Rob Bell has fallen a long way, as far as evangelical superstars go. The former pastor of Mars Hill, a megachurch in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bell caused a stir when he began allowing women to hold leadership positions. He also had the honor of being “farewelled” — the evangelical equivalent of “You can’t sit with us” from Mean Girls — by the likes of Calvinist author and preacher John Piper after publishing Love Wins in 2011. The controversial book challenged whether Hell was an eternal place of torment for non-Christians. When Bell’s skepticism about established evangelical norms threatened his pastoral position, he left Mars Hill.
At his new home, in California — where he writes, works as a touring speaker, and surfs regularly — he reflects on what he calls his “more expanded view of church” and on the resistance he encountered from his community in arriving at that view. “There’s a specific kind of venom that comes up,” he says. “And, in some sense, it’s just the terror that the foundation, the ground they’ve been walking on, might not be as absolute as they think it is.”
I admit: I haven’t read many of Bell’s books because I was warned against them from other Christians in my circle. To read Bell was like a “gateway drug” to doubt, skepticism, and then to the real hard stuff, like Richard Dawkins (after which there is presumably no return). But I do respect his honesty about unpleasant questions and concerns that many pastors in his position would never be brave enough to address within themselves or to their congregations, let alone in a public sphere.
Bell chose the path of authenticity over fakeness, and he paid the price for it. If anything, his story is a reminder that the definition of a True Christian ™ is nearly impossible to pin down. More often than not, it depends on the culture in which you live.
There’s a popular cartoon that mocks that kind of thinking:
As if anyone’s particular branch of Christianity just happens to be the only one that ever got the Bible right…