Sunday, September 14, 2008

stirring up some Dust with Rob Bell

My sister, Alicia, is a leader for Union Center's Young Adults group. Today was their first day to meet for the '08/'09 season. The plan for this season is for them to hang out a couple of Sundays a month, watch a Nooma video and talk together about the content. Somehow, she decided to ask me to be the first guest they invite to share a personal response to the Nooma video as part of their overall conversation.

So they start their first week together with Dust. If you're not familiar with it, here's how the production company tags the piece:
Believing in God is important, but what about God believing in us? Believing that we can actually be the kind of people we were meant to be. People of love, compassion, peace, forgiveness, and hope. People who try to do the right thing all of the time. Who act on the endless opportunities around us every day for good, beauty, and truth. It’s easy for us to sometimes get down on ourselves. To feel “not good enough” or feel like we don’t have what it takes. But maybe if we had more insight into the culture that Jesus grew up in and some of the radical things he did, we’d understand the faith that God has in all of us.

I struggle with knowing how to frame my response. I mean I had some very strong reactions -- both positive and negative -- to the video, but I also felt this urge to kind of wave my arms and holler at this group of adults who are anywhere from 2-19 years younger than me. (gulp) "Be thankful that you are in a church that supports your desire to question and probe and wrestle with truth! Do not take that for granted. Do not waste this opportunity with cynicism, hypocrisy or timidity. Do not grow apathetic toward the richness around you."

So, I didn't say that, but the following is what I did say...or pretty close to it. (I'm not going to give the whole content of the video. Alot of the same historical teaching that Bell unpacks can be found here. I also can't recommend strongly enough that anyone wanting to engage in this conversation also read Colossians 1:13-26 and Romans 7:14 - 8:25)

My Response to Nooma Dust

I grew up in the church and in a home of people who followed Christ. To some extent, in my home and in the small, local church I grew up in I was given space to question what I heard and was taught. But the same can not be said for the larger church culture surrounding me at that time. In that larger church culture of my youth I feel like we had two options: everyone swallow it whole as good or everyone spit it out as bad.
I believe that, as a result, I have been delayed in developing mature critical thinking skills. In the past several years, I have attempted to discipline myself to not just consume information but to chew on it and process it and discern it. That is what I've attempted to do with this video. Having no idea if anyone else would do it this way, I chose three categories to critique:

1. Quality
2. Accuracy
3. Application to audience


What was the overall quality of Nooma Dust as a piece of art? As a form of rhetoric?

I found the video to be excellently crafted. The editing, the musical score, the writing, the sub-story of the neighbor shovelling snow -- all of it was engaging and beautifully crafted. As a form of rhetoric (most assuredly, Bell was crafting his words to persuade his audience), I also found the video extremely compelling. It even had a thought-provoking and subtle visual storyline tugging the viewer toward a desire for resolution and then -- SURPRISE --without a word spoken the plot takes a twist as the camera pans out on the closing voice-over. (I think I'll call it an O. Henry ending because he always concludes his stories with delicious surprises!)


Although I know very little about Rob Bell, one of the things I like about him is his superb teaching methods. I have only ever heard him teach a couple of times (all on video, but in a variety of settings) but the man can teach.

In Dust he explains the educational system in Galilee during Jesus' day. It is absolutely fascinating. And, on more than one level. It is fascinating to me that a group of people valued their history with their God so highly that their children memorized Torah before they reached their teen years. Knowing this system added depth to my understanding of so many key moments in Jesus' three years of ministry:
  • waiting until the age of 30 to be known as a teacher (rabbi)
  • the poignance of him hand-picking his disciples (talmidim)
  • the significance of the average-joeness of those disciples (clearly not the best of the best)
  • the verse take my yoke upon you...for my yoke is easy and my burden is light (yoke being understood by the people at that time as a Rabbi's individual interpretation of the law and the prophets)
  • the beautiful meaning of the blessing May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.
Bell tells this history in a simple and meaningful way. Every phrase, gesture, closeup, note of music only adds to the narrative. The video itself is quality craftsmanship. But here is where the accuracy of content gets a little shifty.
He spends a good deal of time on the Matthew narrative of Peter walking on the water toward Jesus. In my opinion, this is an excellent choice to illustrate a true disciple. Peter sees a man walking on the water and instead of cowering in fear thinking the image is a ghost, he believes the reassuring voice to be his Master, his Rabbi. And, since he is a true disciple he knows his task is to not just know what his Rabbi knows, but to do what his Rabbi does. If his Rabbi is a water-walking man, then Peter has no choice, he too will be a water-walking man.


Then, Peter finds himself in conflict. The writer says But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!' Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?'
Bell draws the conclusion from this story that instead of Peter losing faith in Jesus, as he once believed, Peter has lost faith in himself. And, while it is true that later in his talk, Bell adds another sentence, He [Peter] loses faith in himself that he can actually be like his rabbi, it is clear that his deliberate intention is for me to hear this statement more loudly than the rest.

Peace. I get the big picture Bell is painting. But big pictures are made up of individual strokes and Bell clearly determines a large, bright gash across his listener's imagination.
Peace. We are a bunch of over-religioused people. We know our Bible stories, goshdarnit, and we don't like to change our minds with any new facts. Sometimes it takes a bold statement to get our collective attention.

Peter didn't doubt Jesus, he doubted himself. Why not, instead, Peter didn't doubt Jesus, he just decided to trust himself more than Jesus?

Peter didn't doubt Jesus, he doubted himself. Am I to conclude that it was Peter's faith in himself that held him on the water in the first place?

In my opinion, this statement is a major flaw in Bell's rhetoric. If his goal is to persuade me to embrace a deeper understanding of discipleship, he just distracted me big time. If his goal is to provide a new generation of Christians with relevant and provoking teaching, why choose the tired methods of so many previous generations of take-all-the-mystery-out-of-the-truth-and-boil-it-down-to-a-slogan preachers.

Peter didn't doubt Jesus, he doubted himself. For me to consider myself a discerning listener, I have to ask myself why Bell (an obviously gifted teacher) would choose this sentence. Words matter.

The second place I found Bell guilty of this persuasive, nee manipulative, rhetoric is toward the closing of his talk. He briefly points out another key moment in Jesus' ministry. The moment he leaves His disciples for the final time.

Bell describes that moment this way, Faith in Jesus is important, but what about Jesus' faith in us? I mean he must have faith in us because he leaves it all in the hands of these disciples.

Hold up. Something's missing here. Something like ...oh I don't know ... the Holy Spirit! (by now, in my viewing and listening experience I'm getting a little cranky)

Then he said, 'Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.'
He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way. He said, 'You can see now how it is written that the Messiah suffers, rises from the dead on the third day, and then a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name to all nations -- starting from here, from Jerusalem! You're the first to hear and see it. You're the witnesses. What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you're equipped with power from on high.'
He then led them out of the city over to Bethany. Raising his hands he blessed them, and while blessing them, took his leave, being carried up to heaven.
And they were on their knees, worshiping him. They returned to Jerusalem bursting with joy. They spend all their time in the Temple praising God. Yes. (Luke 24: 44- 53)
...he must have faith in us because he leaves it all in the hands of these disciples. Another stroke gashed across the big picture. Words matter.
(Does it distract from my attempt at eloquent argument to say grrrrr......?!?)
Application to audience:
  • What do you think Rob Bell's goal was for his audience?
  • How did the artistic choices help this goal?
  • How did Bell's choice of story, metaphor, historical context, scriptural reference, words help this goal?
I know that I will never forget much of what Bell taught. (of course, some of that is because I had the privilege of sharing my response with a group of people) I will most likely always link the phrase dust of the Rabbi with the word discipleship from here on until forever. That is an effect of excellent teaching.
At the same time, I believe that Bell is guilty of manipulating some type of agenda into the context of his teaching. I do not want to try to guess his motives, but from a man who promotes his teaching as geared toward a new generation of Christians, he seems too content to use old-school tactics that, to me, brand his work with a large slash of inauthenticity. I don't know about the rest of you, but this woman is plum-tuckered on soundbite spirituality. (and politics, for that matter, but that's definately for another post)

It is the task of any good teacher to know his audience, to know their frame of reference. Jesus was the Master at this and we've already established that Rob Bell, himself, is not too shabby. The audience in this generation is tempted, manipulated, and wangled at every turn to just believe in themselves, that the answer is in them, and that their heart will know what's right. And the frame of reference for our Christian subculture is no better. Our best selling books, our best loved songs and our most watched televison shows shout at us to put our best foot forward, to live our best life now, to seek our God as a dream giver who exists to make us feel better about ourselves and to provide our wishes. If Bell doesn't know that is the culture of his audience, then he needs to trade in his trendy specs for bifocals.

So while I am impressed with the artistic quality and engaging historical teaching Bell provides in this video, and while his excellent teaching ability influence me to deepen my understanding of myself as Jesus' chosen disciple, I am not comfortable with much of the spiritual conclusions Bell draws. I believe that in comparison to God's age-old insistence to be named above all other gods and to be actively drawing all glory and attention to Himself, partially-true statements such as Bell employs in Dust skirt way too close to a humanistic sort of heresy. And to boil the truth of a beautiful, generous mystery of this same God incarnating himself into human skin to fulfill the law and the truth that He chose us to be His vehicle to accomplish righteousness is too breath-taking to synthesize into controversial soundbites. And that any inner resistance I may feel to the knowledge that without Him I can do nothing and any indication that I am guilty of an Eden-like grasping at a subtle lie of self-reliance can be brought under the loving correction and guidance of the Holy Spirit who is with me always.

Having said that, I would want the young adults at Union Center to know that I have great hope for their time together during this season. I am impressed by their willingness to walk into these discussions with love and courage and light-heartedness. After all, even if I am not comfortable saying that Jesus has faith in me, I am full of faith that His love for us causes Him to hope all things. And that the greatest of these, faith, hope and love, is love.
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