Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rob Bell. . . . After. . . .


Okay. . . so I finally read Rob Bell's controversial new book, Love Wins, over two weeks ago. Rather than blogging my thoughts immediately after turning the last page, I had to let it all simmer. It had to simmer because I think that responses to these kinds of things must be thoughtful, and thoughtfulness is usually trumped by haste. At least, that's the way it is for me. I guess another way of saying that is that I didn't want to put my foot in my mouth. I also needed time to sort out my thoughts on what I had just read for the simple reason that the book left me very, very confused. . . which I think may be the biggest issue with the book (more on that later). So here goes. . . Rob Bell. . . after reading Love Wins.

First, I want to repeat the mantra many have already been reciting regarding this book - Don't form or trumpet an opinion until you've read it. That's the problem with the blogosphere at times. Lot's of words with very little or absolutely nothing to back them up. That's dangerous.

Second, yes, I need to say something. I've had a few close friends ask me if I want to get in on this debate. Many are staying away because there's already too much division and infighting in the church. I agree. But in this case, there's far too much at stake. There's too much at stake at the very foundation of our theology. There's too much at stake in terms of the church, particularly among those who are most easily influenced or most deeply discouraged - people who are most likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That's why I think the debate is needed and healthy.

Now. . . about the book. . . let me begin by citing some positives. A couple come to mind. First, the book - in true Rob Bell style - spends alot of time asking questions. That's a good thing. Bell repeats oft-asked questions about the Church, Christians and their conduct (which is flawed. . . simply because we're flawed), and theology. I grew up as part of a generation that was often "shushed" for asking too many questions. What results is a lack of answers, confusion, and great frustration.

The second positive is Bell's treatment of Heaven. While some might not like my use of the word "doctrine," I'll still use it when I say that Bell's doctrine of Heaven offers many needed correctives to the crazy non-Biblical ideas that we've come to believe about eternal life after physical death, about what it means to live Christianly on earth while we're still alive, and about the dangers of an "entrance understanding" of the Gospel. The restored earth is something that we have to look forward to. . . not some cloudy existence on streets of gold. If we believe in the latter, we've spent too much time watching The Wizard of Oz and not enough time in the Scriptures. In addition, Bell has alot to say about what it means to be Kingdom people who actively live out the will of God during out earthly lives. . . which is, by the way, not a train platform we wait on between the day we come to faith and the day we die.

But what about Bell's treatment of Hell, the issue that stirred all the controversy in the first place? Let me be blunt. . . I'm not sure I have any idea at all about what Bell believes. Like many others, I want Bell to be clear, telling me where he stands on Hell and whether or not he's a universalist. I'm not sure if Bell is capitulating to an audience that embraces tolerance and diversity to the extent that he does nothing but dance around the issue and he doesn't want to offend, or if he has no idea where he stands himself. Which is why anyone who writes needs to be clear, especially if you're writing on a topic that is pivotal to one's clear understanding of eternal things. Everyone in your reading audience - critics and supporters alike - must be able to walk away with a clear understanding and knowledge of what you just said. And if what you just said isn't clear, then you have to go out of your way to explain yourself. The problem with this book is that before Rob Bell's position on Hell can be challenged, Rob Bell has to clearly state his position on Hell. As a pastor to a flesh and blood congregation of thousands, and as a literary pastor to hundreds of thousands of others, he has a great responsibility to be clear. . . especially when many in his audience are so fed-up with the church that they are looking for difficult doctrines to deep-six.

So, to those who have read the book. . . Am I right in concluding that Rob Bell is asking us to jettison years and years of deep, responsible, and trustworthy theological inquiry? Am I right in assuming that he's redefining "historically orthodox?" Am I alone in being very confused by a book that left me saying "Yes!", "NO!", and "WHAT????" over and over again? Am I wrong to assume that Bell desires to soften or even remove the offensiveness of the very Gospel that we've been told will be offensive to many? Am I wrong to assume that Rob Bell - who in the book cites the passage where Jesus speaks about those who cause the children to stumble - might in fact be leading a host of young and impressionable Christians (theological children) to stumble?

I wish that what Rob Bell is teaching about Hell was true. In my humanness, I wish with everything that's in me that the Scriptures didn't include anything on the dark destiny after death. Thinking about it doesn't make me feel very good. But that's where I have to stand back and simply say, "Not my will or desires, but yours Lord." Then, that's what I need to believe and that's what I need to teach.

In their 1979 book, Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective, Stephan Grunlan and Marvin Mayers spoke about the need for believers to become more aware of the multicultural world that was starting to unfold in new and big ways. That's the world we now live in. They said that the best way to respond to this new world was a posture of "cultural relativism." They advocated for a "cultural relativism" that was coupled with "biblical absolutism." They wrote, "Thus the culture defines the situation, but the principles for behavior are found in God's Word. Indeed the Bible is the absolute authority for all cultures, but it must be applied to specific and relative cultural forms." When I thought about what Grunlan and Mayers wrote, I got the feeling that we're now living in a time where "biblical absolutism" is sometimes quickly jettisoned when it rubs up against our personal/cultural realities and desires in the wrong way. Something has to win. And for all the good stuff that's there in Rob Bell's book, I'm wondering if it isn't love that wins, but something else.

For those who are taking the time to continue to responsibly sort this whole thing out, let me make a couple of recommendations. First, you need to read Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck's great book, Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), particularly the first chapter. The authors talk about the tendency among emergents to believe that the destination matters little. The journey is the thing. I'm wondering if that's not a bit of what's happening with Bell and his book.

Second, please take some time to listen to a panel discussion on the book, particularly the opening words from Tim Keller. Click here and then click on the link for "joined for a panel discussion."

Finally, give Tim Challies' great review of Love Wins a read.

And to my young friends, particularly those who are in youth ministry and who are fans of Rob Bell. . . tread carefully here. . . for the sake of the Kingdom and your kids. . . tread carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, and with the Scriptures as your guide. There's much at stake, and it's your responsibility to see to it that the truth is communicated and communicated clearly.

13 comments:

kevinbecht said...

Thank you, Walt, for a great review of "Love Wins." You are NOT alone in feeling very confused after reading the book. I too found myself, as you stated, saying "Yes! NO! What?!" In fact, I read the book with two highlighters - one for the YES! moments & one for the NO! moments. It is now a very colorful read.

Liz said...

Really, really helpful Walt. I have not read the book yet and have hesitated because I suspect that all this buzz was generated to sell copies.

shawn smucker said...

I love your review here, Walt. I like how you've looked for things you agree with (I also found the chapter on heaven compelling), and then touched on areas you weren't sure about.

I'm still thinking through your insistance on clarity, though. Is clarity Bell's responsibility? I sometimes wonder if we in the church long for an author to be clear so that it is easier to codify their position as "good" or "bad" (which leads to more widespread 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater' syndrome).

I don't know. I'm still thinking through that, but I enjoyed coming away from the book with questions in my mind. I don't think I would be AS motivated to get into scriptures and figure out what I think, should Bell have ended the book with a list of "here's what I think."

Thanks again, most of all for actually reading the book.

Thoughts From Jeff said...

I think that there is a lot going on about "the journey". Because, I think that the "journey" has been neglected for so long.

It seems that the "destination" has been preached over and over and has become the focus.

Maybe that is where the focus needs to be, but I am glad that there is a great focus over the journey.

Walt Mueller said...

Shawn - I guess my main concerns are first, that being "cloudy" and unclear is somehow seen as virtuous and cool in today's world. Which leads to my second thought. . . that it's dangerous to be "cloudy" and unclear when you are talking about the foundations of orthodox Christianity. . . especially in a church culture that's getting more and more confused by years and years of cloudy and unclear. Make sense. . . or was that comment cloudy and unclear?

shawn smucker said...

Kevin - great idea with the two highlighters! I'm commandeering that approach.

Walt - your response was perfectly clear and made sense to me. I guess we have different perspectives (denominational background? generational difference? personal preference?): you see the church as getting "more and more confused by years and years of cloudy and unclear," while I see a generation of young people frustrated by a church that communicated ONLY in absolutes and wouldn't let them ask questions or communicate areas of doubt...or cloudy uncertainty :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insight

Ben Kendrew said...

Walt, thank you for the measured and thoughtful response to this book. Your thoughts with the line of "Yes!", "NO!" and "WHAT????" are my feelings after reading the book as well.

The matter of 'Hell' is a semantic mess, I am not sure what his actual definition is outside of when he writes on page 78, "There is a hell now, and there is a hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously." I wish there was a clearly defined stance here rather than a whimiscal statement of the afterlife. I agree it leaves many confused...including me.

Some of his thoughts on heaven reminded me of some of the new heavens and new earth approach in Wolters' Creation Regained. I enjoyed this and the way in which is style of asking the questions to the reader.

But as a youth pastor, I am one who has read all of Bell's book, showed my students his Nooma series and have personally heard him speak twice during his speaking tours. I believe this situation has snowballed out of control and I heard Bell say that he did not intend for this to be about him or bring on controversay on an interview with CNN.

This is exactly what has happened.

I am disappointed because he is a voice in the Church, someone my age that is making a big difference. However, with Love Wins many are confused and left with some what of a disappointment in the wake of all of this dialogue, for better or worse, that Bell has started.

The journey is important but the goal is to end up in the final destination of the trip. So much potential here has been muddied with this book. I am hoping for the best for Bell but still feel disappointed. There is so much at stake.

Abby Shaffer said...

Hi, Walt -

Your blog is one of 13 sites on my Favorites bar at the top. That's because it's relevant and sound. So thank you. I too put my foot in my mouth ... with God's help, it's getting to be less often.

I want to share something with you that I just "found" again on my desk. I don't remember when I wrote it, but I hope it will encourage you as you provide Godly wisdom for us.

From David's experience in the Valley of Elah... Those who battle as true representatives of the Lord:
-Their motives are pure.
-They're willing to let God lead.
-They take no counsel with the flesh.
-They are willing to stand alone.

Blessings to you this Holy week.

nathan said...

Tks for the review. I haven't read it yet, but am looking forward to it.

Nathan

J.Meyer said...

Shawn - I know the type of young people that you're talking about, but I'd beware of defining the need based on the frustrations. Indeed, there are churches, and people within churches, who can be defensive and hostile towards honest questions of the truths of God. This is a result of pride. So, as often happens, an individual becomes angry towards the truths of God in retaliation towards the one who was supposed to be shepherding their heart. Thus, the child (or whomever) assumes that the word of God can't answer his questions simply because the teacher did not allow the grace and love of God to be manifested through his own flesh. The issue is not the Truth, the issue is the communicator.

And with regards to "clarity," Paul urged Timothy in 1 Timothy to maintain the clarity of the Gospel and of the role and organization of the church. Clarity is essential to knowing God rightly. Certainly we are not able to grasp all that God is, but what He has revealed to us in Scripture is true and authoritative

Andrew said...

Thanks for the well-written review. Rob Bell really sounds like a politician in the way he says a lots of things that feel good to hear, but doubtful or lacking in substance. Won't be surprised to see him run for elected office some time in the future.

Anne said...

I know I'm way behind in this topic, but I've just finally read the book myself and, like you, had to let it sink in a bit.

I've listened to Rob Bell for several years--started because my teenage daughter was downloading his podcasts and I wanted to make sure he wasn't a kook. He isn't! I have learned so much from him. His insights into the culture of Jesus' day and the meanings of the original wording shows a man who takes Bible scholarship very seriously. The book, in context of having listened to 100s of his sermons, makes sense. I don't see any confirmation of comments like Andrew's who is accusing him of being a politician who says what feels good to the masses.

I just don't see the universalism you people do.

Eveyrone has been so up in arms about his orthodoxy. Does any one look at his orthopraxy? That's "right actions" and goes hand in hand with "right thinking". The man does much good in the world... in Jesus name...and encourages his church members to do the same. They are making a difference among the poor and oppressed as they fight for clean drinking water and justice. If we're to know someone by their fruit (not just their words) then Rob Bell is light years ahead of many of his critics.

So his view on hell differs from yours. From the verses in the Bible I'd like to know how any one's opinion on hell can be so concrete. Like Bell states in the book, the references themselves are cloudy and misty and don't give us a whole lot to go on. So maybe your real issue is with Jesus who left the topic somewhat opaque himself.

After reading the book, I was a little surprised that it caused as much clamor as it did. It sure made me think a lot about why I believe what I do and, more importantly, how can I make a difference in the Kingdom of God NOW.

Why do so many of Bell's critics have to be soooo sure of themselves? Do they actually think that they can't possibly be the ones what have it wrong? What scares them so much?