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Rob Bell: The Gods Aren’t Angry

John on November 19, 2007 at 10:37 am

Tuesday night I attended Rob Bell’s latest tour on its stop at the Wiltern theater in Los Angeles. In conception, this tour was similar to last year’s tour Everything is Spiritual, which I wrote about here.

First a bit about the tour itself, then I’ll get into some specifics. Rob Bell has really brought the concept of the itinerant preacher — which has a history that stretches back through the Great Awakening all the way to, well, Jesus himself — into the 21st century. His tours are patterned after concerts, right down to the venues and tickets and even the tour bus he travels on. Tickets were $16 plus a service charge. The profit goes to charity.

Last year Rob talked about science, the universe and everything. This year his ambition is nearly as big. The Gods Aren’t Angry is an overview of the entire scope of scripture, with an emphasis on what might be called spiritual innovations.

Rob is probably best known for his ability to take scripture and place it in geographical and historical context. Anyone who has ever heard his talks on the Jewishness of Jesus and the Gospels already knows how good he is at this sort of thing. On this tour he’s essentially turning that same eye on all of Biblical history.

For instance, he begins by placing us in the context of ancient religions, such as those of Mesopotamia. He talks about the system of rituals that developed to appease various gods and what those systems all had in common. He then moves to the story of Abraham and argues for the revolutionary character of the Biblical Yahweh, the God who speaks and blesses.

Rob argues that what may seem backward and primitive to us today was radical and unheard of 3,500 years ago. Here he’s borrowing heavily from the work of Thomas Cahill, in particular his Gift of the Jews, though he’s clearly reworked and improved on some of that material.

Rob then moves forward, eventually bringing us to the radical “innovations” of Jesus who announced salvation for the world and an end to the old systems of sacrifice to the gods. No more blood for blessing. Jesus was simultaneously the end of the old and the beginning of the new.

What Rob is not presenting, it seems to me, is some sort of developmental theism. He is not suggesting that God changed or evolved over time, rather he seems to be saying that God has been patiently bringing us along. He challenges us and then, often when we fail, he challenges us a little more. The result, presumably, is a kind of spiritual maturity — pastors who resemble Jesus more than the pharisees.

At one point Bell discussed the pharisees as people who tried to control others through guilt, fear, and military power (Rome). “Nothing like today…” he suggested offhandedly, to which the audience, including me, chuckled. The image of Pat Robertson comes to mind with distressing ease.

The last section of Bell’s message was devoted to the concept of a “living sacrifice.” Here Rob suggested that the New Testament took the old concepts of sacrifice on an altar and re-envisioned it in terms of love and charity toward others. He then went into a series of stories about people he’s known… A family that bought a house for another family that was losing theirs. A couple that agreed to buy groceries for a needy family for as long as needed. His own response to a teenager who had been so verbally abused by her parents she had resorted to cutting herself with razors. Nearly a week later his words to that troubled girl bring a tear to my eye (sorry, it’s his story and I won’t spoil it).

What emerges from the nearly two hour talk is a vision of what the church is to be today. In Rob Bell’s view, that’s a place where loving God and loving one’s neighbor go hand in hand, not just in word but in deed.

The beauty of Bell’s vision, and I confess to being wholly partisan on this point, is that the things he’s relating could be done by anyone. You don’t need an MDiv to change someone’s world. You don’t need a certificate to make things better for someone in need.

That’s not to say there’s no value in learning. I think Bell, who reads and studies voraciously, would shudder at the thought. It’s rather to say that the best things happening inside the Christian camp aren’t seminars or sermons or publications or conferences or even Rob Bell Tours…they’re acts of genuine love performed in Christ’s name.

That’s hard to argue with. I’m not even sure why you’d try.

Addendum: I added almost a whole ‘nother post in the comments in response to a question about someone else’s take on Bell’s tour.

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Category: Religion & Faith |

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