I had said in the last post that Rob Bell is rather adept at dropping half truths. This much is true, so accordingly, he does have many insightful things to say in the book. I think in some measure, evangelicals are quick to jump on the bad springs (doctrine) Bell has in his trampoline (both parts of this review rely on you actually having read his book), and then to apply a label to him so they can then dismiss anything he says.
Besides this being un-Christian, it is also lazy. Rather than wrestle with the text an author has laid out (although again for Bell, why wrestle, just jump to pragmatics), just make a quick synopsis and then jump to your own conclusions and the discount anything further that the author has to say.
So, in the interest of fairness, and because Bell did say many things that I think evangelicals needed to hear, here is the positive side of Bell’s book. Now, this is not an endorsement, I still would not recommend his books or videos to anyone. He is insightful, but does not reconstruct the historical setting of either the Old or New Testaments very accurately, but he knows more than most people so he sounds knowledgeable and I’ll admit he is a good communicator.
He just doesn’t communicate the Word of God faithfully. He knows just enough to make dangerous conclusions, and that is probably why he attracts hip young evangelicals who likewise know just enough to be dangerous, and not enough to be able to critically evaluate some of the sweeping conclusions Bell makes. Anyone who has swallowed this book uncritically is just demonstrating their own naivety, no matter cutting edge they may think themselves to be.
So anyway, here are just a few further observations Bell makes from the book that I think need to be pointed out. I’ll try to be positive, but I can’t make any promises.
Bell is right to point out that Christianity is not primarily about knowing right things, but about living rightly (first two movements). This much is true, however, this is not a slight to knowing right things. It is a slap in the face of God to reduce the thrust of the Bible to the idea that is just about living the way the Jesus taught us to live. Bell seems to want to do this, but his initial observation should do well to temper those of us who are to apt to prioritize doctrine over godly living. But again, it is a both/and not an either/or. Both are primary.
Just as an aside, as I think of it now, Bell is awful about making false dichotomies (dilemmas where you must choose one or the other, when in reality no choice is forced).
Moving on, Bell is again correct to point out there is no agenda/perspective free view of interpreting the Bible. We do well to realize this, but to not follow Bell in his conclusions. The proper conclusion is that you should come to terms with the perspective you bring to the text and endeavor to see things more clearly from the original audience’s point of view in order to understand more accurately. For Bell this is unnecessary since the primary thrust of interpreting Scripture is pragmatic (how can my people follow this text here and now). Again, the diagnosis was right on, the cure was essentially flawed. This is a hallmark for Bell throughout the book.
His thoughts on the Sabbath I found particularly helpful, as well as the idea (not from Bell) of actually taking a Sabbath each week. Not because it is a law we have to keep, but because it is a way to refocus, relax, and prepare for the coming week. Bell’s ideology behind the idea of Sabbath I didn’t find particularly faithful to Scripture, but his ideas on how to be on the Sabbath (pgs 117-118) I think could be helpful to anyone who wants to start keeping the Sabbath but doesn’t know how to approach it (realize though this is yet another place where Bell’s New Age spirituality comes out, although in this instance it is at least in tune with the Biblical ideas of Sabbath to some extent).
Movement Five: Dust has nothing helpful in it (similar to Movement Three: Truth) and actually is an unsubstantiated reconstruction of the historical backdrop of the Gospels. It is clever eisegesis (reading one’s own ideas into the text when there is no internal evidence for it) at its finest and has probably the most damaging idea in the entire book: you should believe in yourself because God believes in you.
Besides the fact that this is not taught anywhere in Scripture, it is another example of Bell playing fast and loose with the Biblical text to synergize with ideas he is bringing in from elsewhere, predominately New Age spirituality (remember Ken Wilbur, who Bell strongly recommends you take 3 months to read).
Movement Six: New is not much better, Bell rightly though points out that the goal God has in mind is dwelling with His people. Bell is just confused about the means of doing that and what we are supposed to be focused on in the mean time. He seems to define heaven and hell not in terms of either the presence or absence of God, but as somewhat tied to blessings or curses. This is a common evangelical mistake though and is not Bell’s own invention.
Movement Seven: Good, ends without too much to dissect, however, going back through it, most of my notes were corrective. In the end, Bell’s book is mostly full of ideas that are contrary to sound doctrine: the idea that hell is full of forgiven people, that the virgin birth is not a vital doctrine, that you should believe in yourself, that the primary goal of Bible interpretation is how to apply the text in the current situation, that anytime something seems spiritual it must be holy, that experience is more the foundation of faith than anything else, and I could go on.
However, Bell does make a few good points here and there, but by and large, if you have limited time, don’t waste your time reading anything Bell has written. It is mostly faddish, meaning hundreds of years from now, people are not going to be reading Bell like they do the Apostolic Fathers, the Puritans, or the Reformers.
Don’t take the bait, don’t jump on the bandwagon. Bell’s book at best represents the fast food of theological reading. It is quick, cheap, and easy to consume, but it’s not filling and doesn’t sit well later.
To put it in Bell’s own words, master the art of the long meal, read things that are more taxing and take you deeper into the text of Scripture and the vitality of the Christian theology and tradition. It may cost you more and take longer to digest, but it will actually provide nourishment to the Body and build muscles rather than grow love handles or thunder thighs.
If we’re running a race, we need to stay in shape, but if we’re just gonna be bouncing on a trampoline, I guess anything goes in your diet.