Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"You're Being Very Un-Bell Here"

The following is a guest post from an old friend of this blog who still happens to have his login information. There may be a few more like this in the future. It's kind of a test run.

What makes Martin Bashir's interview of Rob Bell remarkable is that Bell does not come off well in it. And that alone is very un-Rob Bell.

Bell's influence is built on controlled environments. He communicates creatively, and that is to his credit. The Nooma videos are great, at least in terms of production and often in terms of content. His public speaking gigs apparently are not your average sermon (though admittedly, I haven't watched). His books are visually appealing and provocatively titled.

Which brings up this point: as long as Rob Bell is in control of the production, he comes off as intelligent, gentle, and likeable. In a word, he's slick.

But then he goes on msnbc and Martin Bashir isn't buying it. That's not unique: plenty of us haven't been buying it for awhile. What is unique is that Bashir has the chance to ask pointed questions (not just weigh in on his blog, like the rest of us), and Bell looks positively uncomfortable. He is inarticulate. He talks in non-sensical (not merely paradoxical) circles. Bashir pushes, Bell tries to respond, and Bashir essentially says, "You haven't really responded at all. You've dodged my question, and as an interviewer, it's my job to get you to answer the question." But he simply cannot do it.

By the end, Bell looks like he got ambushed. I really wonder if he had any idea what was coming.

Here Rob Bell is forced to answer the hard-yet-oh-so-simple questions in an environment that he cannot control, and he is no longer winsome at all. He is confused and confusing.

And when a non-Christian sits across a table from you and asks you three times in a row on a nationally syndicated television program if it matters what you do with Jesus and you fail to give a clear answer, you frankly ought to be ashamed.


Jared Totten said...

My vote is for "more like this in the future".

Unknown said...

Actually I saw a print citation yesterday that the interviewer is a devout Christian and attends Keller's Redeemer church in NYC

I'll try to dig up the link

Andrew Faris said...

I wondered about that. He sure seemed like a Christian, didn't he?

But it really doesn't change the point, does it?

Jon Coutts said...

You're definitely right. Although to be fair to Bell, he was able to smile in the face of hostility, and if you reject the premises of the question your answer will never satisfy. Bell should have been able to say he rejected the premises, and didn't, so that was a fail.

But I'm willing to give him a bit of a break, and here's why: He's one of a million. Certainly he has been exposed as more of a pastoral heart than a theologian and a scholar. But isn't that what evangelicals want to read? This isn't entirely a knock against Bell alone. He has some good intuitions and some good questions because of that pastoral heart. Maybe the book-buying evangelical public needs to ask more of its publication industry and its megachurch heroes when it goes looking for possible answers. I just wish we'd learn that from this, and that more of the pop-theology authors (blog coalition authors included) were exposed as such.

Bex said...

Having to arrogantly remind your audience and your interviewee that "I'm in control here" is the mark of a very poor journalist. Bashir came off as hyper-defensive, which usually means someone is very afraid of opening his mind to a different way of understanding. I've commented elsewhere that I thought Bell's saying he is a pastor and pointing out that real life doesn't often lend itself to the easy yes/no black/white answers that Bashir was demanding was the best possible answer to Bashir's inability to consider a viewpoint other than his own.

Andrew Faris said...


He kept the smile up, yes, but didn't it feel strained to you?

I'm not totally sure what you're second point is, but I want to understand you. Mind clarifying? Are you simply saying that more of the Reformed folks need to write for more popular audiences, while at the same time audiences need to ask more from publishers?


You're missing the point. Whether or not Bashir is a good journalist is not at issue (though I for one really like to hear an interview where the interviewee is actually forced to answer pointed questions).

The issue is how Rob Bell came off, which was decidedly un-slick, un-compelling, and un-Rob Bell. That's my point. It is simply that when asked an incredibly straightforward question about his view, Bell was noticeably inarticulate.

Further, it's not like Bashir came out of left field with these questions. Bell wrote the book, begged the questions, and made the publicity video. He's the one who brought it to the table, and he had to know that many would be bothered by his answers. So he in fact didn't get ambushed. He got met with the most obvious questions dissenting Christians could ask him, and he couldn't speak coherently to them.

By contrast, by the way, when Bashir asked him about Japan, he pushed once, then let Bell have the "paradox" answer, which was much more reasonable in that case since it wasn't the subject of the book.

That's to say nothing of the fact that it is far too easy for people to look at books/interviews like this one and say, "He's a pastor, not a theologian. All you theologians and your easy answers can shove it."

Not only is that a false dichotomy, it actually refuses to take Bell's own ideas seriously. He wrote the book expressing certain ideas. Are people not supposed to weigh them? Are we all supposed to just say, "Well, he's a pastor, so it doesn't matter so much whether he's right or wrong. What matters is that he's being pastorally sensitive."?

I think not.

Jared Totten said...

I haven't weighed in on the discussion proper yet, but I would have to reiterate Andrew's point. Pastor vs. theologian seems to me to be a false dichotomy.

If a pastor is not bringing his "study of God, religious faith and practice" to bear on his pastoral work, then he's not a pastor at all, he's a therapist.

Bex said...

I didn't say Bell isn't a theologian, or that one must be either a pastor or a theologian. What I am saying is that Bashir could have added light to this interview as well as heat, but he had an agenda and that's all that mattered to him. If an interviewer's only goal is to make his subject look bad, he's a crappy journalist. If I were Bell, I'd ask for a rematch.

Andrew Faris said...


I actually had wondered while writing the post if anyone would say, "That's bad journalism." And to be honest, I really can't speak to the quality of journalism. I have little idea what the standards of good journalism are.

But even if I grant your premise, my point doesn't change: Bashir's thrice-repeated question really is straightforward. If Bell cannot give a succinct, clear answer to that question, it doesn't matter how many times he does the interview: the only way he'll ever come off well is if the person sitting across from him doesn't force him to clarify.