Rob Bell is everywhere. Last night I heard him speak (and adeptly evade answering questions…more on that in a minute) at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (transcript at Patheos). Today, he was on Good Morning America and MSNBC. He is promoting his controversial-before-it-was-even-released-book Love Wins, which is available today. I’ve been reading and re-reading (it’s really short) and I can tell you that so far it seems the promotional video that started all the hoopla is more controversial than the text itself.

I’ve been commissioned to write about all this for Killing the Buddha, which I’m very excited about because I’m going to practice what I preached in a recent Patheos column — about slowing down, considering in an in-depth way, and reaching conclusions that show serious contemplation as opposed to knee-jerk reactions.

Last night, however, in the opposite of what I just described, I tweeted a quick (and intentionally vague and maybe-controversial) thought about what I had just heard:

Quick preview: @realrobbell speaks for evangelicalism in the truest sense. Stay tuned.

Tantalizing, right? This is what I hope to consider further for KtB. Bell last night said a lot of things I agree with and was absolutely engaging and inspiring, but he managed to do this without really answering any of the pressing questions that Lisa Miller, the interviewer, asked. What we got instead was a lot of show and not much substance.  Similarly, in regards to the book, it seems that the controversy it created is what was controversial, much more so than the ideas he espouses.

This seems to me to be representative of evangelicalism. Without a central framework, a defined sense of belief, or even a solid definition, it ends up being many things and appealing to many people, but there is not a lot of depth. In the United States it is often more interested in presenting Christianity as another layer on top of American culture, as opposed to complete reinvention or, you know, a counter-culture.

Well. These are not the deeply contemplated thoughts I hope to present at the end of a period of further consideration, rather this is the beginning of that process. I offer them here because I’d love to hear some of your reactions to this line of thinking. Am I onto something? Way off? What do you think?

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to Spectacle Wins: Initial Reaction to Rob Bell’s “Live Global Event”

  1. Matt says:


    I’m pretty much with you on this. However, I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly: evangelical popular culture (mega-pastors, pundits, CCM, etc.) is shallow. However, I would contend that this is essentially true of the popular culture strain of most movements in our time–does Glenn Beck really speak for most Republicans? Or, for that matter, Mormons? There’s something about our mass media culture that undermines serious thought in large-audience environments. Nonetheless, I’d assert that evangelicalism has a growing intellectual presence–it’s just that the people doing really deep, rigorous work don’t get invited to be on Good Morning America.

    Personally, I was tired of Rob Bell before the book even came out. If I want to think about heaven and hell I’ll read somebody with some scholarly credentials–maybe evangelical, maybe not.

  2. Timothy Zila says:

    Well, in a word, yes.

    To some extent it’s all in the approach. Bell offers inspiring, emotional sermons/books/lectures/etc. that give a voice to hard questions without necessarily grappling with those hard questions.

    Someone like N.T. Wright, one of the foremost contributors of Bell’s theology, goes further into exegesis and the details of how troubling and difficult Scripture (or any piece of literature, really) interpretation is. Bell doesn’t give you that.

    But Bell is certainly more charismatic.

  3. Jim Jacobson says:

    I think Rob Bell avoids answering the questions that he poses. The questions have been answered already. Whether he likes the answers, or whether anyone likes the answers, they have been addressed in the scriptures, the only authoritative work on the subject matter IMHO. I think Martin Bashir did a brilliant job of pressing Rob to the wall, and then summarized with, “how much of this book is you working out your own childhood experience, brought up in a fairly cramped evangelical family…?”

  4. Nathan says:

    Can you take Bell seriously after Bashir just completely exposed him?

  5. Phil says:

    I think of evangelicalism as an umbrella over protestant Christianity. I think as one seriously begins studying the Bible an identity is formed and a specific denomination and specific theology is sought after. People like Rob Bell just become noise you need to filter through, just like a lot of political noise needs to be filtered as one finds one’s political beliefs. I do agree evangelicalism is shallow. It became this way primarily to cover so many different Christian beliefs under the “umbrella” it has to be.

  6. El Goyo says:

    American evangelicalism is like a vast archipelago with numerous islands – the Neo-Calvinists, the traditional denominations (Baptist, Methodist, etc), the Charismatics, the Emergents, etc. – you get the picture. The fact that there is no central framework or defined sense of belief in evangelicalism is, in my opinion, both positive and a negative. Positive in the sense that we avoid a strict, legalistic dogmatism (though one can certainly find this in many evangelical camps) and negative in that, in these post-everything times, evangelicals often communicate confusingly contradictory messages to the culture at large.

    What’s really at issue these days among evangelicals, I believe, is not universalism per se but rather the nature and character of God. There is a seismic shift going on in North American evangelicalism on this very topic. I agree with the comments above that since Rob Bell is a pastor and not a theologian, we shouldn’t wholly derive our theology from his writings – as inspiring as they are. Rob Bell would be the first to agree with this, I’m sure. But the value in what he (or perhaps his publisher) has done is this: to open up conversation in our vast archipelago about the true nature and character of our God. And the question of salvation – who will be saved and who won’t – is central in revealing His nature and character. For me, N.T. Wright has been instrumental in affecting much of my rethinking on this and one Wright-influenced scholar, James Alison, brilliantly lays out a greater understanding of the atonement – the Jewish priestly-sacrifice God versus an Aztec sacrifice-demanding deity – this, to me, radically reconstructs our view of who God is by seeing the full extent of His love and sacrifice for us. You may read the article in full here:

    “Some Thoughts on the Atonement”

    • Aaron says:

      @El Goyo

      Great words! I too have gone through a major shift in my thinking regarding the character of God. Specifically, His character when considering salvation, wrath, and hell.

      It’s not about heaven or hell, it’s about correctly understanding the character of, and coming into relationship with, our perfect heavenly Father.

      To that end, we will have to wrestle with the question; what does everlasting conscious torment (or annihilation) say about the character of God?

      I wrestled with it… and by the end, had to redefine the question. 😉

      God bless, I’m absolutely sure he will…

  7. Jeffrey says:

    I agree with your characterization of evangelicalism, which I see as a real problem, a problem that some thoughtful evangelicals resolve by walking the road to Rome, where there are clear doctrines, expectations, and most of all, authority. These folks grow weary of the excessive emotional subjectivism, have walked up their last aisle, labored under their last moralistic lecture that passes as a sermon, and grow weary of the latest teaching, fad, revelation, and yes, recycled controversy. Though I am not a Roman Catholic, you have to admire–or at least I admire–those aspects of Catholicism. For the same reason, you have to admire–or again, maybe it’s just me–confessionalists, whether Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, who really take their particular confessions seriously and try to abide by and teach them. There’s a very particular and defined content, and the authors of the confessions wrote them as consensus documents, and tried to be as clear as possible about what they meant (of course, that last line will make an…y of Derrida’s students dismiss me as an ignorant essentialist). Certainly, with Catholicism and the confessional traditions, you can run the risk of “dead orthodoxy” but at least you can be certain of what orthodoxy you hold to! Broad evangelicalism is its own worst enemy on this point. And it may even be fair to say that, as at least one rather cranky historian has put it, there is really no such thing as evangelicalism. That may be going a bit too far, but if something has as many definitions as definers, then, while it may exist, can you even have a conversation about what it is, can be, or should be?

  8. […] he answered all of the questions that people seemed to have about the book/about what he believes, (as were many others) but he wisely steered through the evening without giving labelmakers the opening that they craved. […]

  9. Hi Jonathan- I was at the event and after I left, I was ’empty’ just as you described. Not only did he evade the questions, even the most direct questions got the vaguest responses. I’m not familiar with Bell’s books, only his NOOMA films, which I think are great teaching tools. I didn’t like the fact that I was more confused when I left than before I got there. I still don’t know what his views are- heaven and hell are here on Earth- then what about the rapture? I feel like he’s into spreading the ‘Good News’ that make Christians feel good without facing the HARD TRUTHS. The best review of his book I found here, not to persuade you, but in case you’re interested:

  10. PS- To paint God in absolutes, the way Bell does (for example he has to be ALL loving or ALL wrathful) I think is an error. The history in the Bible has shown us both sides, the GRACE and the WRATH and that doesn’t mean that He’s not loving. I don’t make Him one or the other, I just thank God for second, third, seventy ninth and 100th chances!

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