Rob Bell was a nationally renowned popular Evangelical Michigan megachurch founder and pastor (one of Time’s100 most influential people!) until his 2011 book Love Wins questioned traditional Christian understandings about salvation and damnation. He was following the trajectory of other post-Evangelicals towards liberal Protestantism and well beyond. Bell lost his pastorate and much of his Evangelical following, a fall meriting a New York Times feature.
But Bell is a creative and talented religious entrepreneur in America, where there are always more chances for self re-creation. He moved to California, naturally, continued as a widely read blogger, and accelerated his liberal theological journey, embracing same sex marriage as a “justice issue,” of course, and doubtless much else as he streaked away from orthodoxy. His new book, The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, has been mocked for citing the Bible only three times, further signifying his expansion into a post-Christian frontier. He now surfs at the beach, rejects theological categories, and happily relates to others who’ve escaped the rigid confines of organized religion.
Bell’s self re-creation appropriately led to his joining a nationwide motivational speaking tour called “Life You Want Weekend” appropriately led by America’s high priestess of therapeutic pop religion, Oprah Winfrey, an evident fan of his provocative books and reassuring style.
Now, the Oprah Winfrey Network will this month start broadcasting “The Rob Bell Show,” consummating Bell’s spiritual transfer from Evangelical subculture to The Cult of Oprah. Like Oprah, Bell no longer belongs to or worships at a traditional church, instead operating in a wider reality. “We have a little tribe of friends,” Bell recently told Religion News Service. “We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”
Predictably, Bell professes to be a fan of his new ecclesial and corporate chieftain, Oprah. “She has taught me more about what Jesus has for all of us, and what kind of life Jesus wants us to live, more than almost anybody in my life,” Bell explained to RNS.
“Is she a Christian? That word has so much baggage, I wouldn’t want to answer for someone. When Jesus talks about the full divine life, you think, this is what he’s talking about.”
The Oprah Network explains in preparation for the pre-Christmas debut of Bell’s show that as “one of America’s most influential and progressive spiritual leaders,” he “shines a bright light on the topics we most want to talk about but often don’t know how to even approach. Through riveting conversations with a live audience, and by incorporating creative on-camera storytelling, Rob—as only he can—explores themes such as owning your story and wonder and awe.” It promises: “Whether you’re spiritual, religious, cynical or undecided, Rob invites you to wrestle with what it all means and why we find spiritual topics so fascinating.”
Like Oprah, Bell by no means has rejected all of Christianity. His new spirituality of creativity and healing, like Oprah’s theme of divine grace, depends on Christian verbiage and architecture. A first episode features his pointing to the Cross as a model of reconciliation, although of course Bell, as a postmodern inclusivist, would not insist on any particular model as definitive.
Bell and Oprah are some of the latest and most accomplished of a long and venerable line of American post-Christian exponents of religious self-help, dating back at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, themselves the sunny descendants of New England Puritans and Unitarians. Emerson, a brilliant essayist and speaker who rejected the restraints of organized church in favor of the “infinitude of the private man,” preached self-help, liberty, independence, and service to humanity. Critics denounced him as an atheist, but he was more of a pantheist who discerned divine beauty in the created order. He admired and extolled Jesus but of course rejected any unique deity for Him.
Emerson celebrated and sanctified the individual as the final authority for spiritual truth, so he is the forefather of American post-Christian spirituality, representing and inspiring most of its better, more humanitarian and optimistic aspects. It’s easy and tempting for religious traditionalists to deride and ridicule the smiling self-manufactured religion of Emerson and his renowned progeny like Oprah and Bell. They extoll love, grace, and reconciliation without wanting to fully credit the Author of these Christian theological concepts. And they assume these themes can be sustained by empowered individuals without the church.
These Emersonians are very American, and our nation could do very much worse than their thin but well-intentioned made-up faith that depends on fragments of Christianity. Much of the world, today and across history, is enthralled by much darker spiritual and philosophical forces, from anti-Semitism, to conspiracy-minded paranoia, to apocalyptic messianism, to devil-worship, to murderous utopian fantasies. In contrast, Bell and Oprah stress storytelling, forgiveness, and prayer (without specifying to Whom).
The religiously orthodox are right to delineate the countless theological problems of the hyper-individualistic Church of Oprah, Bell & ultimately Emerson. But at least their confusion reflects the embers of the Jewish and Christian Deity, premised on hope and progress, however incomplete.