What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell, Pt 3


Before leaving behind the topic of midrash and how Bell uses it: if we (Evangelicals) are going to gripe about the “liberties” Bell takes with the text, then we need to hold ourselves and other popular preachers to the same standard.

Are we really willing to restrict ourselves only to the author’s intended meaning when we preach?

The people who complain about Bell on this point are, I think, more offended by the ideological content of his sermons–care for the poor! stop making war! take care of the earth! treat LGBTQ people with dignity! (such controversial topics)–than they are by the way he treats scripture.

So: when you evaluate Bell (or any communicator who rubs you the wrong way), be on your guard that you don’t baptize ideological disagreement and call it “standing for the authority of scripture.”

SECOND, Bell interprets the Bible according to the narrative schema developed by NT Wright and others.  Wright et.al. have suggested that the entire Bible be read as a drama where God creates, creation rejects him, God sends Israel to rescue his creation by bringing Messiah into the world.  Various labels for the parts of this story have been used; my favorite is:

  • Creation (Genesis 1-2)
  • Corruption (Genesis 3-11)
  • Covenant (Genesis 12 – Malachi)
  • Christ (the Gospels)
  • Church (the rest of the New Testament)
  • Completion (throughout the New Testament)

Wright refers to his version of this scheme as “a five act play” (he combines Church and Completion, as I recall) that is still being written.

In this scheme, the controlling metaphor for God’s interaction with the world is the Exodus motif.  People are in bondage, oppressed by the sinful systems of the world and by their own sinful choices.  They cry out to God, and the God who hears the cries of the oppressed responds to all who cry out to him.

How does this affect his hermeneutics?  Basically, Bell interprets individual passages by working from the outside inward, from the big story to the individual passage.

This gives a consistency–his critics would say, “sameness”–to his interpretations, because he is bringing up the same things (oppression and God’s response to it) in practically every passage.  But that’s to be expected if Exodus, God’s deliverance of the oppressed, is your controlling metaphor!

Side note: I once went to hear a series of papers on the New Testament written by Carmelite scholars.  I was amazed that, with EVERY PASSAGE THEY DISCUSSED, they somehow read that passage to be about the Eucharist, even passages that I (with a high view of the Lord’s Supper) would never have read that way.  Why did they read them that way?  I suspect it’s because their controlling metaphor for reading the Bible was Eucharist-shaped.

THIRD, Bell is influenced by Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin, specifically de Chardin’s reading of Colossians 1 (the cosmic Christ, in which the entire universe is reconciled to God.)

Most Evangelical eschatology is pessimistic: whether by rapture or by Jesus’ return, we escape a world that is getting worse and worse.  The current creation is rejected by God, burned up or done away with, in favor of a new creation.

But de Chardin, by emphasizing Romans 8 and Colossians 1-2, builds an optimistic eschatology.  All creation is redeemed, the entire universe is reconciled to God through Jesus.  The earthly systems of power and oppression are done away with, and a new era of fellowship with God and with humanity.  This = Revelation 20-21, where the new earth is realized as heaven and the old earth are brought together, God “reconciles” or joins the two realms.

In Colossians 2.8, Paul refers to “the elemental powers.” Pace most readings of 2 Peter 3.10, 12, this term does not refer to the periodic table, the atomic building blocks of the physical universe.  He is referring to godless systems of power, value systems that reject God (e.g., might makes right, security through violence, he who has the gold makes the rules, everyone is in it for themselves.)


Romans 8 and Colossians 1-2 clearly teach that the reconciliation God made through Jesus Christ is not limited to sinful humanity.  This reconciliation is universal.  The term most often used to refer to Jesus as universal reconciler is “cosmic Christ.”  This universal reconciliation is sometimes referred to as “the Omega point,” (de Chardin’s term, I believe), taken from Jesus’ declaration in Revelation that he is the Alpha and Omega (beginner & completer of God’s reconciling of the cosmos.)

I’d intended to make this entire section neutral, but I’ve failed on that point.  Hopefully, the descriptions will be helpful, or at least thought-provoking.


Ok, next post: what I think about Rob Bell’s hermeneutics, and some speculation regarding his motives.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell, pt 2


Pt 2: But is he biblical?

That’s the question.  The answer in short: it depends on how you define “biblical”.

If “biblical” = Evangelical hermeneutics, the author’s historically-determined intention for a passage governing the modern meaning and application, then no, he is not biblical.

Of course, much of popular, Evangelical, “Bible-believing” Christianity is a heckuva lot more about reinforcing and reinterpreting the traditions of American folk religion–moral therapeutic deism, anyone?–than any consciously historical-critical hermeneutic.

Most conservative American Christians are more about reinterpreting “old time religion” and the particulars of their denomination than they are about what the Bible meant when the biblical writers wrote it.

In the next few paragraphs, I’m going to describe (not judge or evaluate) Bell’s approach to scripture.  AFTER the description, I’ll offer some criticism and evaluation.

First, Bell’s approach to scripture is a kind of modern rabbinic midrash.  In his interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (Robcast #100), he talks about how, early in his preaching career, a Jewish Christian in his church came up to him after a sermon and started talking him through how rabbis taught the Torah.

Midrash is a thoroughly Jewish way of approaching the scriptures that goes beyond the text and explores ambiguity in the meanings of stories and words, fills in gaps, builds in multiple directions from a single starting point.

Midrash builds moral and theological lessons on, for example, the multiple meanings of a word, using the word in its context as raw material but not bound by the context.

Midrash is playful.  It can delight in word games.

In midrash, a text is multivalent; it doesn’t have just one point, but can be used and applied in multiple ways.  What controls meaning?  Not the historical meaning of the text, but whether the congregation and the body of teachers judge an approach to be faithful or not.

Bell’s series on Lamentations, linked above, is a beautiful example of midrash.

Another beautiful example of Bell’s midrashing is sermon he podcasted earlier this week, tying Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.22f (“The eye is the lamp of the body”) with passages from Deuteronomy and Proverbs that use the image of a clear / dark eye to refer to generosity or selfishness.  I daresay that most of the preachers I know could remove some of the more politically-correct facets from this sermon and happily preach it in their churches.

(More about Bell’s approach: narrative theology, N.T. Wright, Teilhard de Chardin, and Colossians 1 in the next post.)

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell, pt 1


(I was going to name this series “What We Talk About When We Talk About What Rob Bell Talks About,” but it was much longer (and much more meta) of a title than I could handle.)

Pt 1: Introduction

Without a doubt, Rob Bell is one of the most intriguing figures AND one of the most gifted communicators to come out of the fresh voices in Evangelicalism in the aughts, a group that includes Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Francis Chan, Matt Chandler and the other young restless reformed types, Mark Driscoll, etc.

After several years of prodigious production–the Nooma videos, Velvet Elvis, etc., Bell took a series of apparent sidesteps in the late aughts, away from the megachurch he founded, away from the Midwest, to California and a career as a “spiritual teacher” more akin to Dr. Phil than Rick Warren, etc.

Bell’s strengths are many.

First, Bell is an extraordinarily gifted communicator.  If you accept that what he is doing is “preaching,” he may be one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard.

If you want to judge Bell’s preaching, check out the five sermons on Lamentations he podcasted several weeks ago; here’s a link to the first one.  Admittedly I haven’t heard many sermons on Lamentations, but I’m not “damning him with faint praise” if I say that these are the best sermons on Lamentations I’ve ever heard.  They’re some of the best sermons on the Old Testament that I’ve ever heard, period.  This is really good, relevant, biblical (see my analysis below), therapeutic stuff.

Second, Bell’s productivity is staggering.  He releases new material in a torrent.  We’re talking about two or three (or occasionally FIVE) podcasts per week.  Sometimes the podcasts are vaguely spiritual interviews with entertainment figures or self-help authors.  Other times, they’re exegetical studies of Old Testament passages, or Hebrew word studies (he REALLY digs Hebrew).

Bell is constantly producing and refining new material, following the work patterns that a standup comic or essayist might follow.  Which means: he is writing new stuff EVERY DAY.  He is appearing in front of small, low pressure audiences regularly (multiple times per month) (e.g., his residency at LA’s Largo) to work out and develop the new things he’s writing, just like the best comedians develop their new material.

Third, he appears to be incredibly likable.  He’s warm and gentle and self-deprecating.  He is infectiously enthusiastic about EVERYTHING, about EVERYBODY he meets.  He genuinely LOVES talking to people about their books, their ideas, their stories, their lives.

If I had to pick between spending an afternoon with Rob Bell or an afternoon with just about any other current Christian figure, I’d choose to spend the afternoon with Bell.

But is he biblical?

That’s the question.  In short: it depends on how you define “biblical”.  …


Ebert on Herzog


I’ve often thought that preachers should read the Bible the way Roger Ebert watched (and preach the way Ebert wrote about) films.

I’ve also often thought Werner Herzog was among the greatest artists of our time.  Watch Grizzly Man.  Watch Into the Abyss.  Tell me I’m wrong; this is film as poetry, film that shakes and inspires and terrifies not by manipulation or by tricks, but simply by watching.  (Not that Herzog is an objective or disinterested observer.)

RoberEbert.com has published an overview of Ebert’s reviews of Herzog.  Read it, follow the links, check out the incredible movies, be moved and inspired and terrified by the simple beauty of it.

Coming Later Today …


… “What We Talk About When We Talk About What Rob Bell Talks About.”  What is Rob Bell doing when he preaches?  Is it dangerous?  Is it biblical?  A brief sketch, and a few tentative conclusions.

#NeverTrump, Reason 4,359


Warren Throckmorton asks: is Trump the kind of “friend” American Christianity needs?

Does Christianity Need Donald Trump’s Help?


“The Last Time We Stood in the West”


I think something interesting is happening among the progressive evangelicals (ugh, I don’t like that term) out west.

(I think I’m going to start referring to everyone who’s still arguably evangelical but just a skosh to my left as “the radical center.”)

(“Skosh“: I saw an online dictionary that etymologized “skosh” as coming from a Japanese word, but I know darn well it’s a Texas thing.)

I’m speaking of the LA nexus of Rob Bell and The Liturgists (Mike McHargue, aka “Science Mike”, and Michael Gungor.)

(A few weeks ago, I heard a megachurch preacher introduce Science Mike, and repeatedly refer to him as “Mike the Science Guy,” which transported me back to Bill Nye.)

What I’ve read and heard from these guys mines rich veins of Christian mysticism, sharing much with Richard Rohr (also out west, in Albuquerque).

Bell is a fabulous preacher; seriously.  He’s not good, he’s VERY good.  A couple of weeks ago, he podcasted a series of five sermons on Lamentations that were rich and biblical and incredibly therapeutic on an emotional level.

Don’t make the mistake of judging Bell without actually listening to him or reading what he’s written.  (Many people I know express a real disdain for Bell, but only a few of them have actually read or listened to him.)

(I’m working on a piece where I describe Bell’s hermeneutics, rationale, and mission, as I understand them.)

Also in the west is Tripp Fuller (Home-brewed Christianity.)  I know Fuller is from North Carolina originally, but believe he is located in Los Angeles.  I haven’t seen any interactions between him and the Bell cadre.

Fuller is more academic and less accessible (IMHO), less therapeutic (or at least less immediately so), than Bell or The Liturgists.  I AM fascinated by the ministry training school he has organized, however: The Hatchery (@Hatchery_LA), which is part MDiv and part graduate program in community development and entrepreneurship.

Who are the other progressive evangelical voices out west?

Living in a One Storey Universe


A very Rohr quote, from Stephen Freeman, “One-Storey Universe” (here), 17.  Freeman is an Orthodox priest.  In this blog, he describes how Orthodox Christians believe that all the cosmos is sacred and God-drenched.  There is no separation into “sacred” or “common”: everything & every activity is (or can, or should be) sacred.

Some implications of this worldview:

“The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?).  … The more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.

Christianity that has purged the Church of the sacraments, and of the sacramental, have only ideas which can be substituted – the result being the eradication of God from the world in all ways other than theoretical. Of course, since much of modern Christianity functions on this ideological level rather than the level of the God-Who-is among-us, much of Christianity functions in a mode of practical atheism. The more ideological the faith, the more likely its proponents are to expouse what amounts to a practical atheism.

Orthodox Christianity, with its wealth of dogma and Tradition, could easily be translated into this model – and I have encountered it in such a form. But it is a falsification of Orthodoxy. Sacraments must not be quasi-magical moments in which a carefully defined grace is transmitted to us – they must, instead, threaten to swallow up the whole world.”

This is very much of a piece with Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See As the Mystics See, which I’m currently reading