Dec 3, 2012

Rob Bell's internal contradiction

Rob Bell's been gone from the Michigan megachurch he founded for more than a year now. When he remembers the church, he often in a sense misremembers it, according to Kelefa Sunnah's piece in the New Yorker.

Not misremembers, exactly, but rather remembers the beginning and not the end, what was overcome instead of what was created. He talks about the energy of the potential, not the extent to which an institution is an institution is an institution. The difference between what's emphasized and what's not is the contradiction inherently internal to the megachurch project, and also to Bell himself.

Sennah writes:
"Because [Bell] vividly remembers the early days, he still sometimes talks about Mars Hill as a gritty, scrappy place: a church with no sign, no steeple, no cross, and hardly any decoration. This is all true, but Mars Hill is also a comfortable, well-run facility, with plenty of parking and age-specific child care. It was just after eight o’clock on a seasonably cold morning, and worshippers were trickling in and stamping the snow off their boots."

Both of these aspects were critical to Mars Hill's success, and also to the problems that eventually became serious. Sennah locates the tension in the two very different things a church like Mars Hill needs: a sense of creativity and ongoing discovery, but also structure, order and stability.

Another way to say this would be: the things that Bell did tended to have two opposite and yet simultaneous results. His sermon style, to take one example, brought people together who wouldn't have otherwise been brought together, and it also created new polarities, and pushed people apart.

The same is also probably true for other major evangelical leaders and their megachurches.

The question is always, it seems, of how the internal opposite forces are balanced.

Bell, on the one hand, couldn't not push. But also -- and this is missed by most of his critics and more than a few of his fans -- he couldn't allow himself or be happy with himself as a bomb-thrower and controversialist.

The contradiction, at some point, became unsustainable for Mars Hills. Or, arguably, not for Mars Hill but for Bell, who himself was internally conflicted in exactly this same way the church he created was conflicted, on the one hand wanting to be a radical and on the other unwilling to take strong stands, wanting to be a mediator and someone who builds consensus.

In Sennah's telling, the inherent contradiction within Rob Bell was expressed as a kind of crafted ambiguity ("a careful ambiguity, allowing worshipers to think that he was however evangelical" -- or however liberal -- "they wanted him to be. He wanted to make a wide range of worshipers feel comfortable.") that ultimately broke down. Either Bell himself couldn't bear the cost of keeping it up, or the balancing act of that ambiguity just became impossible, and any move would have meant a tumble.

In this postmortem, at least, the controversy over hell that marked the end, at least for now, of Bell's pastoral ministry was rather incidental to there being an end. It if wasn't that, it would have been something else. What he had, what Bell was, was unsustainable.

The internal contradiction that couldn't be kept up indefinitely.