Tuesday, December 09, 2008


The Nooma video series (from the Greek word pneuma--- spirit) continues to be produced apace at the rate of two-four videos a year, and we are now up to twenty two of these 13 or so minute presentations. The production values continue to be remarkably good, the background music continues to sound remarkably whimsical, (like it was out-takes from the Sgt. Pepper's Track 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite'), the content continues to be remarkably creative, and Rob continues to be remarkably Rob-- with that puckish grin and the Buddy Holly or Elvis Costello glasses and scenes mostly filmed in and around Grand Rapids Michigan where his church can be found. The DVDs still come with study guides or booklets to help along the reflection or use of the material, and they still come in those Carolina blue sleeves with some picture on the front and with one word titles (e.g. store, today,name, open,shells,she, and tomato are the titles of this batch included in this review).

In one sense these films are quintessentially post-modern. They tell stories about life with which most of us can identify in one way or another, and then the stories are related to this or that text, theme, motif in the Bible. Rob has a considerable gift of being able to speak clearly and directly even about complex theological and ethical concepts, and he understands the need to tease the mind into active thought. Some of the videos are more effective in accomplishing this than others, and some are actually provocative in a good sense.

Some of these videos have an anthropological focus. Take for example 'Store' which is actually about our experience of anger in all its manifestations from road rage all the way to righteous anger, or 'Tomato' is all about the false self and how it needs to die in order for a person to be reborn. Still others deal with traditional topics of Christian discourse for example prayer is the subject of 'Open' which is perhaps the best of this new batch of videos. More provocative (at least for some) is 'She' in which Rob talks about the maternal instinct of all sorts of creatures ranging from a mother goose he once encountered to God's maternal instinct (reminding the listener that the Hebrew word often translated compassion, even when God is the subject, means more literally 'womb'). God who is spirit, who is neither male nor female in the divine nature, nonetheless has aspects of the divine personality that we would associate primarily with women or with men. This is hardly a surprise since we are told that both male and female are created in God's image.
In the video 'Shells' Rob reminds us that the good is often the enemy of the best. Too many Christians spend time doing a variety of good things, which in fact prevent them from doing God's highest and best for them. In the video entitled 'Name', Rob talks eloquently about the difference between our personas and posturing and fronts, and our real identity, our real names, and our need to know who we really are, and whose we really are.

On the surface, some might be tempted to accuse Rob of serving up chicken soup for the soul, or pablum for the masses, or what passes for Christian pop psychology, but in fact on further review there is much more Biblical substance to these videos than might appear on first glance, and one needs to bear in mind that Rob is speaking to a post-modern generation that even if church attending are largely Biblically illiterate, and Rob is not. Indeed his teaching, including in his books tends to be consistently grounded in the Word, and those who keep complaining that this is not so: 1) need to lighten up; 2) need to consider the audience and level of discourse Rob is dealing with, especially in these videos.

Rob has learned the truth that you have to start with people where they are and lead them somewhere or persuade them to go on a journey of discovery. It is no good starting with them where you would like them to already be. And yet there needs to be enough challenge and impetus in the message and presentation to motivate a response, a change, a repentance, a recommitment. The testimonies from around the world to these videos, is that they are achieving the ministry Rob and others envisioned for them-- as they are used in Bible studies, small groups, youth rallies, Sunday school classes, evangelistic outreaches, and a host of other settings. Indeed, they accomplishing far more than Rob and his team could ever have imagined they would when they first envisioned taking on this project. I personally am happy for any and all creative and constructive ways of getting people to think about life in a more Christian and Biblical way. Kudos to Rob for pushing the envelope a bit, and advancing the conversation a bit in a Jesus haunted culture that is Biblically illiterate.



Lisa said...

I used to go to Mars Hill a few years ago, when I was an undergraduate at nearby Grand Valley. My parents were actually visiting the church with me the day he introduced the first few Noomas.

If "Tomato" is about what I'm guessing it's about, he actually based it on a sermon he gave a few years before, when he made salsa on-stage and talked about the resurrection. Actually, the main reason it sticks in my mind is because I was attending a later service (maybe the evening one) and he mentioned that in one of the earlier services he had accidentally rubbed his eyes after cutting jalapeno peppers. Ow--but on the other hand, it made the illustration stick with me longer than it otherwise might have.

CP said...

well said ben and i continue to appreciate how fair you are...
peace to you.

Chad Thornhill said...

Very well put. It is my experience to that those who criticize him often fail to see the intentions of his ministry. I've always found him more thought provoking than controversial or "feel good."

Jc_Freak: said...

Rob Bell is one of the greatest preachers of our time. It is my intention to emulate his methodology when I become a pastor. Those who criticize him tend to have very little reason to. His website confesses to a full committment to the authority of the Word, and his content is very Scripturally based.

Mason said...

Thanks for this review of the series Ben.
I have a half dozen or so, but so many come out that I’ve fallen quite a bit behind and had not heard of a couple of those.

Very much appreciate your take on Rob here, especially the following quote…

“Indeed his teaching, including in his books tends to be consistently grounded in the Word, and those who keep complaining that this is not so: 1) need to lighten up; 2) need to consider the audience and level of discourse Rob is dealing with, especially in these videos.”

I’m going to Mars Hill right now actually, and know many people who accuse Rob and the church of not being biblically grounded, which I know from reading his books and hearing him speak each week is simply not true. If people disagree with his understanding of the Bible, that is fair game, but I get frustrated by some of the baseless accusations I hear of how they 'dont use the Bible'.

nic gibson said...

We use the nooma videos, but I think it's fair to have some reservations about some of Rob's teaching. For example, though much of his material is biblical, some of it is not so biblically faithful. For example, in the one on anger that was shot in an airport, his quotation of Romans 12 where he abruptly ends the quote mid sentence '...leave room for God.' leaving off the "...'s wrath" is an example of misquoting scripture badly, not just because he cuts it off, but because he makes the opposite point of the passage. the willingness to do that, especially when I'm very certain Rob is very biblically literate, troubles me- especially when none of my people picked up this quotation.

The problem with any 'bait and switch' model of ministry for people like Bell or others of us that are good at attracting people is how to make the 'switch' really happen. I think that will be the long term test of the ministries of we 30-somethings that are trying to be pomo-savvy.

Some of his critics no doubt need to lighten up, but all of us who have successful ministries need honest critics. We need them bad. And that is all the more true the younger we are and the more successful we are.

nic gibson said...

I know Rob is very biblically literate and ministers to those who aren't. I'm a pastor of a church of 1000 mostly bib-ill people and I get that. And I like a number of the noomas.

there is one that is on forgiveness that is shot in an airport where Rob misquotes the scripture in Romans 12 and then makes nearly the opposite point the passage is making (presumably because he doesn't want to talk there about God's wrath). I think that is the kind of thing that makes some of us that are reluctant to use his materials wary. You can be very biblical, but when you edit the bible mid-word to make a point preach, what does that say?

I take a basically agnostic position on Rob.

When he's rehashing Mouw lectures, he's always great.

Brendan said...

It would be nice if Bell made all these videos available free online with the option of purchasing the DVDs.

John MacArthur recently opened up his entire back catalog of sermons for people to download for free. Others like Mark Driscoll and Greg Laurie also provide loads of good free content.

Ministries who view "new media" as a profit maker really don't understand how the distribution paradigm has shifted for the current generation of web-savvy consumers.

Ben Witherington said...

Brendan I don't agree with you. Rob's various ministries including feeding the hungry require money to fund them. To my knowledge MacArthur has no such social ministries.


Kyle Nolan said...

Brendan, the Noomas aren't free, but the previous twelve weeks' teachings at Mars Hill are. You can download them at http://www.marshill.org/teaching/

Ken Silva said...

"those who keep complaining that this is not so: 1) need to lighten up..."

As one of those who "keep complaining" I'm afraid it isn't going to happen.

Taking no offense, and meaning none in return, there are those of us who will counter:

Those who think Rob Bell's teaching's aren't off, need to wise up. I had put the following was online even before I even saw this review:



Chad Thornhill said...

I mean no disrespect as well, but if Rob Bell is a non-evangelical universalist, then he disagrees with his own doctrinal statement.


Looks pretty orthodox to me. Theologically conservative and missionally-minded.

Ben Witherington said...

I quite agree. Rob Bell is by no means a universalist. What he is is an orthodox Arminian of a particular flavor.


sam andress said...

All of Rob's sermons are free online and the Noomas can be viewed online at youtube and they are only $12. He is hardly acting like a "profiteer"!

CP said...

I read that 'posting' you listed and in my opinion is a very poor attempt at critiqing Rob Bell, in fact it was a very poor attempt at any sort of academic work/teaching.
And perosnally your 'sources' are only from one paricular understanding and most are 20years or more old and 1 or two people stating what they heard is not fair, did you ask the other hundreds of people that were there as well for their views? i think not...i mean i want to hear what you are saying but personally your bias and lack of real attempt to understand where RB is coming form concerns me.
I ask you the question how many RB sermons have you listened to online or in real life? Did you even consider that the God's arn't angry tour is not aimed at christians who are over 45 years old looking for a 'sermon' but more entering into 'conversation' with people who are fringed or bib-il? At what point did the subtitutionary theory of atonement become the ONLY theory?
I am not defending RB as much as i am concerned with how easy you seem to think it is to post about someone onlin and essentially referencing to them as 'a living devil in christian theology' seriously is that what you teach at your church?
In my opinion i think you need to actually read and study and follow more closelfy Mars Hill and RB teaching for that matter and honestly seek to at least grapple with it before posting this 'ordinary' work. I dont mean to be harsh but i find it extremely unfair that you feel its ok to treat fellow christians in this matter.....peace and MUCH grace to you.

pennoyer said...

I wonder if Rob Bell is not the Harry Emerson Fosdick of our times. This is what I mean:

A talented minister, Fosdick broke away from the fundamentalism of his day and became a leading advocate for a new perspective that was "relevant” and “meaningful” for people in the modern era. Along the way he threw overboard doctrines and theological positions that seemed outdated and not longer relevant to the times. Fosdick became a herald for what we now call the mainstream modern American liberal churches. (A movement, we should note, that has been fighting atrophy since its peak in mid-century.)

Once a wildly popular author, no one reads Harry Emerson Fosdick anymore. Why? Because the fact is when the church fritters away its key doctrines and biblical foundations, to that extent it becomes a merely human institution - however clever or relevant it may seem at the time.

So my concern: What Fosdick was for the modern era, will Rob Bell be for the postmodern era? I honestly hope not. I am not a student of Rob Bell, so no doubt there are many excellent points that I have missed. But please read again the chapter called Yoke of his book Velvet Elvis. In it Bell actually lays out his view on the key issues of biblical authority and interpretation. Through a confused and specious argument, he essentially issues himself a blank check to use the bible however he wants, even if that use is only very loosely tethered to the original meaning of the text. Bell is now free to be as “relevant” as he would like to be. Virgin birth a problem for this generation? Not anymore!

It could be that Rob Bell and his movement are helping draw a new generation into the faith. To that extent, we can rejoice. But it seems to me that evangelicals and evangelical seminaries need to make a concerted effort to help these new brothers and sisters get their biblical foundations secure. It would be a mistake to gloss over the real problems here – however excellent many of the NOOMA videos may be.


mario said...

I think the most interesting thing about Pastor Bell's Nooma videos is the fact that he managed to excel in both: content and presentation.

It's funny that it's a choice for some people: you can be either creative or you can be theologically sound but you can't be both! I'm glad Pastor Bell has shown us that God wants us to be both creative in our presentation and still maintain biblical teachings.

I think a lot of pastors and educators get upset that after all the hours gathering materials from commentaries, original language (Masoratic texts, LLX, Targums, etc), and of course online resources; ordinary people are still not responding to them. I think it's too easy to label them "biblicaly illiterate" and put the blame on them.

Doing your exegesis and hermeneutics are only a part of sermon or teaching preps. You gotta deliver them, people. You're halfway there, now go all the way!

How would you feel if you go to a restaurant to order chicken teriyaki only to be served frozen chicken and teriyaki sauce? Here's the material, sorry that we don't cook it first, you should know how to operate the stove, right? The kitchen is over there.

If we don't like restaurants to do that to us, don't you think we ought to do our best in serving "the bread and the wine"?

Come on, People, we can do this. Let's use the creative mind that God has given us. Peace.

dxturner said...

Simply amazing. The critics of Rob Bell seem to think that he is asking us to worship him. I think he's simply prompting the discussion and providing his viewpoint. From listening to the critics, apparently anyone with an interpretation different from theirs is to be condemned.

Most of the criticism of Bell that I have read smacks of jealousy or fear. I do not rely on any pastor to spoon feed me what to believe ... that includes Bell AND his critics ... but Bell's approach makes me want to study whereas his critics almost always make me want to walk away because of the negativity.

If I wanted to have scriptures interpreted for me and a strict code of conduct outlined for everyone I'd be a Pharisee or a Muslim. Rob Bell is trying to expand the discussion. His critics are trying to restrict it to their interpretation. If I'm searching for the true path who would be a better guide?

willie said...

Sometimes the truth comes out in the meaning of words
Rob bell's "Nooma" one of the meanings is:
"which is of corruption"
Isn't it amazing when Gods truth comes out!

Ben Witherington said...

Willie what in the world are you talking about? No Greek lexicon defines the meaning of pneuma as you suggest--- it means spirit, breath, or wind.