But I still get a lot out of his books. I enjoy listening to his sermons and watching the NOOMA videos. Not just because he's a charismatic speaker/writer, although that certainly helps. But the content itself is what I'm drawn to.
I grew up in the church. Not only that, but I grew up with parents who did a lot of Bible study on their own and taught it to us kids. I learned lots of Bible verses, I learned all the obscure Bible stories - Mephibosheth, Eutychus, the bears that mauled the kids who mocked Elisha for being bald... I heard a lot of different interpretations of a lot of different verses. I even played a computer game where you had to find the right Bible verses to answer people's statements or questions, like, "God likes the wicked to really suffer for what they've done" (the answer is Ezekiel 18:23).
After an entire childhood of that, you start to hear the same things over and over again, especially if you've grown up in the same church. You can read the sermon title for the day, know the pastor's main points and which verses he's going to use to back it up. It feels like you've heard it all before. In high school I started feeling like a lot of Christian teachers were just there to inform people who didn't know all the rules yet. I'd learned them all. It looked like I'd run out of stuff to learn. I knew this couldn't be quite right, but by the time I was 20 or so, I couldn't remember the last time I had heard a Bible teaching that wasn't just a rehashing of things I already knew.
When I joined New Life Drama Company, things changed for me. I ran into people from a lot of different denominations - not only people whose churches we ministered at, but also people I traveled with. They had new, different ideas I'd never really heard before. New ways of thinking about God, new attitudes toward baptism, new rituals and recitations. I found myself challenged to sift through these new ideas. Sometimes after sifting through them, I agreed, sometimes I didn't... but either way, I was thrilled to be encountering brand-new thoughts.
It was around this time I discovered Rob Bell, recommended to me by other NLDCers. One of my teams read through Velvet Elvis for devotionals. Every time we read part of it, I would find myself with a new possibility of interpretation, a new way to view things. Sometimes I thought and prayed about what he said and decided he was just wrong. But there were also a lot of times where he said out loud some of the things I'd felt God had been showing me in my quiet times as well... Things that I'd been hesitant to accept as being from God because nobody else ever really spoke about these issues. And there were times Bell said things that I thought and thought about and concluded that he was right.
A book by someone I can always agree with, a book that makes sense, a book that is easy to decipher and understand, is not a book that is going to change my life. For example, the Bible isn't easy. The Bible frequently doesn't make sense. And while I don't necessarily disagree with the Bible, I have to wrestle with it because there are things it says that I don't like. (And not in an "I don't want my sin to be sin" way. More in a "God, why would you SAY that?" kind of way.)
The art that has changed my life was stuff I've had to fight through. Plays like Equus and, most recently, Angels in America have hurt me, pushed me, kept me up late at night because I'm thinking, "But that's not okay." Rob Bell's books have done the same thing. I've had to think through the things he says, because they're thoughts that I haven't heard expressed very often in my Christian experience. Are they unexpressed because they're wrong? Possibly. But with all the God there is, my particular denomination or sect of Christianity can't have every single one of the answers. That's just crazy, to think that my interpretation is the special inerrant one and that everyone else on the planet is wrong. So I take in new interpretations, new thoughts, new attitudes that I've never considered before... and I consider them.
I'd rather wrestle through a book I don't understand to gain new understanding than smile and nod through one that repeats everything I already believe. Even if the new understanding is knowing why I disagree with the book.
Since NLDC, I've gone out of my way to read a lot more by people from all sorts of different groups, both Christian and non-Christian. With some of what they say, I've already considered it and disagree with their conclusion. With some, I've already considered it and come to the same conclusion as they have. And with some (and this is the most exciting), I have absolutely no idea because I haven't even heard any thoughts on this before. And I have a new thought to wrestle with, a new possibility to pray about.