Recently, if I’ve mentioned Rob Bell, I’ve done it in a whisper. To be at all associated with Bell can be hazardous to your reputation, depending on who hears it and what assumptions they make.
To claim Bell as an influence already painted you in with a certain crowd before Love Wins (a book that questioned the traditional Christian doctrine of hell). After Love Wins, associating with Bell automatically puts you in some people’s probably-a-heretic category.
But Rob Bell has had a profound influence on my life, my theology, and my ministry, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Here’s why.
1 - The first time I heard Rob speak, the person introducing him said, “Our next speaker is going to tell you things you have never heard, and you’re going to wonder why you’ve never heard them.” And that’s exactly what Bell proceeded to do. He opened up the Scriptures to me in a brand new way.
When Rob Bell talked that day, I began to see the intricate ways so many of the stories of the Bible are woven together. I remember it as the first time I really understood that maybe there was more to the Bible than just picking it up and asking myself what it means. And he didn’t just present that new information to tickle my brain. He used it to proclaim a deeper, richer gospel than I was accustomed to hearing preached. I think that was the day I first wanted to be a student of the Bible, not just a reader of it.
I found Rob later and asked him where he learned these things. I was convinced he must have some secret source of knowledge that other preachers didn’t have, or surely they would be sharing these things, too. He pulled out a “recommended reading” list and told me to start at the top. I obviously wasn’t the first to ask.
But this leads to the next point…
2 — That experience had a great influence on me as a communicator.
In the years since I first met Rob Bell, I realized he wasn’t the only one who knew these things! They actually teach them — or the tools to get at them — in seminary. And I realized that other preachers were even communicating some of these things. So I began to ask myself why I had never picked up on them before.
There were two reasons, I determined.
First, many other preachers just weren’t communicating these ideas very well. What I heard Rob Bell present as a mind-blowing, life-altering truth in Scripture, I heard others present haphazardly, unenthusiastically, or sometimes almost as a footnote.
Second, the other preachers didn’t give much time and attention to “teaching points” like these. Perhaps they feared losing people because of too much information. Perhaps they would have lost people because they weren’t able to present that much information in an accessible manner. Perhaps they just preferred to focus on motivation or therapy and didn’t want to get “bogged down” in biblical details.
Rob Bell showed me that it’s okay to get excited about Scripture. If it makes you want to jump up and down at times, well, jump up and down. If it doesn’t make you want to jump up and down at times, there’s something wrong. Maybe you need to study some more. (By the way — another reason some preachers don’t give much time to “teaching points”: it’s hard work. You have to put in some hours of serious research.)
Rob Bell showed me that deep historical and theological and biblical information has a proper place in our preaching. A lot of people are craving something with more substance. I was one of those people and didn’t even know it.
3 — Over time, perhaps the greater influence on me was Bell’s focus on simplicity and generosity.
He repeatedly showed me God’s concern for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and made me consider why I wasn’t doing more to care for them. He made me question the luxuries I was indulging while others’ basic needs weren’t met. It was his preaching that would first prod me to see my and the church’s use of money as a deeply theological issue. Those were the first seeds that you see growing into posts like “The Church as Alternate Economy” and “Pastors’ Salaries and Church Buildings.”
And while Bell’s preaching was powerful in this regard, it was his life that really did it for me. In a Q&A session, another staff-person at Rob’s church convinced him to share a bit about how he was personally trying to live into his preaching. He shared about ways that he and his family had simplified their lives. Most of us would call this extreme-simplifying, especially for a famous mega-church pastor who had sold lots of books. Their family of four was down to one car and living in what many would call a “starter home” in a rather rough area of town.
When Rob shared this, people started to applaud. His response: “No! No, no! Please don’t clap about this. You see, we have more now than we’ve ever had! We have more now than we’ve ever had!” (That’s my paraphrase, as best I remember it.) And I believed him. I wanted the joy and freedom that came along with that sort of simplicity and generosity.
All the other stuff
I should say a word about some of the other, more controversial topics. From even the early days of his popularity, the knock was that Rob didn’t believe in absolute truth. Honestly, I’ve not seen the sort of denial of absolute truth with Bell that I’ve seen with many others. What I’ve seen is a lot of questions.
Those questions were really helpful to me. It was helpful to question some lifelong assumptions I’d had — assumptions that it seemed all Christians had. It was good to ask where they came from. Rob Bell was the first to teach me the importance of deconstruction — even if he wasn’t always the most helpful for reconstructing, and even if some of the things he deconstructed maybe shouldn’t have been.
Which leads to the last point. It was Love Wins that sent Bell into a whole new stratosphere of controversial. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it was a very good book. I generally agreed with Tim Tennent’s “Why Rob Bell needs to return to seminary…,” though I think Tennent under-estimated how many people out there are saying the things that Rob was understandably trying to question. America has a lot of fundamentalists — and several of them are scary and mean.
I also don’t think the book merited the strong negative reaction it received. In the end, Bell doesn’t deny the existence of hell as a place of eternal separation from God. He asks a lot of questions and says there may be another side to the story. Even if that wasn’t done wonderfully, I don’t think it makes him a heretic. As far as I know, he can still recite the Apostles’ Creed without winking, so he meets my requirements. As far as I know, he believes that Creed is true for all people, whether they know it or not. That’s enough absolute truth for me. And as far as I know, he is truly seeking holiness in his heart and his life. That doesn’t mean I’ll let him influence everything I think and do, but I’ll take it for something. For a lot, actually.