Sunday, April 03, 2011

Fare Well, Rob Bell

Rob Bell, being hip and optimistic
Hearing the controversies about Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and then actually reading the book, I’ve been struck by how much better Bell would fare in a mainline congregation. (I’ve also been struck by how popular the book is—I think Love Wins hit #4 Amazon #4 last week and hovers at #7 as I type.) Why would Rob Bell fare better as a mainliner? It’s not because we mainline types are “libbed out” and don’t care about the Bible any more, it's certainly not because of the infallibility of the mainline, but because the questions he asks can find honest engagement without rancor here. And really, mainliners here just engage (at their best) with the whole of the Christian church in time (reading not only Calvin and Luther, but also Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas) and in breadth (taking in the insights of Roman Catholics and Orthodox, for example). It’s simply a way of engaging what C. S. Lewis penned as “mere Christianity." 
Bell clearly writes from a contemporary American evangelical context. He talks about praying the “sinner’s prayer,” “accepting Christ” and therefore of “getting saved.” Good concepts, but very particular, coded language—as Bell points out, “personal relationship” with God is not found in the Bible. I have so much good to say about evangelicalism—and have been duly nurtured myself—but there’s simply a mean spirit that has emerged in response to Bell from some evangelical commentators (but certainly not all) that I’ve found neither beneficial for me or for Bell. So back to party-line evangelicals… Bell also asserts that the church is too often seen as “antiscience”? Yes… in certain circles. But I’ll speak personally: I’ve been in the mainline (in my case, Presbyterian) church and am working on engaging science with faith, first through my book Creation and Last Things, and more recently through a grant program particularly designed to engage scientific insight in local congregations, Scientists in Congregations. Have I met with disagreement? Yes. Outright dismissal? Never. And those are just my experiences and only two of them at that. It just seems a little better than what Bell’s experiencing. (But admittedly, who knows what would happen if my books hit the top ten? I’m willing to find out….)
Admittedly, Bell is a little too optimistic. As many other commentators have noted, he interprets Scripture in a particular direction. It’s a kinder, gentler Bible. For example on God’s condemnation, he seems especially concerned that Ghandi—Ghandi was so good; should go to hell? He was particularly annoyed by a response on a slip of paper to quote from Ghandi displayed at his church’s art show: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell seems to infer that Ghandi could never be in hell. This makes certain sections of the Christian church go ballistic, but as I read Bell, and watch the promo video for Love Wins (which these days is more important than actually reading the book), his point is a little more subtle: Do we know for sure Ghandi’s in hell? No, we can’t say with absolute certainty. When Ghandi saw the full light of God's presence, how did he respond? As C. S. Lewis wrote so poignantly (which, incidentally, is one suggestion to Bell: include the chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain): the gates of hell are locked on the inside.
More can be written, of course, but I’ll close this post here: To understand the book we should take in the citation that alludes to the title: “God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.” Even in ultimate judgment, God gives us the dignity of rejecting the gospel. One of the most notorious responses to Bell has been John Piper’s tweet “Farewell Bell.” How interesting that judgment has been declared on a book that itself rethinks God’s judgment and emphasizes that God only says “Farewell” when we have shut the door on him. I say, keep it up Bell, but listen to the wider community of Christ. There you can fare well.
P.S. If you want a fresh perspective on Love Wins, read Donald Miller's review.

6 comments:

john said...

i don't know rob bell at all (i avoid celebrities who have a need to change their look frequently), but after seeing him interviewed on this book a few places, i personally feel like he is working out some serious inner demons, beyond even the subject of this book. his struggle with some of the harsher aspects of christendom seem motivated by his own personal morality, certainly in contrast with contemporary evangelical/fundamentalist culture. having only heard worshipful praise of him before this, i'm surprised at how inarticulate he is in interviews.

to his credit, he is asking challenging questions about the nature of god. unfortunately, that doesn't work out well for most people in the church.

Steven said...

I wonder what a 'mainline' church is? It's been my experience that it's the local congregation that makes it mainline or not. Also from my experience, BPC isn't 'mainline'. In fact, it's a wonderful place to be! In my travels through the various churches; Pentecostal, Orthodox Presbyterian, UPC, Syrian Orthodox, PCUSA, PCA, Federated and now PCUSA again...Bidwell style, not one was was overtly anti-science. They seemed to never care about it one way or the other. But here it is embraced! And I couldn't be happier because of that fact. People THINK here!

Regarding Rob Bell...I hadn't heard of him till today. I guess I have some reading to do.

GCootsona said...

Good comments...
I think Bell is not a great interview, but he's a strong communicator. I didn't come to "Love Wins" with pent-up adulation--in fact, I found his writing in "Sex God" a bit irritating--but I think that "Love Wins" has much more to commend itself.

Anonymous said...

I have found Bell brilliant and engaging in his artistic presentations of what ATTRACTS him to Christianity. The natural corollary of this is for him to question the things he doesn't find attractive. Trying to engage us to enter that struggle can be controversial.

I think he is more poetic than profound. He is gifted with inspired gestures of direction rather than clearly defined doctrine. He should not be taken definitively by either detractors or those he attracts.

Logically, our conclusions about hell must be mirrored in our ideas about heaven. To eliminate or minimize one is to do the same for the other.

Although Jesus spoke of hell many times more than heaven, similar consequential phrasings apply to each. Existential or eschatological, the real question must always turn us to experiencing of the transforming power of Jesus. Talk of hell is to be just a sign-post, not a doctrinal rest-stop.

Bill Jackson, Oroville

Jeff said...

I hesitate to add a comment since I have not yet read the book (I have it on coming on order) but since the topic is out there and current I will comment based upon not on what others have said but upon what I have heard and read of Bell's conversation with LIsa Miller of Newsweek.

I found a couple of his answers to be pretty evasive, in particular his statement about hell being tied to our earthly existence. He seems to equate hell with the many horrors, tyrannies, violence, etc. that we observe here on earth. While I deeply would like to avoid it, scripture seems to make it very clear that there is a real hell (Mt. 25:41-46) that seems to go far beyond the horrors we have witnessed on this earth.

He said he is not a universalist but said that people of all backgrounds can get into heaven? Scripture makes it absolutely clear there is no avenue to heaven but through Christ's redemptive work on the cross. I found his answer to Miller's pressing him on whether he is a universalist to be vague and unclear.

I look forward to reading the book but will do so with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Jeff Cripe said...

I hesitate to add a comment since I have not yet read the book (I have it on coming on order) but since the topic is out there and current I will comment based upon not on what others have said but upon what I have heard and read of Bell's conversation with LIsa Miller of Newsweek.

I found a couple of his answers to be pretty evasive, in particular his statement about hell being tied to our earthly existence. He seems to equate hell with the many horrors, tyrannies, violence, etc. that we observe here on earth. While I deeply would like to avoid it, scripture seems to make it very clear that there is a real hell (Mt. 25:41-46) that seems to go far beyond the horrors we have witnessed on this earth.

He said he is not a universalist but said that people of all backgrounds can get into heaven? Scripture makes it absolutely clear there is no avenue to heaven but through Christ's redemptive work on the cross. I found his answer to Miller's pressing him on whether he is a universalist to be vague and unclear.

I look forward to reading the book but will do so with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Jeff Cripe, Chico