Rob Bell is one of the most fascinating Christian thinkers today—if not always the most successful.
Such a statement might have seemed strange in 2011, when Bell released his first bestseller and found himself listed among Time’s most influential people. But the same year that brought such prestige for the popular pastor also started a difficult journey for him. It was 2011 that he stepped down from leading a church of over ten thousand members, thrusting the future of his career into question.
By that point, a sizeable portion of Bell’s audience had already turned on him. His bestseller, Love Wins, caused deep fractures in the evangelical community. Many branded him a heretic for questioning the concept of Hell and openly condemned his work. In what amounts to a modern-day, protestant equivalent to excommunication, Baptist theologian John Piper famously tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell.”
Farewell Rob Bell. http://dsr.gd/fZqmd8
— John Piper (@JohnPiper) February 26, 2011
With controversy looming large, Bell surrendered a platform that any evangelical leader would have broken the sixth commandment for. His departure raised a number of questions: What would he do next? Could he overcome the theological backlash that forced him from the church? And who was his audience now that he existed as a pariah to his former community of believers?
Since then, Bell’s career has undergone a series of evolutions that, while not always successful, shared the same bravado that previously defined his work.
First came Rob Bell the TV showrunner. Along with former Lost producer Carlton Cuse, the two sold a script to ABC based loosely around Bell’s life. For a while, it seemed Bell had made the switch from Michigan megachurch to LA writer’s room. After a period in development, however, the network ultimately did not order a pilot.
Next came Rob Bell the talk show host. After having his book championed by Oprah Winfrey and joining her on the “Life You Want” Tour, he was given a show on the OWN network. The pilot aired to generally positive reviews, and Bell made plans for a full season. Yet once again, the network chose not to pursue anything further.
While any of these opportunities might have been great fits for Bell, he has since appeared content to float between gigs. He’s written more books, launched workshops on creativity and work-life balance, hosted regular shows alongside comedian Pete Holmes in LA, and started a weekly podcast (aptly titled The Robcast).
There’s no denying these projects are thoroughly interesting—in fact, they might be the most interesting thing about his career so far. They’ve given him the opportunity to break outside the mold of your everyday megachurch pastor, something Bell never fit too easily with to begin with. But interesting though they may be, they also contain a certain air of aimlessness.
After all, what is Bell aside from a failed pastor, television producer, and talk show host? In his latest book, he writes, “When you read the Bible… you read the stories in light of where they’re headed.” The statement is almost ironic in light of his own career. What is his trajectory? How do we read Bell himself? And will there ever be a next big thing for him?
The answer may well lie in Bell’s new book. Born out of what may be the peak of his aimless period, What Is the Bible? originally started on his Tumblr blog in November 2014. Until then, the site had feature photos of his vinyl collection or whatever books he happened to be reading at the time. So when “What is the Bible? Pt. 1” appeared on the scene, few would have suspected he was putting out his best work yet.
In the posts, Bell looked closely at certain passages or themes throughout the Bible and explained how to read them for today. What started as a single post eventually gained enough traction to become a 75-part series. Equal parts entertaining and eye-opening, the series encapsulated everything great about Bell—his conversational-yet-poetic style of writing, poignant insights, his subversive message.
Never mind Velvet Elvis or Love Wins. This was peak Rob Bell.
It was only a matter of time before he turned the material into his next book project. What Is the Bible? adapts these posts, condensing in some places and expanding in others. He sums up the book’s thesis by saying, “I’ve heard people say that they read [the Bible] literally. As if that’s the best way to understand the Bible. It’s not. We read it literately. We read it according to the kind of literature that it is. That’s how you honor it. That’s how you respect it. That’s how you learn from it. That’s how you enjoy it.”
Like the blog posts, Bell takes a historical-metaphorical approach to reading Scripture that leads to some fascinating and highly relevant takes. At the same time, What Is the Bible? leaves plenty of space for the sort of doubt and questioning that pushed Bell out of the church to begin with. It isn’t set on solving every issue with the Bible. It’s about exposing readers to the intricate, multifaceted, often beautiful nature of one (deeply human) record of the divine.
In many ways, the book feels like Bell has found the post-Love Wins audience he started tapping into four years ago. What Is the Bible? wasn’t written for those who have all the answers, but for those who are deconstructing their faith and in the process of putting the pieces back together. As such, it reads more like a good starting point for the spiritually-curious and less like a finish line for established believers.
Bell is uninterested in providing an in-depth, scholarly resource—in fact, he provides a list of books at the end to point readers toward deeper studies. At times, this makes his own work seem a bit surface-level and open-ended. But while Bell’s work can sometimes lack any serious meat, it is quite seriously the sweetest of milk, pointing readers towards something much greater and more expansive. It’s here I think that Bell has found his niche as the Great Pointer of our generation.
And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it makes a lot of sense, given the context of his career. Bell has had a lot of practice starting things, though he’s had less success with finishing. Even his most clearly defined work can leave readers with a feeling of, “Okay… so now what?” After hearing him speak on his recent Bible Belt Tour, I described his style to my spouse as “sermon jazz”—joining a number of disparate parts that lack any real connective tissue other than, “Hey, isn’t this cool?”
But in doing this, Bell serves as an excellent jumpstarter for those seeking something greater. He isn’t interesting in establishing any concrete doctrine or circumscribing the exact stepping stones in each person’s spiritual journey. Sometimes his work can leave readers or listeners with more questions than when they started. Yet this practice places him in the same tradition of a man who taught 2,000 years ago, who answered most questions with… more questions.
This work seems especially important in 2017. Many spiritual people find themselves disillusioned by how 80% of evangelicals who cast their votes last November. In light of this, it’s hard to see Bell’s exile from the Christian mainstream in 2011 as anything but divinely inspired. He’s found an audience as timely as any, and even if he’s not quite sure how to write the ending, he’s pointing people towards deeper, more fulfilling lives.
This may open him to even more criticism from fundamentalists, who insist on dogmas and doctrine at every step. But if we’re honest, the step Bell is taking is the most important step of all of introducing others to the divine. And sometimes that’s enough.