The Bible and Culture

Nooma is the Anglicized version of the Greek word pneuma, which means spirit, breath, or wind. This word is presumably chosen for the series of short videos Rob Bell is producing signaling the fresh winds that are blowing through the church and the world in part through the Emergent Church movement. Each of these short films have one word titles like ‘Rain’ or ‘Flame’ or ‘Trees’ or ‘Sunday’, and each center on some elemental concept or idea about which Rob can give some Biblical and spiritual reflection. In the liner notes of the first video we learn that the first of these films was in fact being shot on 9-11-2001 and was about the storms we have in life. That is truly an interesting harmonic convergence. As Sting once said “when the world is falling down, let’s make the best of what’s left around.”

There is an edge to each of these videos which is partly conveyed by the often eerie stripped down background music (the lyrics of which are often not decipherable—think some of the darker stuff by Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or even the circus organ in some of Eminem’s music, or even some of the elemental Punk stuff by the Pixies or Violent Femmes). Rob’s background in a punk band comes through in his stripped down or back to basics approach to Christianity, as is evident in these films.

Filmed, (it would appear), in high def and focusing like a laser beam on Rob himself in various settings and scenarios each of these well produced videos is somewhere between nine and perhaps 14-15 minutes in length– perfect for those with short attention spans, or used to channel or website hopping. The colors tend to be stark or primal (black, blue, green, white) with bursts of normalcy here and there, some of the shots are aerial, some are deliberately fuzzy, some are grainy, some are quite artistic, the cinematography itself is carefully thought out and by no means amateurish. The medium and the message co-inhere in their elemental character.

Each DVD comes with a little booklet that reinforces some of the thoughts conveyed in the video and provides the citations and quotations from Scripture that are crucial to a particular film. Clearly the target audience is primarily those who do not know the Bible well or at all, those who are not likely to find appealing the normal approach to Christianity and church, and also primarily those who are 35 and under. From all accounts I have heard these videos are enormously popular with high school youth groups and college Christian fellowships or Sunday school classes as conversation starters. I can see why. They are clear, direct, and Biblical. One thing that is very characteristic of Rob Bell’s ever developing work is that he is the most clearly and profoundly and uncompromisingly Biblical in content of the Emergent Church folks I have encountered.

And interestingly it is very different in form and substance from other popular Evangelical trends such as Dispensationalism, or resurgent Calvinism in the Passion movement. Rob Bell is a very different sort of guru than John Piper or say folks like Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, or Pat Robertson. Not only is his approach more counter cultural in form and substance that these aforementioned folks, in comparison to Piper, Rob is definitely not Calvinistic.

Rob says things in these videos like ” God doesn’t force himself on anyone”. There’s no theology of irresistible grace here. Or as he stresses in “Velvet Elvis” Jesus died for everyone, atoned for the sins of everyone. And then there is that profound stress throughout out on the importance of this life, this world, and how we respond to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the diseased, here and now. This is not ‘beam me up’ escapist theology. Indeed it is ecologically and environmentally friendly theology (we even see Rob planting trees in an urban area in the ‘Trees’ video). There is a reason for this– Rob believes that God intends to come back down here, having transformed this world into the new heaven and new earth, to dwell with us forever. It thus behooves us to clean up our room down here to show we are preparing for his return and dwelling amongst us.

A few comments on the first five videos are in order here, and there will be two more posts on the second, and then the third five. Hands down, the most creative and interesting in every way of the first five short films is “Noise” (number 5 filmed in 2003). The video begins with us seeing Rob sitting on a sofa in a living room channel hopping but there are all these lines across the screen. Suddenly you realize you are looking at Rob from inside the TV (!) and then you see the little channel numbers inverted in the upper right corner of the picture. Rob is talking about the value of silence and listening to God and why we have such difficulty with silence in a noise laden culture. All of a sudden Rob turns off the TV and we no longer see or hear anything– for about a minute! Its just a blank black screen. Then we have words appearing on the screen– some Scriptures about silence and the need for quiet and rest. Some comments by Rob on the importance of this. Some reminders that we keep using our technology to put more noise and cognitive dissonance into our lives (cell phones, pagers, voice mail etc. etc.). Rob is listing the things that get in the way to listening God. He very aptly alludes to the story of Elijah on Horeb in 1 Kngs. 19– and how the message of God was not in the conflagration, or earthquake or wind, but in the silence and the still small voice. And the chaos around him needed to subside before he could hear it. This is a compelling little film, and thought provoking, and it taps into a lot of the current emphases in spiritual formation literature. One of the things you notice about Rob is that he draws equally on the OT and NT and is equally adept at getting at the heart of the message from either Testament.

Part of the ‘lets get back to basics’ approach can be seen in a video like ‘Sunday’. Rob asks why we do the things we do. Why do we go to church, why do we give money to the church etc.? What do the habits of our hearts and lives tell us about ourselves? This is the film (no. 4) where we get the message, so characteristic of the Emergent Church approach, about the dangers of empty rituals, rules, and behavior where there is a disconnect between the outer and the inner, between where the heart is and where the body and behavior is. Heart piety, and really caring about the things God cares about are where the emphasis lies, but not at the expense of action– its just that Rob wants heart felt, God motivated, enthusiastic service to God, not going through the religious motions. Here we are meant to think of some of the sterner stuff in the minor prophets about God despising our solemn assemblies if our hearts have gone far astray from Him.

‘Rain’ and ‘Flame’ (videos 1 and 2) provide us with the yin and yang of the storms of life vs. the passions of life. There is some interesting teaching in Flame about the three different words for love used in Song of Songs, and the very effective point is made that in a marriage, friendship love, erotic love, and companionship/ family love all coalesce into one and that makes the flame all the more potent and powerful (and indeed potentially life changing either in a purifying or a destructive way). I must say that I like all these shorts films. Some are more compelling than others, but all of them are useful and edifying in various ways, and Rob does a good job of integrating his own experiences with his teaching of the Biblical text.

Here is a fresh voice for the Lord, who has a vision and an understanding of what he is trying to accomplish, while remaining himself and true to his Lord. When one watches Rob with his painful honesty and genuineness and contrasts this with some of the tele-evangelists who seem so phony and unbelievable as if they are just putting on a show, it
is refreshing. Maybe these Nooma winds will blow away the competition and the flotsam and jetsam that clutters up some of our lives and our churches, and particularly our young folks lives. If that’s the impact of these films, it will be a breath of fresh air. Indeed, one might say it will be truly pneumatic– Spirit inspired and empowered.