Oprah Puts Rob Bell on Her Spiritual A-Team
Yes, the moment has arrived. After encouraging us to learn from Tolle about ‘The Power of Now’, pushing us to unlock ‘The Secret’ with Byrne, and exhorting us to let Gilbert teach us to ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ Oprah has added Rob Bell to her list of must-read spiritual gurus. This month the media mogul picked Bell’s recent offering What We Talk About When We Talk About God as her ‘Super Soulful Book of the Month,’ saying:
Pastor Rob Bell is shaking up the way we think about God and religion. I love his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne). When I first started reading it, I was highlighting my favorite passages, but then I realized—what’s the point? I’ve marked every page! It just wowed me. In the book, Bell explains that God is and always has been with us, for us, and ahead of us—and then explores how we can really absorb this knowledge into our everyday lives to become more connected to spirit.
So, having reviewed Bell’s book previously for Christ and Pop Culture, I have three basic thoughts on this:
1. It Makes Sense – I’ll admit it, my first reaction was “Welp, that figures.” Bell does not advocate a kooky, cheap metaphysic like Byrne does in The Secret, or deal in vague, consumer-packaged spiritual generalities as Tolle and Gilbert do. As I’ve said before, it’s Bell’s Areopagus speech to a religiously-disaffected populace that still feels the ‘hum’ of spirituality. Bell’s book about God is still focused through Jesus, the incarnate one. Even so, it still has plenty of that vague, spiritual-ish feel to it. It’s a version of Christianity with a lot of the sharper, bloodier, particular edges shaved off to be accessible—palatable—to a more pluralistic and inclusivist milieu.
As I wrote earlier:
And yet, salvation never really moves beyond revelation for Bell–and by revelation I mean disclosing the truth of those processes already at work around us. Conversion is not brought about by regeneration and faith, but illumination. Eschatology is not that of the New Testament-the irruption of God’s power into history, the rebirth, the act accomplished that changes everything-but a romantic entry of a “new consciousness” of reality as it already is and the forward “pull” of God in history. Tellingly, the concrete elements of the Last Supper–the broken body and shed blood of Jesus–are less about the new covenant, a New Exodus, and the community of the redeemed, than symbols of the way God infuses the ordinary with meaning: “In doing this, he was treating common bread and wine as holy and sacred because for him all bread and wine are holy and sacred.” It’s connected to Jesus, his death and resurrection, but it speaks more to metaphysical generalities than to redemptive-historical accomplishments we are brought into by the Holy Spirit and faith.
In that sense, it’s kind of par for the course in terms of Oprah’s offerings, and it does lend itself a bit too easily to neutering phrases like “become more connected to spirit.”
2. It’s Better Than the Other Stuff – With that said, the more I think about it, the more it seems that this is actually a bit of a step forward for her reading list. While I heartily disagree with a bunch of what Bell’s written in his last couple of books, What We Talk About When We Talk About God is still better than Love Wins. What’s more, it’s richer than the rest of the Oprah book crew. While his language about sin and grace never really breaks out of the therapeutic and into the truly moral, it still gets people engaging with their brokenness at a less narcissistic level. While the book’s theism is a bit soggy at the edges, it’s not pantheism. While his handling of Scripture leaves something to be desired, he still speaks of the text as something holy that points us to God. All of that is a step up for Oprah’s book list. No, it’s not Tim Keller, but again, it could be (and has been) a lot worse.
3. Be Ready to Engage – This is why Christians ought to know something about the book. People read Oprah recommendations. They think about them and talk about them. That means a lot of people are going to be reading and thinking about Bell’s work, so we should should be ready to talk with them about it. As I wrote before:
…hopefully those who read the book and come away saying, “We will hear you again about this,” (Acts 17:32) manage to find churches who engage them just as well as Bell does, while pushing them towards even deeper, richer, more complex ways of talking about God.
So—and this goes especially for more conservative readers—before you jump all over your friend who’s excitedly reading Bell’s book because Oprah said great things about it, slow down. Wait a minute. Ask questions. Trust that Jesus can be at work here, even if you would have preferred that he use a different book. As Paul said, “Cling to what is good, hate what is evil” (Rom. 12:9). We might paraphrase him here: “Build on what is good, gently expose what isn’t so great.”
In other words, if you talk to your friend in a sane, open, and wise way about Bell, that person might later be ready for you to hand them something like Keller. Who knows what can happen?
For those of you looking for thoughtful engagement with Bell’s book, here are a few reviews:
What Rob Bell Talks About At the Areopagus by Derek Rishmawy (Christ and Pop Culture)
What Rob Bell Talks About When He Talks About God by Matt Jenson (The Scriptorium)
What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell by Trevin Wax (The Gospel Coalition)
I appreciate your even handed take on this. It’s encouraging to hear from a reformed voice that is open to considering the good in many perspectives.
Have to say i agree on all three points (even a “conservative guy” like me). I often have said that simply condemning books we’ve never read or had serious engagement with often robs us of credibility when engaging with those who have. Every Christian should have read Bell and McLaren and Dawkins (probably not 50 Shades of Grey but … i think you get my drift) to at least be able to interact with their ideas on an intelligent level.
I’m gonna put my 2 cents out there and say no, every Christian does not need to read those books. Some people don’t like to read (not me, bring on the books!), some people don’t like to debate or “engage” on that front. There is plenty of room in evangelism and the Church for those whose outreach does not consist of being “up-to-date” on books! Many non-Christians have not read a single jot penned by those authors. You might as well say every Christian “should” read/watch/listen to every bit of media there is!
I would say if you have a friend who is interested in those books and needs Jesus, by all means read them and engage their ideas if you think that is an effective mode for evangelism. But there’s only so much time in the day. Prayerfully consider how best to reach out to your friends and neighbors and make the most of the time!
Eckhart Tolle is actually pretty cool, the Power of Now isn’t really that vague, good article
There are a lot of us out here who prefer Bell to Keller, and we know them both. We know all about the “clarity” which seems so much better to you yet we’ve chosen what you have called the “kooky, cheap metaphysic.” Here’s hoping your readers don’t conclude we’re all stupid and uninformed, and simply drifted here because we hadn’t yet been introduced to the good stuff. Its not true of Bell, and its not true of all his readers. It might be interesting to ask us why we find the ideas in “Love Wins” compelling, though we are well-acquainted with the other side. We may even speak “Reformed” fluently, we just prefer not to.
Quote from article, all-caps emphasis mine: “Bell does NOT advocate a kooky, cheap metaphysic”
Thank you. You are correct. I read too quickly I guess, and neglected that very important word “NOT.” I wish I could delete my comment, but I can’t.
Not sure it is worth trying to redeem my point — but I will say that there is still a kernel of discomfort I have that some of Bell’s ideas, which I share, are dismissed by some as “vague, spiritualish” as opposed to–what?– robust and clear? I am for robust and clear, I just don’t find Keller, among others, to always have answers that sound credible to me.
Yeah, again, my point is that Bell is BETTER than the others. Also, the direct quote by Richard.
So why do you find “Love Wins” compelling?
Love Wins was an important book for me to read once, but it represented for me the naming that something better is needed rather than the naming of that something better. I really had trouble getting through his latest God book. The thing is he’s supposed to be about narrative theology and it’s not narrative at all — that’s why it’s mushy. If you try to talk in generic, agnostic-friendly terms about the gospel, it doesn’t work. You need to stay inside the Jesus story rather than just talking about how amazing quasars and mitochondria are. I suppose there might be some un-churched person out there for whom that book might be an entry point but I’m just not sure it’s really a bridge that ends up any closer than where it starts. I don’t think I would want to embark on a life of discipleship based on that book if I had no other resource. It’s more like the kind of “deep” conversation you have on the beach after a few beers but when you wake up the next day, you forgot everything you talked about.
YES! It totally loses the story element which is crazy to me, because that’s the stuff Bell was always good at.
In many ways this makes it easier to identify false teachers. On the Oprah list? Check.
You missed the whole point of the article. Try again.
May not be the point of the article but it’s nonetheless true. Oprah is a New Age priestess. She’s like the canary in the coal mine. If she values your “spirituality” or your theology, you’re outside the pale of orthodox Christianity.
So Oprah is your barometer? Yikes.
She’s certainly one of them, yes. To suggest otherwise is to have one’s head in the sand.
To me, Rob Bell’s books are to Christian literature what the Twilight series is to fiction: they get a lot of press and create a good amount of controversy, but at the end of the day, the writing isn’t really that great. I know Rob Bell has a target audience which doesn’t include me, and I wish him well in reaching out to them. I hope that God can use him to minister to others, even if I don’t agree with him on some things. At least, I think I don’t – it’s a little hard to tell sometimes.
I take your point, though unfortunately, Bell’s gospel isn’t really a saving one, so I can’t honestly hope that someone would actually accept what he offers when he reaches out.
Of course, I wish people would go beyond Keller, but then I’m super picky. :-)
Snark of the day, from twitter: “Rob Bell and Oprah Winfrey talking about theology is like Miley Cyrus and Howard Stern talking about propriety.”
Hi Derek, thanks for this article — I appreciate the way you’ve been seeking to engage. Perhaps I’m slightly more positive about where Bell’s squishiness places him: this is the first time I’ve heard of Oprah canvassing a Christian message.
And this of course has been Bell’s aim: “I want to show it to you, when everyone else is having a conference about how to present Jesus to the world, I want to do it — in the belly of the beast — a beautiful Jesus, and people will say, ‘Wow’.” (See my review of ‘Rob Bell and a New American Christianity’)
So, here’s a question: since when would Keller even make it onto Oprah!? The thing is, if we understand Bell more as an evangelist than as a systematic theologian (!), we start asking: what do we actually expect evangelism to look like? What would it actually look like to share Christ in the world of Oprah? How would things start with an Oprah fan? That was the question his latest book prompted for me. (I wasn’t quite so positive about your own review, sorry!)
Again, I appreciate your work on this. Cheers!
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. These are good questions.
Really quickly, I appreciate Bell’s aims. I really do. I’ve been a fan in the past and as I wrote in my own review of his book, he’s always been an evangelist engaging the culture. I called his last book his Areopagus speech.
I think my problem is that, while Paul’s speech at the Areopagus was spare by necessity, Bell’s left things out because, as we’ve seen in other books, he doesn’t believe them. Honestly, it’s not really just the hell thing, but in a wide variety of areas, the Christianity he’s offering is, well, not a whole Christianity. So when they “ask him more”, I’m not too keen on the rest of what he’ll say.
On Keller, he’s quite the evangelist as well. His church in urban, educated Manhattan hits about 10,000. His books have hit the NY TImes Bestseller list precisely because he can hit people exactly like Oprah and her crowd with a beautiful Gospel that is a whole Gospel. My thing is that he’s got most of Bell’s strengths in sharing the Gospel, and I could see him comfortably sitting across the couch from Oprah, talking about a surprising, glorious Jesus, but without the dicier bits of theology.
Does that help?
In terms of Bell’s latest book, Derek, it sounds like where you see gaps that reflect lack of belief, I’m more inclined to see a constrained focus due to a specific audience — a book designed to get an outsider thinking about a Creator God revealed in the person of Jesus, and no more than that, and which limits its scope as a result. It’s more an evangelistic tract than a potted worldview summary, don’t you think?
As to whether or not Bell checks out with what I might consider to be “whole Christianity” is somewhat incidental — not because I’m cavalier about who our gospel workers are (Lord have mercy), but because when one of us is walking towards an outsider, I expect to see changes in the way we talk. I mean, I don’t expect Bell to systematically catechise outsiders if his job is more about greeting them at the door.
So, again, I think the pressing question is more to do with the step-by-step shape of witness than with how accurate or comprehensive Bell is. I figure Bell knows what he’s doing with this opportunity — an opportunity that (let’s be honest) is miles away from anyone in my circles or yours. I mean, Keller’s fantastic, isn’t he, and I have no doubt he scratches where a lot of people are itching — but I suspect that very few of those people are among Oprah’s fan base. :)
If you look at Velvet Elvis and his other work, there’s actually a consistent pattern of undermining essential Christian doctrines. In VE, Bell essentially asks why the virgin birth is all that important anyway. Should set a little bell off in your head.
Ya, I addressed that in my review. I think the gaps are consistent with what he’s written before and, therefore, less than ideal in a number of ways. I get limited focus. Grainy and distorted focus is more what I’m worried about. Again, though, the point is, hopefully it gets people talking to people who are willing to speak a little clearer (and more accurately) about the Gospel.
Well, great interacting. Have a good one!
Yeah Derek, I’ve never considered myself a fan, but I’m fascinated by this unique opportunity, and I trust that Christ has already gone ahead.
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