Relevance Kills: Rob Bell and Pyrrhic Victory

Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.
Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.

Relevance destroys.  You can sell a lot of burgers, but that makes you McDonalds.  Your album went triple platinum? The Spice Girls have you beat.  I fear that the once-respected evangelical pastor Rob Bell is becoming a spiritual McDonalds, a pop shadow of his former self.  Will he serve billions and billions more? Likely. But a burger made for the masses is neither tasty nor nutritious (nor a burger).

First things first.  I genuinely have affection for Bell.  I showed Nooma videos to my young adults.  I defended him when those with no sense of doctrinal history condemned him for age-old questions asked in Love Wins.  I saw him speak live at Duke and even got my picture taken with him. (He’s much taller than me.)

But I was saddened to read a recent interview with him by RNS.  I can live with controversial, envelope-pushing popular Christian reflection. I can tolerate the hipster glasses and skinny jeans.  But getting in league with Oprah and her army of overhyped pseudo-experts? This is a bridge too far.

Think about the other personalities under Oprah’s corporate umbrella:

  • Dr. Phil McGraw, a straight-talking Texan who dispenses counseling mints to millions of homes a week, making the frightening and deep inner work of therapy look as simple as talking to your local rodeo clown.  While McGraw does have a legitimate doctorate in clinical psychology, he has not been licensed to practice in any state since 1989.  (Imagine me offering advice on the church, pastoral care, and theology if my denomination had severed ties with me over 20 years ago!)
  • Dr. Mehmet Oz, a leading surgeon whose television success came at the expense of putting  his stamp on all kinds of snake oil backed by psuedo-science.  Some of his claims about phony weight loss products were so egregious that the US Senate got involved (because priorities).

In both instances, their relevance to mass audiences have taken legitimate concerns (physical and mental health) and commodified them to the point of tragicomedy.

A few years ago, I would have thought Bell a poor fit for such company, but now I am less certain.  Perhaps burned from the (admittedly ridiculous) backlash following Love Wins, Bell has essentially abandoned the church:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church.  “We have a little tribe of friends,” Bell said. “We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”

I wonder what the thousands of people who came to faith under Bell’s ministry at Mars Hill think of this? Personally, I would feel as if I’d been sold a bag of magic beans.  To think of it another way: the guy who so smoothly and confidently convinced you to buy a Honda is now driving a Fiat.

Rob Bell’s obsession with relevance – the desire to “matter” to the concerns and questions of contemporary culture – turns out to have been an invitation to entropy.  Bell is now so relevant that he seems to have little interest in Christianity.  Last year, in a speech at Vanderbilt University, he introduced himself as everything but a pastor, and didn’t mention his former calling until about 20 minutes in.  Moreover, when asked by RNS about working with Oprah, a notorious consumer from and promoter of the buffet of quasi-spiritualities, he responded:

“Is she a Christian? That word has so much baggage, I wouldn’t want to answer for someone. When Jesus talks about the full divine life, you think, this is what he’s talking about.”

I have no idea when Jesus talked about “the full divine life,” except when speaking about himself.  If the price of cultural relevance is that the “baggage” of a basic descriptor like ‘Christian’ is too much to palate or the particularity of the Son of God is an embarrassment, then it is time to stop making a fool’s bargain.

Rob spent a church building a career career building a church that was “relevant.”  The threshold for entry was low; it didn’t look, talk, or feel like “church,” and people responded in droves. Bell, in turn, built his brand on identifying with the non-religious and skeptic folks who were turned off by anything too obviously Christian.  But now, it appears, he has gone native.

dr philA pyrrhic victory is one which is too costly to be considered a legitimate win.  Bell’s trajectory shows clearly that the cost of cultural acceptance – the cost of relevance – is too high to pay.  The relevant pastor and the relevant congregation will find much success, as the world defines it.  But in earning that victory, it appears that one becomes so co-opted that the costs outweigh the benefits.  Looking back to the Civil War, we might consider the example of Confederate General Robert E. Lee constantly defeating Ulysses Grant’s attacks with superior tactics, but unable to sustain the campaign in the face of the superior resources of the North, who could afford the losses.  Likewise, pastors and churches who win the battle for relevance soon realize the long-term costs are far higher than first anticipated, and will then often find themselves co-opted beyond all restoration by the world they were trying to reach.  Playing to consumerism ends up consuming you.

Rob Bell is our next Dr. Phil, an expert whose expertise has been twisted to relevant, market-driven agenda.  He has gone from a pastor, a guide of souls, a preacher of the gospel, to just another space filler in Oprah’s cubby of spiritual shills.

A pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one.

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29 thoughts on “Relevance Kills: Rob Bell and Pyrrhic Victory”

  1. Maybe. I was not happy about what I read in the RNS piece either, but I’m not sure that’s the whole picture. I suspect Rob was moving in a kinda house-church direction anyway — especially after the explosive growth of Mars Hill Bible Church. He keeps getting accused of watering down the message, but it seems to me that is never what he has been trying to do. We’ll see….

  2. Bell has been a self-promoter of the highest order for years. Now, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t sincerely used those tactics to share the gospel. But he was headed away from orthodoxy long before this.

    A word about judging others. We are not to judge the relationship a person has with God, nor the state of their soul. But we are instructed to be wise, which necessarily requires discernment regarding the things “Christians” say and do. It is not judgmental to point out that someone is in error or is doing things that raise concern for the church; it is discerning.

    If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

    Good post, Drew!

  3. This is a jealous rant about a man who has found a relevant voice in our current culture. How many truly unchurched “nones”, “dones” and others have you inspired lately? It’s amazing how we as “Christians” jump all over members of our tribe who break out of mediocrity and exceed the bounds of churchiosity to speak effectively to a waiting world. Go for it Rob!

    1. There is a difference between reaching an audience with your writing, and seeking to be relevant. It is possible to be popular without being a sellout.

  4. Extremely wise commentary, Drew. I sometimes kvetch about the lack of “prominent” voices among UMC clergy. Maybe I ought to give thanks that many in our tribe are so busy serving God that they are too occupied to build a brand.

    1. Thanks, Dalton. i agree. I think there is something in our polity – the connectionalism, the camaraderie, the Annual Conference perhaps – that keeps our “leading voices’ grounded, largely, in the life of the church. This matters immensely. Peace to you.

  5. Woe is me!!! Our leading voices are, whether we want to admit it or not, our (b)ishops. Collegial mush, a hand-wringing cacophony of blind guides tweaking a brand.

    Thank God for those local Pastors who are connected to Christ.

  6. What I read in Bell’s refusal to say whether Oprah is “Christian” or not was just exactly what Isaac and you affirmed above: “We are not to judge the relationship a person has with God, nor the state of their soul.” In other words, he was saying, “If you want to know whether Oprah is a follower of Christ under the banner of ‘Christianity’ or not, ask her, not me.” As to “the full divine life,” did Jesus not say he had come “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10)? That sounds to me like something that could be akin to “the full divine life” that a human can share in this life. As to “building a brand,” I would say that Jesus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell – etc. – “built brands” in their day. The earlier ones didn’t have modern technology to help them, but the “Jesus brand” is “worn” (“put on Christ” – Romans 13.14) by over 2 billion people today. Just because the media seek to use Rob Bell for their own self-promotion doesn’t mean he needs to buy into their manipulation of him. But neither does he need to close his door to their inquiries, and he needs to give as honest an answer as he can. And about “house churches” – they seemed to be good enough for the early Christians. And here’s a church from the Mennonite tradition that began primarily as house churches, and they rent rather than own their worship facility, not worshiping every Sunday; plus, they’re “lay led” – no ordained clergy (kind of like the early church, the leaders of which had Jesus as their ‘seminary’ and the Holy Spirit as the direct ordaining agent) – http://communityhousechurch.org/ All that is to say that this post seems to focus on condemning by association rather than analyzing anything that Rob Bell has produced lately in terms of what he shares with his house church members. Maybe if the UMC weren’t so “land poor” – a fact which reflects the way a cultural value of “having a building that can ‘house’ our ‘ministries'” – as if our primary ministry goes on in the building rather than in the world outside the building, we, too, could be impacting the “nones” and “dones” and even a few of the “pew sitters” actually to be “transforming the world”, as we say we intend to do.

  7. I like how xnlover interprets Rob Bell’s actions in the best possible light. I’ll admit to a bit of eye – rolling when I heard he was going to work with Oprah. Given some of her other creations, there certainly is a possibility for his show to become a vehicle for pushing a prosperity Gospel type of pop theology. But the show hasn’t even started yet, so I’m willing to suspend opinions/judgments until it gets rolling, especially given his past work, which I’ve mostly enjoyed and admired. I don’t think one response to a question about Oprah’s Christianity and his comments regarding his church life are enough for us to really know where his theology currently stands, or is headed. Right now, after “putting the best construction” (as Martin Luther would have it) on what Rob Bell has said and done so far, I still support the work that he’s doing and look forward (with just a bit of skepticism that my cynical side can’t seem to let go of) to seeing what he does with Oprah.

  8. I truly appreciate how xnlover interprets Rob Bell’s words and actions in the best possible light. I will admit to a bit of eye – rolling when I heard that he was going to work with Oprah. Given some of her other creations, there seems to be a possibility that the show could become another vehicle for pushing a prosperity Gospel type of pop theology. But it hasn’t even started yet, so I’m willing to suspend opinions/judgments until it gets rolling, especially since I’ve enjoyed and admired much of his past work. I don’t think one response to a question on whether Oprah is a Christian or his comments on his current church life are enough for us to know where his theology currently stands or is headed. After putting the “best construction” (as Martin Luther and the 8th commandment would have it) on what Rob Bell had said and done so far, I look forward (with a bit of skepticism that my cynical side won’t allow me to let go of) to seeing what he does with this new opportunity.

  9. Wow! There’s a whole lot of hand-wringing going on here. How about we all do the best job we can in our own ministries and leave Rob Bell to do the same? Who made this a competition?!

  10. “Likewise, pastors and churches who win the battle for relevance soon realize the long-term costs are far higher than first anticipated, and will then often find themselves co-opted beyond all restoration by the world they were trying to reach. ”

    Can you give me some examples of who these pastors are? Thanks.

  11. “Likewise, pastors and churches who win the battle for relevance soon realize the long-term costs are far higher than first anticipated, and will then often find themselves co-opted beyond all restoration by the world they were trying to reach. ”

    Can you give some examples of the aforementioned pastors? Thanks.

  12. I tire of posts that begin with, “I don’t mean to cast aspersions” and then it goes on to cast aspersions. I also tire of the doctrine police going around and slamming others for not sounding what we want them to sound like. Let’s leave him alone and worry about producing fruit.

  13. An insightful and well-written post, Drew. And the comment thread is every bit as interesting as the post itself. The cultural kneejerk reaction against critical thinking when it veers into celebrity status symbols is remarkable. Since serious theological reflection requires critical thinking at every turn, I suppose one must expect as much backlash when engaging the thought (or decisions, or example) of Christian celebrities as those of the secular variety.
    .
    My suspicion regarding some of the comments here is that those making them are only objecting because you are critically analyzing someone who seems determined to dissolve the church/world distinction. You have an ecclesiology, and that is deeply frustrating to some people.

    1. Thank you for this comment, Andrew. I think you name the main sticking point quite well: ecclesiology. Had I worded it better, I’d have suggested that Bell’s thin ecclesiology makes it easy to abandon the church (because if there is little to no wall between the church and world, there’s no loss). Thanks for the kind and helpful words, as always.

  14. Actually, I would sense that his objection is not with God but with church. Many of our young people and youth are turning their backs on long standing traditions. They are living the gospel as faithful citizens of the world but not members of churches. I get that. The church needs to change. Or maybe WE need to change. Becoming more like Jesus than like church members… ?

    1. Scriptures have taught us that any citizen of the world is at enmity with G-d. I don’t just mean to quote from James, but throughout the Torah, the writings, the Prophets. We find that attempting to follow after or become part of this world does not end well for the people of G-d.

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