“Farewell Rob Bell,” tweeted prominent evangelical pastor John Piper in 2011 shortly after Bell’s book, Love Wins, hit the market.The book, which Piper and other evangelical leaders shunned for its flirtation with universalism and other perceived heresies, prompted Bell’s exit from the evangelical orbit. Shortly after the book was released, Bell left his position as pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. These days, Bell facilitates elite seaside spiritual retreats and is debuting The Rob Bell Show on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Another prominent evangelical pastor, who happens to have the same last name as Rob Bell, is currently making headlines with his dramatic exit from evangelicalism. Unlike Rob Bell, who still maintains a broadly Christian identity even though he no longer affiliates with any particular church, Ryan Bell has left Christianity all together. Until 2013, Ryan Bell was an outstanding, if controversial, Seventh Day Adventist pastor as well as an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University.
After getting divorced and being forced to resign from his pastoral position because of his public quarrels with various Seventh Day Adventist tenets and policies, Ryan Bell launched a public de-conversion experiment. He announced that he would live as an atheist for the year of 2014, chronicling the experience on his blog, A Year Without God. On December 31, Ryan’s unsurprising “grand reveal” appeared on the blog: “Today I continue my life as a humanist and an atheist.” In addition to feverish blogging about his transition from Christianity to atheism, Ryan is writing a book about his experience, while also being filmed for a documentary on the topic.
Ryan Bell’s deconversion from evangelicalism points to the tradition’s longstanding difficulties in dealing with the challenges of modernity and more recently, postmodernity. Many mainline and Catholic Christians have devoted much attention to the relationship between the Christian tradition and modern developments, and through that effort have come to embrace evolutionary theory, incorporate higher critical approaches to scripture, align religious impulses with art over science, and reject theological exclusivism. Many of those nurtured in evangelical circles, conversely, find themselves caught between fundamentalism on one hand and apostasy on the other. More and more, survey data tells us, they are choosing the latter.
In the United States, deconversion from Christianity has tended to be a quiet, and often hidden phenomenon. In recent years, several high profile cases have bucked that trend. For instance, in 2009, prominent Christian contemporary musician David Bazan made waves with his album, Curse Your Branches, which NPR’s Stephen Thompson described as a “breakup letter to God.” In 2011, Pentecostal pastor Jerry DeWitt announced that he had become an atheist after 25 years of parish ministry. This past fall, Bart Campolo, son of Tony Campolo and founder of Mission Year, broadcasted his deconversion by accepting a position as humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. And then there is Ryan Bell, whose “year without God” has earned him scores of interviews with prominent media outlets, a book deal, and countless visits to his blog.
What stands out most in Ryan Bell’s story is not his deconversion itself, but the social context of his deconversion. Whereas in earlier periods of American history, a Christian leader’s decision to leave the faith often spelled social ostracism, career suicide, and financial ruin, Ryan Bell has never been so sought after and widely acclaimed as he is today, as a secular thought leader and faithless spiritual guru.
Religious leaders no longer need the church, it seems. In fact, at least in terms of their popularity and cultural appeal, many are better off without it. Organized religion is out; spiritual entrepreneurship is in. Rob Bell’s theological proclivities could have landed him in a pastorate in any number of mainline Christian denominations. Had he been interested, Ryan Bell could have found a home in Unitarianism. But for these ex-evangelical leaders, de-linking from religious institutions and forming their own brands is a much more appealing route than the path of traditional, institutionalized religious liberalism.
Throughout history, humans have created social spaces in which to ask questions and make statements about the meaning of existence. The church has been one such space. Whatever else the church has been, it has been a place to collectively probe that which matters most deeply to us. These days, the blogosphere and the Oprah Winfrey Network seem to have more traction in this role. As for me, I’ll hang on to the church. But late at night, when no one is around, I may also stream the first episode of The Rob Bell Show on my laptop.