One man on an empty stage save for a massive whiteboard and a marker pen talking to an audience for 75 minutes. That’s what you get with Rob Bell’s Everything is Spiritual DVD.
Rob Bell is founding pastor of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids and the presenter of the short Nooma films. Some Nooma films I love (‘Lump’ is my favourite); others are not much more than pop psychology.
Bell starts by unpacking the creation ‘poem’ of Genesis 1 before moving into an extended riff time on the wonders being discovered by modern science. The aim seems to be to make us marvel at the universe God has created with a hint at a sort of intelligent design or cosmological argument for God’s existence. As Bell goes deeper into modern particle physics he introduces the idea that there might be more dimensions that those in which we live (the claim made by proponents of string theory). He invites us to image how people in a two dimensional universe would encounter a three dimensional object: they would lack the conceptual framework to comprehend it, but some might nevertheless intuitively sense what it was. So it might be with God, suggests Bell. The idea that there are realities we cannot comprehend brings Bell back to Genesis 1 and his central assertion that everything is spiritual. Written into the text, he argues, is a command to stop our restless busyness and contemplate the spiritual. He critiques the body-spirit dualism of some Christians, but his main point is to invite secular people to recognise the spiritual nature of human existence. Bell ends with a version of presuppositional apologetics. What we look for is what we find, he suggests. If you want to be cynical then you will find evidence for your cynicism. If you want to find God then you will find traces of the divine.
There are one or two points on which you could pick Bell up on what he says. They are more potentially dangerous trajectories than problematic theological errors. To say that God couldn’t help creating, for example, would lead eventually to process theology. But I think Bell is merely trying to express the exuberant joy of God in creation. It’s a product of his desire to communicate to contemporary people. Bell also has a habit (common also in the Nooma videos) of quoting Rabbinic scholarship (far more than he quotes Christian scholarship) which makes me wonder how he views Jews who have not put their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
Everything is Spiritual is, in effective, the doctrine of creation presented evangelistically. So there’s no mention of sin or redemption. Bell ends with an invitation to feel the awe of creation and connect with the Creator. This means if you judge it as a complete gospel presentation then it is clearly deficient. But this is not what Bell is trying to do. It seems to be aimed at secular people and be a first invitation to consider God.
This, though, presents something of a problem for me which is that I’m not sure when I might use it. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I live in post-Christian Sheffield rather than the far more Christianized culture of Grand Rapids. I would love to expose some of my unbelieving friends to Everything is Spiritual. I’m just not sure how an invitation to watch a 75-minute DVD of a man preaching would go down! It’s a hard sell when they could watch a 90 minute action movie.
It is, nevertheless, a fascinating exercise is communication. It is clearly preaching, but it’s not a sermon. It’s something in between a sermon and a kind of stand-up routine. I say ‘kind of’ because, although there are some jokes, it’s not littered with jokes. It is serious stuff, but presented in a very engaging and relaxed manner. A ‘one man show’ would be a better description. I was bit disappointed with the way the whiteboard was used. I had expected that a drawing or diagram would gradually emerge than presented the themes of the talk in a dramatic, unified visual manner. Instead it simply fills up with Bell’s doodling. It seems to function more as a prop though in this regard it works well. I would recommend preachers watch the DVD and ponder what they might learn or adapt for their own communication – especially if your normal mode of delivery is to stand in front of a lectern tied to notes.
Coming soon: a review of Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Zondervan, 2008)
When I was speaking in the USA last summer I found myself watching late night American TV when I could not sleep. Bad idea.
The one show that stunned and almost addicted me was the tele-evangelist Pastor Melissa Scott.
Anyway – her trademark gimmick is the whiteboard, on which she scrawls words, pictures and diagrams. With it she can almost make her knowedge of dictionary definitions pass for linguistic knowledge…. She appeared able to talk for hours, partly due to the white board.
I’m sure Rob Bell uses his white board to teach more sensible things than her – but I bet that she is partly behind the whiteboard idea!
Hey tim, I read your article on the resurgence website (Communities of Grace vs. Communities of Performance) and I enjoyed and appreciated it. The other guys in the office and I were discussing it and they pointed out some things I thought I’d ask you about.
One guy made the point that it seemed like an introduction to a much larger piece. He also said it would have been much more compelling had it been backed by scripture (references in the article).
Was wondering if you were planning on writing up another part, part two perhaps?
Did this just release recently there? Here in Canada (and the U.S.) there’s a second, similar DVD from Bell titled The Gods Aren’t Angry. As the first one is to science — you mentioned string theory — the second one is to anthropology; and this time he holds is audience for 90 minutes, not 75.
I found your comment that it was evangelistic without sin and redemption to be accurate. In the ’70s and early ’80s we talked about certain ministry tools (and people) as being ‘pre-evangelistic.’ Maybe we need to bring that term back, because absent a mention of sin, some will suggest Bell isn’t teaching the gospel.
Of course the critics just wish they could hold an audience for 75 minutes! Another American, Andy Stanley says that “… peoples’ attention spans are as long as their engagement. If I’m engaged I will sit and stay engaged until I have to go to the loo.” (Well, he didn’t say “loo” but the rest is word-for-word.)
Hi Steve, here’s the series of posts from which it’s drawn …
It may one day get published. I have 40,000 words on the gospel and the urban poor, but I’d like to get some feedback from practioners before I think about publishing it. There is some related material in our book Total Church.
I haven’t seen this one yet but as the guy above commented on ‘The Gods aren’t angry’ Bell regularly omits the ideas of sin, judgement and atonement. In the case of ‘The Gods aren’t angry’ there are some very obvious places where he could’ve talked about those things in a very natural way but chose not to.
I agree that stylistically he has a lot going for him (despite being a bit camp…) and is very engaging but how you can monologue for 75 or 90 minutes without getting to the cross and resurrection (the heart of the gospel – 1Cor15) is beyond me. I’d much rather use someone like Louie Giglio or Mark Driscoll who are every bit as engaging without running away from tough Biblical truths.
Justin Buzzard blogged about The gods aren’t angry a while back:
I gave Everything is Spiritual to a work colleague (totally non-Xn and says he’s not interested) a few weeks back. He really liked it. Got him thinking a little. It’s a case of chipping away with people such as he. Giving a Mark Driscoll is fine in theory, but perhaps it betrays Iain’s lack of practice! Bell lays the groundwork for a monotheistic world view that is tied up with Jesus Christ – that’s a good place to start. I think Driscoll assumes a lot of an audience and my experience is that most Christians think their non-Christian friends are a lot further along than they are.
I am teaching a class called Christian Faith in Western Society at a seminary and I showed footage of Rick Warren delivering the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration. I asked for words to describe Warren. The general consensus was “bridge-builder”. I then showed them a couple of news and comment clips from people lambasting Obama for choosing Warren because of his divisive nature – complete with a clip of him comparing gay marriage to marriage between a brother and sister and marriage between an adult male and a young girl. Christians see him as a bridge-builder and secularists see him as a bridge burner. I am not saying that Warren is wrong – perhaps a little naive to state what he did about marriage in front of tv cameras – but I am saying that we are often a lot further from how non-Christians think than we even dare to imagine and Driscoll is speaking to people who have at least the “ghost of Christianity” looming over them. Bell is a better foundation layer and far less abrasive.
I guess ultimately the question is how much do we let culture and where people are at shape the evangel and evangelism..
And specifically whether ‘pre-evangelism’ (which needs defining) is Biblical. So to pick up on your group of people not yet won over to monotheism we could turn to Paul in Athens and see that he addresses that but in the same conversation presents them with their sin, need to repent and the fact that judgement is coming.
With regard to whether I’d ‘give a Mark Driscoll’. For me that’s hypothetical as I’ve never given a dvd or mp3 to someone. I try to explain the gospel in conversation, occasionally using books to help explore peoples questions.
In re-introducing the term, “pre-evangelism;” trust me, that term was equally controversial back in the ’70s.
The logic thought of great twentieth century evangelical intellectuals such as Francis Schaeffer, Herman Dooyeweerd, E. L. Hebden Taylor etc… was very modernistic in it’s outlook. They argued till death with modernism and it’s thinkers but they did it, ironically and probably unknowingly, in a modernistic way. They all, of course, loved their saviour, but their word view, one could argue was not a Jesus follower one but a modernistic one and they battled against modernism using modernism’s own intellectual tools rather than a humble Jesus from Nazareth way.
Rob Bell by going down a different route to the last generation of evangelical thinkers is not a heretics just for coming up with new post-modern approaches to intellectual dialog. He is simply doing what the previous generation did and what, of course, Paul did at the biblical Mars Hill! (Acts 17) One must engage the thought of the day to present Jesus as a personal saviour and as a universal redeemer.
I have been very much influenced by Mark Driscoll’s sermons since I first listened in 18 months ago. But if I think about it he doesn’t introduce any different ideas or emphasis from the emphasis I was taught growing up in a Conservative Evangelical Church here in Aberystwyth. He does it in a more cool/hip/rad/street-cred/cussing way, but content and emphasis wise it’s nothing new for me.
Bell on the other hand balances me off nicely from an emphasis that was missing in my conservative evangelical upbringing. I became a Christian around the age of 14 I think – but for many years after that I didn’t grow in the faith because the only thing I was taught was sin management theology – I already got that and what I needed was a deeper understanding of the Cross, a deeper understanding of the restoration through Jesus, a deeper understanding of his Kingdom. From the age of 18 onwards I saw that there was more to Christianity than sin management theology and by the age of 23 when I first got hold of books by people like Brian McClaren and Rob Bell I discovered that there were other Christians out there who had been through the same journey as me!
Sure, some things Bell says I don’t agree with but are there any people out there who would agree that men like, say, Martyn Lloyd-Jones got it right on every single issue? Of course not.
Ok. Testimony over. Thanks for listening!
The thing I’ve got a problem with is the inaccuracies in his use of physics concepts. Sloppy mistakes rather than abusing the science for theological purposes, but it still grates.