Whether you are a fan of Rob Bell, a wary admirer, a critic, or simply interested in how dynamic religious entrepreneurs can rise to the top in the competitive American religious market, a new book by James Wellman is required reading for you.
Rob Bell and a New American Christianity (Abingdon Press, 2012) is a fascinating book that examines Bell’s life and his approaches to Christianity, both on a personal level and in his public ministry. At the same time, Wellman locates Bell’s career in a changing American religious landscape in which his varied messages appeal to a range of religious and spiritual constituencies.
So who is Rob Bell?
When this book arrived in the post, my Northern Irish Catholic husband – who continues to be simultaneously bemused and mystified by the range of popular authors/preachers/pastors whose books are gobbled up by enthusiastic readers in the (largely) evangelical and emerging Christian market – asked: ‘which one is he?’
‘The Pete Rollins of America’ I said, in order to emphasise that for many conservative and neo-Reformed American evangelicals, Bell is now seen as among the most ‘dangerous’ and ‘heretical’ of public figures in American Christianity.
My husband had been present when a Northern Irish evangelical suggested, in all seriousness, that Rollins’ books should be burnt. Bell’s most recent book, Love Wins, provoked a similar visceral reaction among his critics.
Bell and Rollins are products of evangelical subcultures and have been identified with the Emerging Church Movement (ECM), though both try to distance themselves from labels altogether. Wellman is particularly insistent about Bell’s aversion to labels like evangelical, emerging, emergent, liberal, universalist, etc, in the book. They are also both characterised by the habit of not so much pushing accepted Christian boundaries, as ignoring those boundaries altogether.
In the United States, Bell’s compelling presentation of the way he understands Christianity has propelled him to a certain level of fame. Love Wins made the New York Times bestseller list and in 2011 Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He is also well-known as founder of the Mars Hill Bible (mega)Church in Grandville, Michigan, and for starring in the influential Nooma films (24 short sermons). Within the past year Bell has moved to Hollywood and is no longer a pastor in a church. Wellman explains Bell’s move as an attempt to expand his creative horizons and present his message to new audiences.
Wellman’s book is the first that I know of about Rob Bell, rather than by Rob Bell or directly critiquing Bell’s theology.
As an academic sociologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, as well as a Presbyterian minister, Wellman is especially well-placed to tackle the task of analysing the significance of Bell’s work.
But Wellman does not approach his research on Bell as the stereotypical detached sociologist. He writes (p. 157):
‘When I was asked to write a book on Rob Bell, I knew little about him, but my sense was that he had made something beautiful of the gospel and that he had moved beyond the usual battles between evangelicals and liberals. In my research and time with him, I found this to be true.’
Wellman takes us through Bell’s rather conventional American evangelical upbringing, identifying aspects of his family life and psychological profile that seem to predispose him to ask difficult questions and to express his faith creatively.
Wellman also analyses the changes in Bell’s thought from his early days as pastor at Mars Hill, showing how he increasingly came to challenge the accepted norms of American evangelicalism. For example, in the chapter titled ‘Radical,’ Wellman explores the content of Jesus Wants to Save Christians, a book Bell co-authored with Don Golden. Wellman writes (p. 97-99):
‘Jesus Wants to Save Christians is a full-on confrontation with the systematic politicization of the American evangelical church. Not only do politics and religion make deadly partners, but Bell also compares the American empire to the violent empires of the past, such as the Egyptians who enslaved the Hebrews and the Romans who killed Jesus.
… Bell questions the proposition that a nation’s blessings are deserved and should be preserved. And by doing so, Bell calls into question the very nature of America’s soul.’
Wellman also relates how during 2007-2009 ‘the Bells sold many of their possessions and moved into a “crack house” of their own – a remodelled condo in inner city Grand Rapids’ (p. 94). This resonates with the neo-monastic ideal championed by those like Shane Claiborne. But this is a period of Bell’s life that is less well known. Wellman writes that he heard about it ‘inadvertently’ and that ‘Bell told me later that he had spoken about it only once in public, in only direct response to a question from an audience member.’
Wellman offers only tantalizing glimpses of what this period meant to Bell – most likely because Bell remains reluctant to talk about it.
Wellman concludes that in his critique of American Christianity and his attempt to live out an alternative, Bell ‘realized that he had stepped over a line that damaged his own faith and threatened the peace within his family’ (p. 94). Wellman identifies this difficult period, and a reflective trip to Ireland in 2008, as turning points for Bell, in which he moved: ‘from social revolutionary to the safer and less disruptive rostrum of personal transformation’ (p. 110).
Wellman sees Love Wins as a product of Bell’s turn towards personal transformation and self-discovery.
For him, Love Wins is Bell’s attempt to communicate his views of God’s grace and the beauty of Jesus’ message. There is some irony, then, that this – rather than the more socially/politically radical Jesus Wants to Save Christians – is the book that has seen Bell branded a heretic. In a chapter aptly titled ‘Heretic,’ Wellman analyzes the content of Love Wins, and attempts to answer some of the questions that have been raised by it:
- What does Bell believe about heaven and hell?
- Does Bell believe in the theory of penal substitution?
- Is Bell a universalist?
- Is Bell a heretic?
In answering these questions, Wellman locates Bell within wider-than-evangelical streams of historic Christian thought. This demonstrates that how people label Bell usually depends on where (among such various Christian traditions) the label-ers are themselves standing.
The most significant sociological argument of the book is that Bell is a reflection and ‘harbinger of the American Christian future’ (p. 150).
For Wellman, this means that Bell is able to articulate a message that resonates in a context where denominations and church institutions have become less important to, and less trusted by, many Americans.
Further, for most American Christians religious experience now trumps adherence to tidy sets of historic doctrines. Decentralised megachurches, small house churches, pub churches or neo monastic communities are among the new structural expressions of Christianity in this variegated religious world. This is a thoroughly post-modern milieu in which Bell simultaneously appeals to evangelicals, liberals, emerging/emergents, and the ever-increasing number of people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious.’
Wellman argues that the logical outworking of Bell’s project is a sort of ‘nonreligious form of Christianity’ or ‘religionless Christianity’ in which acts of love and charity witness to ‘the beautiful Jesus’ and trump obligations to institutionalised church life.
Rollins – probably more consistently and explicitly than Bell – has championed a ‘religionless Christianity’ that draws on the thought of Dietrich Bonheoffer. Wellman does not identify the similarities between Rollins and what he argues is now core to Bell’s approach. Rather Wellman compares Bell’s project to that of the Italian philosopher Giano Vattimo, arguing that ‘Bell represents a shift in American Christianity (and in American culture more broadly) toward what Vattimo has called a “nonreligious form of Christianity”’ (p. 154).
From a sociological/anthropological perspective, I would have liked to have heard more about what Wellman (or Bell, or Rollins, for that matter) have to say about the extent that a religionless Christianity is possible in practice.
After all, the religious entrepreneurs of American Christianity (Bell among them with his founding of Mars Hill) continue to form institutions – from megachurches to pub churches to the looser networks of the Emerging Church Movement.
To put it another way: if a religionless Christianity is on the horizon, will it require institutions?
To be fair to Wellman, that’s a question that strays far beyond the scope of a book about Rob Bell. As it stands, Wellman has produced a book that is a unique mix of biographical profile, sociological analysis and theological reflection, written in a style that is engaging for popular audiences both beyond the academy and the Christian books market.