Book Review: Rob Bell and a New American Christianity
Can we watch a video with that guy who has the weird hair and the dark rimmed glasses?
-Member of My Youth Group
Love wins the in the sense that God’s will is the reconciliation of all things—the soul, the body, the earth, the cosmos, and everything in it.
-James Wellman, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity, 59.
American Christianity is experiencing a theological shift. Many have tried to explain it, sometimes making the shift far more confusing than it actually is. Fortunately, the shift can be explained quite simply, and while it may be new to American Christianity, it is actually very old. Indeed, it dates back 2,000 years. The shift boils down to the two theological axioms of the New Testament, both found in the letter 1 John:
“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5) and “God is love” (4:8 and 16).
Those statements, while simple, are far from simplistic. John was bold in affirming these statements. He knew he had to give it to us straight – probably because he and the other disciples had a hard time understanding what Jesus meant in his teachings and parables. So, John cut to the chase and simply claimed that Jesus reveals, “God is love and God is light. There is absolutely no darkness within God.”
That’s the shift within American Christianity, and Rob Bell is leading the way. I highly recommend James Wellman’s book Rob Bell and a New American Christianity as a great resource for anyone wanting to understand Bell’s biography, his role in the shift, and the admiration along with the fierce criticism he engenders. Personally, I admire Bell. I find his books, videos, and sermons a source of inspiration, as do many others. His appeal transcends generational gaps. Members of my youth group frequently plead, “Can we watch a video with that guy who has the weird hair and the dark rimmed glasses?” Interestingly, their parents like Bell, too. A few years ago I showed Bell’s video Rhythm to some adults of my church. They were quickly engaged by Bell’s artistic style and message. His fundamental point in that video, and throughout his ministry, is to teach what God is like. Bell says in Rhythm,
Jesus is like God in his generosity and compassion. That’s what God is like. In his telling of the truth, that’s what God is like. In his love and forgiveness and sacrifice … that’s what God is like. That’s who God is.
Of course, there are theological consequences in these claims. What does it mean to say that God is love? That God is generous and compassionate? That God is forgiving and sacrificial? Ultimately, what does it mean to say that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all? First, it means that God’s love is nonviolent. This changes our understanding of many Christian doctrines, including the all important doctrine of atonement. Many believe that doctrine insists that God is holy and that sin offends the all-holy God. God’s wrath must be taken out on someone pure and innocent, and so Jesus saves us from God by sacrificing himself to God’s wrath. One of the problems with that theory of atonement is that it places darkness within God … but “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” But the question remains, What are we to make of the atonement and the sacrificial language of the New Testament?
Wellman states, “Bell believes that Christ’s sacrifice is not for God’s sake. Rather, it is the ultimate revelation of the innocent victim, the final scapegoat.” Then Wellman makes an important association by claiming that Bell’s understanding of atonement has been influenced by the French anthropologist René Girard. “Girard’s theory of scapegoating illumines how Bell negotiates this knotty problem … [Jesus’] death is not demanded by God, but made necessary to reveal the folly of humanity and the necessity to begin to love and forgive the enemy” (127-128). In other words, Girard helped Bell understand that it is not God who demands the violent sacrifice of Jesus. Rather, humans demanded it. The wrath was human, not divine. James Alison, one of Girard’s greatest students and who has a brilliant curriculum for the New American Christianity, states in his book On Being Liked, “Jesus revealed that God had and has nothing at all to do with violence, or death, or the order of this world. These are our problems and mask our conceptions of God…” (23).
What I appreciate most about Bell is his attempt to live into God’s non-violent love and forgiveness. If he is one of the most admired leaders of the “New American Christianity,” he is also one of the most criticized. Some might even say demonized. With passionate furor, many accuse him of being a heretic, of leading people away from the true faith, and of being a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Bell has a particular way of not responding to these accusations, and Girard is helpful in understanding why Bell’s non-response is vital for the New American Christianity. Girard states that humans tend to imitate the violence and accusations committed against us. We respond to accusations with accusations of our own. “I’m not the problem! You are the problem!” Girard writes, “If nothing stops it [accusations and violence], the spiral has to lead to a series of acts of vengeance in a perfect fusion of violence and contagion” (Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 17). The most important thing Bell teaches and models for the New American Christianity is to not participate in cycles of accusations and violence. Wellman states that in the face of these accusations “The takeaway for Bell [is] not bitterness or accusations. It is, as he consistently says in all sorts of venues, that the story is not done; your story, our story, my story is not done” (67). Bell’s response to the harsh criticism and accusations made against him is to ignore them and move on with telling the story.
Of course, the story is ultimately not Bell’s or ours. It is God’s. The reason Bell doesn’t defend himself by imitating the accusations against him is because he has faith that God is in control. Bell can be “in a non-anxious, non-reactive state” (Wellman, 85) with those accusations because he knows it’s not about him. Rather it’s about the God who is Love; the God who has nothing to do with the darkness, violence, and the accusations of our world. For Bell, this is the God of Resurrection. He says the resurrection tells a “better story” than the stories of violence and accusations. It is the story that “culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whereby Christ reconciles all things to God. The power of the restoration of all things has no limit and works not only in the human body and soul, but also into the very roots of creation itself” (Wellman, 18).
The story of resurrection is told by the God of love who is restoring and reconciling the world back to God. We have the choice of participating in that story of nonviolent love and reconciliation, or not. If there is any substance to the New American Christianity it will look like the God who has nothing to do with violence and accusation, but everything to do with love, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
Bell is leading the way and I hope more people will follow. Wellman’s book is a great place to start.