s self to grieve, to let out whatever one is feeling rather than being in denial or stuffing it, but that one must not allow one’s self to become bitter. In fact a person has a choice between becoming bitter and becoming better through such heart-wrenching situations. Rob counsels that one must not focus on the hole in one’s life, or grieve as one who has no hope, but one must focus on the positive things one still has to live for. Rob is able to convey these thoughts without being trite or condescending. He talks about the Jewish practice of sitting Shiva, which refers to sitting with the bereaved, just sitting, and not talking unless the bereaved want to discuss the matter. This would be a very different approach to the one taken by Job’s comforters. Rob draws an analogy with how Jesus in Jn. 11 wept at the grave of a friend and entered fully into his friends grieving process. Honestly, I did not expect either the emotional genuineness of this video or the wisdom beyond his years he serves up in this video. I suspect it may well help as a gift to the bereaved.

‘Rich’ is Nooma 13, and now we have gotten to videos shot in 2005 and 2006. This video first of all makes clear that by world standards almost all Americans, at least all that have a roof over their heads, jobs, and a car are rich. Rob tells us only 8 per cent of the world owns cars. I suspect that statistic is low, but even so, you get the drift. What he is certain right about is that America is only 6% of the world’s population but we consume about 30% or so of the world’s goods. God is going to asking for an accounting of our stewardship of our resources. Basically this video rehearses for us some of the teachings of Jesus and Paul that have to do with what godly people should do with wealth. Ron links this to the teaching in Ephesians that we are created in Christ for good works. We have been saved to serve to put it another way. We are not owners of anything we have, only stewards and we should consider them as gifts, not things we earn or deserve. Rob remarks on the bumper sticker “God bless America Well that request has already been answered a million times over. God has already richly blessed us. The question is--- Are we being good stewards of what he has bestowed. It is one of the characteristic features of the Emergent Church movement that there is a considerable concern for the poor, and for accountability in the way Christians live and spend their money. Rob urges us to generosity and at the same time to a simple life style, which frees up resources so we can be generous.

We go subterranean in Nooma 14, and ride the subways with Rob. Here the subject is breath, and its connection with God. And here again we have an issue with deficient understanding of things Jewish, in this case, understanding of the Hebrew language itself. Rob wants to make a connection between the Hebrew name of God Yahweh (or Yaveh) and the Hebrew word for breath. Actually it is the Hebrew word for life (Hayah) that is normally connected to God’s name, not the word for breath. In fact, when God reveals himself to Moses and says his name is “Eyeh asher eyeh” (sometimes translated ‘I am that I am’ but probably better translated ‘I will be what I will be’ the connection is clear between ‘eyeh’ and ‘hayah’. Yahweh likely means ‘the living one’—the one who was and is, and is to come. Nevertheless, there is good stuff in this video about how we are about as unconscious of God’s presence as we are unconscious of our own breathing every few seconds--- that is until we run out of breath. Rob rightly emphasizes that we are ‘earth creatures’ (the Hebrew word for earth is adamah, and so Adam means earth creatures) into whom God has breathed the breath of life. Out dependency on God is just as real as our dependency on breathing, and we seem just as oblivious to it. Rob is looking for what can be called powerful or master metaphors and analogies to explain the nature of God and reality, and he does it in clear fashion. Once again Rob sees mundane things as talismans of deeper spiritual realities—and he is right about this.

The most recent Nooma video ‘You (number 16) has just been unveiled. It involves the creative technique of filming into, and with the illusion of filming from a mirror. Rob asks us to reflect on the fact that there are no two of us alike. Only you are you, and so God has made us like the snowflakes, each unique, beautiful, of sacred worth, each created in God’s image. One of the themes that resounds through these videos is the reassertion of a robust creation theology, and of the goodness of creation, in the face of various Gnostic dualistic and escapist tendencies in our culture. This is a healthy corrective, and helps provide us with a much more Jewish view of the world. And that creation theology is reinforced by a new creation theology that looks forward to the final form of ‘you’—the resurrected you.

The Nooma videos, whether taken in slowly, or in bunches, or even in one all day marathon are remarkable in so many ways. It is no surprise all the testimonies that have come into my blog about the ministry these resources are already doing in youth groups, prisoners, Bible studies, women’s circles, praise worship and other venues as well. Let us hope the creativity does not run dry, and thoughtfulness of the chosen topics does not run out. Since there are now fifteen of these videos available, there is no rush to do more. The folks at Flannel can take their time now and continue to hold the standard of excellence high. And it would be well if we all supported their non-profit ministry, for they are doing some of the heavy lifting when it comes to lifting up Christ and a Christian lifestyle and belief system to many in our culture—especially those Rob’s age and younger.


T-Craig said...

Two things:
First, you can get the soundtrack to these films by visiting All are originals!
Second, I was reading Mere Christianity this past week and couldn't help but believe that Rob had lifted the idea of the orchestra from Lewis (you could do worse). This metaphor plays a central role to his discussion of morality.

Václav Patrik Šulik said...

I'd love to hear what you have to say about the "newly discovered tomb of Jesus:"



VP Šulik

Ben Witherington said...

We already found the tomb of Jesus, and it was empty, as all agreed at the time, long before his bones could have ever been put into an ossuary.


art said...

Shea, RYC:

"he says that the rabbis say that when you say the letters yod hay vah hay it sounds like the sound of breathing."

I'm still stumped as to where Rob got this. No where in Talmud, the Pseudepigrapha, Rashi, or even Ginzberg's Legends do 'the rabbis' say anything close to this. The rabbi I am doing my Ph.D. under said that no Jew in their right mind would say something like that about HaShem. I wish Rob would cite his sources.

Ben Witherington said...

Its Ray... who is his source, sadly.

Jim Martin said...

So glad you are posting regarding these videos. I was introduced to these last year and find them to be very well done and moving. In particular, I think they are wonderful conversation starters, especially good for those who may be new to the Christian faith.

Václav Patrik Šulik said...

Amen, Dr. W., Amen.

"The Lord is Risen, Indeed! Alleluia!"

dan said...

Rob gets the concept that name of God sounds like the sound of breathing from a Jewish rabbi named Lawrence Kushner in the book "The Book of Words."

This is his source, not Ray Vander Laan.

jeremiah said...

The song in the NOOMA "Rhythm" is titled "Moonlight" (instrumental)by David Vandervelde and isn't included on the NOOMA soundtrack. it is available on itunes.

just thought i'd mention it

sam andress said...

thanks going to start writing scholars and ask them to defend their sources! I'm glad you informed Ben (who is no doubt a great scholar) of the source of this source and this source is a rabbi, not an uber evangelical.

Hey Ben...will you ever do a full scale critique of popular evangelical sources like Purpose Driven Life? Or say Osteens "Your Best Life Now"? Wonder what sources they use. I'm sure they're not engaging a very wide variety.

Johnny said...

In defense of Rob Bell's teaching, he or someone after he speaks often leaves the listeners with the comment, "Rob does not have the last word. But we are to go ourselves and look into what is being taught and further our knowledge based on that further study and application."

I do agree that citing sources is helpful. However, in Rob's defense again, he does list the texts and resources of his studies. I respect that.

Grace and peace,

Unknown said...

Nooma 11 (‘Rhythm’)- really bothered me. I find the new age feel of the God who just wants you to get in tune- frankly disturbing. This is not the message of the N.T. Acts 20:21- Repent. Repent is all over the place. I have yet to find a passage that talks about getting in 'rhythm'. Rob Bell never mentions the idea of repentance. This is a new gospel.

Nels said...

Rob Bell's dvds have opened a whole new area on Christianity, for me. I have read his book Velvet Elvis - And I just love that he writes the same way that he talks. I could actually hear him in my head as I read.

I'm from welkom in South Africa - and his dvds are being used in our youth ministry. We are even using his book in our cell groups. His teaching are profound and carry great meaning - yet it is simple enough for anyone to get the message. He has received a great gift from God. And we feel blessed by it, every time. Thanx Nelmari

Jon said...


I thought you gave a very nice review...

well done

love wins.


stephy said...

This was interesting, thanks.