Rob Bell, Discipleship, and the Matrix

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, March 18th, 2011

The book is out, and I read it; or, rather, I skimmed it at Books-a-Million tonight in about 20 minutes. I would not pay retail, or even half of retail through Amazon, for a book that requires so little to digest. Although I have nothing to confirm this hunch, the book feels like it was a series delivered orally and then transcribed into a manuscript, which is to say, this is not really a book. It is, however, Rob Bell at what he seems to do best: communicate with rhetorical flair to get folks pondering issues and contemplating questions.

Is it theology? Not really. If theology is akin to meat and potatoes, then this book is more like a light salad, a mix of greens with a dash of spice and a little vinaigrette for flavor. I feel somewhat confident with the thought that Harper must have pulled out all the punches to get the final product at over 200 pages. The font is larger and there is a space between each paragraph. If you reduced the book to a typed manuscript, my hunch—again, only a hunch—is that it would be no more than 40 pages, or the equivalent of two 20-page papers. So, all in all, light reading that requires only that the reader skim to get the main points that fall here and there, like slivers of carrots laced throughout the greens. The greens themselves are the steady diet of questions that Bells throws out. In short, theology, it’s not.

No Meaty Theology Here

Lest I seem like an academic prude, let me say that I doubt Rob Bell intended this book to be meaty theology. The book oozes with the heart of a pastor who desires to engage his flock with the aim of making faithful disciples. This is a good thing. And, this is an important point; just as crucial as the question of whether Bell is flirting with heterodoxy. Missing the pastoral feel to the book can lead to a misunderstanding of what Bell is and is not saying, which is precisely what I think DeYoung and others are doing. They are interpreting the book as though Bell’s agenda is primarily theological, when it is really rhetorical with a pastoral intention. In many ways, it epitomizes the scriptural aphorism, “wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove.”

It seems obvious to me that Bell sees the discipleship process as being fueled by continuously wrestling with the deep questions of life, regardless of whether one ever achieves theological clarity. I am reminded of one of the opening scenes to the first installment of the Matrix trilogy when Trinity seductively whispers, “it is the question that drives us, Neo. It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question just as I did.” After Neo cautiously responds, “What is the matrix?” Trinity sets the hook, “the answer is out there, and it’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it.” For Rob Bell, it is the questions that drive disciples to find the answers out there, which ultimately can lead them to the God from whom all questions originate and in whom they all terminate.

No Heresy Either

Let me explain what I mean.

First, you need to read the book with Bell’s rhetorical strategies in mind. Remember he wants to ask seemingly provocative questions, and he does so using all the evocative words and compelling stories he can. The purpose is to get the reader to consider different points of view and to sink the individual down into the weightiness of the issues. What is the ultimate aim here? Probably to get folks to be a little more humble as they approach these issues. It’s rhetoric with a pastoral intention.

Second, the two “controversial” chapters, which are about hell (ch. 3) and whether God gets what God wants (ch. 4), follow Bell’s rhetorical strategies closely. Even if you skim them, you’ll notice that Bell introduces an issue through a series of questions, offers some possible answers that Christians have given, and then turns to another issue. Again, the aim is to mix it up or to complicate it, but not really to solve it.

So, what does Bell think about hell? That we need it. We need it because hell serves the important function of proclaiming in loud and graphic terms that justice will be done, and that righteousness matters. Just read the last two paragraphs or so (I can’t remember exactly), and you’ll see Bell basically make this point. He is led to this conclusion because one line of inquiry he pursues is a series of questions about the man who rapes over and over, or other individuals who commit grave sins over and over. Can we say to the parents of the daughter raped by such an individual that God will not vindicate them in some way? It’s clear Bell does not think we can. The questions of justice lead him inexorably to affirm the need for hell, even if he wishes to complicate what Christians think about hell.

Is Bell a universalist? Not really. At best, he wants to hold divine love in tension with free agency. Bell’s so-called universalism is nothing more than a rhetorical strategy to provoke. He has disavowed universalism in the MSNBC interview, and I see nothing in the book to suggest he is being misleading when he makes the claim. The chapter is framed around the question (remember a question to raise an issue), “does God get what God wants?” Bell uses this question to introduce diverse perspectives within the Christian tradition, one of which is the universalist option, namely, that God will ultimately reconcile all things.

Yes, Bell does not get his history right on this point, and yes, Bell’s rhetoric stretches the issues considerably. That’s the point, at least with respect to the latter! (I can only hope that he tried to get his history right even if he fails miserably). In any case, he wants to paint a picture of Christianity that is broad enough to allow many folks to find themselves there.

Is this rhetorical strategy really any different than Jonathan Edwards preaching about sinners in the hands of an angry God? As a man with a keen theological mind, Edwards knew that God is not angry because God does not “feel” emotion in the way that humans do. He understood that these terms are mere analogues for divine judgment. But does that stop Edwards from using the full rhetorical weight of those terms to elicit the greatest response? Does Edwards say, “God technically does not get angry, so when the Bible talks about anger or God’s wrath, we must not apply these terms strictly.” Not at all. Instead, he wants his listeners to feel the flames of God’s wrath upon them so that they can be restored. Rob Bell simply wants his readers to feel the passion of God’s love upon them so that they can be restored. Same rhetorical flair with a similar pastoral aim.

You know where Bell stands when you discover that he flips the question around in the final pages of the chapter and says, “a better question is whether we get what we want.” Do humans get what they want? Bell seems to answer in the affirmative, which means that Bell is a good synergist who thinks that God allows humans to live with the reality–even a hellish reality–they have created.

What’s the Verdict?

After skimming Bell’s book, I am saddened, I must admit, at how much energy his detractors have spent attempting to discredit him. For one, the book, which is not a book, is not worth so much time and effort. More importantly, however, I can’t tell you the number of sermons I have heard that lacked the theological precision necessary to achieve the kind of doctrinal commitment and clarity DeYoung, et al. seem to call for. In doing so, they miss the entire point: “it’s the question that drives us.”

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, March 18th, 2011 at 8:44 pm and is filed under Book Reviews, Church History, Holistic Formation, Spiritual Formation, Theology, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

11 Responses to “Rob Bell, Discipleship, and the Matrix”

  1. Gene Mills says:

    A very interesting and helpful review. And I would have to say that you certainly know how to construct a phrase and you seem quite comfortable as a master of the metaphor:)

  2. Enocxh says:

    Dear Dr. Coulter,

    I loved your post and it surely gives a clear perspective to engage this kind of literature. Thank you for taking time amidst your busy schedule and writing this to educate the body of Christ.


  3. Thank you for your thoughtful and fair critique; also, where is there a Books-a-million in VA Beach?

  4. el ingenioso hidalgo says:

    This whole thing reminds of the DaVinci Code a few years back.

    I want to disagree with you on the point that it isn’t theology. I want to call it theology just so I can say that it is bad theology, shallow theology, and pitiful theology. Even salad is still (and I hate to admit it) food.

    I see this problem everywhere tho. And its confusing. Namely, that we rescind the essence of a thing simply because it is bad at what it claims to be. My friend recently said that he would like to be a Daoist but he’s bad at it. So he’s probably not a Daoist, he said. But even a bad Daoist is stil a Daoist.
    Why do we think that only someone or something that is good at what it does, participates in the essence of what it claims to be? Why is a lousy Christian not a Christian?

    Is a coat with holes in it, not a coat? Is a bad country, like Lybia, not a country? Is a bad person no longer a person?

    I think we need to revisit Virtue, and let me make a suggestion: let us investigate the possibility that virtue (good/bad) is a function of faithfulness to essence. This way the thing to be aspiring towards is not to be good or avoid being bad, but to be faithful.

    • Good points. I suppose the naming of a thing does relate to its function, and in that sense, anyone, technically, who attempts to describe Christian beliefs is engaged in theology. In that basic sense, then, yes, Rob Bell, like any other Christian out there, is engaged in theology. My point was really that it’s not in any real way sophisticated, hence the analogy with salad.

      And, I could push this line of thought a little more and simply ask if one claims to be something does that mere claim itself make it so, even if the claim is sincerely made? I could provide a lot of counter examples to the ones you’ve suggested. For example, a individual who has no skill at operating on persons can certainly claim to be a surgeon, but does that make him one, even a bad one? Or, have we stretched the category of surgeon to the breaking point at that stage? If any who claims to be a surgeon can in fact be one because even a “bad” surgeon is still a surgeon, then I guess the claim is all that matters, not the actual practice, let alone possessing the skill that only comes from repeated practice. And, this may be where virtue does matter because virtue is a skill that makes the bearer of it excellent in the same way that sharpness is a quality that makes a knife do what it does well.

      This goes straight to the heart of the claim of being a Christian because the history of Christianity is littered with persons who claim to be Christian, but attempt to stretch the category beyond all recognition. Can one be a Christian and deny the central claims Christians have held about Jesus’s divinity and the saving power of his death and resurrection? How far can one push one’s interpretation of Christianity and continue to claim the mantle? Likewise, can one engage in all kinds of immoral behavior and continue to claim to be a Christian because, even bad ones still are? Food for thought.

      • el ingenioso hidalgo says:

        But isn’t the whole point of categories that they aren’t all the same? and our three main categories here are completely different. Theology, surgery (science), and Christianity. The category of who is a Christian and who is not is ultimately decided by only One. and that One is God. Thus, I really don’t care if the category of Christian gets marred beyond recognition. (it already is).

        The category of theology, like science, is dictated to us by its cultural owners, the Ph.D’s at the “best” universities that are at the top of the pecking order. Like you to me. There is nothing I can say that will change what you have decided about the category of theology because you own it, and I own nothing to little. It’s an oligarchy of pedantic bookworms with the best grades. That’s how theology and science train their next generation of owners. In their own likeness and image. So scientists and theologians can narrow the category down to yourselves for whatever reason you like; and keep it safe from the rabble, like Kierkegaard, or CS Lewis, or GK Chesterton, who, my theology professor said, were most definitely NOT theologians.

        What is my point? Here is my point. Christianity as a category is owned by God so I will take anyone at their word and let God sort it out.
        The category of Theology is so nervously protective of its intellectual property that nobody but the elite in the strictest sense of the THEIR definition of theology is allowed to be a GOOD theologian; or even a theologian at all.

        keep your category. i hope it fulfills all your wildest dreams.

      • OK, I see the issue now. You seem to be upset at my claim that Rob Bell is not really doing theology as though I’m an arrogant academic because I’m making such a claim. And so, your response is that Christianity is owned by God. Fine. I agree that God determines everyone’s final destiny. I never said any differently about that issue. It is strange to me that here I am trying to defend Rob Bell against other Christians who claim he is a heretic and you’re taking the time to chastise me because I say that he isn’t really doing theology.

        I might add that the category of theology is not owned by the professional theologians at all. If you look at who sells books to the most, it’s not the theologians, but the pastors, like Rob Bell, or lay people, who attempt to address issues of the Christian life. Many of the people taking on Rob Bell are not academically trained theologians. Have you read any blogs about Bell before you make the judgment about me? Have you bothered to become informed?

        As a final request, it would be nice to know what your real name is; posting under pseudonyms allows for the kind of drive-by blasts that don’t promote dialog.

        Yes, you are correct that we are shifting categories. My point was to offer a distinction between categories that deal with the nature or being of a person and those that deal with a role or function a person takes on. No one can change their nature as a human being, but people can take on roles or not. Theology, surgery, and Christianity all deal with roles that people assume and the various changes or skills (virtues) called for in relationship to those roles. Remember, I’m not speaking of Christianity in terms of any individual’s final destiny; that’s a red herring here. Of course, one can claim that being a Christian is more than a role, and I would agree, but for the purpose of the comparison, water baptism tells us that we put on Christ, which means taking on the characteristics he assumes (a role requiring new skills/virtues).

        My main point is that merely claiming to possess the characteristics connected to a particular role or function does not always make it so. I have a hunch you would agree, if not on this blog, then in how you live out your life. Based on what you’ve said about me, I assume you make discriminating judgments about the doctors you will and will not see, or about the schools you will and will not attend, or among the churches you will and will not attend, or among the. . . . You make these judgments, just like you made the judgment about me, based on how well these individuals or groups perform the roles they claim to embody. We all make such judgments, regardless of whether we have PhD’s or not, so I don’t see why I cannot make such a judgment about Rob Bell and what he claims to be doing.

        Look, it’s clear either a) you are ticked off about my saying Rob Bell is not doing theology and/or b) you don’t like academically trained theologians period. It is ironic that this has caused you to miss the entire point, which actually agrees with your supposed main point. My defense of Rob Bell was trying to take him at this word. I was, in fact, defending him. Just remember that when you yourself make a discriminatory judgment you deride me for making.

  5. Brian Shelton says:

    Thanks so much for your analysis of Bell’s recent work!

    At times I was surprised at your latitude to his writing, and your grace to his disappointing use of scripture and theology. This repeated benevolence to Bell is confusing me over and over by his readers! I am reminded of how people said Michael Jordan never got called for a foul. Still, it is good to read, as it shapes my own response in a way more appreciative of his work.

    As painful as it was, your conversation with Hidalgo was quite helpful. I guess I’m feel that Bell’s position (pastor) writing to his audience (those marginalized from the institutionalized church) does not excuse his responsibility to write more theologically balanced and informed. A Wheaton and Fuller grad can surely show a responsible eye to the academy that will support his cause or be frustrated by it! If he isn’t universalistic leaning, he shouldn’t write so. If he doesn’t advocate a realized eschatology of hell, he should not ignore the merit of a traditional hell. If he wants scripture to speak for God, he should not broadstroke it. I guess I feel that Bell may be bringing a lot of the heat on himself, and finding sympathy has been hard.

    Thanks again for your fair analysis! Don’t look know, but Rob Bell has us all dialoging and reflecting again.

    Brian Shelton, Associate Professor of Theology, Toccoa Falls College

    • Brian,

      Well, my latitude may have come from my scan of Bell’s work. I can’t really be sure until I go back and read it more closely, but then, I’m a little loath to do it. You are certainly correct that Bell should know better given his academic trajectory, and maybe he does to a certain extent.

      Let me defend my interpretation a little, and you can tell me, if you have the time, whether it has some traction. I began with three assumptions based on clear facts. First, Bell explicitly denied he was a universalist in the interview with Martin Bashir. Second, Rich Mouw, no small theologian himself, endorsed Bell and still claims on his blog that he thinks Bell is within the bounds of historic orthodoxy. Third, Bell clearly came against penal substitution and this deeply disturbed his Reformed detractors.

      I added to those assumptions the rhetorical strategy I thought Bell was employing in the book. If you notice, the wacky way in which the sentences are organized so that they are not always correct grammatically and thus not really sentences at all are an important part of this strategy. I concluded that even the format of the book is oral in nature and the grammatically incorrect sentences are intentionally designed to reflect the kind of pregnant pauses Bell inserts into his sermons. In addition, I noticed that Bell really loves good questions and that this allows him to pursue a number of alternatives simultaneously without ever really giving his own hand away fully or without ever really landing in any single view.

      Finally, I noticed that what little theology was present in the book had more to do with holding theological views in tension than it did making a choice between one or the other. At the end of the day, I think this is what Bell does. He holds divine love in tension with human freedom and realized eschatology in tension with the end and consummation. At minimum, this is a trajectory in the book, although it may not be the only trajectory.

      So, I would say that Bell’s penchant for oral performance, his rhetorical strategies, and his desire to hold viewpoints in tension are what explain the lack of clarity in the book. This is why I would still support my claim that Bell probably does not think he is doing meaty theology at the end of the day. He has too many other concerns he is trying to hold together, especially his desire for oral performance.

      Well, those are my thoughts, and yes, you are correct about dialoging and reflecting again; that is also a good thing.

  6. brian says:

    you lost me at “I skimmed it…”