About a month ago, Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, released a book called What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Since then, there have been quite a few reviews offering various critiques and overviews as well as treatises on Bell’s significance.
This book hasn’t generated quite the firestorm his last book did, and while I think that and the content of Bell’s message are interesting, I’m even more fascinated by Bell’s uncanny ability to use various media to his advantage.
Mastering a New Medium
As just two examples of Bell’s use of media, I’d point to his ground breaking Nooma videos and the release strategy of Love Wins.
When the first Nooma video was released, there were plenty of other DVDs with Christian material. But most of these videos simply replicated the church-based preaching or speaking of a popular teacher. They might change the setting slightly from a church pulpit to a more interesting stage, but the delivery was essentially the same with a new coat of paint.
This was similar to the way reporters treated television when it was first introduced. In their radio days, reporters read well-written scripts to a microphone, so that’s what they did in front of a camera. After a while, they figured out that to use TV as TV they would have to figure out a completely new delivery method.
Bell seems to have instinctively understood that the new medium of DVDs demanded an entirely new message format. DVDs are capable of transferring 45 minutes of data speech, but they are much better at telling visual narratives. So that’s what Bell did. He turned his teaching into a well-produced mini-movie rather than a well-recorded sermon. And people bought them. Lots of them.
Many people felt Bell’s content was weak or even in doctrinal error. But the masses who bought Nooma weren’t buying his message. They swiped their credit cards to get the feeling the DVD gave them, because that’s what DVDs do.
Focus on Questions, Not Answers
When it comes to Bell’s books, it’s also no surprise that he was capable not only of understanding how to use a new medium (like a DVD), but also how to turn an older form on its head and do something new.
With each of his books like Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Drops Like Stars, he was able to write in a non-traditional prose style that infuriated traditional readers, but appealed to a generation skilled in consuming smaller bits of information like tweets, texts, and facebook updates.
Then with Love Wins, Bell also created a brilliant social media campaign. It started with a trailer that didn’t tell you the problem it was going to solve (5 steps to a better life) or offer a question it would answer (how does the atonement work?), but instead simply communicated, “This book is about a posture of questioning.” He then sent the full book to those likely to support his position, and only part of to those unlikely to support it. These moves captivated both popular and professional bloggers (including me) and catapulted what an already successful author into an even bigger space.
The point in both of these cases is that – contrary to popular belief – Bell isn’t using the medium to seem cool. Rather he chooses to use them in such a way that the medium itself communicates as powerfully, if not more so, than his actual message. Over breakfast, a very-well known author who publicly praised Love Wins told me, “The problem with Love Wins is that it’s not very well written.” Whether that’s true or not didn’t matter. It was the world around the book and way Bell used media that performed the communicative acts on his behalf.
So What about the Glasses?
All of this leads me to think that Bell’s decision to take of his glasses has been carefully thought out. It’s not designed to update his style, be more cool, or seem more relevant.
It’s designed to communicate.
To have meaning.
To “tell a story.”
But what is the story? Where does it start? And more importantly, where is it going?
See what I did there?