Why do people
hate Rob Bell?
“Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” goes on sale at Amazon on Tuesday. Order it now and you’ll be reading it mid-week. That buy-and-read recommendation is an important act of faith—because a lot of Americans would like to string up the young evangelist Rob Bell for writing this particular book.
Why? Because Rob attacks his own former brethren in hard-core evangelical America—charging them with trying to scare people into Christianity with their hellfire preaching.
Can I see Rob Bell & Newsweek’s Lisa Miller?
Yes! At 7 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday March 14, Rob and Lisa Miller go live online through a special website, called Livestream, which has a convenient email-notification box on its front page today to remind you about the showtime.
Last year, we featured an in-depth interview with Lisa Miller about her own book on Heaven.
Rob also is launching a national tour to promote the new book: He’s in New York City tonight and will visit Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Nashville, the Denver-Boulder area, Minnesota and Illinois. Tour dates are listed at Rob’s own website—just click on “LOVE WINS” in the left margin of Rob’s homepage.
Do people really hate Rob Bell?
Yes, indeed—at least, they’re saying so online.
So, what is Rob Bell saying about his former brethren?
Rob is using attack language, too. In the new book, which we have read in advance of its release on Tuesday, Rob accuses angry evangelical preachers of “hijacking” Christianity. He says that scary preaching about hellfire is “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” Critics may be out for Rob’s blood—but he’s throwing body blows himself.
Why do they hate him? In attacking hellfire preaching, Rob is assaulting a pillar in the evangelical temple. But that doesn’t explain this level of fury against him. Lots of progressive religious leaders have tried to bulldoze that pillar. The evangelical ire against Rob comes largely because Rob is one of their own. His evangelical credentials are Sterling. He graduated from Wheaton College, the Mecca of evangelical undergraduate study—a school that produced the Rev. Billy Graham and houses the C.S. Lewis research library. Rob attended Fuller Seminary, which is famous for producing top Christian conservatives. Then, his early mentor in ministry was the Rev. Ed Dobson, who was trained at Bob Jones University and made political headlines as a leader in the Moral Majority. Dobson later broke with Jerry Falwell, but continues as a major influence, for example, at Christianity Today magazine. But, let’s be clear! Those are Rob’s evangelical roots, but Wheaton and Fuller and Dobson have not publicly attacked Rob. Nor has Rob denounced anyone by name in his book. By all accounts, for example, Rob would consider Dobson a beloved old friend. So, to be clear, this is not a toe-to-toe death match between the specific names listed above.
Then, who is attacking Rob Bell? When Rob began to sell Nooma films and inspirational books in staggering numbers, when he pulled together one of the largest churches in the U.S. at Mars Hill near Grand Rapids, when he pioneered a new form of evangelism that scheduled sold-out sermons in clubs and theaters around the world—a whole generation of young evangelists thought that this bespectacled former rock musician might be showing them the way to the next great American awakening. Thousands of conservative young evangelicals—dressed exactly like Rob sometimes down to his style of glasses—flocked to Mars Hill to learn how they could go and do likewise. The fact that Rob has turned out to be a latter-day prophet, decrying the sins of his evangelical roots—that’s what produces the fury.
Is it really “hate”? There is dangerously angry language floating around the Internet about Rob. Even in some fairly substantial evangelical websites, bloggers are using language about the end of Rob’s life. They’re not exactly issuing death threats—again, let’s be clear. But many angry writers are referring to the end of Rob Bell. In the Christian Post online, one Baptist pastor said that—with his new book—Rob is trying to “spit into God’s powerful whirlwind of truth.” It’s the end of Rob Bell, the pastor thunders. “For whom does the bell toll? Rob, it tolls for thee.”
And then there’s the ridicule … In more venerable evangelical publications, the attacks on Rob sound less lethal, but the intent is the same. The First Things website wants to make it clear that—with this new book—Rob is no longer an evangelical. The First Things commentary argues that Rob now has violated the evangelical code of belief and can’t claim the e-title anymore. But, even that First Things commentary reveals the disappointment mingling with jealousy that many evangelicals feel toward Rob right now. The main code word for expressing such feelings seems to be calling Rob “hip” or “a hipster” in online commentaries. Of course, the attackers don’t always reach for that h-word. One writer calls Rob’s work “gooey New Age-ish mush.” The underlying message is: Shame on all of us for flocking to Mars Hill and thinking this guy was the next Billy Graham!
But, Rob Bell is hitting the big time and knocking Hollywood stars off Twitter! What really infuriates the attackers is that, over the past week, Rob has made headline news in the New York Times, Washington Post and other titans of media. Rob actually ranked with movie stars at the top of Twitter charts. Days after the Feb. 27 Oscar broadcast, the Washington Post reported: “Rob Bell didn’t win an Oscar on Sunday, but his name trended alongside the likes of James Franco, Colin Firth, Natalie Portman and Christian Bale after rumors about the evangelical pastor’s new book on heaven and hell spread across the blogosphere.” About the only way Rob’s attackers could hope to attract such a global audience is in posting online attacks so over-the-top that they might earn a mention in news coverage of Rob Bell.
FOR PEOPLE WHO VALUE RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
REALITY CHECK! ReadTheSpirit magazine is a longtime supporter of Rob Bell’s innovative work, but his new book is not unique. In fact, what he’s writing here is very much in keeping with some of the work by theologian Miroslav Volf, Harvard scholar Harvey Cox, Newsweek magazine’s Lisa Miller, Bible scholar Marcus Borg and pop-culture writer Greg Garrett. In fact, there’s not a lot of difference here between Rob Bell’s expansive view of salvation—and some of the documents from the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that opened new doorways to Judaism and Islam. Of course, hard-core evangelicals would reject Vatican teaching as well as writers like Borg and Garrett.
But is this new book Christian? Absolutely! If you pick up a copy of “Love Wins” and you are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist—or a member of another of the world’s great religions—you will find Rob Bell’s new book profoundly Christian. In fact, you’d likely call his book positively “evangelical.” It’s all about Jesus and the kind of salvation Jesus represents in the world. A irony, isn’t it, that the hottest evangelical book in the land—is attacked by evangelicals?
READ MORE: WHAT IS ROB SAYING?
- IN PART 2 of our “LOVE WINS” story, read highlights of this new book, now!
- 2007: Read our interview with Rob about “Everything is Spiritual” and “The Gods Aren’t Angry.”
- 2008: Rob talks about “Jesus Wants to Save Christians.”
- 2009: Interview with Rob about his “Drops Like Stars” tour.
- 2010: Rob talks aboout the power of preaching—and new media.
We want our international conversation to continue
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)