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Firestorm grows over 'Christian heresy' book
March 8th, 2011
12:49 PM ET

Firestorm grows over 'Christian heresy' book

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:

Zondervan has published four books by Rob Bell, as well as numerous Nooma videos in which Rob was featured. We published these titles because we believed they were consistent with Zondervan’s mission statement and publishing philosophy. We still believe these titles are impactful with their message and positive contribution and intend to continue to publish them.

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:

I’m thrilled to let you know I have a new book coming out called "Love Wins." It releases on March 15 and the night before (March 14) I’ll be speaking in New York City. The event will be at 7 p.m. and it will be streamed live at livestream.com/lovewins. I’ll be taking questions.

If the interest before the release is any indication, Bell will have plenty of questions to answer.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Books • Christianity • Church • Michigan • United States

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  9. christianbrother

    hey guys lets remember that the christianity we practice today was startling, heretical and broke with over 1000 years of christian tradition when martin luther first proposes his 95 theses. christian doctrine is fluid and has come a long way in its history.

    April 6, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  10. Jay

    Religulous.

    April 3, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  11. PJ

    As Americans everyone should have the right to practice their religion if it does not hurt other people. Jesus did not reject anyone when he took on human form and walked on the earth for 33 years, but I do believe that judgment day is coming and everyone who has ever lived will be judged for their deeds. God is the judge and no one knows when the end will come, not the angels of heaven or the Son of Man but only God the Father. Let the evil ones continue doing evil and good people continue doing good deeds. I believe we are close to the end and this planet will burn up so choose what kind of person you want to be – your choice.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:02 am |
  12. Sally Jo

    If I might add, all the posts here sound like Rob Bell, pastors of the faith, but presented in a different way. Hearing many messages of Rob Bell, he preaches what you are doing here. Quotes from the same Bible. Let's uphold all of us as men/woman of Christ. I wonder what would happen if we ALL supported Rob like I am doing to all of you here? Let's let our Father judge all mens hearts. A plan?

    April 1, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  13. Murry McMurry

    "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute...." 2 Peter Chapter 1, verse 20 – Chapter 2 vs 1 -2; and read beyond those references....

    April 1, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  14. james

    while the biblical evidence for universalism can be disputed, its no more a heresy than Prosperity preaching, which goes directly against Jesus's actual statements such as Matthew 19:24. However, making money from publishing such a book possibly goes against Matthew 21:12.

    March 30, 2011 at 5:54 am |
  15. Tare

    Hell is for children and those who think like children.

    March 29, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  16. Israel Sanchez

    To quote John Piper, "Farewell, Rob Bell."

    http://lovedoesntletgo.blogspot.com

    March 29, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  17. rob instien

    We have the bible and creationas proof of our savior. The bible tells us that God will love some and hate others.(Cain and Abel) I feel sorry and pray for the thousnds of people who will belive Bell over the bible.I pray that the spirit of the Jeasus will work in thier heart while there is still time. We are all one heart beat away from eternity.

    March 27, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • toxictown

      Why would an all powerful omniscient creator being need to love or hate anything.

      December 28, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
  18. Pastor Matt

    The Theology of Rob Bell: Making Evil Good and Good Evil?
    http://www.pastormattrichard.com/2011/02/theology-of-rob-bell-making-evil-good.html

    March 26, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  19. kaitlyn

    @ Hakuna matata you rock! & are my new hero>

    This whole thing reminds me of a play ground full of children pretending. They are fine until a random child injects his pretend senerio. Then there is a fight and hate & discord because random child is not playing the game right.

    I have never ever met a bunch of violent people as I have living in the bible belt. If you say one thing about your views, they will argue with teeth bared to the end. NO tolerence. There way is the only way. After living in such an oppressive state, I have found that these people have driven me further away from ANY religion.

    They definitely do not act like the man portrayed in the sequel book. They do not aheare to the laws. They pick and choose what they want and judge people. When I am asked, do you believe in god, I reply, which one?

    And to think that so many people have lost their lives over the course of humanity, over, a pretend being made up by men, is sad.

    March 26, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  20. BIll

    The Bible indicates a place of punishment, to deny this is to be an idiot. Most thinking people would say that there needs to be a place for people like Hitler or Pol Pot to be punished. Where it gets more interesting, is the fact that most people believe they are going to heaven based on their "good works" where the Bible clearly indicates "There is none righteous, no not one..." and "the wages of sin is death".

    March 25, 2011 at 1:08 am |
    • kaitlyn

      Their has to be a place for people like hitler?

      Yes, He's dead' He was worm bait. You live you die. There are not special places for you. That crap was made up to help people except death. People can not fathom the reality.

      I live my life in a way to make my family, friends, neighbors, community proud. If I mess up I have to answer to my peers. I have to look those people in the eye. I don't need a book to tell me that I shouldn't kill a person. I don't get any second chances! I don't get to do whatever I want, under the guise of a religion umbrella, only to ask for forgiveness at the last minute, so I can go to a gold and shiney place up in the sky. I have to do my best to do it right this one and only chance I have.

      I can not imagine being in """heaven""" with most of the backstabbing, lying christians I have met. It would be another earthly exsistence. You think about everything you know about all of the people in your churches, the trouble makers, the people you tolerate because it's the christian thing to do. Then you talk behind there back. Would you want to spend eternity with them? I would rather live like I should and die peacefully and have that be the end. Because the other option is being in a place you fanatical lying, cheating, thieving,hypocritial people would be Hell.

      March 26, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Noah

      When someone dies, the majority of energy leaves their body. After a little time, their cells stop working. Everything that keeps their body working ceases. As many will agree, a person is nothing more than the sum of their memories.
      When you die, the parts of your brain that stores those memories no longer works. You are dead, your body decomposes, and you serve to feed other animals. Where would you get the energy to travel to heaven or hell? When a person dies, they are gone, their memories are gone, and their body will soon decompose. No heaven or hell, just death.

      April 21, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Robert

      This is an old post, but I felt I needed to throw in my thoughts.
      Bill – Its extremely rude to consider someone an idiot for asking questions about accepted doctrines. It might be a settled issue for you, but that does not mean that it is correct. The very Reformation that John Piper and Justin Taylor draw their views from was a change from the accepted doctrines of the time. Essentially, and beyond the issue of Papal authority, it was a reanalysis of what the Bible claimed despite the accepted traditions of the age. Reformers were called "heretics", the very word those against Bell are now throwing at him now. It is in the best interest of Christianity to reexamine their values and doctrines.

      Personally I believe a reversal has occurred in the Christian community, with the "Reformed" group now taking the position of heretic hammer that they once suffered under some 400 plus years ago. Doctrinal rigidity and certainty are not humble attributes and truly go against the tradition of Christianity, which truly is a religion of reform with Jesus starting a trend in his defiance against the views of his age.

      I just wrote a blog on this very thing if anyone would like to comment and offer their thoughts. The Danger of Tradition: Will Christianity Enter a New Reformation Period?: http://ow.ly/5sj0o

      June 28, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.