rob bellRob Bell has recently “come out” supporting gay marriage.

Among other things, it makes me wonder what Rob Bell will do when he is 62 and he has run out of controversial public positions to take upon the release of his books?

A bit of a lesson for the “rest of us” who are not as famous as Pastor Rob: We communicators sometimes get a taste of controversy, and it causes a rush of recognition that can make us crave more controversy. After years of feeling like your seeds fall on the stony path, when controversy comes the seeds seem to grow. Even if the controversial seeds get strangled by fundamentalists, the controversial reaction is energizing for a communicator  (if they are honest with themselves.) Some of us even have this feeling after posting a controversial social media update (although certainly I have never done so!)

Beware, communicators, of that alluring temptation to dance among controversies and heresies in order to gain an audience. Yes, we can communicate Truth and that communication is at times controversial. I’m not saying that controversy and orthodoxy are mutually exclusive. I’m just saying that controversy and orthodoxy are not synonymous. I don’t think Bell is making things up to sell books, but I do worry that “being controversial” is his “new brand.”

This may seem cynical to you, or even a cheap shot… but I honestly no longer think it coincidental that Rob stokes some controversy right when his books release. Although I have trusted Rob’s heart even when I questioned his head I’ve begun to wonder if he is “releasing” bit by controversial bit his views to correspond with new book releases. I am not saying everything he says is suspect–just that we shouldn’t get too worked up over his controversial statements, as they just increase book sales, even amongst his many enemies. (Perhaps especially amongst his many enemies. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists don’t purchase books by run of the mill gay Episcopalians, but they still flock to Bell’s books, if only to write scathing blog post reviews about them for weeks. It’s really an ingenious marketing plan, for as long as it lasts. Publishers have taken note.)

Now, a friend of mine has pointed out that much of what Jesus did was controversial:

“Jesus hung out with women; even prostitutes.
Jesus surrounded himself with disciples who were tax collectors and zealots. 
Jesus threw over the tables in the tabernacle.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem to a great parade, while on a donkey.
Jesus, in a synagogue, claimed to be the chosen one.
Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands.
Jesus forgave a man’s sins, instead of just healing him.
Jesus ate with sinners, and Zack’s house.” – Dan Bellinger

I agree… Jesus was the most controversial of all. They killed him for it. But I would counter that the controversy was Jesus actually being with these people, and making a difference in their lives, and calling them to repentance, and seeing them transformed and choose a new life after being with him. If Rob Bell has those stories to tell, of Prostitutes leaving the trade, of cheats and terrorists quitting the biz, of sinners repenting and of sick being healed–well, I want to hear those stories. I don’t just want to hear about how we need to include people–I want us to actually include people. Can I suggest a possible reason for this quandary? We proclaim inclusion but don’t desire transformation.

I should point out at this point that Bell’s actual theology is less controversial than many make it out to be. Here’s why:

I found Love Wins to be offensive. Not for the reason everyone else did. I found it offensive because it wasn’t written as well as his other books. It was weaker Rob Bell stuff. The theology in the book was messy–and unclear. If I were a universalist I would actually consider it to be a very poor rendering of that theological perspective. In part this is explained by saying that Rob is not really a universalist (which is pretty much the way he responded to the criticism). Of course, not only is Rob not a universalist (I guess), he’s not even a well-practiced theologian, but instead just one of the better communicators of his generation and mine who is asking good questions about theology, but offering weakly developed answers to those questions.

I wonder if Rob Bell would do well to fully embrace liberal theology, with all it’s rich theology (which I disagree with) and to derive from the liberal theologians a more coherent overall metanarrative. He seems to want it both ways, however. Perhaps he’s “on the way” there–and we’re just seeing the sausage made. I have not read his new book yet, but when I do read it I hope he has returned to the writing I fell in love with in Velvet Elvis and SexGod which were both top notch works. Frankly, when I first read Velvet Elvis I could not believe that such a gifted preacher could also write so very well. Rob Bell is so very talented, and I admire him and the church he built for many reasons. I must be wary of bashing Rob Bell out of envy or spite because he just happens to be a better preacher than me. We should all watch this tendency to tear down megachurch pastors and famous preachers.

In regards to Rob Bell’s positions on Hell and Marriage–well, I think he’s moved outside historically held orthodox positions, and certainly well outside the range of Evangelicalism. Of course Rob Bell was never an Evangelical, really, so I’m not so surprised. He hasn’t “moved” as much as some claim. When it comes to publicly flirting with universalism and broadly inclusive views of homosexuality he is very late to the emergent party if he only realized this of late (one of my friends claims that Rob was hinting this position as early as 4 years ago, but I never heard it). The Emergent ilk was moving toward this homosexual normalization already a decade ago–so I’m surprised this “controversy” doesn’t produce more yawns than yells.

I should confess a bit here: as one of the early voices for emerging thinking amongst my Wesleyan “tribe: my relationship to the “Emerging Church” has always been a wary “conversation” for me–knowing that I was not in the “mainstream” of the emerging church conversation, even from the early days in the mid and late 90s when nobody had come up with the term “emergent” yet. But I stayed in “the conversation” because all claimed to value all views–and I believe most of those from that group still do, with only a few “fundamentalist liberals” in the conversation. But alas, the “Emerging Church” fractured, and became a somewhat meandering conversation of rabbit trails as people have moved on to other aims. See my journal article entitled Emerging Church Growth Oxymoron: McGavran and Newbigin in Dialog for more of my thoughts on “the emerging church conversation” for a more thought-out treatment. In any case, the fracturing of the Emerging Church came with a side benefit: I don’t have to write so many paragraphs like this one here these days with quotes around all the “key terms” since “emergents” so despise “labeling” anyone, especially themselves.

Know this: I hold nothing against Rob Bell. He is not in my tradition and never has been. He doesn’t owe me or my tribe anything and doesn’t owe me an explanation. I wish him well and still admire his speaking and learn from his style and deep study of the Word of God (in particular in Jewish roots matters, mostly derivative of Ray Vanderlaan, et al.) I still love and cherish my friendships in the emerging conversation. I also love and cherish my gay friends–praying the best for them and loving the best from them. I can’t tolerate intolerance, but what’s more, I won’t accept lack of true acceptance which includes accountability for the brother or sister in Christ. I’ll go farther: it may sound illogical to a universalist Christian or an atheist in general–but I have great love for those who may be on the broad highway to hell as well.

Narrow is the path, it was once said… or rather, our LORD said: “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.” Matthew 7:13 NLT

Perhaps some would claim that Rob Bell is communicating the “narrow path” to the Kingdom, and that in and of itself is controversial. I shall have to think on that. I don’t believe that is the case. But Bell still challenges me, and I have to keep an open mind to that challenge from a brother who still believes in the crucifixion and the transforming power of the resurrection (as Bell does).

As for now, I’m mostly just marveling at the timing of Bell’s controversies. His publicist is worth every penny. Maybe I’ll give her a call.


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