In between the knee-jerking reactions to Rob Bell's Love Wins and the subsequent books that are undoubtedly going to continue the fervor, I wanted to make another point from observing the whole controversy. Whether or not you agree with the positions taken in Love Wins, or whether you believe it is a good discussion on the topic, or even if you think that Rob Bell should be writing any books whatsoever . . . there is the issue of public proclamation which I wish to examine.
For me it began with a simple discomfort from watching some of Bell's media-blitz, one that mostly turned me off from reading his book - which I might not have read still without someone placing a copy of it on my desk. I was less-than-thrilled with the message that Bell was giving, with all of the mysteriousness, dodging, questioning and other attempts at keeping the contents (and conclusions) of his book private. In doing this Bell made many (mostly evangelicals) people uneasy about just what he believed and advocated. From here it was a rather short and unfortunate gap for heresy hunters to fill on their own.
A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a friend of ours at another church, asking me questions about Rob Bell, the book, and all of the hubbub. His concern came after reading the Time Magazine article featuring Bell (14 April 2011), wondering what this guy had to hide and if he had fallen off some theological deep-end. Please understand that this friend was not making any judgments on Bell's theology at all. He simply remembered this guy from the Nooma videos that we used for some classes at church a while back, now in Time Magazine going all cloak-and-dagger about the existence of Hell.
This reminded me of an old video featuring Mr. Evangelical himself, Billy Graham. He appeared on the Woody Allen Show sometime in the late 1960s, where the two had a rather pleasant conversation . . . even though it was filled with laughs and jabs. Ultimately, the two respected each other and had a good talk.
Having seen this video, look at the conversation between Rob Bell and MSNBC host Martin Bashir. Note the differences.
Remove for a moment a few things: 1) HD v. 1960's-D; 2) Modernity v. Postmodernity; 3) King James Sounding Billy and Message Sounding Rob; 4) Commandments v. Heaven and Hell. At the end of the day both hosts are presenting questions which many in their audience want to know. Whereas Billy Graham unabashedly and openly gives answers stemming from his belief in Scripture, Rob Bell fails to say anything too definitive.
There are, I suppose, many reasons for Bell's presentation and posture in this (and others like it) interview.
One defense is possibly that he is trying to get people to move beyond the short and pithy answers so that they may enter into a more thorough discussion by reading his book. Unfortunately this places too much responsibility into the hands of people who, by the premise of the defense, are not engaging in news stories more than five minutes at a time.
Another defense is that postmoderns are more interested in the questions than they are the answers, thus Bell is appealing to that segment of culture. This may be true to a certain degree, but I do not believe that questioning overcomes the deep and natural desire of the individual to find truth and freedom. In other words, many in our culture are interested in asking questions which come in the context of a truthful system.
There are probably more reasons. But at the end of the day I think that it comes down to the priority given to selling books than the bold proclamation of the gospel. That is to say, whenever you have the opportunity to share to a listening world what Scripture says you don't refer them to your book . . . you tell them the truth. If it gets you uninvited to these talking heads shows then so be it. There are worse realities than being labelled a Jesus-freak and having a bunch of unsold books in the warehouse.
Billy Graham is a cultural icon, not only in the United States but around the world. He did this by preaching the gospel first, and doing all of the other stuff (the radio, books, magazines, etc) as extensions of his primary ministry. Theologically, Graham doesn't get a pass . . . but he avoids many of the debates because he held tightly to the simple and clear presentation of Scripture to a world that was hungry for God to use his voice. If we do not seize the opportunities to step up to the microphone and speak boldly, then there will not be another leading voice in evangelicalism - at least not one that we can all recognize.