March 8th, 2011
12:49 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
The firestorm around Rob Bell has grown considerably in the last week. Now the leadership of his Mars Hill Bible Church is rushing to his defense, and we're learning more about the fight to publish his controversial new book.
Last week, we reported that conservative Christian blogger Justin Taylor suggested Bell's yet-to-be-released book, "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived," was heading towards universalism ─ a dirty word in Christian circles that suggests everyone goes to heaven and there is no hell.
Taylor's claim ─ based on a description of the book released by publisher HarperOne and a promotional video ─ ignited a wave of criticism against, and a counter-wave of support for, Bell. Some critics went so far as to label Bell a heretic. Prominent evangelical pastors on both the right and left rushed to condemn or defend the Michigan pastor.
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the promotion of the book the "sad equivalent of a theological striptease." Brian McLaren, who has also been branded a heretic in the past, marveled at the fact people would throw around the "h" word "without actually grappling with the issues and questions the books raised."
The controversy even caught the staff at Bell's church off-guard. On Sunday, Brian Mucchi, an assistant pastor, told the church they knew a controversy could come, they just didn't expect it to come so soon, according to a church member who was at the service but did not want to be identified.
Mucchi told congregants at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, the church Bell founded, that the entire leadership team had read the book and was excited about its release. He put up pictures of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga and told the audience that while those two stars were not trending on Twitter last weekend, Bell was.
Shane Hipps, Mars Hill Bible Church's teaching pastor, addressed the congregation about the book before he preached on Sunday. "On a personal note, when you get to see a very dear friend spend a year of his life working to create, pouring blood, sweat and tears into something that before it even releases become this incredible phenomenon, it's just extremely thrilling," Hipps said, according to audio of the service posted on YouTube.
Hipps pointed out for context that Bell's unreleased book is outselling the latest release by Pope Benedict XVI on Amazon.com.
"This book will irreparably, irrevocably, irreversible change Rob's life and change a lot of the things in the life of this community. These are good things, but he needs prayer. And not because he's fragile but because he's a leader, and leaders need prayer," Hipps continued.
"We are not anxious about this at all. Because I promise you when you get to read the book, you will find that it is fresh and liberating ─ but that it rests firmly in the wide screen of Orthodox Christianity and in the history of Christianity it fits perfectly. You will be very much at ease," he said.
The church has said it will not comment on the book publicly in an official capacity until it is released and did not respond to repeated requests for interviews with its leadership team.
The book was scheduled to be released March 29, but Harper One pushed the release up to March 15 ─ next Tuesday.
“All retailers won’t get it on the same day, but it will finally give his readers a chance to hear what he’s saying,” Mark Tauber, senior vice president and publisher at HarperOne, told CNN.
He said the controversy swirling is unlike anything else he has seen in this category of books. "I'm not sure I’ve ever seen this amount of anticipation," he said.
"Love Wins" is Bell's first book since his break from Zondervan, the Christian publisher based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that published Bell's first four books and also publishes the New International Version of the Bible, one of the most popular translations of the Bible among evangelicals.
Bell's split from Zondervan came in part over this new book. "The break with Zondervan was amicable," Tauber said. "In the end the president of Zondervan made the decision. The proposal came in and they said, 'This proposal doesn’t fit in with our mission.' "
Zondervan would not discuss its relationship with Bell but released a statement:
Tauber said when he got the call that Bell's new book was up for bid, HarperOne jumped at the chance.
“There were at least four or five major publishers that were involved in bidding for this book," he said. When pressed for financial figures of the deal, he said, "We’re talking a six-figure deal for the advance, but I can’t say more than that."
Tauber said HarperOne had been "keeping an eye on him" since Bell's first book, "Velvet Elvis," came in as a proposal. That book went on to sell 500,000 copies. Bell skyrocketed to prominence with the the Nooma series, which were short teachings by Bell, away from the pulpit and with indie film sensibilities.
The high production values and quick releases of the short films made them a hit in evangelical circles. In them Bell honed his trademark style of asking tough traditional questions about faith and exploring them from angles other than traditional answers.
Bell will speak publicly for the first time since the controversy erupted on March 14 at a forum sponsored by his publisher and moderated by Lisa Miller, an editor at Newsweek magazine.
Bell once told me he doesn't like to engage in what he called "blog kung fu," the back-and-forth debates that percolate across the web. He may not have a choice this time. With the release of the book right around the corner and a long tour schedule to promote it, Bell just may find himself having to hit back.
On March 4 Bell posted this message on his website:
If the interest before the release is any indication, Bell will have plenty of questions to answer.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.