What Rob Bell Says to the Church (Really)
Back in 2006 I found myself in a strange place as a pastor. I had been preaching 50 weekends a year for 2 years and was a bit dry, stagnant, and uninspired. I found myself saying the same things over and over again, which to Martin Luther's statement about "once we start living by it, I'll quit preaching the Gospel" was the best course of action. However, I couldn't handle the emotions of it.
And then I heard a voice calling in the wilderness…of West Michigan…
I discovered the podcast of Rob Bell, pastor at that time of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI. I read his book Velvet Elvis and diligently listened to his podcast each Monday. I felt like someone had shined a bright light on my cracked and dusty preaching and teaching. Then I found the NOOMA video series, and so on and so forth. I began breathing the air of Rob's teaching and found new life in my own.
For a while.
Then the podcasts drifted away, ministry changed for me, and Rob's books became less important for me to consume.
The last few years have been rocky to say the least for the image and reputation of Mr. Bell, which to be honest anyone who has followed his public presence knows he cares little about. The book Love Wins divided evangelicals and tickled those who had already heard Rob's sermon series "The Flames of Heaven" and knew full well what this book may say. He was interviewed (by yours truly as well, here) and skewered, misinterpreted and falsely praised, misrepresented and mystically drawn throughout the promotion and sale of the book. People who had never heard of Rob or annihilationism or universalism suddenly tossed these words about with the full force of their categories. Like apes with rocks, we all began using new tools to get to the meat of what we were after.
Recently, Rob arrived in the news again, this time for comments made on gay marriage. In a brief article, Rob is refuted for saying that culturally we have to "adapt" to shifting morals and perhaps rightly so. However, a statement is made in the article by John Stonestreet saying that there is no foundation for moral adaptation because Biblical morals don't adapt over time.
The discussion about whether or not Biblical morals adapt over time deserves more space than I have here, but I would say that the prime question on this is "what do you mean by Biblical?" If you mean Old Testament morals, there are several issues to address. If you are talking about the Bible in the light of Jesus Christ, and I think this is the only right way to begin, then it is a different discussion.
However, in a discussion with my wife one thing became very clear.
You may condemn Rob Bell, call him a heretic, or affirm him as a poet and boundary-breaking thinker and preacher, but in any case he makes a bright and strong statement about the church - the worldwide body of people who claim to follow and be rescued by Jesus Christ:
We rise and fall on celebrity.
Just as I did in 2006, just as we all do on a regular basis, we are divided and united by what teacher we follow. I admit I do this today, and I desperately need to repent of it. If I hear that someone enjoys Mark Driscoll's preaching, I automatically have a set of things I believe and determine to be true about that person. I don't agree with Driscoll or a few other famous pastors on a great many things, but what I'm talking about here is quite different. The union of celebrity and person is a dangerous cocktail because it cultivates truths that are lies and puts us at odds for unproductive and divisive reasons. We can disagree on theology without dismissing groups of people.
I'm not the first to write on the Christian celebrity subculture issue, this much is true. However this is the first time I've written about it to any extent, and it is visceral for me. I'm also not saying that we shouldn't have teachers and writers we gravitate toward and enjoy. I'm not giving up Eugene Peterson, N.T. Wright, or Henri Nouwen, but they are subject to Christ.
What I'm saying is that we are perilously close to misplacing Christ in the midst of seeking celebrity - either to be one, defend one, or depose one. Our Christian subculture is hungry for the heretic wars, and I'm beginning to see that they take life rather than give it.
I repent. I pray that others will join me.