Who is Rob Bell to you? Perhaps he's the heroic boundary-pusher of the modern church, whose writing, preaching and broadcasting continues to shape and challenge your faith. Or perhaps he's someone very different: a wayward, fallen idol; the great hope of evangelicalism who ended up surrendering just too much theological ground. Perhaps you've embraced him further as he's become less recognisable as the evangelical pastor he once was; perhaps like John Piper, you've bid him an angry 'Farewell'.
Or perhaps, Rob Bell is not a name you know well, or at all. If so, you're in the majority; all the Christian-bubble furore over his Hell-questioning book Love Wins made about as much of an impact in the Real World as Gary Barlow's solo career. Slowly though, that number is diminishing. In America, Bell is well on his way to becoming a bona fide celebrity - with a show on Oprah Winfrey's TV channel, more television projects in development, and a continued thirst for innovative communication which makes him just as likely to hit the New York Times' Bestseller list as the viral video charts.
All of which means that many people are encountering a refreshing, well-communicated pitch of the Christian faith, perhaps for the first time, at the hands of Rob Bell. A friend passes them a copy of Velvet Elvis, still one of the most compelling introductions to Christianity of the last few decades; they catch five minutes of him talking about the cross on the Oprah Network or two minutes of him discussing forgiveness on YouTube. They meet this man – this indisputably brilliant communicator – and through him, they hear about Jesus in a way that makes sense.
For some of us of course, even this seemingly positive idea can induce a boiling of the blood. His increasing popularity is problematic for many. If Bell is a heretic, preaching some all-inclusive mix of Jesus and Walt Disney, with a happy ending for everyone, then he's just a Pied Piper, leading people toward destruction by pretending it doesn't exist. John Piper's famous 'farewell' tweet is just the tip of the iceberg by the way; one popular US blogger wrote that Bell is 'a heretic and an enemy of God', while Franklin Graham, always dependable for a heavy-handed soundbite, also used the 'h' word and added 'false teacher.' The idea that someone could become a disciple of Rob Bell is deeply disturbing for these people, who worry that he'll only help people to follow a meaningless shadow of true Christianity.
I'm not sure that's true. While we might feel a fondness for the writers, preachers or friends who first introduced us to the faith, I don't think it follows that we then become their devotees. My own moment of 'conversion' came partly as a result of reading CS Lewis but my bedroom isn't decorated with Narnia movie posters. In fact, I thought his sci-fi books were pretty average (this will definitely upset someone), but I'm mighty glad he took the time to write Mere Christianity.Thanks to Lewis, I decided to follow Christ; I didn't therefore also decide to follow Lewis.
When Bell recently brought his '2 Days with Rob Bell' event to London, local opinions were somewhat divided. Some enjoyed his (rather expensive) teaching on creativity and communication. Others were sceptical, not so much because of the content, but because of the man. For these people, the content of this sort of teaching is quite irrelevant; Rob Bell is now written off as a purveyor of bad and dangerous theology.
Which isn't really a fair assessment of his first few books, or of the Nooma DVD series that has rescued a million poorly-planned home groups. His five-year-old Resurrection video, which sees him offer a compelling introduction to the real meaning of Easter, is still widely shared every year because it's such a brilliant evangelistic tool.
And actually the book he wrote after Love Wins, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, is a great, culturally-relevant apologetic which contains little to offend conservatives. Whatever you think of Bell's more contentious later writing or media comments, it seems a shame to burn the back catalogue too.
Because of course, the real issue with Rob Bell is not what he said, but who we thought he was when he said it.
Bell was a champion for evangelicals. He was cool; he was creative, and he found things in the Bible that we'd never seen there before. We simply weren't ready for him to escape that neat box and start going off-message.
This isn't a problem however for people who were never weighed down by that sort of baggage in the first place. When author Francis Spufford released his pro-Christian book Unapologetic in 2012, Christians were united in praise for him. Never mind that the theology might not have been perfect, or that Spufford dropped in a couple of f-bombs along the way; here was a respected 'real world' writer affirming the value of the Christian faith. The same was true when Russell Brand decided to weigh in to the recent Stephen Fry 'angry God' kerfuffle; Christians of every theological persuasion were delighted that he'd unexpectedly spoken up on God's side (and busily shared the video on social media). We forgive people an awful lot when they don't come from within the camp.
This kind of grace is not extended, it seems, to Rob Bell. Which means that when people do encounter Jesus for the first time through his writing, speaking or other creative communication, then at some point there's a good chance they'll meet a Christian who doesn't like him, who will make sure they explain exactly why. I can only imagine how I might have reacted if, having heard the gospel through CS Lewis, I'd then been told by the folks at church that the man was a false teacher.
And that, really is the problem with hating Rob Bell. Some people are so angry at his deviation from supposed orthodoxy, that they're intent in warning against and rubbishing the man and everything he's ever done. Or in other words, they believe that God can no longer work through him.
I think that's dangerous. I don't agree with everything Rob Bell says, but I'm certain God continues to use him – the things he's done, and the things he's still doing – in his position as one of the world's most prominent Jesus followers. Do we really want to risk alienating those who might want to embark on the Christian journey, because we had a problem with their first tour guide?
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and an author, screenwriter and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders