Review of Rob Bell’s NOOMA — Part 1

Review
04.08.2001

Here’s the scoop on the Rob Bell video series storming through youth rooms and sermon series across the country.

This February, Zondervan Publishers released the nineteenth in a series of videos called NOOMA. No series gets to the nineteenth installment unless it is extraordinarily successful, and the NOOMA videos are surely that. In churches and youth groups across the country, they have become something of a phenomenon.

All ten to fourteen minutes in length, the NOOMA videos feature Rob Bell, pastor of Michigan’s Mars Hill Church, one of the fastest-growing churches in America, and a leader in the “emergent church.” From a production standpoint, the NOOMA videos are excellent. Exceedingly cool staging, great music, understated but engaging drama, and an easy but earnest style from Bell make them undeniably compelling.

But it isn’t just technical merit that has catapulted the NOOMA videos to such popularity. Nor is it simply Bell’s natural ability to communicate and tell a story, though that may be part of it. At the end of the day people are watching these videos because they believe Rob Bell is teaching them about Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In parts 2 and 3 of my review, I’ll make some comments on each of the videos, and then comment at length on some of the most theologically important ones. But here in part 1, I want to give you the gist. Watching eighteen of these videos in quick succession gives one a good idea of what Bell and NOOMA are trying to communicate overall. And, popularity aside, the result is not particularly encouraging. I have reviewed some of Rob Bell’s work on this site already, and the weaknesses in his understanding of the gospel noted in those reviews trouble these NOOMA videos as well.

GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE

First, though, we should give credit where it’s due: Bell is an extraordinarily gifted communicator. The NOOMA marketing campaign bills him as a “storyteller,” and that is a spot-on characterization. But he’s not merely a storyteller. He teaches too, and in a way that is far from boring. There’s a reason people fill up stadiums across the nation to hear him speak.

On top of that, the videos are pitch-perfect in their production, from camera angles to music to lighting. Part of their appeal is the way the content is woven together with the setting. In one video or another, Bell speaks to his audience from a park bench, a diner booth, an airport waiting area, a concert hall, his own living room—you name it. Every now and then he has to pause for the environment to intrude—a waitress brings coffee, a large group walks for an uncomfortably long time in between him and the camera, a plane screams as it takes off. I’m sure every second of that is scripted, but it’s effective scripting. It makes you want to shoo the large group out of the way so you can hear what Bell has to say next.

SUNDAY SCHOOL WITH A DOSE OF COOL

Maybe the first thing you’ll notice beyond their technical excellence is that the NOOMA videos are not highly theological. Every now and again, there is one that delves into something that approaches theology proper, but on the whole the messages are relatively simple—Sunday School lessons with an extra dose of cool. There’s a video on how to deal with an anger problem; another expounding on the true meaning of sex; another explaining that God wants our hearts and not just our religion; another telling us why God doesn’t always give us everything we ask for; another explaining that grief over a loved one’s death is not wrong and should point us to hope in God’s plan to restore the world.

All this is fine, and will no doubt be helpful to many people.

PREACHING THE GOSPEL

But Bell intends to do something more in NOOMA than provide “life lessons.” He intends to preach the gospel. In fact, he says so repeatedly, with statements that run something like, “That’s the gospel, that’s the good news that Jesus brought us.” And that’s where these videos become more significant than cool youth Sunday School lessons. They become dangerous.

The gospel as Bell communicates it in NOOMA runs something like this: All of us are broken, sinful, selfish, and prideful people. We carry around the baggage of our hurts, our resentments, and our jealousies. As a result we are just a shell of the kind of people God intends us to be. But our God is a loving God who accepts us and loves us just as we are. He can comfort us, heal us, and make us whole, real, authentic, living, laughing people. Not only that, but Jesus came to show us how to live revolutionary lives of love, compassion, and acceptance. By learning from his teachings and following him, we can live the full and complete lives that God intended.

And that’s about it. That’s not just the introduction that leads to an explanation of the cross, atonement, the resurrection and salvation, either. So far, at least, that’s what NOOMA holds out as “The Gospel.” Full stop.

THE CROSS? THE RESURRECTION?

In the videos I watched, there’s almost no exposition of the cross. I only remember it being mentioned twice, once to say that Caesar killed Jesus and once when Bell says, “The cross is like God saying, ‘I don’t hold your past against you.’” Well, kind of. But that hardly exhausts the meaning of the cross, does it? At the very least, he ought to have continued that sentence by saying something like, “I don’t hold your past against you, because I held it against my Son.” But then I suppose that sort of uncomfortable thought would have destroyed the smoothness of the presentation.

Even the resurrection—which usually plays an enormous role in Emergent theology—doesn’t get much emphasis here. NOOMA is all about “Jesus’ teachings,” but only a select few of those. You won’t hear Bell talking about the teachings of Jesus that focus on ransom, blood, new covenants, and rebirth—much less judgment, sheep and goats, and “Depart from me.” For Bell, Jesus’ teachings are apparently limited to his ethics, and Bell’s gospel is evidently limited to a call for people to embrace those ethics and “live like Jesus.”

I have a theory about why Emergent church types seem to be able to communicate so well with “our generation,” why they’re able to relate so well to people who have always been hostile to the gospel. You can chalk it up to some kind of “authentic” style if you want, but I’d contend that a big part of their ability to communicate the gospel without offense to people who have always been offended by it is that they leave out all the offensive parts!

HEY ROB, TRY THIS

There’s no denying that Rob Bell is a tremendous natural speaker and communicator. He’s good at telling stories, using his face to emphasize a point and his eyes to arrest your attention. But before we get too far with the infatuation, somebody should point out that it’s actually relatively easy to “connect” with the world when you’re talking about handling anger, or the true meaning of sex, or how closely God holds you to his chest when you’re facing a storm in life, or how disgusted God must be with that guy preaching the sermon about hell.

The harder thing—and the thing that would really test Bell’s mettle as a communicator—would be to make a NOOMA video about substitutionary atonement, for example. Not one that re-thinks it and re-casts it for a generation that doesn’t like that kind of thing, but one that addresses “He was crushed for our iniquities” with the same unflinching “honesty” and “authenticity” as it addresses “Love one another.” Would that installment of NOOMA be received with the same enthusiasm the others have enjoyed? What if he made one about the final judgment, and the fact that “No one comes to the Father but by me?” How well would that be received among the audience Bell has built?

I don’t think every ten-minute video needs to contain a crash course in systematic or biblical theology. Christian life and doctrine is a vast and rich universe of truth, and if Rob Bell wants to do ten minutes on sex, ten on anger, ten on this or that, that’s obviously fine. It’s always easy to say by way of critique, “That ten minutes should have said more than it did.” So that’s not where I see a problem with NOOMA.

The problem is that in the videos which aim to present the Christian gospel, the gospel presented is woefully incomplete if not outright wrong in places (which we’ll discuss at more length in the second part of this series). Yes, there’s sin and even grace in NOOMA; God loves us as we are, with all our junk, as Bell puts it. But beyond that there’s little to no cross or resurrection, no atonement, no substitution. Once we’re told that God accepts us as we are, all that follows is a call to live as Jesus lived in order to make the world a better place—which if it weren’t so hip would just be called “moralism,” or even “Pelagianism.”

WHAT’S MISSING; WHAT’S NEEDED

I have said in several places on this site that there is much about the Emergent theological storyline that I find compelling. Who wouldn’t be excited by the idea of God’s people—broken, sinful people accepted by him just as they are—living and working to diffuse God’s grace and love throughout the whole of society? So far as it goes, that’s a great and biblical vision, and there’s a reason it resonates with people. But, in my opinion, where the Emergent church and these videos go wrong is in telling the world that that . . . is . . . the gospel.

It’s not. Good as that storyline might be, it is finally too small and too colorless. For God to lovingly accept us as we are no matter how ashamed we might be of ourselves is nice and all, but it’s a pretty pale gray compared to the Bible’s story of a just and loving God sending his Son to take the punishment of a rebellious people so they can live with and for him forever.

If you want to engage a “new generation” looking for authenticity, honest answers, and a willingness to look unflinchingly at human sin and suffering, that’s the gospel that will do it. Unfortunately, that’s also the gospel that these NOOMA videos, at least so far, seem unwilling to talk about.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3