Pastor Rob Bell has my attention. From what I’ve gathered of the various bits of media that have sprung up in recent weeks about him, he’s a relatively hip, relatively liberal evangelical who is trying to open up Christianity to folks who find its more dogmatic and arcane aspects intimidating. He is repackaging Christianity — as many liberal religionists do these days — as essentially about love.
Of course, he’s still completely wrong as far as the existence of God and Jesus and whatnot, but it’s at least a little relieving that there’s someone on his side of the reality fence is looking to make feel a little more secure and welcoming rather than xenophobic and discriminatory. If nothing else, he’s extremely charismatic. So as I’ve watched some of his material, I find myself fascinated by his presentation and his rhetoric, even while I roll my eyes at the underlying substance. Here’s a bit of what I mean (and sorry about the subtitles, I can’t find a version of this video without them).
And to get more of an idea, here’s his (apparently unembeddable) video about the new book he’s hawking.
Atheist Media Blog just posted an interview Bell did with Martin Bashir (a “committed Christian” himself), and it typifies what I’ve seen as the reaction from traditional Christians. Here’s the video:
Even at Atheist Media, there were commenters who thought Bashir’s treatment of Bell indicated a capital-S skeptical worldview, but that’s not at all the case, at least theologically. Bashir comes at Bell as someone who feels that Bell is playing fast and loose with “Biblical truth,” and it’s perceivable in Bashir’s tone (and Bell’s discomfort). As an another example of the reaction, there’s Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writing in the Christian Post, who seems to really get where Bell is coming from while damning his methods:
As a communicator, Rob Bell is a genius. He is the master of the pungent question, the turn-the-picture-upside-down story, and the personal anecdote. [. . .] Rob Bell is a master communicator. Had he set out to defend the biblical doctrine of hell, he could have done so marvelously. He would have done the church a great service. But that is not what he set out to do.
[. . .] There is no reason to doubt that Bell wrote this book out of his own personal concern for people who are put off by the doctrine of hell. Had that concern been turned toward a presentation of how the biblical doctrine of hell fits within the larger context of God’s love and justice and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that would have been a help to untold thousands of Christians and others seeking to understand the Christian faith. But that is not what Bell does in this new book.
Instead, Rob Bell uses his incredible power of literary skill and communication to unravel the Bible’s message and to cast doubt on its teachings.
That’s obviously a threat to the usual order of things in Evangelical circles. There’s a pretty well-established way of keeping folks in the fold, and Bell is upending it with very loose interpretations of what the Bible tells us.
One of the many, many ironies here is, of course, that it’s not as though Mohler and his ilk are following the Bible to the letter, either, or else once Mohler finished his column, he’d have to go and make sure his slaves were fed, and perhaps slay someone who doubted Jesus’ divinity. I’m going to guess he did something else.
As an atheist and a liberal, I am at least vaguely heartened that there are religious leaders who are trying to emphasize goodness and love over punishment. If all Christians were Bell-type Christians, perhaps there would be little need for a concerted atheist/secularist movement (something I’ve also said about the worldview of folks like Karen Armstrong).
But what remains troubling, what is not at all different from the fire-and-brimstone religionists, is that Bell’s basis for his teachings are just as airy and substanceless as any other faith’s. Perhaps even less so, for if you ask traditional religionists, he’s not even taking the fictional evidence seriously.
Perhaps it’s six of one, half-dozen of another. One tradition sticks to a certain set of cherry-picked biblical notions and will not be moved from them. Another newer idea says “no, no, it’s these ideas that are more important,” but hews much more loosely to the (dubious) founding documents. Everyone in the equation is making things up, and tying their worldviews to Bronze Age fictions that have no bearing on reality or modernity.
At least one of them is being a little bit nicer about it. It’s all based on fairy tales, but at least it’s coming from what appears to be a well-meaning place. I’ll be very curious to see what becomes of Bell and his message as he goes.