The mainstream media, which means CNN, newspapers and crafted press campaigns have saturated us with the news of the controversial Rob Bell and his new book “Love Wins – A book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” released March 15. Really, the controversy was more about the statements Bell himself pulled from the book in a video teaser as well as bits from bloggers. Red meat was thrown to those who feel obligated to guard us all from false teaching and heresy. A firestorm brewed and Bell became a NY Times bestselling author as a result.
Fellow bloggers have flocked to either attack the teachings pulled from the book or defend Bell from these attacks. It seems few actually stood up for the teachings in the book, but were offended by the tenor of the conversation. Those attacking focused on “exegetical” issues like Bell’s use of the Greek language. Admittedly, even one supporter of Bell said the book is sometimes “disjointed” and “poorly written” while making a legitimate statement that some detractors did not even read the book. Good points!
Heretic or Not a Heretic?
I asked this question on a post here on RKWeblog. Now, I get to answer. One reader made it clear that “Jesus was a heretic. Martin Luther was a heretic.” That point is well taken. Surely Rob Bell is not a heretic. He is not in the Jesus or Martin Luther revolutionary kind, and also is not literally in the “false teacher” kind as some would claim. With some great thought I personally do not see Bell in his book espouse Universalism, or a “Christian Universalism” that one reviewer/blogger coined. He may leave that question in the air, which is another issue.
Rob Bell is a pastor who has a unique and generous connection to people who are seeking and asking questions. He gets them. He knows their language. He speaks their language. In the book, you get a sense that Bell has deep empathy for this woman who was molested and this Muslim turned off because of witnessing a village in Europe where Christians killed all the Muslims. Bell is a pastor of people who wants to be able to answer these questions. And, seeing that God is love means that Bell wants to justify that character of God to these hurting and Jesus-rejecting people.
Syncretize or Contextualize?
Where I see Bell making a mistake is that he almost syncretizes to these people he cares deeply about—his church members and those damaged by a gospel framed in fear. What is not helpful is the fact that while asking questions is good and a worthy contextualized way we can engage real people today, do we need to bend our faith? No. Does Bell do this. Maybe. Here is how that is might be.
Is it possible that the asking of too many questions about things that have been speculative for over 2,000 years lead us nowhere? Perhaps. So, the method is cool. But, can it detract from more concrete and clear things about the Story of God’s love? It could. And, in this book, I think the most powerful points he makes might be dwarfed from the buzz and bait Bell crafted in all of this.
Bell seems to slip in a jab at people who go to conferences to be more “missional” and “welcoming” then saying that if your God is “loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing, compelling language…will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.” (location 2099)
Essentially, this appears to ignore the Fall of man and fact that we are already judged and in need of a Savior. So, I am not sure I have heard many teach what he is against here, to be honest. However, the idea of contextualizing a God who will judge who is also loving makes more sense than syncretizing the fact that God is not going to judge those few years of sins since that would be cruel. Is Bell stating we are not responsible for our sins?
Love Won versus Love Wins
I do not think that he is. He appears to be against those that say God is capricious—changing from a loving God to a judging God. Most of us in Evangelical circles know there is a tension in that and believe the Cross resolved that. So, it is not “Love Wins” for us, it is “Love Won.” It is finished.
The Cross proves that God can be consistently both holy and loving—both just and kind. He banishes us from the Garden, wipes out the world at the Flood, swallows up his own in the wilderness and one day will have to call those who do not know Him to account. His loving kindness—past, present and future—is centered on the Cross. God’s Story of love has always been in history.
For the people of the Old Testament, love wins. For us, love won! We look back to the event of the Cross and what that means for us both this moment and all that follow. I believe Bell makes some of his most powerful points in regards not to the title of the book. What we do now matters. Bell does make this point.
Done. Complete. As Jesus said, “It is finished.”
We are now invited to live a whole new life without guilt or shame or blame or anxiety. We are going to be fine. Of all of the conceptions of the divine, of all of the language Jesus could put on the lips of the God character in this story he tells, that’s what he has the father say.
“You are always with me and everything I have is yours.” (location 2058)
This recounting of the Prodigal Son shows how Bell attempts to teach us about what we have to live now. Bell asks us this: “So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things?” (location 148) Great question!
Too often, many in Evangelical circles look for the ticket to heaven and preach that. We scare people about the afterlife and then get people to sign on the dotted line to get that taken care of. It is a “dip them and drop them” kind of deal. Bell is so right in calling us out on this. This does not feel great, but it makes so much sense to the teachings of Jesus.
I applaud now so much of the heart that Bell has to be sure we live a life of faith without fear of a God who is looking to be after us. This I believe is the central message of the book.
The Dialog About the Book
Now, in a polarized society, we will have debate and sometimes it will not feel so great. I am not afraid of that. Are we being too sensitive? Is it appropriate to question Rob Bell? Here is something that I would like to question Rob Bell about.
He writes a book then sends out teasers with controversial statements. And, no one has the book during his buzz building time and so by the time it is released a surge of news and interest is already in play. Bell is not naive. He is likely one of the most gifted communicators today. I say that he is partly responsible for the firestorm. He is not a victim. He knew the red meat needed to bait certain leaders into rabid behavior. So, he needs to take some blame for the framing of the dialog in the first place. Did he do something wrong in wanting to sell a lot of books and create buzz? Not really. But, he needs to own some of this as a consequence of that.
To those who are rabid, please. Why be naive? Do not take the bait! Have a dialog, not a rant. Some of you have the stature that you could get a coffee with this guy Rob Bell if you were just a bit nicer. Your ideas need to be heard and vetted just like Bell’s ideas. He is influential and you lose some of your platform by trying to break apart his. Sad. We need your balance in the Evangelical church. Please, just don’t be so mean about it.
I confess that it was a personal struggle to wrestle with hard things like what this book presents. However, we must. I am thankful for the many private conversations I have had that have shaped me and shape me. My men’s group rocks! Twitter rocks! I am but one voice. And, so are you. Let’s dialog.
I would love to sit with Rob Bell and have coffee, by the way. I am sure it would be a great experience. I applaud him because in all of this I cannot honestly say that about some other people who are prominent in this dialog. I sure hope I can be like Bell in that regard. After all, I love coffee.
Readers, please chime in but challenge civilly.