Everything is Spiritual, Including Institutions and Academics: Rob Bell Doesn’t Ring True

St. Martin’s Essentials, 2020.

If you’ve never heard Rob Bell speak, he is a master craftsman of the art. Charismatic, artistic, gifted with words and drama–he can hold hundreds of people spellbound for an hour without losing their attention for a moment. His message comes with an edge, often pushing against his conservative church background and the worst of the American right-wing establishment. Former megachurch pastor at Mars Hill in Michigan, he left the evangelical world hoping for bigger things in California—maybe a TV show. As megachurch pastors were my PhD dissertation, I followed his career for awhile, but he’s dropped off the radar of late. Now he’s released a new book with the same title of a lecture tour he gave a decade ago. A mesmerizing lecture, make no mistake. But he has no TV show yet.

This book is a quick read, at times rambling, and very autobiographical, much like his other books, of which there are plenty. I remain appreciative of his “emerging church” angle, and just his way of opening us to wonder, to creativity, and to prophetic Christian action. He has a gift of grace, and his Nooma video series was brilliant for its time.

Someday I might finish this book. But not now; I’ve had enough.

What I’m becoming more disillusioned with is his immensely romantic approach to life, couched in a life of tremendous privilege. He left cold Michigan for bright California, and spends lots of time surfing on the beach in the sunshine: he’s left his old institutional commitments behind him. This is reflected in his writing: spirituality for him is about awesome feelings, intense experiences, a sort of mystical encounter; conversely, church, institutions, and theology are tainted as a life-draining and static world that confines and controls human joy. This sort of sentimentality is clear in his analogy of the butterfly: spirituality is a free floating butterfly, he writes; academic theology is pinning the butterfly into a glass case and analyzing it literally to death. Nature: good. Scholarship: bad.

Nature, however, is also tornadoes, mudslides, and lions ripping apart gazelles; and academia–sure it is an easy target for labels of abstraction, tedium, and even some nonsense–but it is also a good place to learn about butterflies: their varieties, their populations, and the ways we can prevent their extinction.

Bell’s dualisms were energizing for me when I was 20 but now such simple black and white caricatures seem like a disservice to readers–epitomized in the common false dichotomy between spirituality and religion. Sorry, but the two are inseparably intertwined! The polarized binary is unhelpful and especially with the added simplistic good/bad evaluation attached to it. David Dark’s book Life is Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious (or any of James K. A. Smith’s books) would be a helpful antidote. Life is not just an aesthetic with prophetic edges. Habits, rituals, institutions form us more than isolated romantic moments of epiphany, and both these cultural experiences shape our faith lives.

I wholeheartedly agree with Bell that everything is spiritual and experiential: God breathes through all that we do, and through every atom of the universe. But everything is religious and institutional, too. Both spontaneous moments and ritualized behaviour are human activities; and both can be skewed to evil ends.

Image from Pixabay.

Beneath the Pavement, the Beach; and Beneath the Beach, the Desert

C. S. Lewis was told by a member of his audience after he gave a theological lecture that a day at the ocean was much more spiritual and enlivening than all his philosophical erudition (in Mere Christianity). He agreed with his critic. But then he said that if you want to dive in the ocean, go to the beach. But if you want to understand the ocean, travel across it, or be rescued from a storm, then having a map, a book written by experts, and the help of navigators will be of much more use to you. Both/and.

Institutions, academic research, and older mentors also give and preserve life, and do so for many, many people. Calvin Seerveld said they can be God’s hugs to those looking for shelter, a calling, and a vision for life. Especially the underprivileged, as their resources are poor and they need the help of large organizational efforts to empower them. Institutions. Churches. Charities. Government. Markets. Yes, they can go cheap for power and cause unspeakable evil. But they also can help sustain life and work for the common good.

Let’s not oppose spirituality and religion, as if one part of our creaturely life were free of threats and the other was only and always oppression. Spirituality can be twisted with narcissism and other pet demons. Spontaneity without structure can be a desert, ultimately a nihilistic wasteland. The line between good and evil is much more subtle, and it even runs through the human heart, with all its feelings, personal experiences and awe-inspiring artistic creativity. Feelings come and go, are up and down, upbuilding and demoralizing. They need scaffolding, direction, purpose, long-term sustainability towards the good life. That’s what institutions can be.

I hope someday Rob matures beyond this old romanticism. He is so gifted and incisive and has such a wide public platform. The deconstructive approach wears thin after the initial sense of liberation wears off, and you see in the empty landscape that is left behind that may be time to build a house that others can live inside. You can deconstruct the bad even while preserving and reconstructing something good. Reactionary Rob Bell needs a rest. It is time to restore faithfulness in the ordinary moments, which is where most of us live.


4 thoughts on “Everything is Spiritual, Including Institutions and Academics: Rob Bell Doesn’t Ring True

  1. This reminds me of something the late Dr. Dale Andrews, a professor of homiletics, used to say, to people who said “I don’t like that academic stuff, I want to let the Spirit move me”: “What makes you think the Holy Spirit is less active on Tuesday morning when you’re studying the text than on Sunday morning when you’re preaching it?”

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  2. Thank you, Peter. I agree with your response to Rob Bell’s writings. We do need both Spirit and intellect, heart and mind working together into action such as loving our neighbour in very practical ways. Reading various theological materials (N. T. Wright is a favourite, as are Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) has broadened my understanding of what God’s Word says and means for how I ought to relate to God and neighbours and to his world. Francis Collins The Language of God is also helpful, a blend of theology and science.

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  3. Great piece Peter. It’s always helpful to read authors from the previous century, or centuries, to help inform us. Perhaps he’s not done that (yet). I’d be interested to read his work once mid life crisis hits, or a tragedy close to home.

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