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.
A 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.