Rob Bell, Erich Fromm and Writing From Experience

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I believe that one cannot write about experiences that one has not experienced.
— Erich Fromm

One time I heard the heretic Rob Bell say that he doesn’t talk about spiritual matters he hasn’t experienced. In other words, if he hasn’t experienced something personally, he doesn’t teach it. That stuck with me.

Now, the (un)necessary disclaimers about Rob Bell.


I love Rob Bell. There, I said it. He’s been my pastor-remote for the better part of five years (he doesn’t know this; it’s a one-way relationship). Not long ago, I had a dream that I met him. We exchanged words and then he said something to me that brought me to tears. I hugged him and sobbed. I wish I could recall what he said.

I’ve followed Rob’s ministry since the early 2000’s when I was lifting ideas from his Nooma videos and working them into my sermons. You might recall when Rob problematized the idea of eternal conscious torment in Hell and John Piper outted him from the Christian faith (as though John Piper holds the keys to the Kingdom of God). Think whatever you will of Rob Bell and his theology. I don’t agree with all his theology. I don’t care.

I loved his book How to Be Here - saved me a few co-pays to my therapist. I found his book What is the Bible to be very boring. I haven’t read Love Wins for the same reasons (mostly) that I haven’t read The Shack - everyone else has (or at least claims to have) read it. I enjoyed Velvet Elvis. I got halfway through Sex God. I listen to his podcast, except when he gets too political (I find him boring here, though it’s probably just me). I like Rob’s work, mostly. And that’s what makes him great to me - he’s thinking. He’s still going. He’s pushing boundaries, which might be the most orthodox thing a Christian can do.

I don’t have to agree with all of Rob to love some of what Rob does. Why do I even have to say this? (Why is he saying this? you’re asking.)

Back to Erich Fromm (you do remember his quote atop this post, right?): I believe one cannot write about experiences that one has not experienced. That’s what got me thinking about Rob. And that’s what got me thinking about my own congregational ministry. Can I teach about things I have not experienced? Is there any point talking about Heaven if I’ve never tasted it here on earth as it is there? Or healing? Or loving the poor?

I don’t know. I’m telling you, I don’t know if Rob and Erich are right. But I know this - when I speak from what I’ve experienced, there’s a ring of truth in the words. It’s not boring to hearers. When I speak about things that I’ve not experienced, they come across as theoretical - to me and to my hearers.

I suppose the danger in this approach is that it makes me the arbiter of what gets taught from the Scriptures. If I haven’t experienced what I’m reading, then I don’t teach it. This is where I think Rob and Erich (who wasn’t all that concerned about Sunday services when he wrote those words) are on thin ice. But that begs the question: Why have I not experienced what I’m reading? And if I haven’t, should I? Can I? Can I wait to speak about something until I’ve fleshed it out?

And then I get to this place, tired and insecure as I am from this mental journey: What’s the point in listening if you’re not going to experience what you’ve heard? James the brother of Jesus rants on this point: Don’t merely be hearers, but doers of what you hear.

You see, I love the Holy Book. But I think some of us - teachers and hearers alike - are content to let the Holy Book be a book we “believe” in, but one that we haven’t found “believable” by actions, by testing it out today.

The Word became flesh, right?

Tommy Brown1 Comment