So what do I think?
I hope the preceding survey, brief as it is, demonstrates that Rob Bell’s approach to the Bible and to biblical authority is not a simple yes/no, does-he-or-doesn’t-he question.
The fact of the matter is: everything Bell does, theologically and hermeneutically, can be found elsewhere in the broad Judeo-Christian tradition. In the same paragraph, he may meld materials from 19th century Catholic mystics, the nascent Orthodoxy of the 3rd century Desert Fathers and Mothers, rabbinic Judaism, etc.
His approach is eclectic, largely PRE-modern (or at least, the raw materials that he mines are largely premodern), even though he’s sometimes referred to as postmodern.
The thing about him that’s most postmodern is the mixing, the kitbashing (metaphorically, the mixing of pieces from disparate sources, ergo the mixing of techniques from different approaches), that’s postmodern.
The effect is anti-modern, which flies in the face of what passes for modern Evangelical hermeneutics. In a postmodern world, Evangelicals are exemplars of modernity. No one clings more stubbornly to the philosophies and theologies of 15th and 16th centuries than “modern” Evangelicals.
So again: what do I think?
We have to realize that the way we Evangelicals were taught to read the Bible is not the only way the Bible has ever been read. We were taught to read individually (by ourselves, silently, in isolation, asking “what does it mean to me?” or “what is God saying to me?” first). We were taught to read for historical meaning, authorial intent. We were taught that the text’s plain meaning (usually = authorial intent) is discernible, and controls our understanding and application of the text.
Understand two things. FIRST, there are a hundred different philosophical assumptions / conclusions in that single paragraph. Does “plain meaning” really exist? Is authorial intention discernible? Does the priority of reading silently in isolation produce a different reading than reading, say, aloud in a community? Is there a “historical meaning”?
SECOND, understand that the way we Evangelicals read the Bible is a relatively new way of ingesting the Bible. Historically, most Christians and the faithful Jews before them did not read or digest the Bible the way we were taught to do. Arguably, more Christians over the past 2,000 years have read the Bible the way Rob Bell does than have read the Bible the way the modern Evangelical does.
All of which is to say, the fact that Rob Bell is reading the Bible differently from how we were taught to read the Bible doesn’t mean he isn’t taking scripture seriously, or that he disrespects biblical authority.
We can say that his conclusions are wrong. Or that the ways he’s reading the Bible are wrong. Or that we hate how politically correct and trendy he is. But we can’t say that he’s deserted the Bible, or disregards biblical authority. The fact that he’s reading it differently doesn’t mean he’s denying or rejecting it.
So again: what do I think?
I like Rob Bell. He’s not only very likable, and a gifted communicator, but I have found healing and direction from his teaching. I listen judiciously, and occasionally cringe at some of the things he says. But even then …
Most of the things he does that make me nuts are a reflection of how he understands his calling. Bell believes he has been called to be a pastor to the pastorless, the spiritual but not religious, the de-churched.
You know about the de-churched? There are unchurched people who don’t go to church. But what I’m talking about are the de-churched, people who ran away [or were run off] from the church, screaming in agony, after terrible experiences with abusive church leadership, etc.
It makes me nuts, for example, when he goes out of his way NOT to use the word “God”, preferring to refer to “the Divine,” etc. But he does this because he has a segment of people who listen to him that shut down when they hear the language of traditional religion, so (rightly or wrongly) he thinks using “the Divine” is more effective.
Same with “faith community” instead of “church.”
He avoids talking about God as “father” for similar reasons.
Bell is like a missionary to post-Christian America. He’s preaching the gospel to people who would never listen to a more traditional, more recognizable, more Evangelical source. (People who would never listen to ME, for example.)
Don’t compare him to Matt Chandler or Rick Warren. Compare him with Dr. Phil, or Oprah; they’re closer to what he’s trying to do, and make his Christ-centeredness much more clear.
He’s telling people who would never be caught inside a church about a God who loves them, who wants to be involved in their lives.
He talks about Jesus a LOT: not the caricature, judgmental Jesus who hates everyone who doesn’t vote Republican, but the Jesus who taught people how to treat each other and how to get back to God when they’ve wandered off the path.
He even talks about sin. And repentance. (That’s another great sermon, by the way.) And he talks effectively. And I pray that God is using him, and making him even more effective, because his listeners are people who aren’t listening to you or me.
May his tribe increase.