March 24, 2009

Stripped and Savvy: Church Rob Bell Style

By American University standards, Rob Bell wouldn’t be considered radical. He dresses in stylish, minimalist clothing and wears black, square framed prescription lenses. He’s a Christian pastor, which is a unique career choice by any standards but in his sermons to the church he founded in Grand Rapids, he spends time talking about global inequity, environmental hazards, micro loan programs and fresh water initiatives. When I attended a service there a couple of weeks ago, he played Dirt off Your Shoulder by Jay-Z as a teaching aid for the book of Lamentations in the Bible. Thats not radical by AU student standards. In order to understand his role as a resister you have to step into the world of Evangelical Christianity.

The term Evangelical is a catch-all for popular Protestant Christianity in America. Evangelicals tend to be associated with the norm because they are constantly engaged in getting the word out, or evangelizing. They have a highest profile because they produce the most well known TV shows and books. And they draw the largest crowds. The Evangelical Churchs most famous parishioners are Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Max Lucado, Philip Yancey, Charles Colson, James Dobson and George W Bush. These individuals, and the Churches and political causes they represent create the closest thing we have to a norm of protestant Christianity in the United States.

In addition to being a set of political or spiritual beliefs, Evangelicalism is a vast culture of music, books, TV shows, rock concert worship services and celebrity preachers. In the United States, national chain stores exist to distribute and deliverer this material. Often times, media products found at these stores bear strange similarities to secular culture equivalents. For example, instead of buying a Superman costume on Halloween, the Christian parent can buy a Bible-man costume, complete with cape and mask. For a teenage girl, they can buy an album of the NSync equivalent boy-band Plus One. In creating alternative material of scrubbed vulgarity, sexual immorality and violence, Christians in the US have created an alternate culture full of norms and standards that are not directly tied to one denomination, creed or leader but fall under the vapid, catch-all, Evangelical. The norms exist. And they are defined primarily from the loudest voices and most inclusive group inside the church, Evangelicals.

Rob Bell has an odd place in this culture. In one sense he conforms to the norm. He is a celebrity preacher. His video series, Nooma (Greek word for spirit) is distributed nationally and shown at Churches across the country. He has numerous best selling books. And about 10,000 people attend the weekly gatherings at his church. He has credibility with the Protestant, Evangelical leaders and parishioners that buy his books and movies—much in the same way that Rick Warren does. But, contrary to the norm, he has achieved this level of influence in a way that has challenged the existing structures of the American Christian community. He changes the norm that says, a good Christian should only consume media that that is sold at Christian bookstores. He rejects the consumer-based model of Church, which is known for its 10-step programs and its multi-million dollar facilities. And he resists the norm that says a Christian can only associate with social causes that are explicitly Christian-Mission oriented, thus enabling him to endorse secular micro-loan programs and fresh water initiatives in the Third World that focus on material need.

The first and most evident strain of resistance in Rob Bells teaching is his embrace of secular culture. As I mentioned before, he uses Jay-Z as a teaching aid which contains all the vulgarity and sexual immortality that is shunned at the Christian bookstore. He explains in his first book Velvet Elvis, that one of his goals when starting the Church was capture the rawness of some of his favorite bands like the Pixies, Talking Heads, Violent Femmes and Midnight Oil (Bell 98). Drawing inspiration from these secular sources scares some Christians because it challenges the belief that in order to effectively reach the lost, a Christian has to be separated form the corrupting influence of the culture.

I grew up in what might be labeled as the Evangelical world. I was taught that I should memorize Bible verses, avoid sin and sin-inspiring music, movies and books. This way, as a Christian, I could present my life as an example to non-believers. The culture was seen as something that should be to be avoided. To live in the culture was to be indistinguishable as a Christian; someone thats saved but doesn’t act saved. The approved forms of media were drained of their most attractive qualities. They take the nihilism out of punk and the vulgarity out of hip-hop and slap on the Christian title; thus persevering the otherness implicit in the saved life. This is just one view that is prevalent in the evangelical community. Bell takes a different approach to the role of media in the functioning saved life. He challenges the claim that media, bought, sold and consumed under heading of Christian is spiritually uplifting by default. And secular culture is implicitly harmful to the spiritual lifeor at least neutral.

In Velvet Elvis he explicitly names a moment when a non-Christian source helped him to in his spiritual journey. I remember the first time I was truly in awe of God. I was caught up for the first time in my life in something so massive and loving and transcendent and true. Something I was sure could be trusted. I specifically remember thinking the universe was safe, in spite of all the horrible, tragic things in the world. I remember being overwhelmed with the word true. Underneath it all life is somehow good and I was sixteen at a U2 concert. The Joshua Tree tour. When they started to play Where the Streets Have No Name, I thought I was going to spontaneously combust with joy. This was real. This mattered. Whatever it was, I wanted more. (Bell 72). He mentions other similar transcendental moments surfing and playing with his kids. Then he says, These moments cant be tangent. They cant be experience that detract form the real faith. (Bell 74). Some evangelical churches would call U2 a detraction from the faith. When he admits that he had a spiritual experience at a U2 concert, hes not pretending to be removed from popular culture. He is in it, experiencing it. Many evangelicals would say this undermines a foundational idea, that in order to evangelize the individual and the church have to be removed from the culture.

The second strain of resistance is the stripped down quality of Bells Church. It is intentionally minimalist in an era when elaborate churches mark the landscape. Its so stripped down that its hard to find. During my recent trip to Grand Rapids I drove past the building three or four times until I found it. You’d expect a church of 10,000 people to have billboards on the highway leading the way. There were no giant signs, just a sticker on the door of a remodeled shopping center that looked something like this:

Mars Hill Bible Church Sunday Gathering: 9AM 11AM

The Mega-Church consumer style model tends to stress bigness, convenience and personal preference. Sadly, the same discontentment Americans have with material belongings is mirrored with the discontentment with Church. Stephen Ellingson, in his book Mega Church and the Mainline, describes the mega-church trend in this way, Evangelicalism and the church growth movement speak in language of business and the shopping mall, of individual choice and experience, and of expedient efficiency and, in so doing, make their version of Protestantism familiar, relevant, and appealing to Americans whose daily lives are organized by the codes of individualism and the marketplace (180). To create this palatable version of Christianity, Churches hire Evangelical consultants in the same way that business hire advertising consultants. As a response to the mega-church trend of Church growth, Bell says The thought of the word Church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick (Bell 99). Maybe this is why his church is so hard to find.

The aforementioned differences in Bells church are relatively superficial. The Protestant Church is accustomed to changes in the way it looks and engages with culture. Protestantism was founded by a resistor in Martin Luther. The Church currently undergoes changes in every new Protestant Church which is founded, not just with Bells church. The more contentions differences between Bell and popular Christianity surrounds his views of explicitly theological issues, like the role of the Bible in the life of the believer, the nature of salvation and the usefulness of secular social programs. Its within these discussion where the real differences emerge.

Bells describes his foundational beliefs by analogy in Velvet Elvis. He compares the life of faith to jumping on a trampoline. He and son love jumping on the trampoline. And apparently, Bell loves living the Christian life. He explains that hed much rather invite people to enjoy the experience joy of jumping on the trampoline than engage in a conversation about the physics behind springs. In the same way, hed rather invite people on the experiential journey of Christian spirituality than get weighed down talking about doctrine. Springs are the doctrinal issues of Christianity concerning the Bible, Salvation, and the law which are subject to constant dispute.

His experience oriented idea of faith is appealing because there is a common perception that Christianity requires believing a set of beliefs in order to secure a blissful existence in the afterlife. In this thinking, when the required-beliefs conflict with the individually held beliefs it naturally excludes people from participation and membership into the Church. Bell presents a different picture. He says, essentially that, Christianity is a process of doing as Jesus did: healing the sick, feeding the poor, loving God and loving others. Correct doctrine helps this process along, just like the springs help jumping but they arent the point. Bell shifts the focus away from contentious arguments about salvation toward the experiential process of the Christian life.

Some leaders accuse Bell of ignoring clear teachings of the Bible. They see his verbiage as desire to avoid conflict on the exterior, but underneath, it is actually a preference for the popular secular post-modern culture. Scot McKnight of Christianity Today describes the suspicion of post modern Christianity this way:

It is said that emerging Christians confess their faith like mainliners meaning they say things publicly they dont really believe. They drink like Southern Baptists meaning, to adapt some words from Mark Twain, they are teetotalers when it is judicious. They talk like Catholics meaning they cuss and use naughty words. They evangelize and theologize like the Reformed meaning they rarely evangelize, yet theologize all the time. They worship like charismatics meaning with their whole bodies, some parts tattooed. They vote like Episcopalians meaning they eat, drink, and sleep on their left side. And, they deny the truth meaning theyve got a latte-soaked copy of Derrida in their smoke- and beer-stained backpacks.

Many serious Christians are deeply concerned about the perceived negative effects of homosexual marriage amendments and legalized abortion. In political debates that depend on taking a clear stand, Bell refuses to give one. He is not using his popularity and influence to effect the law, rather, he avoids talking about it all together. This makes some Christians resentful and suspicious.

The tension is further magnified by Bells association with the controversial leader of the post-modern, emergent view of Biblical interpretation, Brian McLaren who is frequently the subject of attack by conservative evangelicals for the supposed weak view of scripture outlined in his many books. The emergent movement is characterized by a move away from modern forms of Biblical interpretation involving systematic theology to a post-modern view of the Bible which asserts that the entirety of Biblical knowledge cannot be known, summarized or embodied by one interpretation.

In an often cited article in Christianity Today title The Emergent Mystique, Kristen Bell (Robs wife) was quoted as saying that McLarens book New Kind of Christian was their lifeboat for escaping suffocating Biblical fundamentalism. This disclosure and the attention this article received implicates Bell in the emergent movement even if he doesnt use it as a personal or communal title. Using the subtle implications of Bells association with McLaren, attacks on emergent churches and specifically McLaren are sometimes backdoor ways of criticizing Bell.

Take for example what a well-known conservative evangelical John Macarthur had to say in a sermon dedicated to debunking the emergent church, “The emerging church movement is an amorphous sort of loose knit association of Churches that have decided that there is value there is even virtue in uncertainty about Scripture. The bottom-line in the movement is they believe that we aren’t even suppose to understand what the Bible means. And to me, thats a big issue. Its an attack on the clarity of the scripture. And they elevate themselves as if this is some noble reality” (Macarthur).

Now compare that with the frequently repeated line of Bells in books and interviews: Being a Christian is more about celebrating mystery than conquering it. (Bell 34). In Velvet Elvis, he goes on to talk about the impossibility of the unbiased perspective, the idea that everybody else approaches the Bible with baggage and agendas and lenses and I dont is the ultimate in arrogance. To think that I can just read the Bible without reading any of my own culture or background or issues into it and come out with a pure or exact meaning is not only untrue, but it leads to a very destructive reading of the Bible that robs it of its life and energy. At the heart of these two quotes—essentially two pastors accusing each other of having arrogant and destructive views regarding the Bible— is the debate about what it means to be a Christian. Its been raging for hundreds of years. Conservatives accuse McLaren and Bell of hiding behind post-modern arguments so that they can ignore clear and binding principles of the Bible, especially related to homosexuality and the salvation of non-Christians. And the loosely titled Emergents accuse the conservatives of toxic fundamentalism that robs faith of joy, vitality and relevance.

Perhaps the most salient line of argument against Bells theology comes from Dallas Willard in his book, The Divine Conspiracy. He doesnt name Bell specifically. Bells church didnt even exist in 1997 when the book was published. But He describes a period of time in the 1960s when advocating for the rights of African Americans was the social ethic of day. The National Council of Churches (NCC) actively adopted a policy of direct participation. This is similar to the way Bell has endorsed micro-loans and fresh water programs. Willard claims is that engaging in social causes minimized the effectiveness of the gospel for personal transformation and replaced it with the experience process of marching behind charismatic leaders. The problem is not that the causes are not worthy, but rather, the force behind them is not rooted in Christianity. The Christian message gets transformed into something its not. Willard describes this processes, To be committed to the oppressed, to liberation, or just to community became for many the whole of what is essential to Christian commitment. The gospel, or good news, on this view, was that God himself stood behind liberation, equality, and community; that Jesus died to promote them, or at least sake of them; and that he lives on in all efforts and tendencies favoring them. For the theological left, simply this became the message of Christ (Willard 51). This type of social ethic goes against the traditional Christianity because the exclusiveness of the gospel is seen as oppressive force that has to be overcome. Christian spirituality that focuses on the transformational power of the resurrected Christ is trivialized by non religious movements.

Bell has always resisted the claim that he ignores the authority of the scriptures. Or that he trivializes the role of resurrected Christ. In his mind, he is a bible teacher and Christ follower. Scripture is central to the life of a believer. And he is actively trying to live as Christ would want. He interprets this to mean focusing more on the Biblical imperatives related to serving the poor than legal restrictions against homosexuality and abortion. To him, following Christ means working with secular organizations to elevating global poverty, the eradication of environmentally harmful consumer practices. His feels entitled to take liberties in regard to music, books and movies. And he avoids talking about abortion and homosexuality altogether. He explicitly rejects the prevalent mega-church model in the United States. Weather or not this version of Christianity lines up with the essence of Christs teaching in our contemporary culture, is a discussion rages on and its certainly not going to get adjudicated by me.

Works Cited Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Ellingson, Stephen. The MegaChruch and the Mainline. Chicago IL, University of Chicago Press: 2007. Macarthur, John. The Emerging Chruch Movement Faculty Lecture Series. Podcast. Masters Seminary. 24 January 2006. 06 March 2009. downloads/ 01242006JohnMacArthurEmergingChurch_Movement.mp3. Crouch, Andy. The Emergent Mystique Christianity Today. 01 November 2004. 06 March 2009 2004/november/12.36.html. Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Fransicso CA: Harper, 1997 McKnight, Scot. Five Streams of the Emerging Church Christianity Today. February 2007: 35-37.

Hi! My name is Matthew Halbe.

I'm a web developer working at Vistaprint in Silver Spring Maryland. I have four kids, August, Liesel, Levi and Clementine, and a wonderful wife, Dory.

I spent 6 years as an enlisted soldier in the Army before coming out to the DC area for school and work.

My main interests are web development, US-Iran Relations and documentary films.

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