Friday, April 08, 2011

Rob Bell, Love Wins, and Controversy - a review by someone who has actually read the book!

I’ve seen several blog posts about the controversy over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, but unlike them I decided to wait and post until I’d read the book. I’m sure showing such patience to comment, commend or condemn isn’t unique. But it feels like it.

Predictably the fact that Rob Bell decided to write a book about Hell raised some hackles among the more conservative fundamentalist elements within churchianity. You’d expect that, firstly because he’s Rob Bell and some people seem to hate him on the basis that he’s successful and they’re not, and secondly, because those conservative fundamentalist elements don’t like people asking annoying questions.

And the questions in Love Wins are annoying. They are vexing questions. I’m not saying I’m in any way of the calibre of Rob Bell, but they are questions I’ve had for years about the conservative theology I grew up with, and asking those questions is probably why I don’t swim in that particular direction any more.

I had a suspicion, from the interweb argey-bargey, that most of what appears in the book wouldn’t be particularly new or spectacularly different from what many Christians believe already. And I was right.

Sure, Rob has put a spin on it and couched it in cleverly simple terms to articulate it in a way that makes people think, but it is pretty basic stuff. True, there are some comments that hyper-Calvinists would get steamed about, but that’s because hyper-Calvinism isn’t a particularly coherent theology but desperately wants to be. (I’ll explain that some other time.)

In a way it’s just a realised eschatology with a dimension that says the eschaton starts now and continues beyond this life. It’s exactly the sort of thinking about heaven and hell as modes of being that you find in CS Lewis’ parable, The Great Divorce. And he makes some good points about how concentrating on heaven and hell just as other places misses the reality of what our choices can create here and now. (His comment on the literalness of hell in the context of Rwanda is particularly insightful.)

A big criticism is that Rob Bell is preaching universalism. He’s not. At best he’s advocating inclusivism, which is left-of-centre, admittedly, but it’s not universalism. That his critics don’t get that is either due to them preferring to label things they don’t understand as heresy, or because they’re wilfully misrepresenting him.

Or to be more blunt, they’re either thick or trying to smear him with bad theology he doesn’t own.

And anyway an inclusivist position isn’t at odds with reformed theology at all. Many active reformed theologians activate Barth’s get-out clause that Jesus was the only member of the elect. Admittedly most of those theologians aren't that well-known by 'ornery churchgoers in the Bible Belt, but it's still true.

There is of course, the “Biblical” argument. But there is little in the Bible to justify the doctrine of Hell the way it is taught in many places. At least Bell is being honest enough to admit that. And he does address the paltry number of texts that do exist and makes the point (that I’ve often made to people) that Jesus only ever really threatens religious and powerful people with hell; not those who are ‘sinners’ in the eyes of the religious.

That may upset some people, but then they really ought to take it up with Jesus. It's seems a bit harsh to criticise Rob Bell for Jesus' dodgy theology.

Rob does ask whether the decision point is only available this side of death. Belief in post-mortem opportunities for salvation isn’t uncommon in Christian theology. (Again The Great Divorce comes to mind.) Rob makes a case for it, but not a totally conclusive one. However, the points he raises are worth considering.

Where he does diverge from the Reformed position, is in his elevation of human choice. His central thesis is that God loves people so much he gives them freedom to choose heaven or hell as modes of being. That’s why he’s not a universalist, incidentally, because he holds that some people will always choose hell. A true universalist is a predestinarian as much as John Calvin was.

He ends the book with an interesting dissection of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, drawing out the different attitudes of the people at the party at the end of the parable. They prodigal and the elder brother are at the same party, but for one it’s heaven, and for the other it’s hell.

It’s a clever idea, to say that heaven and hell are actually the same place, and the difference is us. But, again, it’s not that original. The Eastern Orthodox mystics said the same thing – that in the bosom of the Father, people will experience either joy or disgust, depending on whether they love God or not.

As I said at the top of this article, it seems most people’s issue with the Rob Bell book isn’t with his answers, but with his chutzpah to ask questions and challenge the dominant narrative of reformed / evangelical / fundamentalist Christianity – the narrative that says a wrathful God will send non-believers to hell.

Rob Bell’s view of God and human futures is more positive. His real crime, perhaps, is that he has stepped out of the powerful American evangelical ghetto, widened his reading to include wisdom from other Christian traditions, and then returned to the ghetto in the hope that he can challenge the dominant narrative.

Some other things I’ve noticed from this:

There seems to be a link between individuals who emphasise judgement and are also quite judgemental themselves. Has anyone else noticed that?

There does seem to be a tendency to attack independent thought, especially if ‘successful’ church leaders are doing the thinking. If it wasn’t Rob Bell saying this, there wouldn’t be so much fuss.

For example, Zondervan’s new counterpoints range of books includes a ‘Four Views on Hell’ title, indicating the range of opinions within Christian theology on the topic. Nobody is shouting from the rooftops about this, or boycotting their local bookshop about it, probably because none of the contributors are particularly famous.

I bought the Counterpoints: Salvation in a Pluralistic World from my local evangelical bookshop for two reasons. Firstly, it looked interesting, and secondly, it had a piece in there from liberal theologian John Hick advocating a pluralist position. I’ve been profoundly challenged by Hick. I think he is wrong, and I’m working on working out why he’s wrong. But I’m glad he wrote it and I don’t think he’ll go to hell for it.

Differences of opinion challenge us, shape us and frame us. Without the impetus of debate, growth is stunted.

Rob Bell, for whatever faults can be found in Love Wins (and I found a few typos!), has at least provided a thoughtful, thought-provoking sideways look at a big topic.

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