Review of Rob Bell’s NOOMA — Part 3
Here’s the scoop on the Rob Bell video series storming through youth rooms and sermon series across the country.
Here’s a list of the NOOMA videos I was able to watch, with a brief comment on each:
001 | Rain
This is a really compelling message about God’s love for those who are broken, sinful, ashamed, and afraid. Bell tells the story of being caught in a thunderstorm with his one-year-old son. Walking toward home with the baby crying in fear, he held his son close to his chest and whispered over and over again to him, “I love you, buddy. We’re gonna make it.” That’s what God does for us when we come to him. He holds us, comforts us, and promises us that we’re going to make it. This video has a strong statement of our sinfulness and God’s love, but the gospel is presented as “God loves you even with your brokenness.”
002 | Flame
Bell starts a bonfire in the forest as he talks about the “flame” of love. This is one of the best of the NOOMA. Bell distinguishes between the Hebrew words rayah (meaning friendship), ahavah (meaning commitment), and dod (referring to sexual love). All three are necessary for the kind of love between man and woman that God intended. Bell’s thoughts about what you end up with when any one of these is missing are very interesting and very true.
003 | Trees
Planting trees along a dirty-looking sidewalk in the city, Bell says that he wants a God who is interested in the here-and-now, who cares about what happens in this world and doesn’t just tell his followers to look forward to the next one. This is one of the most important videos for understanding the kernel of NOOMA’s version of the gospel. Being a disciple of Jesus is about being a person of peace and justice, and about joining God in his purpose to make this world a better place. To sum it up: “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.”
004 | Sunday
Sitting in the Rainbow Café, Bell says that God is not concerned about our religious rituals. He wants our hearts. Taken alone, this is a good video, keying on Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, and encouraging people to live as Christians, not just be Christians. Taken as part of the whole NOOMA package, you realize that the good exhortation here to live in a certain way is not well backed up by any true gospel.
005 | Noise
This one is different from the other NOOMA, because Bell doesn’t say much. After introducing the video with a story about how difficult it is to find silence in our world, the screen goes black, and white text asks the viewer if there is too much noise in his or her life. Do you want to hear the voice of God? Is it possible that you don’t hear because there’s not enough silence in your life? Jesus had disciplines of silence and solitude, so he could hear the voice of God. As usual, the production is fantastic—the viewer is staring out of a T.V. at Bell sitting on his couch, at least until he turns the T.V. off.
006 | Kickball
Bell refuses to buy a weird toy at a mall kiosk for his young son, because he has in mind another, better gift at a different store—a kickball. This is a good meditation on a hard question: Why doesn’t God always give us what we ask for? Bell gives the same answer that Lewis does in his “holiday-at-the-beach versus mudpies-in-the-slums” illustration.
007 | Luggage
Everybody has wounds, Bell says in this video. Some of them are small and petty, others are large and devastating. The message of this one is about resisting the impulse to revenge. Bell says that to forgive is simply to give to another what has already been given to us (see part 2 of this series for a discussion on why that could be confusing to non-Christians). This is where Bell says, quite off-handedly, that “The cross is like God saying, ‘I don’t hold your past against you.’” He also says that forgiveness is more about setting the “forgiver” free, rather than the “forgiven.” The video ends shockingly with the woman we’ve been following through the airport getting into her car, driving out of the airport, and promptly getting crushed by a dump truck—the point being that you don’t have forever to forgive someone.
008 | Dust
This is Bell’s rethinking of the story of Peter walking on the water. After giving a pretty fascinating account of how the Jewish rabbi system worked, he concludes by saying that the unique thing about Rabbi Jesus was that he didn’t pick “the best of the best of the best” to follow him. He picked guys who didn’t make the cut. But the fact that he picked them meant that he thought they had the ability to do what he did. Peter thought so, too; so he got out on the water. The reason he sank was not that he lost faith in Jesus—it was that he lost faith in himself that he could be like Jesus. Faith in Jesus is good, Bell says, but what about Jesus’ faith in us? He chose us, so obviously he has faith that we can live the kind of lives that he wants us to live. Dust is one of the most questionable of all the videos. Is it really a good idea to recast faith as Jesus’ faith in us to be good? That’s pretty kindergarten, if you ask me—banal moralism, as I called it earlier.
009 | Bullhorn
A call to love people, and a gentle shot across the bow at people who believe in the traditional Christian doctrine of hell. Bell asks what conversion and condemnation have to do with the message of Jesus, and he says that the way we usually preach the gospel makes hell sound like a threat and heaven like a carrot. In the background is a very plain man in a white, short-sleeved dress shirt making some sort of preparations. At the end of the video, he gets out of his car and starts shouting at people about hell through his bullhorn in a busy crosswalk. The point of the video is that we’re to love people—disagreeing with them sometimes, yes, but always loving them. The subtext is that somehow talking about hell, judgment, and conversion is antithetical to that goal. I’ll just let Bell take that up with Jesus, who didn’t seem to agree.
010 | Lump
Bell’s son gets caught in a lie and rushes upstairs. A few minutes later, Bell finds him hiding under the covers of his parents’ bed, ashamed. What he doesn’t realize is that his father is there waiting to forgive him. Bell says that given enough time, sin will always find us out, and he calls people to come out from under the covers and stop hiding in shame from God, who loves us in spite of what we’ve done. However, Bell gives no strong call to repentance. The focus is definitely on God’s love for us regardless of our sin, and not on repentance, as it is in all the videos.
011 | Rhythm
This is one of the videos in which Bell tries to define what the gospel is. He says he doesn’t particularly like thinking of God in theological categories, but rather when he thinks about God, he thinks about a song. That song is playing throughout the universe, and the question is whether we’re living in tune with that song. “Living in tune” means living a life of love, justice, and compassion. He lightly shoves aside people who insist on thinking of God as immortal, invisible, omnipotent, and all the rest, saying that he finds it easier to look at how Jesus lived and then live like that. “I can play that song,” he says. The video ends with “May you realize that you are in relationship with the living God.”
012 | Matthew
Bell tells the story of his friend Matthew, who died in a car accident. This video is about dealing with grief. We find hope, Bell says, in God’s promise that he will restore the world.
013 | Rich
Bell is waiting for his car to get an oil change. This is a fairly straightforward Sunday School lesson on materialism. Here in America, we are fantastically rich, and God has given us these things so that we can do good works and join him in repairing and restoring the world.
014 | Breathe
Set in a subway terminal, this one is a fascinating meditation on breathing, the spirit, and the name of God. God’s revealed name YHWH, Bell says, is believed by some rabbis to be the sound of breathing. When we’re born, the first thing we do is say the name of God, and when we can no longer say the name of God, we die. This video contains some confusing theology about the words “breath” and “spirit” being the same. Bell rightly says that every human being has breath and a spirit, but he seems to equate all that with the Spirit of God in the New Testament. I’m not positive, but it sounds to me like he is saying that every human being possesses the Spirit of God, who sanctifies and leads into truth.
015 | You
This video starts out by showing how many of the central facts of Christianity—Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and divinity—were already being used by mystery religions in the Roman Empire. Those things wouldn’t have been too surprising to people, and wouldn’t have caused much of a ripple in the Roman Empire. What would have been surprising and controversial was Jesus’ call to live a life of love and compassion. The point isn’t made very strongly, but one wonders: is Bell really saying that the focus of Christianity ought to be Jesus’ ethical teachings, and not his death, resurrection, and identity? The gospel is about making a better world, he says. It’s the good news that God hasn’t given up on the world. God heals broken people so they can join him in healing the world. The cross was about Caesar reacting to Jesus’ life of love, and the resurrection overturning Caesar’s hostility. The video ends with “May you realize that you are the gospel.” Here is the gospel according to Bell, in all its moralistic incompleteness. ‘Live like this. That’s what’s important.’
016 | Store
Bell talks about dealing with anger as a man encounters frustration after frustration in a grocery store. Straightforward, well-done message on handling anger and frustration, and redirecting that energy toward being angry at the injustice and suffering in the world.
017 | Today
This video includes more about Jesus’ resurrection than any other, but it focuses on Jesus telling Mary Magdalene not to hold on to him when she sees him. Bell’s message is that people tend to get hung up on the past—either celebrating or mourning it—but that God wants us to let go of the past and live in Today. He says at the end, “May you receive from God a new spirit, one for here, now, today.” It makes one wonder: does Bell know he’s using biblical language in a thoroughly unbiblical way?
018 | Name
This is easily the weirdest of the NOOMA videos. It’s a series of shots of different people taking off one t-shirt to reveal another and another, with a word on the back of each that presumably describes the person—”lonely,” “stylish,” “envious,” “listener,” “anorexic,” “GED,” “HIV+,” and on and on. There’s no discernible progression; the words seem mostly random to me. At the end, all the people take off the last t-shirt, and the word “name” is stenciled on each of their backs. Over all this, Bell is telling the viewer to learn to be comfortable with who God made them to be, to be comfortable in their own skin. Really? Comfortable with envy? Comfortable being jaded? What does that mean? And what does it mean to have “name” stenciled on your back when you get all your shirts off? And what on earth does Bell mean when he says at the end, “May you do the hard work of the soul to discover your true self?”
019 | Open
This video is about the role of prayer in our lives. Why does God answer some prayers “Yes” and some prayers “No?” Why does God perform a miracle in this situation and not in that situation? In the end, Bell doesn’t answer those questions, rightly saying “I don’t know why.” Using Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane as his model, Bell understands prayer to be neither a passive “whatever” to the will of God, nor an active rebellion against what God is doing. Rather, prayer is a means of being “brutally honest with your Maker,” telling God honestly how you feel, what you’re thinking, and then being open to what God is accomplishing in the world. Moreover, prayer leads us to understand that we ourselves are a part of God’s work. “Don’t pray for God to feed the hungry,” Bell says, “unless you’re willing to go feed them yourself.” The theological basis of the video is that God “left creation unfinished” and is now engaged in the “ongoing creation of the world,” of which we can be a part. Lots of things to wonder about there: Doesn’t God’s declaration of “very good” and his rest on the seventh day belie the idea that his work of creation was “unfinished?” Most troublesome is when Bell says that God “takes a great risk in creating,” because things might have “veered off course” and not turned out like he intended. Does Bell know that’s how the, well, Open Theists talk?