Emergent Gospel : Rob Bell

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I’d like to share this particularly with my atheist friends.  As I traipse around the religious internet, I have just starting to learn about a Sect of Christianity called “emergent” Christianity  (it has been around a while, I am just a late comer).   This video is by one of the many new Emergent preachers — Rob Bell (Michigan).  The Emergent crew, largely a “post-boomer spirituality” crowd, comes in many shades and theologies, but they apparently share some traits like:

  • Disinterest in Established Religion: Rethinking  ministry
  • Post-modern philosophy
    • stated aversion to rational, propositional expressions of faith.
    • Narrative Theology
  • Social Activism
    • Community Building
    • Looking for ways to engage the larger culture — often tech friendly
    • “Missional Living”  (Orthopraxis before Orthodoxy)
    • Often Leftist Politically (not my favorite aspect)
  • Pluralism:  Truth can be found in other faiths

Emergent Christianity is considered apostate and heretical by many orthodox Christians — as if I care.  But I find them very interesting.  I just found this video last night — never having heard of Rob Bell.  It reminded me of Peter Rollins, another emergent church leader in Great Britain whose narratives I have enjoyed.

Sure, you don’t have to buy into the stories they have decided to organize their life around, but I find the web of their beliefs – how the tie their values, thoughts and actions together — to be interestingly refreshing.  I’d be curious what my readers think.  To me, this sort of Christianity seems more desirable that the orthodoxy I am familiar with.

A 2007 Christianity Today article comically lists some stereotypes of the Emergents:

  • They drink like Southern Baptists
  • They talk like Catholics—meaning they cuss and use naughty words.
  • They evangelize and theologize like the Reformed—meaning they rarely evangelize, yet theologize all the time.
  • They worship like charismatics—meaning with their whole bodies, some parts tattooed.
  • They vote like Episcopalians—meaning they eat, drink, and sleep on their left side.
  • They deny the truth—meaning they’ve got a latte-soaked copy of Derrida in their smoke- and beer-stained backpacks.

It is probably some of this bohemian, free-thinking, inventive stuff that draws me much like it did when I was in the Jesus movement back in the 70’s.   Yeah, the Christian mythology doesn’t do it for me, but the movement in general seems very interesting — I am curious to see where they go and their impact on culture.  But those churches that call themselves emergent, come in many flavors.  I am going to borrow from the sermon of Mark Driscoll for the taxonomy below — he comes from my least favorite “stream” of emergents.  What his groups all have in common is their willingness to participate in common culture and not withdraw and to offer creative worship and meetings.  I think only the first group is really Post-Modern — more later.
(1)Emergent Liberals (my favorites)

Emergent Village Group:

Other Emergent Liberals:

This group questions the inerrancy of the Bible,  the virgin birth, the role of Jesus and may take a very figurative interpretation of the resurrection.  They are hard to pin down, it seems.  Heck, they think homosexuality may be OK.

(2)House Church Evangelicals : Don’t like pastors, preachers or big churches.

(3)Emerging Evangelicals:  Orthodox Evangelicals with hip services but they allow women pastors !

  • Dan Kimbell, John Burke, Donald Miller, Rick McKinley

(4)Emergent Reformers (my lease favorite) : very orthodox evangelicals (only male pastors, homosexuality is wrong, hell is real)  also Charismatic

  • Mark Driscoll :  Marshill Church — same name as Rob Bell’s church – very different.
  • Tim Kellers (New York), C.J. Haney, Matt Chanler
  • Theologians/ Thinkers:  Francis Schaeffer (dead), Calvin, Luther, Billy Graham, Ed Stetzer, John Piper, D.A. Carson,

Post-Modern Sources:  (I have a hard time keeping the different emergents and different post-moderns separate in my mind, but here you go)

Anti-Emergent Sites (for those interested in the in-fighting)


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

31 responses to “Emergent Gospel : Rob Bell

  1. It is interesting reading those orthodox critiques of Rob Bell. They certainly make valid points that he is not teaching orthodox Christianity, or as Aaron said, I think, that it is not only unorthodox, but self-centered (I know that’s not the right word though).

    I have one of his books. I like the stuff he writes about life, and the stories, but the theology leaves me a bit cold. It has enough of the warm fuzzies to turn me off. It is OK to have warm fuzzies I think, but not to teach them as a sort of doctrine. I’d give an example but don’t have the book with me.

    I have benefited a lot from Scot McKnight’s writing, who is considered emergent, though his theology is way more orthodox than Bell’s. I have had pointed out to me that emergent can refer to more of a church structure or approach than a theology. So you will have “emergent” churches that are more orthodox in doctrine, but less so in practice, and vice versa.

  2. It sounds good on paper; particularly, the part about finding truth in other faiths.

    But I would have to hang out with them to know if I like the idea or not. Sometimes we need to see how belief systems take life in its followers. If they are fanatical, combative, and holier-than-thou about their liberal views, then they’re just another religion.

    My first impression is to say, “Good for them,” but not me, thanks.

  3. That’s my impression too Lorena, and I have really enjoyed hanging out with some of those people. Partly because of their knowledge of the bible and the practice of Christianity I have something in common with the, even apart from the faith thing. My conclusion is the same as yours at the end of the day, but I’m content to keep hanging out.

    You seem to be more laid back about the religion thing and religious people lately in your posts and comments. Or is that just me? Seems like a good thing.

  4. @ ATTR & Lorena — Well said, I totally agree !

  5. Schoch

    You might check out Spencer Burke and his site at http://www.theooze.com

  6. To be honest, the first half of his video was the best advertisement for atheism I can think of, it was a demonstration that Christianity was no different than any other ancient religion, it produced it’s set of fanatics who bought into the nonsense, just like Mithraism and “Caesarism” and all the rest. It did nothing whatsoever to convince me that any of the religious claims made were remotely likely or factually true, it was just a bunch of unsupported claims that Christianity was somehow true, even though it was functionally identical to all these other beliefs which he seems to acknowledge were false.

    Sorry, not at all impressed. However, I’m so unimpressed with Mr. Bell that I’m stealing the video (with proper attributions of course) for a complete examination sometime in the coming week.

    Thanks for finding it Sabio, you’re usually good at coming up with oddball stuff to talk about. 🙂

  7. @ Thanx to everyone for input, I have updated a bit. Let me know if I need additions or corrections.

  8. One more link, one of my less-than-favorite ;^) authors, writing about the emergent church:


    and part II:

    I read that a while back, they are rather fair assessments, and I think actually make the emergent church sound pretty good, ironic! To them (conservatives) it comes down to adhering to their definition of Truth, which the emergents tend not to.

    Which reminds me of one of my favorite things about the emergent writers — how much the tick off the conservative evangelicals.

  9. Al

    I came upon the emergent _________ (tribe? clan? crew?) as a boomer endeavoring to gain understanding of this ‘new-fangled postmodernism’ stuff. As I have read various books and blogs by various self-declared emergents (McLaren and Bell being a couple favorites), I am seeing myself gradually align with pretty much all of the 4 traits you list above, at least the first 3. I would personally see myself as more of an inclusivist than a pluralist (I think).
    Lorena, you make a valid point: “If they are fanatical, combative, and holier-than-thou about their liberal views, then they’re just another religion.”, but so far I see most of them being fairly generous to others. But it’s not easy being generous when you know you have the inside track on something. (I think I am being tongue-in-cheek on that!)
    Coming from a history as a conservative evangelical, and morphing into something more ‘otherly’, I kinda agree with ATTR’s comment about the value of ticking of the conservative evangelicals. But I am trying to be broad-minded enough to be generous.

  10. Sabio, I went to Bell’s church when I was in Grand Rapids. He theology is very influenced by rabbinical sources. Or, if you want to contrast Greek and Hebrew worldviews (an unfair dichotomy, but there you go), Bell would sit in the Hebrew camp very easily. This is why he doesn’t get on with Christian with more rationalist, modernist worldviews (like Albert Mohler, linked to above).

    You need to get Bell out of that “Unorthodox” bracket. Bell would only be labelled “unorthodox” by conservative evangelicals – as ATTR hints – when you get down to it, he’s not that radical theologically, he simply doesn’t value the same things the conservatives do (he differs on what is most important, I guess, relationality rather than strict doctrine). Rollins is much more radical theologically than Bell, in the context of historical Christianity. He is closer to “unorthodoxy”, but it depends what you mean by orthodoxy.

    Re. your “post-modern (PoMo) sources” column, I understand you’re having a hard time getting what post-modern means, so I won’t talk about the title. Other big sources for emergent types are:
    Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch (missiologists – dead)
    George Lindbeck and Hans Frei (post-liberal theologians – dead? I think)
    Stanley Hauerwas (ethicist, narrative theologian, post-liberal)
    Stanley Grenz (Christian PoMo philosopher, now dead)
    Carl Raschke (Christian PoMo philosopher)
    Merold Westphal (Christian PoMo philosopher)
    Craig van Gelder, Darrel Guder (Missiologists)

    For Rollins (who is actually a proper philosopher) he’s also very influenced by the Christian mystics; Meister Eckhart, Pseudo-Dionysius, etc. etc.

    There are loads of other sources for them but those are some. Also, I’ll send you an email about another thing…

  11. geoih

    He’s a good example of why I’m generally far less worried about Christians than I am of socialists. At least he doesn’t seem to be planning to save the world, whether anybody else likes it or not.

  12. What took you so long? The emergent-evangelical word war has been going on in various bible and theology blogs for some years now. :p

  13. Schoch

    [deleted for violation of comment policy:
    book peddling without relevance ]

  14. @ Qohelet
    I was out of the country for more than a decade and only involved with Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism. After returning to the US, I successfully avoided Christianity until my kids hit elementary school and it effected my life again. Shortly after, still stuck in the USA, I started blogging about the religion surrounding me. So I had some catching up to do. So prior to this I had become familiar on lots of other stuff but not it is time to catch up on Christian sects.

  15. @ geoih
    Yeah, I am not sure what their politics are. I heard the individual communalism or post-liberalism may be the bent of some. I agree, I’d rather them try to change my beliefs voluntarily than take my money by force.

  16. Bell has an interesting video called “Everything is spiritual”. You may find it fascinating. From my perspective his views are that of being “connected”. And Jesus is his main way of doing it. I find it can be quite inviting and for the most part very harmless. Im sure it would still be a turn off for any real atheist.

  17. This was my last attempt at holding on to organized Christianity. I lasted about three or so years.

    The plus side is their community activism and virtual the absence of insulting methods of proselytizing. They focus on building relationships and community, which is great.

    But the issues come up when you actually start reading the bible and turn to an emergent pastor for thoughtful discussion and realistic answers.

    Since orthodoxy is not stressed, the spew vapid platitudes and do their best not to engage because this cool, loving dude named Jesus is all that mattes, friend-o.

    It’s great for a certain crowd, but after a while it insulted my intelligence and I gave up trying to squeeze any element of truth out of them.

  18. If they voted like Southern Baptists and drank like Episcopalians, then I’d be worried.

    I had a religion professor as an undergrad who was really taken by the emergent church. I can see the appeal of it, particularly for those who are trying to get away from the confines of traditional Christianity while still technically keeping within the faith. For those of us who feel no need to continue to call ourselves Christian, however, it looks a little dubious. How far can you stretch a tradition before it ceases to be that tradition?

    BTW, your link to Rob Bell’s page got truncated. And ‘Karl Bart’ is usually spelled ‘Karl Barth’.

  19. @ VorJack — agreed, it does look dubious. Soon, I hope to write my impressions about “Why some stay Christians”. I think there are lots of good reasons, even though, folks like you and I find it hard to really sympathize with. However, our inability to sympathize, remember, says more about us then about them ! That may be a bit abstruse, but my post may clarify. (btw, thanx for edit suggestions)

  20. @ Anthony & Simon
    Anthony, I loved your analysis — I can totally imagine this.
    But then I meet people like Simon. He seems to do more magic with his stuff.

  21. @ Al — I loved your nuanced approach !

  22. Schoch

    having journeyed through Mennonites, Charismatics, Pentecostals, Toronto Blessing movement, Vineyard and emergent church circles and after over 20 years in paid ministry I have a bit of experience to draw from … sorry about posting a link to Thank God for Evolution which attempts to marry both the christian and the evolution camps … i should have read the posting rules … my fault … but i am very much weary from the path religion took me in 40 years … today i am much more at home with those who reason and engage their minds rather than check them at the door of the hallowed halls on sunday mornings … having been a minister and now finding myself as one who has moved past Christianity as one of my friends recently described it, i find people are much friendlier on this side of religion than i was ever led to believe … thanks to this blog and many others i read i have found a new group of thinkers who have traveled down many similar paths … i find myself much happier these days since leaving the ministry back in 2000 … just starting to breathe so to speak … thanks again … just hope I live another 50 years to truly enjoy this life

  23. Pingback: Cephus

  24. @ Schoch : Best wishes on your journey

  25. If the majority of the Emerging Church crowd held to the core beliefs you list in this post (“Disinterest in established religion… Pluralism.”) I would be a much louder proponent of the movement. Unfortunately, the so-called Emergent Aesthetic (hip, tattooed Gen-x’ers with goatees, beer mugs and destain for all things “suburban”) has been co-opted by conservatives, fundamentalists and Evangelicals of all stripes with the subversive intent of (in my view) “tricking” people into buying their re-branded, traditional American Christian religion.

    I’ve become progressively more liberal, and continually more unexcited by Emergent, with all of the tricky branding/marketing scheming going on.

    And I turned 30. I’m just not cool enough to be that damn hip anymore.

  26. Nice, Peter, well written (as always). You are just the uncool type needed on that world. Keep up the good work ! Thanx for visiting mate.

  27. You seem to be more laid back about the religion thing and religious people lately in your posts and comments. Or is that just me? Seems like a good thing.

    I don’t know. But it is called “healing,” I think, which is the whole reason I write.

    But also, I just want to make it abundantly clear that it isn’t the people I have issues with. It’s the belief system. I will never ease up there.

  28. amy

    I’ve been curious about the emergent phenomenon, but not curious enough about it to read any of their books just yet (I’m a bit turned off by the “coolness” factor, I’m afraid, and think I still would be even if I were young enough to be cool). I have, however, read Spong (Episcopalian renegade bishop) and Matthew Fox (silenced by the RC for his heretical views), both of whom I liked when I originally read them, and wonder if they would fit into that category.

    Due to my lack of reading on the subject (though you’ve certainly provided a lot, which I may get to eventually) I am speaking in ignorance, but I find it odd how EC’s seem vague on the specifics of faith, but specific on how to live out that faith. How can you live out a faith if you aren’t clear on what your faith entails?

    But then, what do I know? I’m as confused as hell 😉

    And just so you know, Sabio, I rectified that horrible slight you brought to my attention. If you were a Christian, I would point out how it’s your duty to forgive me, but as it is, I will throw myself at your mercy…

  29. I’m right in Rob Bell’s neighborhood, actually ;-). Neat guy.

    Scot McKnight runs a very popular blog, Jesus Creed, as well.

  30. Aaron, I already had McKnight listed.
    But, since you consider yourself in this camp, could you give a little classification of the 3 or 4 various types of Emergents? A little taxonomy help may be instructive. Thanx.

  31. Glad to help ;^)

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