Last Friday I had the chance to attend Rob Bell’s Phoenix stop for his “Drops Like Stars tour.” This was a minor big deal in and of itself because I come from a theological tradition (Reformed Baptist, both with capitals) that is not generally interested in listening to anyone outside of their immediate circle, unless it is with a specific ear to debate what’s being said. With that being said, I disagree with Bell on several points of important theology, but I was nonetheless interested in seeing him. Regardless of your thoughts on his content, I have come to think of him as one of the best preachers (at least presenters/public speakers) out there today. Here are some initial thoughts from the day:
The first thought I had was how weird it was to be in an auditorium of people who paid to hear a pastor speak. Granted, this wasn’t a certain, it was a dramatic reinterpretation/presentation of Bell’s latest book, but still, the “Christian celebrity culture” is such an odd thing to me. Granted, I was there, so how much room do I really have to talk, but I got my tickets for free, so maybe I have some room? I was reminded that, though we claim to be different on so many levels, we are the same as everyone else on so many levels. We even have our own celebrities. None of this is necessarily Bell’s fault, unless you want to say that by embarking on a “tour” in the first place feeds the celebrity culture.
This celebrity culture is often built around the same things that the world’s celebrity culture is built around: hip people doing/saying things we think we could never do/say. Bell is bright, funny, articulate, charismatic and looks good in all black (trust me, it’s harder than it looks). He presents concepts in understandable yet deep ways and often tweaks things in just such a way that people are left thinking “I wish I had seen that.” In many ways, this is the job of artists and writers and in some sense, it is also the job of pastors. But, where it differs for pastors is that pastors must take that extra step and equip people to do/say the same things they are doing. Ephesians 4:11-16 clearly reminds us that the role of the pastor is not to impress but to equip. I don’t know how well Bell does this in his church in Grand Rapids, but the very notion of a pastor embarking on a “tour” where people pay money to hear him speak; well, I don’t know exactly.
I’ve tried to discern whether or not I just have sour grapes, if I’d like to be the hip pastor who people pay to wow over, but I really don’t think that’s it (as much as I can know my own heart). You might argue that the tour is not part of his role as pastor but as author and even to a lesser extent, artist, so it is perfectly fine. But we’re still dealing with Christian celebrity culture, aren’t we? Is this just an unavoidable byproduct of marinating in the culture that we do?
Bell’s presentation was great. He has commands attention and uses his body and the stage area not just as means to an end, but as part of his presentation as well, marking different points with different positions on the stage, etc. He is a captivating speaker who weaves a variety of allusions together in both the familiar and the unknown in just the right mix. His use of repetition (“his mother’s SUV”) works tremendously to paint vivid mental pictures and his language is at once poetic and simple, not an easy balance. His use of mixed media was spot-on and his timing was impeccable. Many preachers have much to learn here from Bell. I come from a tradition in which the primary role of preaching is information (doctrine) transfer, so it doesn’t matter if you’re an engaging speaker or not.
The danger here, of course is that many of us will simply try to copy Bell’s style. But it’s not our own and everyone (except us for a long time) knows that it’s not our own. While there is much to learn from Bell’s presentation style, there is nothing to be copied. We must learn to be sanctified versions of ourselves rather than watered-down versions of someone else. We must know our context and culture and we must strive to be good at what we do. Bell has obviously worked hard at his craft and that alone is a valuable lesson for many of us. The point is not to become a performer but a better preacher and I really think Bell has some good things to say on the practice of preaching.
The content. I received a couple of e-mails/texts immediately after the show (let’s be honest, that’s what it is) asking what I thought. Though I can’t be sure, I suspect that at least a couple of those messages wanted to know what my concerns were with the content. After all, isn’t Bell one of those people. The content was actually pretty generic if you’ve spent much time thinking about suffering, the Christian life and art. I don’t mean that in any way to belittle Bell’s book or performance, but the point really was that suffering plays an integral part in both the Christian life and the creative process.This something many of us need to think more deeply on. We forget that suffering and the Christian life cannot be separated.
Whatever concerns you may or may not have about Bell’s theology as a whole, this tour really won’t raise many eyebrows. For some, the presentation of the Cross as being God’s solidarity with us may be troublesome, but if it is understood as one aspect of the Cross and not the whole and total, I don’t see anything wrong with this except that it’s not the whole of the truth and I didn’t get the impression that that was Bell’s point. I just wish Bell had made that clarification. His metaphor of life as art is an interesting one, somewhat in line with Donald Miller’s recent thoughts on life as story.
Bell reminds us all of the need for biblical discernment. Just because someone says something very well, that doesn’t mean someone says something very right. I think Bell is a great public speaker but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says. In fact, Bell reminds us that, sometimes, the more charismatic the person, the more careful we need to be. It is sometimes the case that when someone is a great public speaker, we implicitly trust them a bit more and let our guard down. Bell serves as a reminder that we need to test everything and everyone.
Now if I could just pull off the all black . . .