Rob Bell has a new book coming out next week, and you can bet it has a catchy trailer. I love how Bell comes at you sideways, then hones right in on the heart of things. In the video he's cruising in an Oldsmobile Delta 88, reminiscing about his first "sled" from back in the day. Then he observes that the Oldsmobile is, well, dead as the camera picks up on the car's wear and tear, panning obsolete features like its analog clock. Bell stops short of saying God is dead -- theologians were doing that nearly 50 years ago -- but he recounts church visitors confronted by a misogynistic sermon here, an anti-gay message there, and an anti-science preacher somewhere else. Nobody wants that God anymore.
In his 20 years of pastoral ministry, Bell says, he's come to embrace a God who is expansive, responsive. God is "with us, and for us, and ... ahead of us," Bell proclaims -- and I want to be in church with him shouting amen. Some models of God are showing their rust, Bell seems to say, and more to the point, folks ain't buyin' anymore. We need a fresh vision of God to meet the spiritual needs of people today.
I like Rob Bell though I have never met him. I admire him. I hope his book will succeed, and I can easily imagine myself giving his book to someone I love and teaching on it in a church I serve. God bless him.
I also have a question -- and I'm eager for to see how this book addresses it. Please allow me a little space before I get to the question.
We all know one thing that will happen when this book hits the shelves. Famous fundamentalists and nutty ones alike will curse Rob Bell. They'll call him a heretic, label him as dangerous. Some will suggest, as one pastor did after Bell's last book, that he has left the fold. They will also call him a closet liberal. The right wing has already kicked Bell to the curb, and he seems to be doing just fine.
So here's my question: What about Christianity's left wing, Rob Bell? Folks in mainline churches -- Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Disciple, Lutheran, Reformed and United Church of Christ churches -- have been buying your books by the millions. They're starting adult education classes with your videos. They love you. Are you going to love them back?
The question has another edge. What I'm saying about mainline Christians applies not only to Bell but to a couple of other Christian leaders who are often associated with "emergent" Christianity. These preachers and theologians -- they're not academics, but they do study hard and they are writing theology -- began in conservative environments. As their ideas have evolved, they have never rejected their evangelical identity despite the often vicious attacks from their own movement.
What they have not done, as far as I can tell, is openly embrace the left. How come?
A cynic would suggest that these public theologians don't want to give up their privilege. Their evangelical audiences were, and remain, massive. The publishing and other institutional support from that world dwarfs what is available elsewhere. Why alienate themselves from the powerful platform that has so nourished their careers?
I suspect Bell has better reasons. If we could interview him on this question directly, I suspect he would say that labels like liberal, conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist are Oldsmobiles. They're dead, and they're not going anywhere. Those labels are divisive, not constructive. I bet Rob Bell recycles, but even he would allow these labels to decompose.
Still, I hope Rob Bell reaches out for a couple of reasons. First, like all of us, he owes a debt to his spiritual and theological ancestors. Bell knows that his Oldsmobile trailer has antecedents. Thomas Altizer's "God is dead" thesis hit the cover of Time magazine in 1965, the same year Harvey Cox published "The Secular City." The vision of an open God, who is ever for us and ahead of us and who does not close possibilities for the future, has ancient roots but came to broad Christian attention through the process theology movement that grew in popularity during that same period. (Bruce Epperly has written a lucid guide to process theology.) Evangelicals have adopted this line of thought as "open theism." Bell's enemies are correct about one thing: his ideas aren't new at all.
Second, the church needs healing and reconciliation. I can promise Rob Bell -- and he knows this as well as anyone -- that his haters will likely keep on hatin'. If Bell and others really want to transcend boundaries, why not acknowledge their affinity with their sisters and brothers who have been pulling the same cart for a long time? Bell doesn't have to call himself a liberal or anything else, short of lover of Jesus. But it might be wise to reach out in a new way to people who have been his partners even before he preached his first sermon. Imagine what might happen.