As usual I am Johnny come lately to the party. Most of the hubub has quieted over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. The parley is now passe. It was entertaining, however, to passively observe the blogosphere ignite after Piper’s simple tweet “farewell Rob Bell.” I didn’t engage in the conversation for two reasons. First, I did not feel able to weigh in with the calibre of minds that were bantering about. I simply gleaned from the discussion. Second, in light of the 28 books I am supposed to read for the upcoming PhD entrance exams, I didn’t feel I could squeeze Bell’s book to the top of the list.
I can now comment on the book. A convergence of factors allowed me to read it. On the one hand, enough people within my sphere of influence had asked me if I had read it, that I was feeling somewhat obligated to have an informed response. On the other hand, my wife, Lona, and I found ourselves with 14 hours in the van as we drove to Denver for a week of family vacation. Lona borrowed the book from my parents and read it to me as I drove. Combine the felt need with the opportunity and now I’m in the loop.
My simple response to the book is, “Fare Well Rob Bell.” As with everything else I have read or viewed of Rob’s, I loved it. I wish him well and I continue to be grateful for the way he uses his direct, poetic style to play the provacateur. He asks the questions that anyone who has grown up in hard core fundamentalist/evangelical churches have been asking since we were able to understand the world beyond our own household, and yet he asks them with grace and style. And then, rather than crashing down with equally dogmatic “answers” to these questions, he expands them, offers compelling alternatives, and leaves the reader to ponder.
As many of the blogosphere theologians were quick to point out, Bell is not a theologian in the technical sense. He is an artist. He is a prophetic voice that stirs the pot and opens possibilities. Some who hear his words sweat in anger and discomfort. Others feel quenched with hope in the desert of disillusionment.
Something I found very interesting about this book is how much I hear the same ideas in the deeper theological texts that I am currently reading for school — like, Ted Peter’s God-the World’s Future and Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. I find this also true of Brian McLaren’s work. Both McLaren and Bell serve the body of Christ as filters and translators. Each of them, coming from the perspective of pastors to local congregations, have the wonderful ability to take complex theological concepts that they have gleaned from Peters, Newbigin, Moltmann, Panneburg, et al. distill them to their basic parts, translate them into words and concepts that the average person can understand and apply, and then place them on the bottom shelf so that even the smallest among us can access them. If for no other reason than that I am grateful for these guys.
Here are a couple points from Love Wins that I really liked:
Heaven and Hell are both here and always. The “gospel” that I grew up with framed history in the idea that this life was a sort of limbo in which we were tested and judged on whether we “got it right” and prayed the correct prayer and did or didn’t do the right things. The result of our test would place us in either the “in” crowd or the “out” crowd with God and determine our “eternal destiny.” If I was a Christian of the right flavor, having prayed the right prayer and “really meant it” then I would go to Heaven — a disembodied place somewhere out there and sing praises to God forever. If I was any other kind of person in the world, then I would go to Hell where I would be consciously tortured in excruciating, fiery torment forever with no chance of repentance or reconciliation with the “loving” God that created me, knowing full well that this is where I would end up, even though I never had a chance to hear the “gospel.”
Of course, none of us kids growing up under this teaching really wanted to believe this. Subconsciously we were thinking, “are you serious? Whew, I’m glad I was lucky enough to be born into this family and go to this church so I don’t have to worry about that!” This theology produced three basic types of people from among our young ranks. 1. Those who became arrogant and self-righteous and felt justified to belittle, berate, and make it social sport to antagonize and discriminate against anyone and everyone who was “out.” Having been in church with some of these (and having some of that spiritual DNA within myself, regretfully) I completely understand how the KKK came into being. 2. Those who had compassion for the “lost” and felt compelled to become missionaries and go the the “ends of the earth” to tell those people how to escape Hell before it is too late. Looking back on it, the irony about their desire to save souls is that they were trying to save them from God. Hmmmm, interesting. 3. Then there were those who saw the inconsistencies and hypocrisy within the system and simply checked out. Among those who checked out there are two sub-groups. Some simply gave up on the whole God thing and just left church, lived life, and never looked back. Then there are those like me who felt the constant gnawing inside that God is real and there is more to all of this. A small voice that constantly says, “keep searching, I’m here, I’m with you, press on.” I know that sounds sappy and possibly self-aggrandizing, but it is true.
I believe Bell and McLaren and most of the voices within what has been called the “Emergent Conversation” would fall into this last category. That is probably why I resonnate with them at a core level.
Anyway, I’m supposed to be talking about Bell’s book. Another thing I loved about it was his idea about “forever” and “eternal.” These ideas are less about time and more about intensity. Heaven is the intensity of a relationship with God, through the revelation of Jesus Christ and the proleptic Kingdom that he brought (see Peters and Newbigin to unpack that one) that can be experienced now and after death. Hell is the intensity of separation from the love of God that can be experienced now and after death. Some people experience Hell on earth — war, famine, abuse, injustice — simply because they are victims of other people’s selfishness, greed, and pride. They are the “least of these” that truly need to be saved from Hell. That is what compels us to go into the world and preach the good news that God loves all of us and we need to experience Heaven – the love of Jesus. Some people experience Hell because they actually, consciously reject the love of God and want to live under their own self-rule. God loves these people and will never give up on them, but God, out of love, will also allow them to continue to reject him long after they die. Hell lasts as long as they want it to.
That is all I will say for now. Bottom line: I loved Love Wins. Fare Well Rob Bell.