Review of Rob Bell’s NOOMA — Part 2
Here’s the scoop on the Rob Bell video series storming through youth rooms and sermon series across the country.
Rob Bell’s NOOMA videos have made quite a splash in the Christian world. In some ways that’s not terribly surprising. The little videos are masterpieces of technical production, and Bell has just about perfected the art of looking into a camera and making you think you’re having a nice conversation over coffee, or on a subway platform, or between breaths as you plant a tree together. It’s all very compelling, not at all «churchy,» and so Christians look at it and think, «Wow, I could show this to the guy I buy coffee from every morning and not be embarrassed. This is great stuff!»
In some ways I don’t blame them for saying that. Bell’s approach is undeniably fresh, and it will communicate with people who are immediately turned off by a suited guy in a pulpit with a fake green plant in front of it. In that sense, NOOMA is good. Really good.
But that’s not the end of the story. Once you get past the razzle-dazzle of the videos’ style and really listen to what Bell is saying, you start to wonder if maybe they’re not so good after all. Watch the videos with a discerning eye, and certain questions start nagging you: What’s the cross for again? Why did Jesus die? How do you become a Christian? Hold on—did he just say that everyone has the Spirit of God living in them already? Jesus has faith in me? I am the gospel? What in the world does that mean?
Most of the videos in the series don’t really get at the most important questions about what the gospel is. Most of them talk about practical topics like sex, anger, materialism, loving your enemies, and the like. But there are a few that really focus on the gospel itself and try to answer the question, «What does it mean to be a Christian?» The best way to get at the heart of NOOMA’s presentation of the gospel, I think, is to watch the episodes titled Trees, Luggage, Dust, Rhythm, Breathe, and You. Of course there are places here and there in the other videos that speak about the gospel, but I think the crucial points are made in those six.
In Part 1 of this review, I argued that, at the very least, the gospel Bell presents in NOOMA is incomplete. Essentially, it boils down to the assertion that God loves us just as we are, wants to heal us of our brokenness, and calls us to live a life of love and compassion just like Jesus did. There is very little about the cross, very little about the resurrection, and nothing about how sin separates us from God or deserves his righteous anger.
But the problem doesn’t end with incompleteness; it’s not just what is left unsaid. The concern is worse than that, because if you take the videos on their own terms, and if you take Bell’s presentation of the gospel at face value, what you end up with is actually something very different from biblical Christianity. You end up with a «gospel» that misleads people about their relationship with God, is inexcusably unclear about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and finally makes Christianity little more than a banal moral system that tells people to live in a certain way.
NOOMA MISLEADS LOST PEOPLE
Let me explain what I mean when I say that the gospel presented in NOOMA misleads lost people about their relationship with God. The Bible could not be clearer that the consequence of sin and rebellion against God is that we are separated from him, our relationship with him is severed, and we are brought under his judgment and condemnation. «Your sins have made a separation between you and your God,» Isaiah says (Is. 59:2). And Paul writes in Romans 1 that the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
These facts—that sin separates human beings from God, and that God judges sin—constitute one of the most important themes in the entire Bible. It explains why everything else was necessary—the sacrifices, the priests, the prophets, and especially Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s why Jesus cried out, «My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?» (Matt. 27:46). He was separated from God so that his redeemed people would not be.
Bell doesn’t say any of that in the NOOMA videos. In fact, he seems to tell lost people exactly the opposite—that they are already in relationship with God and even forgiven of sin, and that the only problem is that they just don’t realize it. Whether because of shame, or embarrassment, or sheer ignorance, they’re hiding under the covers (see Lump) when a loving, merciful God has already forgiven them, is already in relationship with them, and is just waiting for them to realize it and start acting like it.
Take the video titled Rhythm, for example. Bell compares God to a song that is playing throughout the universe in every heart and soul. «The song is playing all around us all the time,» he says. «The song is written on our hearts. And everybody is playing a song. See, the question isn’t whether or not you’re playing a song, the question is ‘Are you in tune?’» In other words, are you living the kind of compassionate, loving life that harmonizes with the song that’s already playing in your heart? Here’s the last line of that video: «May you come to see that the song is written on your heart, and as you live in tune with the song, in tune with the Creator of the universe, may you realize that you are in relationship with the living God.»
Now, that language is bewilderingly slippery. Is everybody playing a song, or the song? Who is Bell talking to exactly when he hopes they realize that they are in relationship with the living God? The lost person who’s hearing this for the first time? The person who’s been living «in tune with the song» for a while? None of that’s clear.
Or take this passage from Breathe:
Life is fragile, and yet at the same time we’ve been breathed into by the creator of the universe. And this divine breath is in every single human being ever. . . . We’re these sacred, divine dirt-clods. And yet we possess untold power and strength. Your life is but a breath, and yet you were made by the creator of everything. Now for thousands of years, people have understood that this physical breath that we all possess is actually a picture of a deeper reality. In the Bible, the word for breath is the same word as the word for spirit. In the Hebrew language, it’s the word «ruah,» and in the Greek language, it’s the word «pneuma.’ . . . Breath, spirit. Same word.
The divine breath is in «every single human being ever,» and everyone knows that breath and spirit are the same word. Well, alright so far. Every human being has a spirit. But then:
The first Christians took hold of this idea, and they took it way farther. They actually believed that the Spirit of God resides, or can literally dwell, live in a person. One scripture in Romans 8 says that if the pneuma (Spirit of God) who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then God will give you life. Another scripture says that what the Spirit of God does living in you is it sanctifies. Now the word sanctify, it means to, like, purge, or to clean out. What it essentially means is that when you let God in, when you breathe, what happens is you become aware of all the things you need to leave behind, everything you need to let go of. . . . Jesus said that what the Spirit of God does is it guides us into truth. Is there anything you need guidance in?
Again, who’s he talking to here? It’s hard to believe that he’s suddenly quit talking to lost people and shifted to talking only to those who have repented and believed in Jesus. Yet he’s talking about the Spirit of God dwelling in us, and what that means in our lives. Does Bell think that the Spirit of God dwells in «every single human being ever»? When he puts the phrase «when you breathe» right next to the phrase «when you let God in,» is he saying that the way you let the Spirit of God into your life is just by taking a breath? When he says that the early Christians «took this idea way farther» and began to talk about the indwelling Spirit of God, does Bell realize that they only applied that idea to people who were Christians? Or does he still think that’s true of «every single human being ever»?
Here’s how it ends: «A person doesn’t have to agree with this for it to already be true. God has already given us life, in the breath we just took, and the breath we took before that, and the breath we’re gonna take and the breath after that.» Okay, but are we back now to talking about just breath and just spirit of the kind that every human being has? Or are we still talking about the Spirit of God?
And what about this, from Luggage: «It’s like right at the heart of [Jesus’] message is the simple claim that God has forgiven us of all of our sins, doesn’t hold any of our past against us—because none of us have clean hands, do we? . . . So when I forgive somebody, I’m giving them what God has given to me. . . . May you forgive as you’ve been forgiven. May you give to others what’s been given to you.» Again, who’s he talking to? Who’s been forgiven? If I’m not a Christian, and I’m hearing all this for the first time, am I supposed to see myself in that statement? Am I supposed to walk away thinking I’m already forgiven?
To be fair, I wouldn’t draw any hard conclusions from this on its own terms. The language is just too slippery, to the point that it almost seems designed for one to be able to interpret it however one wants. If you’re lost, you can hear it and walk away convinced that the Spirit of God is dwelling in you, that you have life, and that you’ve been forgiven of all your sins. But then again, Bell could come back and say, «No, I didn’t mean that at all.»
Actually, I wish he would say that. Then we could chalk it all up to the consummate communicator not communicating very well. There’s a passage in one of Bell’s books, however, that leads me to think that Bell really is asserting that life, forgiveness, and even the Spirit of God is already possessed by every single human being ever. The only hitch is that some people don’t realize it. Here’s the relevant passage from Velvet Elvis (page 146):
The fact that we are loved and accepted and forgiven in spite of everything we have done is simply too good to be true. Our choice becomes this: We can trust his [God’s] retelling of the story, or we can trust our telling of our story. It is a choice we make every day about the reality we are going to live in.
And this reality extends beyond life.
Heaven is full of forgiven people.
Hell is full of forgiven people.
Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for.
Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for.
The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.
Ours or God’s.
I don’t know how else to understand this: What Bell is asserting here is a bizarre kind of universalism in which every human being is forgiven and yet some forgiven people end up in hell anyway. The NOOMA might be slippery, but this passage from Velvet Elvis isn’t at all, and that may offer some insight on what he’s actually saying in NOOMA. The only way I can see to understand it is that Bell is telling lost people that they are forgiven, that they are in relationship with God, even that the Spirit of God lives in them and is waiting to guide them and sanctify them if only they’d wake up and realize it.
That kind of thinking though is devastatingly misleading to lost people. To be lost is not merely to be ignorant about the fact that you are already in relationship with God, forgiven, free, and full of his Spirit. To be lost is to be separated from God and under his judgment. That’s a crucial part of the gospel, not just because Bell’s alternative involves the absurdity of forgiven people suffering in hell; it’s crucial because, unless you understand that God hates sin and judges it, the cross doesn’t make any sense. In fact, it becomes kind of superfluous. The fact is, somebody could hear Rob Bell’s version of the gospel in NOOMA and walk away feeling forgiven and Spirit-filled without a single thought about Jesus’ death. And at that point, what you have is something quite other than Christianity.
NOOMA IS UNCLEAR ABOUT THE MEANING OF THE CROSS
All that may actually go a long way toward explaining why the Emergent movement seems to have so much trouble with the cross: They can’t really find a place for it. It doesn’t fit neatly into the storyline. I’ve written about this in another place, with particular regard to Brian McLaren’s work. But it’s true of Rob Bell’s material in NOOMA, too. Blood atonement just doesn’t find a natural home in the Emergent story, so even though it can’t be ignored entirely, the cross doesn’t get mentioned very often. And when it does, it’s never with any clear explanation of its meaning.
I didn’t keep a count of exactly how many times the cross makes an appearance in the eighteen NOOMA videos I watched, but I am certain that it doesn’t get any extended treatment, much less a video to itself. But where it is mentioned, the viewer is left utterly unclear as to what Jesus’ death does, or why it matters.
Here’s what Bell says about Jesus’ death in Luggage:
It’s like right at the heart of his message is the simple claim that God has forgiven us of all of our sins, doesn’t hold any of our past against us—because none of us have clean hands, do we? I mean we’ve all wronged someone, but with Jesus there’s no condemnation, there’s no list of wrongs, there’s no judgment. It’s like the cross is God’s way of saying, «I don’t hold your past against you.»
There’s nothing necessarily wrong there, but then again, the whole idea of these videos is to talk to non-Christian people and tell them about Jesus Christ. Exactly what are they supposed to gain when Bell says that the cross is God’s way of saying that he doesn’t hold their past against them? At the very least, that’s pretty thin stuff to offer up as an explanation of what most Christians consider to be the center of their faith.
There’s a slightly more filled-out treatment of Jesus’ death in You, where Bell presents the gospel as a choice between changing-the-world-by-force-and-political-coercion-like-Caesar and changing-the-world-by-love-and-compassion-like-Jesus. Here’s his point about the cross:
Well, obviously the way they were living and the things they believed brought them—it raised all sorts of questions for those around them. Who do you believe: Caesar, who thinks that a new world, a better world, is made through his brute military and political power by forcing people to do what he says, or Jesus, who invites you to make a new and better world through loving acts of compassion and generosity? Caesar who killed Jesus on an execution stake, or God who raised Jesus from the dead? Whose way do you think is better? Who do you think is Lord? Jesus or Caesar? Whose kingdom do you find more compelling?
There’s not much there to go on, but the point seems to be that Jesus’ death was a picture of Caesar’s wrath against his life of love and compassion, and the resurrection was then another picture of God vindicating Jesus’ way over Caesar’s way. Love conquers violence. McLaren floats a similar understanding of the cross in The Story We Find Ourselves In, calling it the «powerful weakness» theory of the atonement. The problem with that, however, is that it casts Jesus’ death as a mere spectacle. It’s just God showing us that he prefers Jesus’ way to Caesar’s. But it leaves the cross actually accomplishing nothing objective.
I’ve watched several hours’ worth of NOOMA videos now, and I still have no idea what Bell thinks the cross was for. Somehow it has to do with God not holding our past against us, and together with the resurrection it’s a powerful statement that God doesn’t care for Caesar’s m.o. But that’s it. That’s all Bell gives us in eighteen different videos.
So what’s going on here? My guess is that it’s the same impulse that would lead Bell to ignore the fact that God judges sin. Wrath is uncomfortable, and it doesn’t play well in the Emergent culture. People don’t want to hear about a God who could be wrathful.
Of course, that causes problems for explaining why Jesus had to die, because, like it or not, the cross is bound up with wrath. After all, that’s what the word «propitiation» deals with. If you’re not willing to talk about a God who has wrath and is willing to use it, you’re going to be really uncomfortable explaining why the Bible says that God killed his Son. You’ll probably just ignore it. And when you can’t ignore it any longer, you’ll say something benign and cloudy like, «It’s God’s way of saying that he doesn’t hold our past against us.» Then you’ll tut-tut Caesar for killing Jesus. What you won’t do is face up honestly to the fact that Scripture says, «Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him.»
Here’s the thing: No one would say that the cross is a comfortable topic. It’s not. It’s a horrible moment in the history of humanity, one that embodies the most heart-wrenching truths imaginable. God the Son dies. The eternal Father forsakes the eternal Son. There’s a reason God extinguished the sun and shrouded the whole thing in darkness; the universe twisted up and broke when Jesus died. The cross is not something that’s fun to stare at, and it’s not a crazy instinct to want, at first, to avert one’s eyes from it.
Then again, it’s precisely in those grotesque paradoxes of the cross that its beauty lies. Admittedly, that beauty isn’t obvious at first glance. You have to stare at the cross to see its glory. You have to see why God the Son died, why the Father forsook the Son. You have to see the meaning of it, and not just the bare, bloody facts of the matter. Once you do that—once you’ve stared long enough and deeply enough—you start to see that it was exactly there, in its very ugliness, in the most horrific outpouring of wrath that the world has ever seen, there was love incomprehensible!
That’s the real tragedy of Bell’s approach to the cross. He’s not willing to stare at it long enough to see its glory. The wrath inherent to it is so distasteful to him, so off-putting to the audience he’s speaking to, that he ends up, sadly, without the resources to tell his listeners about the most profound and most beautiful love in the universe—that of Jesus laying down his life for those he loves, and absorbing the wrath of his Father in their place, as their Savior and Redeemer.
NOOMA TURNS CHRISTIANITY INTO A BANAL MORALISM
Of course, once you decide to demur from talking about the cross, you’ve really turned Christianity into nothing more than a banal moralism that tells people to live in a certain way. Now that’s a charge that’s loaded with irony, because moralism is one of the main things the Emergent movement is reacting against. But take a look at what they’re saying. Take a look at how Rob Bell defines Christianity in these NOOMA videos. It’s not much more than, «Live like this, not like this.»
Consider the way Bell describes what it is to be a Christian in Rhythm. If you’re living «in tune with the song,» you’re there. «When I’m like selfish and stingy or refuse to give,» he says, «I’m essentially out of tune with the song. . . . When you see someone sacrifice themselves for another, for the well-being of somebody else, it’s like they’re playing in the right key. That’s why it’s so inspiring and powerful. They’re in tune with the song.» It’s all about doing this, living like this, acting like that.
And it’s not that Bell is saying that «living in tune with the song» is the result of God’s regenerating power in the life of the believer, either. It’s just a decision you make to do it. «An infinite, massive, kind of invisible God—that’s hard to get our minds around. But truth, love, grace, mercy, justice, compassion…the way that Jesus lived. I can see that. I can understand that. I can relate to that. I can play that song!»
All you have to do is believe in yourself.
No, seriously. He says that. And really it’s even worse than that, because believing in yourself is the grand finale of a whole theological argument in which Jesus is made out to have faith in us, rather than the other way around. Jesus has faith, Bell says, that we’ll be able to live like he wants us to.
All this happens in the video entitled Dust. Having explained at some length how the Jewish rabbis would choose students to learn under them, Bell asks why it was that Peter, seeing Jesus walking on the water, got out of the boat to do it himself, and why it was that he started to sink. Here’s how Bell answers those questions:
Why is Peter’s first reaction, «If it’s you, then tell me to come to you?» Because he’s a disciple, he’s oriented his whole life, devoted his whole life to doing what he sees his rabbi doing, learning to be like his rabbi. So he sees his rabbi walking on water, and what’s the first thing he wants to do? «I wanna walk on water, too. I wanna be like my rabbi.» And so Peter gets out of the boat, and he starts walking on water, and he yells out, «Jesus save me!» And the text reads that Jesus immediately caught him and said, «You of little faith, why did you doubt?» Now, I always assumed that Peter doubts Jesus. But Jesus isn’t sinking. Who does Peter doubt? He doubts himself; he loses faith in himself, that he can actually be like his rabbi.
So it’s not that Peter let his fear of the waves overwhelm his faith in Jesus’ power to keep him afloat. No, it’s that Peter lost faith in himself. He stopped believing that he could do what Jesus did. He was, as Jesus put, a man «of little faith»—never mind that Jesus always uses that phrase to refer to someone’s lack of faith in God, not lack of faith in themselves. Here’s the point Bell wants to make:
I mean, all my life, I’ve heard people talk about believing in God. But God believes in us, in you, in me. I mean faith in Jesus is important. But what about Jesus’ faith in us? . . . I mean, what if we can actually be the kinds of people that God created us to be? What if he actually believes that? I mean, what if he actually believes that we can be the kind of people who live like Jesus lived, the kinds of people who take action because we’re aware of all these endless opportunities around us all the time, for good, for beauty, for truth? Jesus has faith that you can follow him and you can be like him. . . .
May you believe in God, but may you come to see that God believes in you. May you have faith in Jesus, but may you come to believe that Jesus has faith that you can be like him.
So that’s it. Christianity is about living like Jesus lived—and Jesus believes we can do it if we just try hard enough.
In fact, if you take Bell seriously, «live like this» is pretty much the bottom-line of Jesus’ message to the world. As he sums it up in Trees: «My understanding of Jesus’ message is that he teaches us to live in the reality of God now—here and today. It’s almost as if Jesus just keeps saying, ‘Change your life. Live this way.’»
Change your life. Live this way.
That is moralism.
Sure, it’s a tricked-out moralism. There’s some colorless grace at the front end of it (God accepts us as we are). It also has a really great moral example in Jesus trailblazing a new way of life right under the nose of the Roman Empire, and it comes with a big story about God launching a rescue effort to put the world back together. But it’s still moralism. It makes Jesus into one more philosopher/teacher telling us all to live this way, not that way. It makes Christianity a matter of Jesus trusting us to live a certain way, rather than our trusting in Christ to save us from sin.
I realize that Rob Bell is trying to communicate with people who have never given the time of day to spiritual things. He’s trying to present Jesus to them in a way that will be accessible to them. I think that’s a noble goal, and I don’t think it’s a futile one. But I also think that the way Bell has gone about it—with particular reference to these NOOMA videos—is something far smaller than and far short of biblical Christianity.
Having watched so many of these videos, it strikes me just now how seldom Bell uses the traditional Christian language to name Jesus. He doesn’t call him Savior, or Redeemer, or Son of God, and only very occasionally does he call him Lord. Instead, he very much seems to prefer calling Jesus «teacher» or «rabbi.» I’m sure part of that is that he wants to be fresh and edgy. But I think it also points to just how far these videos lower the meaning of Christianity.
The fact is, the NOOMA videos retell the story of Jesus in a pretty radical way. Though Jesus is certainly respected and honored, the point of the story no longer involves the divine Christ who died on the cross as a substitute for his people, rose from the dead, and is now enthroned in heaven, but rather Jesus the Nazarene who teaches people how to live and how to find God. Jesus shows the way, rather than being the Way. He is respected, honored, and heeded, rather than worshipped. He is «Rabbi,» rather than «Savior.» This is, as Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace described it recently, the replacement of «Christianity» with «Jesusanity.»
Bell would never use this word, but I believe what he’s presented in NOOMA is really just another religion that’s not so much different from any other religion in the world. For the gospel of NOOMA isn’t finally about the Son of God who lovingly dies in his people’s place to redeem them from sin and save them from God’s righteous judgment. It’s about the really great teacher who says, «Change your life. Live this way.»
Once you’re past the flashy packaging, that’s not really all that inspiring, is it?