The latest false philosophy to infiltrate the Christian church may well be the most insidious and far-reaching yet! NOOMA is a series of short films by pastor1 and author2 Rob Bell on various feel-good topics such as God's unconditional love (in the installment titled Lump), the holiness all around us and the image of God in others (in Breathe), and how God has not just masculine qualities but all of the wonderful feminine qualities we appreciate in women (in She).
There are 25 films that last from 10 to 15 minutes each and feature Rob Bell speaking to the camera in a casual conversation tone. He has an entertaining story-telling style, uses kind of hip lingo, and the filming is highly stylized. They are enjoyable to watch; the message is where we get into trouble.
The messages that come through in the film series are deficient and destructive in two ways: in what they say, and in what they don't say.
What They Say
In what they say, there is good mixed with bad. At first, my inclination was to receive what was true in his message for what it was worth, and to overlook the inaccuracies as just harmless imprecision or carelessness. After all, you'll miss out on all of the good in life if you're always nitpicking everything. But then those inaccuracies kept gnawing at me. I noticed that those inaccuracies were on key issues that have far-reaching consequences. They dealt with things like the nature and character of God, the nature and character of man, how God governs man, the conditions of salvation, and other core teachings of Christianity.
For instance, in Breathe, he tells the story of Moses being told that he's standing on holy ground and we're encouraged to think of all ground as holy, after all God created all ground, and God is everywhere. But that's not what the passage in Exodus chapter three is about. God meant that the place Moses was standing was special. That He was present there in a way that He was not present elsewhere. Later, He would tell the sons of Israel that they were to "be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Meaning that he would be present with them in a way that He would not be present with others.
Sure, we should try to see the beauty in all of creation. We should try to be aware of God's greatness every moment of our lives. We should try to see the significance of every aspect of our lives and live in a constant state of awe, praise, and gratitude (as much as is practical). But this passage isn't speaking of anything like that. This and the many references to holiness that follow are intended to convey the great holiness of God and the holiness that He requires of anyone who wants to know Him, to find favor in His eyes, and to avoid His wrath. This core Christian doctrine carries all the way through the new covenant where it serves as a warning to anyone who would "trample under foot the Son of God, and ...regard as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified..."3 So, to teach a positive message about appreciating life more, Rob Bell is willing to mislead people on a very significant Christian teaching about the character of God.
What They Don't Say
In what the films don't say they are even more destructive. In Lump, for example, he talks about the deep shame we can feel over sin (he refers to sin cutely, as "our junk") and encourages us to remember that God loves us in spite of our sin. This sounds at first like a nice positive message. He repeats several times, "There's nothing you can ever do to make Him love you less." That's true enough, but it's not the whole story.
There is something we can do to love Him less. He doesn't mention that. Our sin was so destructive to our relationship with God that He had to send His Son to suffer and die for us to restore our relationship with Him. What's more, we can reject that love and not trust in Jesus, and condemn ourselves to "pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power..."4
So, while he gets an important Biblical message across, that we should believe the love of God for us5, he neglects the message that we have not received God's love if we don't confess that Jesus is the Son of God6 and if we don't love our brother7. And so by what he does not say he does harm.
In the film titled Rhythm, he compares God to a song. In his metaphor, he explains how Jesus came to give us an example of how to live, and that if we love, we are in a relationship with God and living "in tune with the song" (see the full transcript here). He neglects to say that the Gospels teach that the main reason He came was to die to reconcile sinners to God through His death8. How can you leave that out?!
While Christians will always debate about many issues and about what issues are essential to be a Christian, orthodox Christianity has always held to at least a few necessary truths as the absolute minimum requirements of the Christian faith. If Rob Bell only presents one out of the four spiritual laws, for instance, his version of the Gospel is inadequate, deceptive, and destructive.
The other thing that is left out of the messages in the films is anything that might be offensive. In the ninth installment in the series about an obnoxious street preacher, titled Bullhorn, Bell makes it clear that he thinks the gospel should be palatable to everybody. Here's a sample:
"You see, Bullhorn Guy, it's confusing to my friends and I [sic], because some are Christians and some aren't, but we just don't get it. We just don't understand what all the condemning and the converting– we don't understand what it has to do with Jesus' message."
Neither would Bell understand why Jesus promised his followers that they would be hated and persecuted. I'm sure he doesn't understand why so many Christians throughout history, including 11 of the 12 apostles, were killed for preaching the gospel.
It is also worth noting that some of the messages that he chooses to include in the films are also popular recurring themes in eastern pantheistic religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation, Christian Science, and The Secret (see my web site exposing The Secret)—the breathing of Yoga, the unity of all things, meditation as emptying the mind and seeking silence, living in "the now," the good in the bad and the bad in the good (the yin and yang).
As we notice the subjects that he covers, and the particular departures he makes from Christian orthodoxy, we can see patterns forming that would suggest he holds certain presuppositions that are underlying his teachings and directing them, though he may not state them outright.
- With NOOMA, the concept of scripture as authoritative truth is not asserted, nor does it seem to be presupposed as a starting point.
- Statements like, "The early Christians had an idea that..." may indicate the rejection of inspiration and objective truth in favor of consensus opinion and subjective truth. The early Christians believed many contradictory things. This is shaky ground to build on.
- While references to sin are made in the films, the "guiltiness" of sin seems downplayed. More benign pseudonyms are substituted for "sin," such as, "our junk," in the film Lump; or as when he substitutes his paraphrase, "'if you, man you're human, you're flesh and blood, you're flawed; if you know how to give good gifts to your children...'" for Jesus actual words "'If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?'" (Luke 11:13).
- Accepting God's love for us is a recurring theme in the films, but a distinction is not made between those who receive it and those who reject it, nor their ultimate ends.
- The divinity of the creation is emphasized without articulating its boundaries. It is suggested, for example, that if the ground upon which Moses stood on the mountain of God was holy, then perhaps all ground is holy, all the time.
- We are encouraged to see the image of God in other human beings. This is a Biblical message indeed, from communicating our unique value amongst the creation in Genesis, to being the basis for our moral obligation to love our brother in First John. But, when considered together with the more glaring omissions just mentioned, in the films, it becomes apparent that he fails to outline any distinctions between human beings and God: God is spirit, we are physical; God is uncreated, we are created; God has unlimited capacities, we are finite; God is holy, we are sinful (before regeneration that is, and sometimes after).
The rejection of antitheses in all areas of life—truth, morality, and being—is the tell-tale sign of the one who adheres to the underlying philosophy of pantheism (so it's no surprise to learn that Rob Bell endorses Buddhist Ken Wilbur in his book Velvet Elvis). The belief that all is one essence, and that essence is divine, leads necessarily to the logical conclusion that there are no opposites. There is not truth and non-truth. There is not good and evil. There is not God and non-God. All is one, and that one is God.
This is not the first time that a pantheist has chosen to express his philosophy in Christian terminology, rather than sticking with traditional Hinduism or Buddhism; it has been a common occurrence, the best known of which is probably Christian Science. Rob Bell's approach, with his books and films, is different from Mary Baker Eddy's in Christian Science in that he has not declared his teaching to be different from orthodox Christianity. In fact, he seems to have taken great care to avoid expressing those views that would alarm orthodox adherents to biblical Christianity.
It is clear that Rob Bell is thoroughly educated, and his message is sophisticated and calculated (which is why I can't see attributing his doctrinal oversights to ignorance). Add to this the slick presentation, and you see why I said this may be the most insidious deception yet.
Some may think that these videos are harmless and raise some good issues that can be used as a starting point for discussions. (And to be sure, some of the individual films may be completely harmless, like Sunday, which is a nice little talk about hypocrisy.) And the convenience of a ready-made discussion series may appeal to our laziness. But, in my opinion, those who care for God's flock by "feeding His sheep" (teaching them His word), would be derelict to allow these subtle lies to infect the minds of those entrusted to their care. Surely we can find ample discussion starters in the Bible or in the plethora of orthodox authors, though the presentation may not be nearly as slick.
"Little children, guard yourselves from idols."9
2Rob Bell has written four books: Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile, and Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering (due to be released in August of 2009).
8Jesus was called the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29); and Jesus said, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself. But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die." (John 12:32-33)