Saturday, December 08, 2007

Rob Bell just in Time

There is a nice new piece in Time magazine that I have been helping with for some time on Rob Bell written by David van Biema, one of the very best writers on religion in America. Here is the link---The Pastor's No Square. Unfortunately much of the analysis of Bell that I offered is deleted from the final version of the article, but you will get the gist of the matter.



William said...

"He could be one of the most important 21st century Christian leaders," interesting thought.

Currently, I am attending Texas A&M in College Station (a predominately baptist/conservative town) and a lot of people are very suspicious of Bell and any other emergent leader. So many are so quick to draw negative conclusions on the man. I have heard people say that they believe Bell and the whole emergent movement are on their way to hell.

How would you respond to this criticism? Should there be suspicions?

Lisa said...

What *is* your analysis of Rob Bell? I used to go to Mars Hill and always found his sermons insightful, but I know he's a somewhat controversial figure, and some things I've read since moving from the area have given me pause. I can't think of any good examples off the top of my head, but he strikes me as quasi-emergent, which worries me a little.

Ben Witherington said...

You will find my posts on Rob Bell in my blogs from last spring. Check them out. I think he is important, and I think he is certainly a conservative Christian person, the most Biblically centered of many of the emerging preachers.

Ken Silva said...


I would agree with Ben that Bell is "the most Biblically centered of many of the emerging preachers."

However, so many of them have a neo-liberal view of Scripture. And Bell himself elicits a higher critical position re. the Old Testament and he is neo-orthodox (at best) in his approach to Scripture overall.

As a counter-point to let you trace this yourself I would refer you to "Rob Bell and Karl Barth":

Brian said...

"He could be one of the most important 21st century Christian leaders,"

I think he already is.

Lisa, I'm curious, did you find him "controversial" when you attended Mars Hill? Did you hear or see things happening at that church that Jesus wouldn't support?

My bet is that you were exposed criticism of him by some who's ministry is that of tearing down fellow believers.

Look at the fruit of his ministry and that of Mars Hill...let that speak for itself.

Lisa said...

To all: thanks, I'll look at these other posts when I get a chance (aka, after exams are over on Tuesday).

Brian, you do have a point--they do have a very fruitful ministry, and I like its overall social consciousness. Rob Bell is certainly a very gifted minister--he "made the Bible come to life," to be cliche about it. In the year and a half or so that I attended Mars Hill, I don't recall having any problems with the theology presented.

I'll also admit--a lot of the sources do tend to be more watch-tower critics. I tend to take them with a grain of salt--I appreciate their sentiments, but suspect their vigilance tends to make them overreact slightly. It's the role of the devil's advocate--generally in debates, it's necessary to take extremer positions than the debaters actually believe.

No... the things that give me pause have been largely from newspapers. I actually just threw out an old article on him when he was on his Velvet Elvis tour (of course, now I wish I had kept it). I can't remember the exact line now, but one quote in the article made it sound like he didn't necessarily believe the only way to be saved was salvation by grace through faith. It seems like most articles--except this one--have had similar issues. They could be misrepresentations by the newspapers, of course, but I've seen this enough to be at least minorly concerned about some of the theology being taught there.

There's also the "Love Can Change the World" worship song--you can hear it here: (go to the little arrows at the bottom of the page, click the one with the arrows pointing away from each other--"listen outward"--and go to the second song). Do I understand the sentiment? Yes, but I've also been a Christian for my entire life (I got saved in the church's soundbooth when I was about four), and have actively cared about theology for ten years or so (I'm 25, to put it in perspective). The song, especially if it's sung as a praise song, is just a little... odd.

Really, what this comes to is that I should take a Sunday to go back and visit Mars Hill again, since I've only visited the area and church a few times since I left in 2004. Has the church changed since then? I just don't know.

JDev said...

I'm a bit puzzled by Rob Bell and the "rob-bellion" (TM J.Devlin, 2007). Over the last year or so, a friend of mine and I have been looking into the Emergent church, pouring over ideas and concepts of the church, as well as criticisms for and against. The one hang up I have is something found in his narrativeTheology section of the Mars Hill Website. Maybe you can explain the context for me.

"In the beginning God created all things good. He was and always will be in a communal relationship with himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God created us to be relational as well and marked us with an identity as his image bearers and amissional calling to serve, care for, and cultivate the earth. God created humans in his image to live in fellowship with him, one another, our inner self, and creation. The enemy tempted the first humans, and darkness and evil entered the story through human sin and are now a part of the world. This devastating event resulted in our relationships with God, others, ourselves, and creation being fractured and in desperate need of redeeming."

How do you deal with the idea Bell puts forth.. "the inner self?" I want to think that this was an oversight, but my hang up is that he found it necessary to make this statement. Any suggestions on how I should read this?

Ben Witherington said...

I am unsure what to make of that phrase. It is reminiscent of the notion of an inner child. Paul of course does talk about the inner self (mind, heart, will, emotions), but not in the context of having fellowship with the inner self, or being in harmony with the inner self, or the like. I suppose that this may come out of some of his reading in pastoral theology and pastoral counseling, but it is certainly far too individualistic and inwardly focused to be the kind of thing NT writers would have mentioned.


JDev said...

I guess my question then would be, should I be concerned with this teaching? I like Bell's emphasis on church history and making claim to some forms of the Christian mystics (i.e. acknowledging the usefulness of the contemplative lifestyle), but I can't seem to get over this idea of the 'inner self'. It screams of gnosticism, as I understand it, and I don't want to make a final assessment without all the facts. I now attend a school that has some solid criticisms of the 'Emergent church' here at TEDS. Reformed schools tend to have that response! Thanks for your quick reply.


James W Lung said...

Further problem: The one true God is a communion of persons -- Father, Son, and Spirit in communion. "God in communion with Father, Son, and Spirit" implies God may be other than Trinity.

Also: Inner self in relationship with others implies a gnostic dualism.


Ben Witherington said...

I think that it is a mistake and probably a bit unfair to over-analysis anecdotal evidence from a preacher. He is not parsing his words with the same exactness as the profs at TEDS.


Ben Witherington said...

The thing that concerns me is that as the old dictum goes 'he who marries the spirit of the age (the zeitgeist) will soon find himself a widower'. There is nothing so temporary as 'relevance'.


Brian said...

"I think that it is a mistake and probably a bit unfair to over-analysis anecdotal evidence from a preacher."

Well said. I'm guessing that the "inner self" talk is related to Mars Hills' emphasis on being "whole," avoiding hypocrisy etc.

As for relevance, from what I can tell, Mars Hill is pretty stripped down. I don't think you can accuse a guy who regularly preaches for an hour of using a "zeitgeist" playbook. If anything, that's anti-relevance, no?

James W Lung said...

RE: Spirit of the Age. Exactly, Ben.

Liberal theology was an attempt to view the gospel through modern enlightenment goggles so as to preach Christ to modern people for whom traditional christianity had become just so much superstition, with its unsightly talk of blood, and all that. The result was a dying, irrelevant church.

As for the incompleteness that results from analyzing snippets of a preacher's teaching, of course. But the "Narrative Theology" quoted above comes from a statement entitled "Our Theology" which appears to be an attempt to summarize the theological perspective of the Mars Hill community in some official way. Reinventing the wheel can sometimes result in a crooked, bumpy ride.



James W Lung said...

And, upon reading the entire document, the remainder is OK, in what it affirms.


Unknown said...

for clarification on the "inner self thing" you migh want to try to get your hands on Bell's talks about the "directions". It was a series that his church went through a while back and each talk focused on a direction-for instance, backward, foward, outward, upward, "inward", and withward. This might help in clearing up the meaning of the statement posted. I think that its ok though. He seems to understand the biblical doctring of our being made in the image of God. Then because of the fall, that image is marred and flawed, but in Christ we are being made new. This seems not to be some kind of pagan or gnostic idea. The gnostics would emphasize getting in touch with the spirit and that the material body is bad, but Bell on the other hand has a much more wholistically biblical approach to this issue. Hope this helps!

JDev said...

Let me preface this by saying that I am no theologian (my degree is in OT). I also didn't mean to spark any sort of arrogance by announcing the school I attend, it was merely an attempt to help the readers and Dr. W understand the umbrella I am under. I really just wanted to know why Bell would use that terminology in a doctrinal statement without some sort of explanation. Thank you Shea for clarifying, but I think the clarification would be better suited in the statement. That being said. Thanks all for the information.

Dr. W:
"I think that it is a mistake and probably a bit unfair to over-analysis anecdotal evidence from a preacher."

I can understand this. But if this is the theological statement by which his church stands, regardless of his background, is it not fair to ask of a church a precise and detailed statement? I don't want to overstep my own bounds, as I have never been in a role in the church where these decisions are made. But I am very interested in what Rob Bell has to offer. I don't doubt his statement and stance are founded and researched well, but to claim "his reading in pastoral theology and pastoral counseling" as a reason to not look too much into it seems a bit scapegoat-ish, no offense.

Seeking to understand

Ben Witherington said...

JDev I think you are right. More precision and care in a public statement is expected. But remember that Rob says that doctrine is like a trampoline-- a fixed border and foundation but lots of bounce in the middle or flexibility. This may be an example of that,

Blessings on your seminary work,

Ben W.

N.W. Clerk said...

Bell's gospel shows strong signs of Eastern Mysticism influence. I read the book, Passionate Conviction and it is a compilation of various apologetic topics. It is a really good and informative book. As I was reading a chapter on the difference between Jesus and Buddha, I noticed an interesting quote. It reminded me of another quote I had read a while back from a certain "christian" author. Take a look at these two quotes and see if you notice any similarities between the two:

"In 1960, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich visited Japan, and in conversation with Buddhist scholars in Kyoto, he asked the following question: 'If some historian should make it probable that a man of the name Guatama never lived, what would be the consequence for Buddhism?' The Buddhist scholars responded by saying that the question of the historicity of Guatama Buddha had never been an issue for Buddhism. 'According to the doctrine of Buddhism, the dharma kaya [the body of truth] is eternal, and so it does not depend upon the historicity of Gustama'. Whether Guatama actually said and did what is ascribed to him does not affect the truth of Buddhist teaching, which transcends historical events."

--Netland, Harold. "The East Comes West (or Why Jesus instead of the Buddha?)" in Passionate Conviction. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 165.

"What if tomorrow someone digs us definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry's tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely poular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if as you study the origin of the word virgin, you discover that the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first centruy being 'born of a virgin' also refered to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?

What if that spring was seriously questioned? (Note: "spring" is Bell's word for doctirne)

Could a person keep jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?

Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?...But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring then it wasn't that strong in the first place, was it?"

--Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 26-27.

Ray Nothstine said...

From the Time Piece - < Bell> "thinks that only those with gay friends are positioned to judge homosexuality"

Dr. Witherington,

Does this mean the Apostle Paul's judgment of homosexuality is void if Paul did not have gay friends?

Ray Nothstine

Ben Witherington said...

Of course not Ray. Paul's views are part of Scripture. Rob's view as I understand it, is that we are not in a position to judge homosexuals unless we actually know them well, and their struggles. I understand the issue for him as one of pastoral empathy, not endorsement of lifestyle. Perhaps Bell makes the mistake of failing to distinguish between critiquing another person's behavior, and judging their spiritual condition.


At the River said...

OK, since this does not leave dates that comments are made, I apologize if I am not here in a timely manner. I just happened upon this blog.

I'll preface this with a bit of my own experience. I have heard many pastors talk about how Christianity fills a void that nothing else can fill. Well, for me, it left a great void -- the void of inner fulfillment. I'm going to get into a bit of light psychology here. If you look at some of Jung's stuff, and the Myers-Briggs personality stuff, you find that introversion and extraversion are fundamentally different ways of viewing the world, and they are likely inborn. Most people in our society are extraverts. I'm not. From my understanding, Rob Bell, like me, is an introvert. Thinking introverts are often left out to dry (as I was) by the typical evangelical church, which is so common in West Michigan (where I'm from). And a primarily-extraverted church will not encourage introspection, while the introvert needs this. I realize now that this is why I always felt empty at a church service. I was exploring gnosticism. I was exploring buddhism.

To be honest, the day I set foot in Mars Hill church was the day I realized I could truly have a place within Christianity. That was the day I found that void filled. There are elements of other religions that speak to certain people, regardless of doctrine. Bell integrates some of the NATURE of other religions without integrating their CONTENT. This is what kept me from abandoning the church altogether. (Consequently, my ex-wife did leave the church for the same reason, and she has now converted to orthodox Judaism).

Point is, this emphasis on the "inner self" is something that churches can benefit from, if they truly want to reach people that are not being reached. If a church's only goal is to give itself a pat on the back for how pious it is, then I guess introspection and focus on the "inner self" are not needed -- in fact, they could be counterproductive for such a church. But if you seek the truth, looking inward is a way to find it. Look at George Fox's idea of the "inner Light." (I used to be Quaker too).

My only problem now is that, living in the Chicago Southland, I am having trouble finding a church that truly encourages honest introspection.

The bottom line is this: even though I may not always agree with what Rob Bell says, I am glad he is going about things the way he is -- with honest, introspective, research-based, historically-relevant questioning.

darrida said...

"In the beginning God created all things good. He was and always will be in a communal relationship with himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God created us to be relational as well and marked us with an identity as his image bearers and amissional calling to serve, care for, and cultivate the earth. God created humans in his image to live in fellowship with him, one another, our inner self, and creation. The enemy tempted the first humans, and darkness and evil entered the story through human sin and are now a part of the world. This devastating event resulted in our relationships with God, others, ourselves, and creation being fractured and in desperate need of redeeming."

When humans sinned:
1. Hid from God - throughly cracked relationship with God
2. Clothed themeselves - shame entered the world and they were "separated" from their (to use the phase "inner self", which means humans were probably felt good about themselves and had confidence before the fall.
3. They blamed others - cracked relationship with each other
4. Kicked out of garden - cracked relationship with the world.

You could use the term "separated" in place of cracked, but I like cracked better - the term "fallen" is no where in that text.

Jesus came to:
1. renew or fix our relationship with God
(which follows with, but only after number 1...)
2. renew or fix relationship with self - or "INNER SELF" (ie shame, etc - return to full confidence, fully the way we were created)
3. renew or fix relationship with others (after 2 because you must love yourself before you can do to others as you they would do to you"
4. renew or fix relationship with the world.

Hope that helps, if that was already answered above, sorry!

darrida said...

To the guy who was afraid of gnosticism... if you ever read this. Rest assured, Bell is not remotely gnostic. Gnosticism is a sharp dualism of flesh and spiritual (flesh is evil, non-material/spiritual is the "good"). If you listen to Bell's teachings his are quite different. he actually goes so far from that, that he angers some reformed christians because of his integration of Spiritual, and physical being. I would say much of the Criticism though is because of lack of understanding how much Greek/Platonic thought entered the church in the first few centuries that influenced the idea of "flesh" being so evil and the need to flee from it. It is read into the text... because in the way we understand where scripture talks about "things of the flesh". The problem is that is not the way that the Christians in the first century would've understood that. C.S. Lewis said the dangers of reading old text is not in the difficult to understand parts, because we search experts on what the meanings are... the danger is in the text we think we understand because it "makes sense" to us... seems like our language, and we never consult anyone else about it. He was talking about studying ancient mythology, but I think the same would apply to scripture.