In The Heretic, Rob Bell is alone. In his house, in the back seat of limos, walking into theaters where he’s about to perform, standing on stages in the spotlight–Bell is consistently detached from others. He seems to prefer it that way; he is above the ordinary people, both literally and metaphorically. Surrounded by adoring fans who worship him, we never see Rob Bell the Human Being he talks about so much, only Rob Bell the Performer, the Guru, the Man on Stage With a Mic. All his famous “friends,” ranging from author Elizabeth Gilbert to comedian Pete Holmes to fellow megachurch-pastor-turned-heretic Carlton Pearson (from Come Sunday), come across as both Bell worshipers and fellow performers, the awe of his brilliance in their eyes when they speak about him. The only bit of genuine emotion Bell seems to express in the entire film are the tears which form in his eyes when he recalls potentially losing his audience, how the ticket sales were once down but have now returned. What moves this man? The spotlight brings him joy; the possibility of losing it, despair. It’s sadly telling that the only moment we see him with a member of his family (a daughter) is walking into a Tennessee theater venue, Bell happily strolling away from her to revel in his own glory on stage.
As an impersonal, heavy-handed piece of filmic propaganda, The Heretic might be the God’s Not Dead for the other side of Christianity, the historic liberal-fundamentalist Protestant church divide on display via the cinematic medium. For all his (correct) critiques of American ideology and its hijacking of the Christian story, Bell is still a slick salesman, a marketer, a performer, a tall white man in expensive clothes and hairspray asking people to pay him for his this-will-change-your-life ideas. The documentary was barely an hour long, but it felt like an eternity. With no story arc, no true conflicts, and no real resolution or direction, we watch Bell talking people away from one kind of fundamentalist thinking (a certain form of white American evangelicalism) towards another: his books and tours.
Essentially a marketing tool, The Heretic focuses on Bell’s post-pastor, post-Love Wins speaking tour promoting his latest book. We are shown (and told) just how cool he is, how he’s so unlike other Christians, how funny and energetic and lively and engaging his brand (emphasis on brand) of spirituality can be. The film is structured by a rhythm: shots of Bell walking out onto a stage to cheering fans; Bell being introduced on stage; Bell standing in front of a crowd sharing his ideas; Bell signing his books to the queue of fans. I’ve read many of those books, and I’ve appreciated the critical theological questions Bell has raised in the past. Because of my respect for his past work, I had hoped to view a balanced and personal view of Bell–how he grew up, how he became a pastor, what prompted his decision to leave church ministry, even what he likes about his wife and children. But this doc holds us at a distance between the stage and the audience–we are always watching Bell perform, and he is very aware of the camera’s eye. The doc eschews any legitimate criticisms of Bell, limiting opposing (or even neutral) views to a few archival shots of Franklin Graham ranting on Fox News and some shots of crazed protestors outside Bell’s speaking venues. It doesn’t expect us to take these very seriously; anyone not in full agreement of Bell is clearly out of touch and unenlightened.
The term “heretic” is used of Bell as a term of endearment. But being a “heretic” means one must be outside of a tradition or community. Sure, Bell frequently demonstrates a lack of understanding or an outright distortion of Christian history, doctrine, practice, and theology. But Bell is well within the American traditions of cultish pop-guru snake oil salesmen and capitalist consumerism. In so many ways, the white male “emerging church” pastors and leaders of the 2000s–Bell, Mark Driscoll, Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, et al.–have shifted from being shepherds of the church into salesmen of their own particular brands, each striving to stay in the spotlight. Maybe Bell isn’t so alone after all.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7174366/