Occasionally, upon learning that I spent a decade at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids (earning my BA and MDiv), people ask me if I know Rob Bell. That's a hard question to answer. I mean, there was never a time when we got together twice a week to play badminton or anything and if someone were to point me out and ask, "Do you know that guy," I'd guess that Rob would say, "Yeah, he looks familiar," but could not produce my name.
All the same, I can't just answer no either. In a sense, everyone knew Rob. He was the "it guy" for college ministry, on staff at Calvary Church right across the street, and spoke in chapel regularly. And not only have I heard him preach many excellent sermons (most at the Saturday Night services at Calvary), but I've had conversations with the guy and even been to his house a couple times. Not because we were good buddies, but because he invited me over to help me out. You see, any conversation about Rob Bell, his theology, his books, etc. needs to acknowledge a plain fact from the outset: Rob Bell is one of the nicest people alive. There, I said it.
When I was in college I was, of course, in a band. So was Rob. The difference: his band (Big Fil) was super-tight, super-popular, and in great demand. As such, my roommate/bandmate and I asked Rob if he had any advice for us--how we could get more gigs, have a better sound, connect with our audience more effectively, etc. Now, he hadn't yet achieved anything near the rockstar preacher status that he now enjoys, but Bell was already very well-known (especially among the approx. 15 million college-aged Christian kids in Grand Rapids) and incredibly busy. We expected him to kind of blow us off, maybe e-mail a couple of general guidelines for rock performance, pass on a couple phone numbers or contact names.
Instead, he asked for a copy of our CD, which he listened to in its entirety (71 minutes of often rather rough material) and took notes on each song and each musician. He shared these notes with us one afternoon when he invited us to his house. Despite being a mega-church's golden boy, Rob didn't think of himself as better than anyone and I'm convinced that he still doesn't (although each successive magazine cover probably makes it harder to stay grounded).
Note: Back then, Rob's theology was as orthodox as it gets. He had clever and innovative ways of communicating biblical doctrines, but the doctrines themselves were anything but innovative. In other words, this was before the legendary reading of McLaren's sloppy book and subsequent "conversion" to emergentism.
Rob gave us some valuable feedback and advice about what to perform, how to get the gig, how to keep people engaged, how to build credibility and then share the Gospel in a way that doesn't seem contrived. One piece of advice about which he was particularly adamant was that, while he liked the song, we should not perform "Typical Baptist" anywhere that non-Christians may hear it. The song was an indictment of the uptight lack of passion for praising God or reaching the lost that we saw in many Baptist churches in and around G-Rap. Sure, it was clever, Rob said, but we don't want the world to see us taking shots at each other. It will just reinforce the notion that Christians are divisive, spiteful hypocrites. Better to save that song for very churchy crowds. It was good advice and we took it.
Fast-forward almost a decade to March 2005. Rob Bell releases his 9th "Nooma" video, a dollar-per-minute, quick-cut, abridged sermon called "Bullhorn." In it, we hear the story of a street preacher who stands in front of Van Andel Arena before a concert, proclaiming Law and Gospel through a bullhorn (using words like--gasp--"sin" and "hell") and handing out tracts of his own design.
Rob says he wants to "take a minute to talk to Bullhorn Guy." As we watch the man photocopy, fold, park, and make his way down to the street to do what only 1 in a 1000 Christians would actually have the sand to do, Bell says, "Bullhorn guy, I don't think it's working. I think it's actually making things worse."
The problem? No one is stopping to listen. No one is taking any of the tracts. I could go on here about how the truth of the Gospel is not bound up in whether people listen, how part of the indictment against God-rejecters is that they've heard the Gospel and yet not repented, and that the prophets and apostles did almost exactly what Bullhorn Guy was doing...but that has already been taken care of here, here, and here.
No, I want to focus on the song in the background. The song that continually drones the line, "Heaven weeps for the creepy people like you." Wait, isn't that a little nit-picky? No. Because the "discussion guide" booklet that comes with the DVD devotes a huge spread to the same sentence. Heaven weeps for the creepy people like you. The socially awkward guy who spends his evening enduring ridicule in order to preach the Gospel to the lost. The guy who goes all by himself into the belly of the beast. The guy who reads about the prophets and the apostles and thinks, "That's what I should be doing" and goes and does it. He's creepy. He makes Baby Jesus cry.
Rob said that we shouldn't play "Typical Baptist" because the world would see us picking each other apart and assume that Christians are spiteful and divisive. How does that jibe with a ten-minute mockfest directed at fundamentalist Christians--particularly those who strike us as "creepy?" How does it jibe with Bell's book Velvet Elvis dismissing confessional Christians as adherents of "brickianity" instead of Christianity?
I'm not trying to point out some hypocrisy here. People are allowed to change their minds. (Maybe Rob would tell us today that we should perform "Typical Baptist" at each and every show.) Nor do I have a huge problem with religious debate that takes place in the public square; some might see us as divisive, while others will just see that we have a passion for the Truth. I'm really not even that upset about calling the bullhorn guy creepy. He probably was.
My point is that becoming "emergent," moving off the foundation of historic biblical doctrines and instead "re-discovering Christianity as an Eastern religion" where Jesus is somehow the authority apart from his Word...all that stuff that claims to be about spiritual humility, religious tolerance, and the individual's "faith journey..." All that stuff makes people less tolerant, less humble, and more willing to not only point fingers at the silly followers of "brickianity," but call them creepy, write them off, and not even allow them to be part of the all-important "conversation." I would suggest that Rob Bell is one of the few emergent types with any real humility to speak of. He's also one of the more orthodox in his teaching. But even that is a pretty telling statement.
After all, is there anything more arrogant than the suggestion that the last 1700 years of Christianity have been one big move in the wrong direction? That doctrine, systematic theology, the authority of Scripture, the existence of hell, etc. are just human constructs? That Calvin and Luther were completely off-base in their reading of Paul, in their acceptance of penal substitution and original sin?
Doesn't seem like humility to me. But what do I know? I'm just one of those creepy people.
Challenge Response: God Can't Be Scientifically Quantified - Alan responds to this week's challenge:
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