Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell
by Ben Howard

The first time I read Velvet Elvis was the summer after my freshman year of college. I read the entire book over the course of a month in the Barnes & Noble next to apartment in Tulsa. I was thrown by the bright white, orange, and silver design of the original hardback. As for the book, I kind of didn't get it.

Then I read it again the next spring when I went to Honduras. Then I read it again over the summer after my sophomore year and taught my way through it at the church where I grew up in Ohio.

I realize in retrospect that Rob Bell was my gateway drug into theology. I read Sex God and downloaded his sermons which eventually lead me down a path where I read McLaren and Claiborne and Rollins and Hauerwas and Yoder and Niebuhr and Augustine and Julian.

As I continued down that path I decided that I had outgrown Rob Bell, a mere "pop theologian." People would tell me that they read one of his books, or saw a video and I would say, "Yeah, but do you know who he got that idea from?"

However, my dismissive attitude didn't quite connect with the content of Bell's work. I wanted, I still want, to dismiss him as nothing more than warmed over sentiment served as theology, but the content of the conversation belies such a curt dismissal and it makes me question why I feel the need to distance myself from Rob Bell.

This ambivalence isn't isolated to myself. I've seen it from many of my friends who consider themselves or aspire to be "serious" theologians. I see it in the blogs I frequent. In fact, I see all sorts of passionate support/dismissal of Rob Bell all throughout the Christian world. As I try and put together the disparate versions and visions of what people say about Rob Bell, I can only come to one conclusion:

When we talk about Rob Bell, we're actually talking about ourselves.


I've heard all four of these descriptions used for Rob Bell. I don't mean that I've seen all four used by some unknown person on the internet, I mean I've heard all four personally in conversations with friends.

You see, Rob Bell has the bizarre ability to be whoever we want him to be. Or at least his iconography can represent whatever we want it to represent.

I think it's fair to say, whatever your views on Bell's theology, he's a master at communication. From audio to video to the written word to his in-person speaking engagements, he's always engaging, always drawing you in. This style of communication creates an artificial accessibility, it makes you think you know him.

But you don't. It's an artifice, a persona, you know the cultural representation of "Rob Bell" and this combination of artificial closeness and real distance makes Bell the perfect medium for our projections. Since the persona isn't real, it can become the focal point of our frustrations, hopes and fears about Christianity.

Scared about the future? He's a heretic. Hopeful? Prophet. Distrustful of the church's celebrity culture? Jerk and a megalomaniac. Looking for beauty? He's an artist.

Maybe Rob Bell is all of these things. Maybe he's none of them. However, if I know anything about the human condition, it's that people are rarely as extreme as we project them to be. So maybe he's kind of a prophet/heretic/artist/jerk. Like most people.

I Liked His First Album

Being a fan of Rob Bell is kind of like being a fan of Mumford and Sons.
Mumford and Sons, Babel, Rob Bell

When Mumford and Sons new album came out the reaction among their earliest fans was ambivalent. The album was highly anticipated and it sounded very much like the Mumford and Sons you were used to, but there were two problems. 

First, it sounded like the first album. Second, it was insanely popular. And then they won a Grammy.

There was an immediate backlash. Some writers argued that the lyrics were simply an amalgamation of literary phrases that made no coherent sense. Some argued that the band had stalled. Others adored the album. Others helped it become so popular that it won a Grammy and started playing in regular rotation on Top 40 radio next to Taylor Swift and Rihanna.

Who is right? It's impossible to tell, because you can't remove the backlash from the popularity. Would there have been a critical backlash if the album had not been a commercial success?

There is always the person who who doesn't listen to Mumford and Sons because they're popular. The one who goes to thrift stores because it's better than the mainstream. And you can just tell that the choice says more about them than it ever could about the band or about fashion. It allows a person to orient themselves against the field.

This is how we talk about Rob Bell. Like he's an indie band, and it means something when someone says that they knew he would be a star before he even wrote his first book. It means something because it allows us to orient ourselves around a communal reference point. It allows us to know where we are.

In the same way that he becomes whatever people want to see, Rob Bell also serves as a short-hand way of discussing where someone is on the often complex theological spectrum.  Are you progressive but new to it?  You love him.  Battle-hardened progressive?  You're beyond him; you loved him before it was cool.  Inquiring Evangelical?  You're nervous, but still reading; he's your intro into indie.  Fundamentalist?  He's exchanged the truth of God for a lie!  He's started a cult!  He's one of those darned kids who won't turn down that infernal racket!

Once again, the truth is something more subtle. It's not as easy to digest, but more nuanced. 

A few months back, Peter Rollins tweeted out something to the effect that when he looked back on his earlier books, he liked one more now than when he wrote it, disagreed with another, and wasn't sure about the other one. It's easy to forget that the people you read, the people who influence you, grow and develop and change. But their words are still stuck on a page. Stuck in space and time. The person changes, but who they are to the public, that's always the same.

So when we talk about Rob Bell, just as when we talk about Mumford and Sons, we can't tell if they changed or if we did, but at least we can tell where we are now.

Rob Bell Does(n't) Matter

In the wake of the release of Bell's most recent book and his recent support of gay marriage, I've come across a number of articles arguing about whether Rob Bell does or doesn't matter.

But that's the wrong question; what these blogs and articles are really asking is whether their opinion of Rob Bell really matters. They are asking a question about the viability and necessity of the Christian echo chamber made up of blogs (like this one), books, conferences, and all the various baubles and widgets that go alongside them.

Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About GodRob Bell's new book will or will not sell. His television show will or will not be picked up. His words will or will not affect someone, and the conversation we're having here, the conversation about Rob Bell, about whether or not he matters or what he means, will not affect that. A conversation about Rob Bell's importance, or the importance of any person or movement, is really a conversation about the ways we've tied our meaning, our viability, to this conversation.

This is the how the echo chamber expresses that it is self-aware, how it asks itself the question of whether or not it is adding things to the conversation, whether or not it (I cringe to use the phrase) is relevant and whether anyone on the outside is even listening.

Rob Bell is not part of this conversation. It can be argued that his books are, but he, as a person, is not. We talk ABOUT Rob Bell, but we don't converse with him. He isn't in this discussion. This discussion is about us.

But Rob Bell.. Rob Bell is having an entirely different conversation.

So when we talk about Rob Bell. That's what we talk about. We talk about us.


Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.

You can follow On Pop Theology on Twitter @OnPopTheology or like us on Facebook at

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  1. wow, this is really interesting. I thought Velvet Elvis was pretty dope, but then I got to the part about the gospel & screeeeeched. Other than that, I don't have a Rob Bell opinion (well, I guess other than that I found "Love Wins" to be irresponsible but well intentioned). Okay, so maybe I do have a Rob Bell opinion. At the end of the day, he's my brother in Christ, so I'm trying to love him, I don't have to read his books to do that & I certainly shouldn't speak badly about him, at him, to him or for him. I think what your saying here is something along those lines: shut up all ready about Rob Bell. Yeah, well, okay. I can do that.

    1. Thanks for this Grace. I'm in the same ship with you. I'm really fascinated by the place Rob Bell has taken in the zeitgeist of Christianity. He's very much the epitome of celebrity Christian culture.

      I was at one of his speaking events in Nashville recently and it was awkward the level of idolization many in the audience had for him, and I think even he felt that awkwardness.

      That kind of celebrity relationship seems very powerful in Christianity, and I'm not sure what that says about us.

  2. "I realize in retrospect that Rob Bell was my gateway drug into theology. I read Sex God and downloaded his sermons which eventually lead me down a path where I read McLaren and Claiborne and Rollins and Hauerwas and Yoder and Niebuhr and Augustine and Julian." - this, almost exactly. I first discovered so many writers and thinkers just because they guest preached at MH.

    I didn't go as deep into the 'original' theologians. The only thing I've read of Hauerwas was his memoir, and reading that, I realized how much of what I've learned from other people is from him. That's actually my goal over the next couple of years - dig deeper into the the shoulders these current people are standing on.
    But yeah, I have over 5 years of Mars Hill sermons saved to my computer.

    This is a fascinating article, and really good points. I consider myself a Rob Bell groupie....but in a fairly healthy way, I think. I don't idolize him and don't think he's perfect, haha! I didn't go to any of his book signings (I think that's weird, honestly.) And I didn't even meet him when I saw him preach, ha! (I totally did for Greg Boyd tho when he was there.)

    But he's the person who saved my faith and really introduced me to Jesus, so I just have an immense amount of respect for him. So I wonder how much of the idolization is a celebrity thing and how much of it is profound gratefulness.