Rob Bell’s misquote, modernity, and hypocrisy

So I’ve been watching this interesting series of events unfold.  It’s a bit of a case study in how principles aren’t as important as people claim they are.

It begins with Rob Bell saying, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just some of us; it’s in everyone.” (Quote is from I assume the various bolds and underlines are their emphasis, though they do not state that.)

The first problem is that there is an urban myth that this quote began with Nelson Mandela.  The second problem is that the urban myth is not true.  The third problem is that the quote actually belongs to a prominent new age writer named Marianne Williamson.

I’m not interested particularly in the content of the quote.  I’m not interested right now in Nelson Mandela, or Marriane Willaimson.  What I’m interested in is what happened when this mistake became public knowledge.

The old-school traditional right wing freaked out.   They’ve been accusing Rob Bell of being a new-ager in Christian clothes for years.  But it’s so interesting to me that they don’t even seem to notice the irony of this position.

Those who embody the modern era– like Bell’s critics– hold that we humans can know truth with a capital “T”.  Truth without a capital “T” doesn’t need context.  One of the places this plays itself out in terms of what it means to be a Christian.

Traditional moderns would identify a core belief and claim that intellectually holding this belief is sufficient for salvation and identification as a Christian. 

Post moderns, on the other hand, emphasize context.   Who said a thing, and why this thing was said, is at least as important as what was said.  Many post moderns, for example, would say that rational belief isn’t quite enough.  They’d say that we can tell whether a belief has penetrated the heart based on the actions of the believer.

Here’s the thing: suddenly the moderns care about the context.

So near as I can discover, nobody took issue with this quote when they believed it came from Nelson Mandella.  In some way I’ll give them credit for this: it implies that they recognize Mandella for the hero that he is.

When it became clear that Williamson said it, though, everything went to Hell in a handbasket.  This mentality is captured nicely from another cite which reported critically on the whole affair.

said this:

“So I guess we now have the right to ask Rob Bell: Do you still believe this love of self stated in this sappy sentiment which we now know actually came emerging from New Age Mystic priestess Marianne Williamson based on her exposition of the occult book A COURSE IN MIRACLES?”

This is perfect!  Nobody’s focused on whether it was right or wrong.  That seems rather secondary to the source of the quote.

Of course they have the right to ask him.  I hope if they did, Mr. Bell would observe, along with me, that it’s pretty interesting to notice that all the sudden context matters.  Interesting how “truth is truth” when it’s convenient, but when the source of this “truth” helps extend a smear campaign context matters.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

13 thoughts on “Rob Bell’s misquote, modernity, and hypocrisy”

  1. “Nobody’s focused on whether it was right or wrong.”

    Sorry about that chief but you are incorrect. Since I’m the one you quote I can tell you I wanted to expose the source of the quote to show that both a new ager (Williamson) and a professing Christian pastor (Bell) are agreed in heresy.

    Namely the old Gnostoc belief that there is a spark of the divine already present within mankind. But for those of us who know the Bible this quote has always been wrong no matter who had said it.


  2. Thanks for stopping by Mr. Silva:
    I respect your right to expose heresy. And you and God are the only people who know your heart.
    However, these are the things I notice about the situation:
    #1) The comment went unnoticed before the source was clarified to the best of my knowledge. I’ll grant that it was sloppy research on Bell’s part to claim that Mandella said it. But how does the source of the quote relate to the content of the quote?
    Especially if we hold on to modern-era conceptions about the nature of truth, the question should be “Does his quote imply a Gnostic belief system.” Whether the first person who said it was Marrianne Williamson, Mickey Mouse, Nelson Mandela, or Billy Graham, either the statement is or isn’t heretical.

    Accordingly, it’s hard for me to see how asking Rob Bell if he’s changed his opinion on the issue is particularly relevant.

    Maybe a different way to express the same idea:
    C.S. Lewis said lots of amazing things. I can imagine thinking something was a quote of his which wasn’t. If I publicly attribute this quote to him when it isn’t him, this was my mistake and I ought to own it. However, if it turned out that the quote originated with somebody I personally disagree with or dislike, perhaps Stalin, my endorsement of his quote is not an endorsement of Communism, especially if I didn’t realize it came from him in the first place.
    It would be fair enough to assess the quote I liked, and ask why I liked it. But that comes back to looking at the words on the words’ terms, not paying attention to who originally said it.


  3. Jeff,

    I had already ended my original comment addressing the central point in the first place: “But for those of us who know the Bible this quote has always been wrong no matter who had said it.”


  4. Fair enough. But why didn’t anybody complain about the quote when they didn’t know who said it?
    It’s one thing for everyone to claim that the original author isn’t important. But if that’s true, then why post something only when it turns out Williamson is the author?


  5. Jeff,

    I can’t speak for others, but I never had heard of that quote until I heard Bell mention it in a sermon that made the Internet rounds in late 2006.

    Shortly afterward is when I wrote my initial article about it. The one you quoted from was a piece where I repeated it again because no one was reacting to a New Ager and a professing Christian pastor being in agreement concerning their wrong view of the actual nature of mankind.

    So on the point that there should have been more reaction, you and I would be in agreement. I hope this helps you to at least understand where I’m coming from.

    Hey who knows, maybe people will finally react to it now that you have brought it up again. 🙂


  6. Ken:
    It seems that you objected to his statement before you knew the source. I assumed that you did not. I hope you’ll accept my apologies on this front. I should have done my homework before making the assumption.
    I hope I’m not beating a dead horse, here, though, if I ask for a bit of clarification: “no one was reacting to a New Ager and a professing Christian pastor being in agreement concerning their wrong view of the actual nature of mankind.”
    Is the issue that it’s the wrong view or is the issue that a New Ager and a professing Christian pastor are in agreement?

    On a different note: Thus far, I’ve taken a pass on stating my opinion on the claim itself… But it’s more kind than true to suggest that my blog will inspire much of anybody to react to much of anything. 😉


  7. Jeff,

    I appreciate the apology but there’s no harm done. You ask: “Is the issue that it’s the wrong view or is the issue that a New Ager and a professing Christian pastor are in agreement?”

    In my opinion it’s both. By that I mean a Christian pastor should know better than to have agreed with that quote in the first place even if it had been said by Mandela.

    But since it was Williamson we would now know that as a New Ager she’s talking about all men being special and children of God because she believes we’re all divine.

    Jeff, this is not a personal issue because I have nothing against Rob. He looks like a nice guy and seems sincere. However, as you’ll see in this piece I’m hardly the only pastor who sees the universalism in Bell’s message – Rob Bell “The Gods Are Not Angry”—A Critique


  8. I hear what you’re saying, I think. It seems to me that if Bell didn’t know that Williamson said it he’s guilty of not doing enough homework. But we certainly can’t claim that he’s endorsing her world view if he didn’t even know she initially said it.
    I think there’s a danger here, that we end up looking hypocritical in all this.
    Much of the time, many of us say things like the truth isn’t a popularity contest, and it doesn’t matter who said it, a thing is either true or it isn’t true, regardless of who said it. We go on and on about how we can’t worry about being offensive if we’re speaking the truth.
    If all this is true, then it seems like it ought to be true all of the time, not only when it’s convenient. The source of things we disagree with, I think, should be just as irrelevant of the source of things that we agree with.
    If we decide that there is an objective truth, and that this truth can be understood even when isolated out of a larger context, then it makes sense to argue about the content of statements such as Bell’s.
    In the end this disagreement probably won’t get settled here. I will take a look at the critique of “The Gods are not Angry”


  9. “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just some of us; it’s in everyone.”

    well call me crazy but I don’t care who said it, this is just not true. The glory of God is not in everyone.


  10. Yes Micey! That’s exactly right. If you don’t care who said it, I support your right to say it.
    However if the issue is that the quote somehow becomes worse if one person (Marianne Williamson) said it versus some other person (Nelson Mandela) then I think there is a problem.


  11. yes but the fact rob bell said it, and agreed with it is a problem. he is a teacher and a pastor and this idea is not biblical at all and by a pastor endorsing it leads people astray because we are like sheep and easily led and misled.


  12. I hear you jeff. I could get the impression from a scan of the internet that Rob Bell is perhaps the most feared threat to Christianity on the planet. Many comments and critiques i have read seem based in fear that he will lead us all astray.
    I am extremely interested in your point that those who seek to discredit Rob insist on absolute truth in all circumstances but then seem extremely concerned about context, style and whether or not your sermon is on DVD or delivered in a night club.
    I have listened to the sermons from Mars Hill for the last 2 years and really haven’t heard anything which would cause me to think they are sprouting heresy. The fact is that you could go through any pastor in the worlds sermon with a fine tooth comb and find a sentence or quote in which a hint of heresy could be suspected. I would be much more worried if they ran a 6 week course in their church explaining “How people can manifest and discover their own inner glory” but the fact is they dont teach that.
    This brings me back to my first point. People are scared of Rob Bell and they shouldn’t be. I have listened online from Australia for a long time and I think their teaching has done lots to help me actively bring about the kingdom in my own neighbourhood.


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