James K. WELLMAN, Jr. Rob Bell and A New American Christianity. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012. Pp. 158. ISBN 978-1-4267-4844-8. Pb. Reviewed by Calvin MERCER, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858
One of the more complex, controversial, and influential contemporary evangelical leaders, Rob Bell merits study. This one is provided by Wellman, Associate Professor and Chair of the Comparative Religion Program at Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.
Like the rest of the world, Christianity is changing. Plenty of observers are attempting to understand that change and what is aborning. I would have liked to see Wellman give more attention to how Bell reflects and contributes to the changes. Still, Wellman’s work is a valuable introduction to this fascinating figure.
Wellman charts Bell’s emergence as a force in contemporary Christianity, from his megachurch to making Time’s 100 most influential people in the world list. Bell is known to many for the Nooma series, twenty-four twelve minute sermons, reflecting his adeptness at using modern media to get his message across.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Bell, and one that goes to the heart of understanding American evangelical Christianity, is how Bell seems to reflect—and irritate—both religious progressives and conservatives.
On questions of theology, Bell is most well-known for challenging the traditional evangelical soteriological exclusiveness. Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived made the New York Times bestseller list in 2001. Although Bell is not as clear in his own position as one might like, his “position” on this question is perhaps the main thing eliciting charges of heresy from some of the more conservative evangelicals and positive interest from progressives.
Progressives also took notice of this young evangelical when he moved his family into a Grand Rapids slum in 2008 and 2009. While one cannot help but wonder how much of this was for publicity, Bell does appear to have developed an authentic concern for social justice.
Bell’s journey as a leader in contemporary Christianity is in some way reflective of his educational background. He moved from undergraduate studies Wheaton College to the moderate, evangelical, nondenominational Fuller Theological Seminary in California.
We know the pattern, in both secular and religious circles, of sudden superstars burning out, unable to handle their quickly elevated status. My sense about Bell is that this superstar is here to stay for a good while, that he has the theological substance (though unrefined), personal authenticity, and genuine religious experience to last and make a significant impact. My sense about Bell is based in large part on Wellman’s portrayal, one grounded in the author’s close observation of Bell.
Wellman provides a good summary and analysis, but in the end those interested in Bell beyond a brief introduction will want to read some of his books and listen (via the Nooma series) to Bell himself.