Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, MI, has captured the attention of many youth pastors and pastors. There is much to like. He is a master story teller. When he teaches he connects with his audiences.
He strives to recapture the narrative that is present in Scripture and that resonates with postmodern ears. I also commend him for raising the type of questions that the Church needs to address as we go forward. I also appreciate recapturing an emphasis on social action within his congregation, and they have done much work with the poor both locally and globally. In his latest book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, he calls the church to reinvest themselves in showing the love of God through social action. That is to be commended.
I can see that he takes the Bible seriously, and that he seeks to understand it in its original Jewish context. I also can see his humility and transparency when he teaches. His pastor’s heart in his NOOMA videos and his books is evident, and he has the ability to empathize with a variety of different people.
But he is kind of a mixed bag with me.
One problem I have is in his attempt to read the Gospels and the Epistles in the context of early Judaism. He doesn’t distinguish between early Judaism of the first century A.D. and Judaism influenced by rabbinic writings of the Mishnah and Talmud which came later.
This is seen in Bell’s treatment of Jesus as a rabbi. Jesus was not like a rabbi like what was seen later on with Mishnaic and Talmudic Judaism. When Jesus was called “Rabbi” or “Rabboni” in the early Jewish sense that word should be understood to mean “my master” or “my teacher,” but when we read “Rabbi” we tend to think more of a modern ordained rabbi which would be incorrect.
When I was in the midst of my study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount I found that Jesus often drew contrast with, instead of citing, the oral traditions of the elders, such as Hillel or Shammai. In Matthew 5:21-48 He actually clarifies and corrects much of the elders’ oral teaching that his audience was familiar with regarding subjects like murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and treatment of enemies. He spoke on His own independent authority which made Him very unique among the other teachers’ of the day.
This colors his interpretation of the Gospels and the epistles. He references “ancient rabbis” throughout his book, Velvet Elvis, and his entire chapter “Dust” (which was also the basis of a NOOMA video) was entirely based on the linking of Jesus with these later rabbis.
Another problem is his usage of some of his source material in an non-critical manner. One could, first off, question his sources for understanding the Jewish context of the New Testament. For instance Bell cites many of Alfred Edersheim works which are considered outdated.
Another example is seen in his recent book co-authored with Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Sinners where they advance a preterist reading of Revelation:
Revelation is a letter written from John, the pastor, to his church during his time of exile. He writes in a subversive literary style called apocalyptic. It uses a vast array of symbols and images and stylized language to convey profound truths about how the world works. John refers to a beast, which is his word for the corrupt, destructive system of violence and evil that is pervasive in our world. He writes of a dragon, the one who does the work of the beast on earth. And then he talks about a mark of the beast.
We can assume John’s audience knew what the mark was – how you bought and sold in the market. The mark was a symbol of your participation in the military-economic complex of the Roman Empire.
They completely strip Revelation of any eschatological meaning. While there is some scholarly support for this position; the way it is presented really misrepresents how complex apocalyptic exegesis is and how humbly we should approach it. What concerns me most is the source for this little gem of “insight” into Revelation.
The first is God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now by John Dominic Crossan. An “authority” on the historical Jesus who says that the Gospels (or the Bible for that matter) are not to be read literally. Denies the Divinity of Christ, and rejects the resurrection of Christ. He was a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar which a group of egomaniacs got together to essentially make mincemeat of the Gospels.
The other reference he cites is Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. While I respect Claiborne for his advocacy of the poor and his work in inner city Philadephia, a Bible scholar he is not (I’m not saying I am either, but I certainly wouldn’t go to him for a better understanding of Revelation).
I am also generally cautious about an approach to theology that seeks to reconcile with deconstructionist thought. A couple of examples from Velvet Elvis:
Jesus at one point claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life”. Jesus was not making claims about one religion being better than all other religions. That completely misses the point, the depth, and the truth. Rather, he was telling those who were following him that his way is the way to the depth of reality. This kind of life Jesus was living, perfectly and completely in connection and cooperation with God, is the best possible way for a person to live. It is how things are.
Right before this passage Bell writes, “And God is the ultimate reality. There is nothing more beyond God.” Right on. That is true, but he takes that statement and applies it to John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me,” (ESV). Bell’s interpretation of this verse is not, “no one can come to the Father.” Instead he says, “nobody can approach ultimate reality – the way life is meant to be lived.” That may be true, but it misses the point of John 14:6. In the immediate context of this verse we see something different.
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him, (John 14:1-7, ESV).
Jesus is speaking of heaven. Jesus was telling his disciples that he was “preparing a place” for them. This is a place where they will be also. Thomas asks, “How do we get there?” To that question Jesus replies that He is the way, the truth, the life. No one can come to His Father apart from Him. He is making an exclusive claim about who can enter into heaven.
Also in Velvet Elvis he implies that the doctrine of the Trinity is not based on Scripture. Which he says he believes, but you wouldn’t know that if you don’t read the endnotes. He also makes questionable statements about the Virgin Birth based on a possible translation of the word translated “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 saying it could mean “several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being “born of a virgin” also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?”
We know that isn’t the case with Mary. Matthew 1:18 says that “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” In Luke 1 we see that Gabriel appeared “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph,”(v.27). She was not with child before that time and based on her question to Gabriel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (v.34), we can see that she had not yet had intercourse.
Bell later goes on to say he embraces the historic Christian faith, but he plays fast and loose with his understanding of Hebrew and Greek. He also needs to write and speak with clarity when his words can be misunderstood or misconstrued.
So at least in view of his writings these reasons are why I’m not very “high” on Rob Bell. This is also why I’m disturbed when it seems like his videos and materials are embraced by youth pastors and pastors without discernment.