I feel like Rob Bell just doesn't get the love he deserves anymore. Many conservative evangelicals have rejected him (in my opinion, mostly for illegitimate reasons). Liberals don't know much about him. And many of the folks in between, the ones who should really like him have decided it's just not hip to like him anymore. Many young theology students who likely fit it the latter camp, many of the seminarians in my context included, seem to think Bell is below them. And, to be fair, they have a point... since Rob Bell probably isn't writing to them anyway. It seems that at every turn, Bell's audience has been a more common crowd--not the theologian, per se, but the lay person, the "seeker," asking questions about spirituality and Christianity. For this crowd, I think, Bell has been a particularly effective teacher. If we're honest, I think many of us young wanna-be theologians owe a lot to Rob Bell for serving as a window into deeper theological questions. I know this is the case for me. Why can't we just admit that Rob Bell's still got good things to say? Why can't we still learn from him?
I like to think that my sources are now a bit more... well... "academic" than Rob Bell--a bit more theologically sophisticated and precise (not necessarily to say that Rob Bell wouldn't be capable of writing at that level if he tried. He just doesn't). But while I may have moved on to deeper waters and while I can certainly critique much of Rob Bell's work on theological grounds, I can still gratefully admit that Bell was my first theological influence. He was my door to N.T. Wright... who was indirectly my door to Jürgen Moltmann... who has become my go-to theologian and my window into many other theologies and theologians. And I still like Rob Bell. I still learn from him--from his perspective, from the questions he asks and the insight he offers--every time I read his stuff. Yes, I think we can still learn from Rob Bell... if from nothing else, then from his ability to keep his finger on the pulse of culture and to acknowledge our questions. The academic theologian may have to engage in some translation (perhaps speculatively at times) into more precise theological language--ironically, perhaps, a reversal of how most lay people have to translate academic theology into more common language. But once we think through Bell's stuff and the questions he asks, I think the humble theologian--at almost any level--will find be able to learn something from Rob Bell's perspective as a pastor. For those who think themselves to be too theologically educated to learn anything from Rob Bell, perhaps a bit more humility is in order, and I would suggest that even if we want to be deeper and more precise than Rob Bell's books, he's still asking many of the right questions and he can teach us much about which questions we should be asking.
I look forward to learning from Rob Bell again... and this time from his wife Kristen too. Today I pre-ordered my copy of The Zimzum of Love: A New Way to Understand Marriage by Rob and Kristen Bell. In the midst of so much social controversy and questioning concerning marriage in our country, I look forward to reading Bell's perspective... and I anticipate that it will be a welcome nuance to the Christian theological perspectives on marriage and relationships.