The world is changed…
The opening line of the epic films of The Lord of the Rings sounds in my mind. The world that surrounds us has changed and encapsulated in time is the Church. While it is easy to be critical of the Church-at-large, there remains an embedded truth in the tradition as it has been transmitted across time.
Within these changes sits the Church as it struggles to speak to people who are changing within our rapidly dynamic culture. Yet within the heart of these changes and movements, one fact remains: truth of ancient times is still truth of our time. When that truth is betrayed, what is left is fallacy.
Rob Bell and the Emergent Church
Perceiving a disconnect between the influence of the Church and the current culture, a group of church leaders began to have a conversation. Through a number of manifestations in a very short period of time, the conversation continued and became to see three men as dominating: Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell. At the heart of these conversations was the desire to see the church and the expression of truth that it encapsulates, become a driving force in culture. Their hope is for a world to be different in response to the truth that has been embedded within Christianity.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Rob Bell leads a church which, as even he acknowledges, appeals to Christians who have left other churches with disappointment and discouragement. Bell’s strategy stands as of taking steps to be relevant to everyday culture in new and challenging ways. However it happened, Rob Bell became synonymous with Christian innovation. Even locally I have witnessed at least a few congregations whose format, style, and even whose pastor’s appearance have obviously been influenced directly by Rob Bell’s work.
Why would an explosion of innovation and creativity be a problem? The issue is not the changes to format and style, but the changes to the message itself. Rob Bell overtly yet most often quite subtly takes dramatic steps away from the message of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. This video may be considered to be “The Gospel According to Rob Bell.”
(Though I have had thorough experience with his material, having read his books and watched his tour videos, I have restricted my comments to this video to help give context for discussion.)
No doubt this is an inspiring message. There has been much criticism directed at the church-at-large regarding focus on “legalism” (which may defined as “theology apart from its practice”) and need for relevance in our culture. Rob Bell has taken the step toward relevance, but has also wisely made an excellent observation: the church’s focus on legalism has caused a neglect of Christianity as a lifestyle. In the video above he says that “the gospel was a whole new way of life…” for the first Christians.
Who does not want the world to be a better place? For too long Christians have grown into a mentality that if the purpose of salvation is to secure a place in heaven, life becomes less of a mission and more a cosmic waiting room. In the video Bell says, “Jesus is saving me from my sins… from my indifference to the world around me.” Rob Bell’s message is that there is more to life than waiting, and instead the message of Christ challenges us to do what good we can with the time we have. Rightfully Bell’s observation is confirmed by the activity of the early church and the emphasis on being known how they loved one another.
The Bad and the Ugly
However, it is deceitfully simplistic to claim that the gospel only concerns with doing good. While Rob Bell’s message is challenging and encourages people to move toward positive impact on their world, it threatens not only superficial tenets but also shakes the foundation of Christianity itself. As a sort of manifesto or culmination of the full meaning of the gospel as it would appear to be, Bell is missing some important points.
Early in the video he says that a group of Jews in the first century “insisted that their rabbi, a man named Jesus… had risen from the dead,” but he never says that this actually happened. In fact throughout the video he uses words like “claimed” and “they said” rather than asserting that he believes that this is actually literally true. Further, Bell uses the same language when he speaks about the similar stories of the gods Mithra and Attis. To solidify the omission of belief in the resurrection, he asserts that “the claims of these first Christians weren’t anything new,” making the implication that he doubts the literal resurrection of Christ.
However, the basic and foundational nature of these missing components call into question the reliability and connection of this message and the message of Christ. In an article appearing in the November 2004 issue of Christianity Today, Bell seems to have said just that:
This is not just the same old message with new methods. We’re rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don’t deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don’t speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God.
To supplant the message of the gospel and to avoid commitment to a literal resurrection, Bell uses these Eastern religious connections in forming this statement: “I see the Resurrection all around me.” Rather than make any sort of claim of a literal resurrection from the dead, Bell uses the figurative resurrection and restates the truth, thus rewriting the core of the gospel message. The only thing that is lacking to make a full embrace of Eastern faiths is the belief in reincarnation, and I am sure that he would argue for this as an acceptable translation of the Greek word that has been rendered “resurrection.”
As a cap to the entire issue, Rob Bell states definitively at the end of the video: “May you come to see that you are the good news. You are the Gospel.” It is an entirely different take from the foundational truths of Christianity that states that our lives can be expressions of the power of the gospel. As Christians, we believe that the Gospel is something which happens outside of us. The Good News of the atoning sacrifice of Christ for our sins necessitates our living differently. But Bell’s perspective actually supplants Christ as having any actual role in the faith and sets individual humans as primary expressions of the good news. Bell then seems to teach that the message of the gospel is simply about being a good humanitarian and little else:
… the universe was in need of repair … future restoration had nothing to do with leaving this world … it was all about restoration … of this world.
This could be argued as simple omission and change of emphasis. Yet, if we are to take this video as a full testimony of the gospel of Christ, then it is quite disturbing to suggest that its message is all about remaking our world here and now. Not to suggest that there is anything wrong with reaching out to people in need and with doing good for its own sake.
Humanism Not Christianity
Fortunately, Rob Bell’s message does produce people who are prone to care about others and the environment, rather than drinking poisoned Kool Aid. However, the issue is that he calls himself a pastor of a Christian church and it is difficult to see that without the above-mentioned foundational truths he is still presenting the gospel message. What is left instead is a strange amalgamation of a number of different faiths, little of which is Christianity.
Some of his supporters have urged me to consider that this may be my perspective because Bell’s message makes me feel uncomfortable, not because there really is anything wrong with it. Additionally I have been urged to consider that his change in emphasis is because the salvation story is old news and it is time to be speaking about other aspects of our faith. No doubt that these observations may be true, at least in part.
However, if I were to eliminate the concern I have for sound doctrine in our churches, then Bell’s message would actually make me all too comfortable. It feels good to think that what I do and how I spend my life matters. But what we have and what we cling to in Christianity is that Jesus came to die for my sins and that his resurrection gives me hope of a future with God. Nothing else matters because there is nothing that I can do to pay God back and there is nothing I can do to erase the fact that I remain a sinner. It is only by the death and resurrection power of Jesus Christ that I am able to stand in right relationship with God.
Yet, Rob Bell’s message accommodates people who are uncomfortable with the word “sin” and with the concept that there is no value in anything I do, but that I continue to do it as an outpouring of what Christ has done. It accommodates people are uncomfortable with the claim that through Christ is the only way to have right relationship with God. Bell’s message accommodates so much that it becomes something entirely different.