Rob Bell and a New American Christianity

November 14th, 2012

The face of American Christianity is in transition, and Rob Bell, with his evolving look and artistry, has opened a window on this hybrid horizon. Known to many for his Nooma films, a series of twenty-four twelve-minute sermons and his controversial 2011 book, titled Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, his person and work provoke visceral reactions that range from adoration to repulsion, while raising profound questions. In 2011 he was named to the Time 100 list—the 100 most influential people in the world. That same year, Bell left Mars Hill, the megachurch he founded in 1999, to pursue broader opportunities in Hollywood to, as he explained, “Compellingly share the gospel.”

As a pastor and an artist, Bell exhibits the irrepressible spirit of the American religious entrepreneur, but his story also serves as a frame to explore deeper patterns within the seismic shifts in modern American culture. His story and life function as a leading indicator of what it means to be a Christian in the changing modern American religious landscape.

By hailing from a conservative Christian background, Bell has maintained the core attribute of the faith—a passion for Jesus—but has built a career and a philosophy of life that is more complex than what we usually attribute to American evangelical circles. For much of his pastoral career he has been a superstar in the evangelical world, but his appeal is much broader, including the “spiritual but not religious,” liberal Christians across the spectrum, and even folks who simply admire his artistry as a communicator.

Bell is well-known for using various forms of media to circulate his view of Christianity. He makes his teachings easily accessible through new mediums, including film, while concurrently never shrinking from complicated discussions. In the 2007 film, Everything is Spiritual, he describes the evolutionary story of creation, mixing a dense but clear explication of the scientific origins of the universe, all framed within a wider worldview that humans, by nature, are spiritual—there is nothing humans do that is not spiritual. In fact, what makes Bell’s voice so unique is that he is willing to use every medium and discipline to convey that the Christian story is by its nature fundamental to every aspect of life, regardless of what others might think, or how interpreters, whether religious or not, might react.

A thirty-year-old volunteer at Mars Hill who had tried out a bunch of different churches explained her experience to me like this: “I was looking for a form of Christianity that is real, gritty, and matches the experience of my life—and I found what I was looking for here. We talk about the issues that we all face here and how faith makes a difference; it’s real, it’s powerful and it gives me hope for the church.”

What makes Bell so attractive? Many pastors and leaders want to create this kind of devotion. While attendees of megachurches often say that the pastor is not the reason they attend, there is little doubt that these “energy stars” attract and create a fusion of joy, delight, and motivation that create congregations that glow with what they call the “spirit” of God. My interest in the work of Rob Bell stemmed from my work as a sociologist; I know that skilled leaders generate a collective effervescence that buoys groups and charges crowds with a kind of delirium that humans want—and even need. This can happen in any group, but not every leader can produce this kind of multisensory mélange of input that is often called the “feeling of the spirit of God,” or “the touch of God.” Whatever language you use to describe it, I’ve seen it lift people out of their seats.

Despite his popularity, Bell’s rock star persona repulses many people. Outsiders, particularly those from non-religious backgrounds, find it manipulative or dangerous. Evangelicals frequently discount Bell’s efforts as “fluff,” and “pabulum,” consumed by unknowing and uneducated young people. One evangelical pastor told me, “He is one of the most dangerous figures on the Christian landscape today.” Still others in evangelical circles have dismissed him as a heretic or worse.

Mark Driscoll, the equally controversial and popular evangelical pastor, who planted a church called Mars Hill just a year before Bell’s, rails against Bell as some sort of biblical heretic: “I don’t know him; he’s a creative guy and an amazing communicator, but he holds up rabbinical authority as a key to Bible interpretation. If a Rabbi doesn’t love Jesus, they have a bad interpretation. Bell argues that the Bible sets into motion a direction that while it appears to contradict the Bible literally, we should nonetheless embrace it. This came out when he shifted from male elders on his board to female elders. It’s not biblical.”

John Piper, the godfather of the neo-Reformed movement in American evangelical Christianity, tweeted in response to Love Wins, “Farewell Rob Bell,” which he later said was meant as a friendly remark. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called Bell’s views on hell an “unscriptural sentimentalism . . . incompatible with [God’s] hatred of sin.” And book after book have detailed Bell’s heretical ways.

So, is Rob Bell a heretic? Does this question even make sense in an American culture that has so many kinds of Christianity?  Just what kind of Christian is he? Whatever one thinks of Rob Bell, there is no denying the intense controversy surrounding him in the American religious landscape—and that these contentions raise important questions for multiple audiences:

Should evangelicals be afraid of him?

Should young Reformed evangelicals see him as their mentor? Should Wesleyans call him one of their own?

Should pastors, of whatever label, take him as a model?

Should the spiritual but not religious see him as a kind of spiritual avatar?

The onrush of responses to his work indicates that many see him as a voice of faith. Increasing numbers of evangelicals, particularly young evangelicals, are asking questions about the faith. In David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking the Faith, the author gives six typical reasons for why young Christians are leaving the church: churches are overprotective; shallow; anti-science; simplistic about sexuality; exclusivistic, and unfriendly to doubt. Young people are questioning the exclusive claims of Christianity and hoping for a more fruitful relationship with cultures outside the faith community; they want answers to their toughest questions.

As a scholar of American religion, I believe that the decline and even the end of the Protestant establishment is an inevitable outcome of our religious history. The Protestant mainline is no longer mainline; establishment Protestantism simply doesn’t attract a large audience any more. The evangelical networks don’t fare much better. It, too, is fragmented, and some argue that we’ve seen the “End of Evangelicalism.” The center of American Christianity no longer holds, if it ever did. Is Bell’s work and person catalyzing a new kind of American Christianity?


Excerpted and adapted from the author's new book, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity.

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