Stray Thoughts and Free-Form Blogging RE: Rob Bell

I’m not sure how many folks Benton Chapel seats, but it was standing room only for Pastor Rob Bell’s appearance at Vanderbilt last night. After a brief introduction by Vandy’s Director of Religious life and a couple of numbers by a campus a cappella group, Bell steps into the aisle of the sanctuary with a clip on mic and no notes. He chats off the cuff for a little bit and then launches into an extended sermon (I guess normal length for Evangelicals) presumably based on the contents of his new book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. The evening is brought to a close after a few rounds of a Q&A that could’ve clearly gone on much longer.

I don’t really consider myself to be in the same “camp” as Bell or anything, but after hearing him preach and answer questions I can say that I’m a fairly strong supporter of his ministry. I’d encourage people to hear him speak for themselves or maybe read his book, but here are a few stray thoughts about Rob Bell and the evening in general.

1) It seems like Bell has a pretty strong awareness that the measure of doctrines or religious ideas is what they’re actually doing in the lives of people. They guy clearly has a heart for those who have been needlessly trampled over by churches, and I think his religious thinking comes from a place of deep empathy and concern for human well-being. He’s also aware that the things to which people tend to assign truth value are mostly related to the realm of affect and feeling.

2) During the Q&A Bell suggested to an aspiring minister that he make himself a student of the human condition more so than a student of theology. Good advice!

3) What’s weird about the pastor-without-a-church model is that people tend to treat famous pastor-writers as if they were their own personal pastors. It was obvious that Bell’s books had strong personal meaning for some of the people in attendance, and that the feelings for the book or ideas in the book are transferred in some ways onto Bell himself, much in the same way that we admire mentors or great friends. Of course, they’ve never actually met him, so the feelings only run one direction. During the Q&A session, for example, one gentleman asked a question that crossed into territory almost certainly too personal for that sort of setting. It was more the sort of question you’d ask a pastor in the confidence of his office, which is maybe the way this particular gentleman was processing the Q&A encounter.

4) Two mostly small critiques came to mind as I was listening to Bell’s sermon. First is that I’m not totally convinced that the way in which he tries to secure intellectual viability is totally valid. During his sermon-chunk concerned with the proposition “God is with us,” Bell started getting into some panentheist metaphors. (Panentheist means, briefly, that “God is larger than all and yet present in each.” Another way of putting it is that God is to the world as my consciousness is to my body.) As part of the God-with-us, panentheist thing, he did an extended bit about quantum physics. Rob Bell is not a quantum physicist, and in this case was essentially using bits and pieces of physics to form theological metaphors. The impression given, though, is one of, “Rob Bell knows how the universe works and we should listen to him.” Or something. That’s probably the sort of nit-picky critique only seminarians care about.

Anyhow, the second and probably more important critique is that Bell leans very, very heavily on emotionally evocative stories. As I mentioned, Bell seems aware that what moves people and informs belief at a fundamental level is affect rather than cognition, so you’d expect evocative illustrations. The trouble is that his heart-rending stories don’t always necessarily have to do with the point or religious idea he’s using them to bolster. I worry about attaching ideas to emotions when they don’t necessarily connect to one another. The strategy can turn, in my opinion, emotionally exploitative fairly quickly.

Critiques aside, though, I do think the overall result and effect of Bell’s ministry is that it brings greater graciousness and more introspective living to those who find it meaningful.

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I’m also fairly interested in the relationship between Rob Bell and the white, male, conservative Evangelical establishment gate-keepers. After his last book, Evangelical bloggers announced that Bell is no longer relevant (“Let him be anathama!”), and yet they can’t stop talking about him. Clearly they view Bell’s influence as a threat to right-thinking orthodoxy.

Just the other day Denny Burk referenced an interview in which Bell suggests we might think about using the language of “heavenly Mother” in prayer. The relevant portion of the interview between Jonathan Merritt and Bell goes like:

Jonathan Merritt: So it would be totally appropriate to pray to one’s “heavenly mother” as well as one’s “heavenly father?”

Rob Bell: Well, you certainly have Isaiah using a mother image for God and Jesus talks about longing to gather like a mother hen gathers her chicks. But that is a great question, and one we should be asking.

And then Burk writes

This kind of feminine God-language has long been the mark of feminist revisionists who have moved well beyond the pale of evangelical Christianity. While we don’t believe that God has a gender, we do believe that He has revealed Himself as God the Father and never as mother. That Bell views the matter as debatable says a lot about his own grasp of Trinitarian theology. The self-revelation of God as Father is not an open issue, but apparently Bell thinks that it is.

There’s a bigger post to be written about feminine imagery, names, and metaphors for God, but the bumper-sticker critique goes like this: Denny Burk’s God is an instrument of male authority, and to call God “mother” might potentially chip away at his ability to claim authority based on a certain reading of the Bible. Remember, “The Bible says so” is generally just a more emphatic way of saying “because I said so.”

Probably the saddest thing (for me at least) is Burk’s commenter who writes, “Rob Bell loves questions but hates answers…what a terribly unsatisfying life that must be.”

Actually, no. It’s totally awesome. Y’all should try it. One of Bell’s big points the other evening was that Christians should avoid stuff that’s boring. Interesting people are usually people who find the world interesting, he said, and I would agree. It’s boring, Bell said, to get bogged down in doctrinal disputes that don’t go anywhere, or to be the guy waging war against Fundamentalism instead of living your own life to its full expression.

What I most like is when the Denny Burks of the world try to pull a very particular type of doctrinal authority on people and then the response comes back like, “Uhh, yeah, I don’t care about that. I’ll be over here living my life with people who aren’t controlling jerks.”

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