Bending Towards Justice: Rob Bell at USC

Rob Bell takes a lot of shit. Like this youtube video of Adolf Hitler agreeing desperately with Bell about the absence of hell. Or this other youtube video with a panel systematically refuting Rob Bell’s theories. And then there’s another youtube of Francis Chan‘s deeply committed effort to counter Bell’s Love Wins. And — aside from the hacks that did the Hitler video — these dudes are earnest, humble, and good people. And they aren’t alone. A lot of folks disagree with Bell. And it’s okay, good even.

Rob Bell_Featured-Image

Rob Bell spoke at USC yesterday. His talk was an entertaining 45 minute summary of his book. He’s a talented speaker. His delivery draws us in with a mix of storytelling, theology, cosmology and humor. He told us about his wife’s brush with death, when she survived a head on collision with a drunk driver. He marveled at the infinite smallness of the universe, describing how, the more we look the more there is to see. And he connected us Christians to our Jewish roots, reintroducing us to concepts of midrash and ruach and kavod.

It was all stuff from his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. It was a good speech. But the really moving part of the night was Bell’s Q&A with the audience. His unscripted interaction showed a kindness and clarity that I haven’t seen in many Christian leaders. He didn’t let his questioners overtake the forum, but he also wasn’t punitive. Instead he took each question seriously and responded from his own experience, sharing his stuff and making our stuff make more sense.

A few moments stood out to me:

  1. A “recovering fundamentalist” asked Rob what do with his anger with his religion of origin. Rob’s answer was generous and personal. He told him, first, yes, let’s go surfing together. Then he gave him two pieces of advice that also spoke directly to me: 1) There is a long road to forgiveness, be on it, because there are no enlightened bitter people; and 2) Be grateful for what you’ve gained from the tradition you’ve left. 
  2. A gay man asked him how to reconcile his Christian faith, his history of surviving sexual abuse, and his sexual orientation. Rob’s answer was pastoral. He told the guy to be in good counseling and get to know himself as well as he can. Then Bell simply said (I paraphrase), there are gay people, that’s a fact. They need to be affirmed and welcomed into our community fully.
  3. When asked about facing criticism, Bell replied, the secret to criticism is that, if you keep moving forward doing your work, eventually every criticism that can be said about you is said, and then you realize that you’re really okay.
  4. When asked about why he left his pastorate at the fastest growing mega-church in America. Pastor Rob reminded us that, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done, we need to keep leaping.

In the end, Rob’s talk was just a talk about God, that God is real and that God is leading each of us forward on the great “arch of history” that bends towards justice. And Rob, he’s just a guy who followed his conscience and survived to tell us about it.

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NOTES

Rob Bell’s next stop in So Cal will be at First Baptist Church Pasadena on April 10th. This event will be sponsored by Fuller Theological Seminary.

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12 comments

  1. Pastor James Miller · March 27, 2013

    Do you think the way he portrays God jibes with the biblical description of God, or are there differences?

  2. notapastor · March 27, 2013

    Hi Pastor Miller, thanks for reading. Unlike *Love Wins*, Bell’s recent book doesn’t have a large focus on the Bible. That being said, I also don’t think he says much to directly contradict traditional evangelical ideas about who God is. For instance, Bell’s three core points could have come directly out of a sermon from my childhood in the Evangelical Formosan Church: God is with us, God is for us, and God is ahead of us. His section on God is ahead of us probably most directly addresses the biblical God. Here Bell talks about how passages of a seemingly violent or primitive God actually speak to God’s efforts to bring us closer to his image of righteousness and goodness. One example is the often misquoted “eye of an eye” passage in Exodus. Bell explains that that law was actually a quantum leap forward for tribal peoples; it was a prohibition against escalating revenge violence, and a redirection to fair and just consequences.

    With that being said, I am hardly qualified to give a definitive answer to your question. I’m not a Bible scholar; nor have I ever taken any theology courses. I don’t personally hold the Bible as any more (or less) than a spiritual version of the Thomas Bros Guide, which was an amazing and accurate map of Los Angeles, but could never, ever hold a candle to the actual experience of the city.

    In the group that I attended the Bell event with, there were a range of responses. One friend walked out on the talk towards the end because he felt Bell was simply a secular humanist masquerading as a Christian. Another felt that Bell did too much to put a positive spin on the morally difficult passages of the Bible. Overall though, the impression was that Bell preached the gospel of Christ’s saving work.

    I’m curious, do you have a take on Bell and how well or poorly he jibes with the Bible?

    • Pastor James Miller · April 3, 2013

      Yes, I posted a review of his latest book (http://pastorjamesmiller.com/2013/03/27/oh-well-rob-bell/). Generally I think he softens Jesus’ teachings beyond the point that Jesus would want them softened. It’s awfully telling that he retells the parable of the sheep and the goats and omits the goats.

      • notapastor · April 4, 2013

        I appreciate your position. Bell has amazing charisma and (IMHO) very valuable things to say. The danger in that is, unchecked, someone like Rob could potentially veer towards a cult of personality. Even-handed conservative commentary on his work — like what you’ve written — is a way to mitigate that possibility.

  3. Young Lee Hertig · March 28, 2013

    It was my first time listening to Rob Bell’s talk with the exception of a brief radio interview last year about his counter argument to the conventional evangelical belief about hell. Because I understand that we humans see reality through a dark glass as the Apostle Paul also described, we humans need to create much more room for new and fresh interpretations of the biblical texts. In this regard, I see Rob Bell running a wider version of a fundamentalist AA (Fundamentalist Anonymous) group. What stood out to me was a long line of young men during Q & A. Most of them appeared to be recovering fundamentalists. Those who didn’t get to ask their questions due to time limit, looked extremely frustrated. I see Rob Bell as a rare evangelist for the spiritual but not religious people today. His communication style includes comedic moments. He could be a tall version of Robin Williams. Anyways,since God is as roomy as the Psalmist puts it, then after all God may not need us to defend Godself.

    • notapastor · March 28, 2013

      Yeah, I imagine that line of recovering fundamentalists stretches out all the way through the grand ballroom, out onto Trousdale Pkwy, then out to Fig, and then on to the 10 and on and on. It’s clear people need a different way to talk about God. Like him or not, Bell’s bringing life to a conversation that was dead for a lot people.

  4. Young Lee Hertig · March 28, 2013

    You forgot to mention 110FWY:-)

  5. Kristen Ramsey · April 3, 2013

    Rob Bell has spoken to me in ways that no other pastor ever has. There is so much I appreciate about him. Have you ever listened to his message called “The Sacred Waste”? Amazing.

    • notapastor · April 4, 2013

      Yeah, same here. I didn’t believe in God for a long time (still not sure) but people like Rob have helped me see that there’s room for me in Christianity and that God is much bigger than I thought.

      Thanks for the suggestion! I downloaded and will give it a listen.

  6. samk987 · April 6, 2013

    I liked how not everyone in our outing was on the same side of the dude’s fanbase. We actually tried to be kind to one another, not have to debate and wrap all our identity (or strong feeling) in ‘being right’, and just enjoy each others’ company at Denny’s and talk about rocknroll on the long train ride- walk- car ride home. Awkard to say, but thank God you and me can be free to be notapastor AND notworshiprobbell.

    • Huan-Zung Hsu · April 8, 2013

      Yeah, it was good hanging out with you that night. Definitely felt like we were talking about god when we were talking about rock and roll, always will.

  7. Pingback: (NOT)APASTOR: A Secular Christian’s Guide to Evangelicalism | GHOZT WRITER

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