About six years ago, the Rev. Rob Bell was -- in terms of mainstream news -- hotter than hell.
In other words, lots of reporters thought he was totally cool because he was turning the world of megachurch celebrity culture inside out with his headline-friendly attacks on centuries of Christian doctrine about heaven, hell and salvation (plus some other predictable topics linked to faith, culture and politics).
It's all part of a news-media equation that is familiar to all public-relations professionals who promote religious books to the mainstream. If an evangelical writer wants great press, all he or she has to do is attack the core beliefs of evangelicalism. The same works for Catholics, Anglicans (Newark Bishop Jack Spong wrote the book on this), Mormons and pretty much everyone else.
The bottom line: Rebellion against conservative orthodoxy is almost always news. So Bell's "Love Wins" book was a big deal, for many.
So Bell took his post-congregation revival tour to Atlanta the other day and CNN.com was all over it, producing a long, long, print feature with this headline: "Outlaw pastor Rob Bell shakes up the Bible Belt."
Let me stress that an update on Bell is a valid subject for a feature story, even if the former megachurch pastor is no longer making headlines. Also, there have been lots of interesting responses to Bell's redefinition of heaven and hell, some of them book length (see "God Wins"), which means that it would ultra-easy for CNN editors/reporters to find articulate responses -- from a variety of theological perspectives -- to what Bell is still saying.
No, honest. Don't laugh. It would have been so easy for CNN to produce an interesting, complex, accurate, balanced news feature on this Bell event.
Want to guess what happened? Yes, the words "Donald Trump" play a major role in this, but that's not the point. Here is the overture:
(CNN) Ben and Ashley Baldwin were standing in line outside an Atlanta theater on a recent Sunday when they learned they were in danger.
The young couple -- blond, tanned and draped in khaki and cotton summer clothes -- were waiting to hear Rob Bell, a controversial California pastor, when Ben ran into an old college acquaintance. After making small talk, the man handed the Baldwins a note. Opening it, they read a neatly typed message that began with, "A few questions to consider tonight."
It asked whether Bell honored the Bible "as inspired by God." Could his audience recognize "heresy" and guard against it? "As you listen tonight," it advised, "ask God himself to show you what is true and what is not true."
The Baldwins weren't surprised. Only the night before, at another Bell event, a street preacher had warned them they would go to hell. Bell has a reputation among conservative Christians as a false teacher who leads others astray.
The couple decided to risk damnation and enter the theater.
Now, that "neatly typed message" reference is as close as CNN.com readers are going to get to hearing from a Bell critic in this outstanding example of public relations work passing as a news report.
Bell critics loom in the background, like a vast fundamentalist storm, but never appear to state their views.
Readers would never know that, while there are plenty of strident Bell haters (and they are part of this story), the small-o orthodox opposition to his liberal brand of evangelicalism can be found in a wide variety of seminaries and pulpits. Like I said, it only takes a few clicks to find perfectly sane Christian apologists to answer Bell.
But that is not what this PR piece is about. Preach!
Going to hear a pastor preach on a Sunday afternoon is considered an act of piety. But when that pastor is Bell and he's speaking in the heart of the Bible Belt, it's subversive. Bell, who made the cover of Time magazine, is an outlaw in the evangelical world. He was cast out of that kingdom in 2011 after he questioned the existence of hell in his New York Times best-selling book, "Love Wins."
Bell is still in the business of making audacious moves. He was in Atlanta as part of his "Bible Belt Tour" to promote his new book, "What Is the Bible." He has ventured into the belly of the beast -- speaking in some of the reddest and most patriotic states in the United States -- to deliver a risky message.
He's telling audiences that a person should read the Bible "literately," not "literally;" that people who talk the most about the Bible often know it the least; and to the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for President Donald Trump, he declares: You voted for a leader who has "zero moral compass."
In the midst of that, the editors toss in a sub-headline that states, "Learn why Bell was condemned by evangelical leaders." It takes readers to a Time piece that, well, pretty much takes the same hagiography approach to Bell's work. If you are looking for diverse sources of information on this man, that's not going to help.
This long, long piece contains all kinds of valid questions, but never allows anyone but Bell to discuss 2,000 years of Christian teachings (yes, one would need to listen to people in a variety of traditions to find the common themes) that provide other answers. And, yes, there are Protestant and Catholic voices on the doctrinal left that would back him. That's important, too.
Here is an example of the happy-clappy PR techniques used throughout.
Doubt is part of the biblical narrative, [Bell] said, quoting Jesus' cry on the cross: "My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?"
"The Bible is as much about the absence of God than the presence of God," he said.
Do you belong to a church that says women cannot be priests or pastors?
Bad move, Bell said.
Any church that does so betrays the example of Jesus, who treated women as equals. Women in Jesus' times couldn't even testify as witnesses in court.
"Yet all the gospels have women as the first witnesses to Jesus' resurrection," he said.
How did Bell's audience react to his pronouncements?
Cheers and more cheers. It was as if they were hungry for his message. Some turned and looked at one another with an "I can't believe he said that" expression, but most were with him the entire night.
Sigh. This is so, so, old news. And it would have been so easy to have found articulate, solid voices all along this Bible Belt Bell tour to provide readers with other points of view in this important debate.
Why make that effort?
Well, there is this: #JournalismMatters