I recently had the opportunity to view Rob Bell’s “Nooma 019 Open” video. As I’ve taken several opportunities to write about Bell and his Emergent movement, it will come as no surprise that there is no love lost between myself and Bell’s movement (or Zondervan Publishers, for that matter, in so eagerly supporting it.) Yet, I have determined to do my level-best at giving a fair and biblical review of this product which will reveal the very best and worst which this evolving “conversation” has to offer via Bell’s contribution of Nooma 019.
The first and most obvious impression of Nooma 019, as with all of Bell’s Nooma videos, is the exceptional production quality with which it was prepared. The use of music, mood and the seemingly extemporaneous narration delivery are truly artful and impressive. Of all possible issues which one may take with Bell’s Nooma productions, quality of craftsmanship is certainly not one of them. In fact, the overall sensitivity of expression is so compelling that it is quite possible for one to be enraptured by the sentiments and completely miss the subtle theological nuances which underlie the premise.
Almost as impressive is Bell’s apparent understanding of the underlying human uncertainty which permeates our post-modern culture. As he frequently does so well, Bell addresses very real and valid issues which tear at the heart of human confidence in God’s sovereignty. He opens the video by introducing a true story of a friend who had lost a baby in the neonatal unit of a local hospital, despite extensive and passionate appeals in prayer. In his buildup of the issue at hand, he very compassionately poses questions we all have asked at one time or another. Essentially, he appeals to know why God seems not to answer our prayers at times. Why does a bona-fide miracle follow prayer on one occasion while utter silence seems to be God’s response at others? He asks,
“What do you do with that? I mean, does God answer prayers some, but not all? Sometimes but not all of the time? Or does God always answer prayers – it’s just that sometimes God says ‘no’”
These are great questions that appeal to the heart and soul of everyone who has ever experienced personal loss in the midst of intensive prayer. Bell sincerely gets an “A” for asking solid questions which saturate the conscience. He obviously has his finger of the pulse of our culture. He clearly understands the dynamic of suffering and asks good questions about such in light of God’s permissive will.
At this point, Bell had the bases loaded with a high and outside slow pitch just waiting for a competent swing. I personally envy Bell’s ability to prepare a difficult subject for its suitable teachable moment. Invariably, however, his perfectly grand-slammable pitch produces a dinked foul over the left field line. (He runs the bases anyway.)
After an exceptional introduction, he manages to equally impressively misrepresent the nature of prayer and suffering respectively as he attaches a culturally-discernable relevance and man-centric intention to them both. Bell, it seems, has a knack for high quality production of poorly constructed theology.
He begins the discovery phase of his “answer” with a great scenario; the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Who better to illuminate the nature of suffering than the Lord himself? Who better to explain how prayers are heard and answered than Christ, who prayed,
Matthew 26:39 (NIV)
39 … “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Before getting to Bell’s weird expose’ on this text, let it first be noted what Jesus prayed. First, he prayed that if it be possible, may this cup be taken from me. This is the logical prayer of a subordinate to his master, for Jesus had subordinated himself to God (Phil 2) that he may be “obedient unto death.” “If it be possible” was the preparatory attitude of Jesus’ request. He desired not to die, yet only if such “be possible” under God’s plan; thus, his second request, “yet not as I will, but as you will.” In Jesus’ prayer, he expressed his own desire while yielding to God’s wishes with no self-interest at all. While he desired not to endure the horrific experience of substitutionary atonement on a cross, he desired more to be obedient unto death. In short, it was God’s plan, God’s will and God’s glory that he sought in his prayer, all-the-while knowing that he would suffer and die on that cross.
Bell gets some of this right, noting that Jesus did not desire to endure the pain of the cross if it were not essential. Surely Jesus shared everyone else’s aversion to nail punctures and a slow, painful death. He even got it right that Jesus put God’s will ahead of his own. Yet, Bell fails utterly when he attempts to answer the “why” of Jesus’ prayer. Bell notes,
“Now to understand why Jesus prays like this we have to understand that Jesus took very seriously the creation poem of Genesis; that the Bible begins with. And in this creation poem God creates – God creates things that are capable of creating more.”
Here we go.
First of all, how do you even say, “Jesus took very seriously the creation poem” with a straight face? In Bell’s non-literal view of Genesis, the creation is always relegated to the status of “poetry,” which of course, expresses an idea rather than a historical account. What an incongruity to note Jesus as one who takes seriously the creation account when you deny it’s literality yourself. Yes, Jesus did take the creation account seriously. Jesus stated in Mark 10:6 (NIV), 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ (God made man at the beginning of creation, not a billion years afterward as Bell professes) Jesus also took literally the account of Noah, stating, Luke 17:26 (NIV), 26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. (Bell claims the flood is another part of a strange “poetic discussion” on “the humanity project” – but not a literal event) And, most eerily, Jesus claimed judgment on those who did not take seriously such accounts, stating, John 5:46-47 (NIV), 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”
But, I digress. Bell was, after all, correct (on this part): Jesus did take very seriously the creation poem narrative. And, it is in this creation poem narrative that Bell presumes to find the reason why Jesus prayed the way he did.
Prepare yourselves. Weirdness approaching…
Bell claims that the creation account was about a continuing process of creation (in spite of Genesis 2:2 noting that “God had finished” his work). Going off of his quote (above) that “God creates things that are capable of creating more,” God, in Bell’s words, “leaves the world unfinished and invites people to take part in the ongoing creation of the world.” He notes that this creative process is endless, “bringing design, order and beauty” to God’s unfinished creation.
As difficult as this train of thought is to follow, Bell immediately explains his “creation poem” rabbit chase with these words: “And so, when Jesus prayed, he’s tapping into this divine creative energy that made everything.” “Tapping into?” “The divine creative energy?” Bell’s Emergent mind must be what it would be like for Shirley McClain to cross with Benny Hinn! It’s clear that Bell at least considers this “creative energy” to be one and the same as God himself. He notes that, “Jesus’ assumption is that there is some role for him to play in this creative, ongoing work of God in the world.” So, the question must be raised, “what is Bell teaching about who God is?”
Is God a “creative energy” that formed the world (and left it unfinished), or is he an infinitely powerful being with personality, purpose and sovereignty? Does God not have intellect, emotion and will? Bell seems to attempt to marry the two ideas of “personhood” and “energy” in his language. On one hand, God is the worker of this unfinished creation; an “energy” by which creation was made and on the other, he obviously has a will, as he notes the “ongoing work of God” in the world.
A second, and equally alarming question is, “what is Bell’s understanding of the nature of Jesus?” He claims that Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane was about Jesus’ finding his role in God’s ongoing creative process? This is utter nonsense. Jesus knew his role well in advance. He knew the prophecies of Isaiah 53. He stated on numerous occasions to his disciples,
Luke 9:22 (NIV)
22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Jesus already knew what his role was in God’s plan. He was not confused by it. His prayer in no wise illustrated some existential search for his place in the world [Michael W. Smith playing quietly in the background]. Rather, his prayer was an intentional assent for God’s will to be done, all the while acknowledging his own desire that another way were to be possible. Jesus’ expression was one of intimacy and trust in God, who had called him to the darkest and most difficult hour of his life. It was not a quest for his own enlightenment of the future, but a submission to God’s will concerning the certain future he already knew.
So, while Bell introduces his video with exceptionally good leading questions, in the quest for answers he creates additional uncertainty; primarily, “what on earth does this guy believe, anyway?”
Such is the nature of the Emergent movement which Bell represents. In this movement, questions without answers are common. In fact, they are embraced. It is preferable to have an unanswered question rather than an answered one for fear of sounding too “modern” in one’s certainty. Knowledge is the root of all evil in this system where all claim to be engaging in a cosmic conversation, yet none will commit to a discernable postulate. Instead, Bell adds a new dimension to prayer altogether, complete with a new purpose for praying which has nothing at all to do with either calling on God’s response nor receiving his instructions. Instead, his deduction is,
“So prayer is being still, it’s meditating, it’s reflecting, it’s listening, it’s waking up and it’s when you never stop asking the question, ‘what is God up to right here, right now, and how can I be a part of it.’”
Ironically, what begins as one of the greatest preludes to an unanswered question ends with no answer at all. Instead of answering his introductory questions, he concludes that prayer itself is an unending quest of one to “never stop asking the question, ‘what is God up right here, right now, and how can I be a part of it.’” Admittedly, it is a good question to ask “what is God up to” and “how can I be a part of it.” But, is this the end of the matter? What happened to the thesis question of why God answers “yes,” or “no” or if he even hears us at all? Was this not the rhetorical introductory thesis of his work? Is there no answer in scripture as to why God says “no” at times? Is there no revelation in scripture as to why God at times does not answer? Of course there is. But, you will not find the answers to Rob Bell’s questions about prayer in Rob Bell’s video on prayer. Instead, you find a completely different frame of reference from the thesis – according to Bell – as to what prayer is all about.
“God’s desire is that the divine energy that made the world would flow between us, and in the process draw us closer together. Prayer is tapping into the same energy that formed the universe. That’s why people say that they can feel prayer; it’s because we can. Praying connects us to the people and things we are praying for.”
God’s desire is that the divine energy that made the world would flow between us? Can we have a chapter and verse on that, Rob? And the purpose of prayer is found in that while this “divine energy” does its thing it will “in the process draw us closer together?” Does prayer draw us closer to each other or closer to God? What book of the Bible teaches this nonsense? And, once again we’re “tapping into the energy that formed the universe?” The universe was formed at God’s command. It was not some random “energy” but the power of the Word of almighty God. One does not “tap into” God’s power as he might chug back a Red Bull for that extra burst of energy when needed. Prayer is calling on the personal GOD who owns Bell’s cosmic “energy”- that HE may make HIS WILL known to HIS SUBJECTS!
Bell, who so eloquently asks good questions concerning God’s answers to prayer, ends his diatribe of inconsistency and uncertainty exactly the way you would expect – if you knew Rob Bell at all – with a big fat, “I don’t know.”
“So when people ask all sorts of questions: ‘why didn’t God do this,’ ‘why did God do this,’ ‘why did God show up then,’ ‘why’d God make a miracle happen there,’ ‘why’s God say “yes” to this prayer and “no” to that prayer,’ I DON’T KNOW.”
Now THAT is an answer I trust. Ironically, THAT is also the answer to the very question Bell indicated in his thesis that he would be pursuing in this video. Once again, one of the chief leaders of this leader-less movement had deduced that “not knowing” is better than knowing. The mysteries of God are somehow more comforting than His clearly declared truths.
In conclusion, the apple does not far fall from the tree. Rob Bell produced another Nooma video which accurately represents the touchy-feely, perplexed and incapable-of-a-straight-answer perspective of the Emergent movement.
- It asks great questions but refuses to answer them.
- It presents speculative theology solutions based on Rob’s uniquely metaphorical understanding of those great “poems” of scripture.
- It casts Jesus in a light of confusion; even concerning the certainty of his own self-prophesied crucifixion.
- It reduces Jesus’ atoning work on the cross to “some role for him to play in this creative, ongoing work of God in the world.”
- It reduces prayer to “the divine energy that made the world (flowing) between us, and in the process draw(ing) us closer together.” He must be doing that “centering prayer” thing again. (His version – based in TM)
Not only do I fail to see any merit of this video for any forum, I seriously doubt the salvation of its creator. Overall (beyond this single work), I have yet to hear Bell present an articulate (and scripturally accurate) sentence dealing with the purpose Christ played in history as it relates to his own salvation. Instead, Bell continually teaches contrary to the substitutionary atonement of Christ. I have heard him decry that “God is not angry” for man’s sin. I have read his works which come exceptionally close to preaching universalism and clearly denying the existence of a literal Hell.
I should have expected no less confusion in his poetic exegesis concerning man’s relationship to God through prayer.