I hope to read Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” and hopefully I will be able to provide my own comments at that time. In the meantime, I’d like to reflect on something that is more bothersome to me. Here’s the question I want to consider: “what should we do with Rob Bell?” Put in more relational language; “how should we engage Rob Bell, as a person, on his new book?” I think this is an important question and points to a disturbing problem in the blogging community and this problem is just as prominent within the Christian Blogging community.
It seems to me, that ideas of Rob Bell have replaced the person of Rob Bell. Rob Bell, the human being, has become a mere talking head that spews ideas that either may be true or false. These ideas are placed online and scrutinized. Many times the ideas are scrutinized with out any thought about the person that stands behind them, in this case Rob Bell. Let me give an example that is in the mainstream media right now. An eighth grade girl made a music video about the weekend. The video went viral and the last time I checked it had been viewed 26.5 million times in one month! The video hasn’t been played because it’s incredibly good but because it’s incredibly ordinary and at times not very good. The video has spawned some parody videos and many, many comments. A lot of the comments are quite negative. The girl in the video, Rebecca Black was interviewed by ABC news and they asked her what the meanest thing anyone said to her via the comments. She said there were two things that hurt the most; “I hope you cut yourself” and “I hope you get an eating disorder so that you get pretty”. That makes me incredibly sad! She is in eighth grade. You can’t tell me these words aren’t going to stick with her for a long time! Now, there are a whole lot of other concerns regarding our desire to ‘make it big’ on the internet, our desire to live a life entirely online for the whole world to see and other such concerns that are arising because of the internet’s ubiquitous nature, but the main thing this video and interview with Rebecca Black does show and that is the underlying belief that Rebecca Black is only a thing on a computer screen and not a person. Who would say those types of things to Rebecca in person. I believe that this is what is happening to Rob Bell and his latest book. Everyone loses when Christianity is reduced down to a set of propositions that are true or false. Don’t get me wrong, Christianity is propositional but that’s the minimum. It’s also deeply relational and experiential. Francis Schaeffer once said that the greatest untried apologetic is Love. John 13:34-35 says; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This is where my problem lies. People are wondering why I would defend Rob Bell, and Rob Bell’s teaching. I don’t know that I am. I think I am defending Rob Bell the person. In his interview with Martin Bashir, Rob says that he is a pastor. I get that, and I get the concern he has for his flock. You can’t find one pastor who hasn’t wrestled through the issues of eternal punishment with broken people and tried to provide palatable answers that are also true. The difference is that Rob Bell’s answers to these tough questions end up in books and old across the world (that’s where the similarity between Rob and I ends).
Unfortunately, Rob Bell is the pastor of a non-denominational church and a card-carrying evangelical. That means his ideas are presented in a populist (democratic) system. He makes truth claims about different things and the masses determine whether he is right or wrong. It’s one thing if the audience to your truth claims is your local church of 2, 3, or 400 people but it’s entirely different if the audience is millions of people all around the world.
When Rob Bell proposes his ideas in a book, the whole world becomes the judge. Rob Bell is put on trial, via the internet, and the world is allowed to pipe in. What happened to Rebecca Black now happens to a pastor who is trying to care for his flock. His ideas are scrutinized and attacked and many, many mean and unfair things are said about the person who wrote the ideas. The internet becomes Rob’s judge. It tells him that he is worthy or unworthy. And his worth is rooted in his ideas. This is a very impersonal thing and not at all how the church should care for its members. What’s the alternative? Well, I think the Bible gives a couple alternatives that have been widely used through out the church. Presbyterian and Episcopal forms of government. I think Rob Bell’s ideas should be dealt with on a more local and personal level.
Each form of church government is in place for the purpose of protecting both the local priest/pastor and the flock that is being ministered to. For instance, if Rob Bell, were teaching something in a Presbyterian context he would be held accountable by his session. The session is made up of Elders that live and work with the pastor. They know the pastor as a person. If Rob said something they felt uncomfortable with they would have a means to communicate with him about this. If the session felt Rob was teaching outside the bounds of historic Christianity then they would ask him to reconsider. But if he said no, then the session could bring in the Presbytery (the group of churches in a region) that know Rob and are ministers along side his church. Again, there his ideas can be examined to see if they are outside the bounds of historic Christianity. If the Presbytery says his teaching is okay then his congregation is informed about the decision and asked to accept his teaching. If the Presbytery says his teaching isn’t okay, then he is asked to stop and if he isn’t stopped then he can come under discipline. I could go on with the explanation and I could show you how an Episcopal form of church government (Bishop, Priest, Deacon) would do this but you get the point. All the along the process, the pastor Rob Bell is pastored. It’s a conversation done in relationship.
As long as this conversation continues to live on a computer screen and does not find a home around a table, we will all lose. How can we love one another when we are no more than the sum of our ideas? Rob Bell’s book and his ideas need to be discussed because they do have impact on the lives of people in the pews. But it shouldn’t be done on a computer screen.