BookNotes reviews Love Wins by Rob Bell. Eventually. But first, a word on civility, diversity within the Body of Christ, the art of discernment and criticism, and a short book list on theology and unity.

BookNotes is happy that we seem to attract a fairly wide readership.  We obviously are a bookstore and we want to sell books and enjoy having a diverse gang of friends and followers who like to read.  And yes, today (the 15th) is the release day of Rob Bell’s much-anticipated Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harperone; $22.99.)

 rob-bell-love-wins-book.jpgWe know we have friends who have been deeply immersed in recent weeks in conversations about Love Wins and am glad for those who asked our opinion.  I also know that some of you don’t quite know what the fuss is about.  I’m sure most of you know of Rob’s popular Nooma videos and his several books (the last of which, a brief and artful meditation on the relationship of suffering to creativity, is now out in a smallish paperback, called Drops Like Stars.)  Whether you know his work or not, you probably know he is an edgy, passionate, artful, and controversial, post-evangelical mega-church pastor from Grand Rapids whose congregation worships in an old mall.  He went to Wheaton, played in a rock band and did youth ministry for a while, and has an advanced degree from Fuller.  He’s not your typical evangelical and he has a huge following, and some serious critics.  This new one—which releases today, bumped up by the publisher a week earlier than first announced because of all the frantic buzz, somewhat stimulated by John Piper’s ill-advised and cryptic tweet, “Farewell Rob Bell”—isn’t really surprising for those who have followed him.  It is, more or less, a description of the powerfully reconciling, cosmos-restoring, new-creation coming, Jesus’ Lordship over all, view of the Kingdom of God, the imminence of God, the grace of the gospel, leading to a sort of Christ-centered universalism and a rethink of the typical views of hell.  I’ll review it more soon.

Of course those of us who hold to fairly traditional, Biblically-orthodox theology understand why some have branded Bell a heretic; whether it is warranted or not is another matter, but I understand the concern fully.  There is no doubt that he isn’t your typical evangelical preacher and his view of the wideness of God’s mercy (while nothing new in mainline circles) is not the standard conservative view.  Those of us who want to continue on within a moderate and broadly evangelical tradition but are eager to learn from, engage with, and think about all sorts of stuff—including authors in the more theologically ecumenical/liberal camps, the post-modern/emergent camp, or the heady intellectual types in the Radical Orthodoxy movement, say— are frustrated that so many have ruled Rob Bell as out of court without much consideration.  Many have weighed in on Love Wins based only on a provocative promo video clip he released and many others have taken them to task for speaking prematurely.  A lot of readers are more than willing to be critical of him, if necessary, but want to be fair and prudent about it, which at least means holding judgment until reading the nuances of his position carefully.  This is my view.  

As you know we are eager to promote books worth talking about, happy to sell titles like the ones by Rob Bell (and Brian McLaren’s too, by the way, whose New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith is now out in paperback ($14.99) and his brand new Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words which releases today from HarperOne; $25.99.)  Also important, brand new, and potentially controversial is Allah: A Christian Response by Yale theologian Mirosolv Volf (HarperOne; $25.99) which I’ve only skimmed briefly.  We hope these kinds of major books can generate helpful and good and fair conversations; we believe in this kind of theological debate and learning.  There is pablum and silliness out there, of course, and I don’t spend my limited blog place hyping or critiquing that.  There are oodles of Christian books that are fine, too, but don’t deserve much comment here.  But Bell and McLaren seem controversial to many in our circles.   Although I feel a bit of a nervous need to justify it, I don’t think there is anything wrong with selling books to discerning readers that will help them think—whether or not they finally agree with the books or not.  And Bell is an author who is on the map.  He deserves your consideration.
Still, even as many have asked my opinion about the Bell brouhaha, I think that Love Wins is not easy to review well.  Sometimes I joke about how the diversity of titles on our shelves and at our book displays offers “something to offend everyone” and it usually gets laughs—at least among more ecumenical folk.  (A few sour-pusses fail to see any humor in it, I suppose.)  Still, it is easy to say we step on the toes of liberals and fundamentalists equally, but this—this is a serious conversation and I don’t think many are taking it lightly.  Neither do I.  I’ve read it twice and still wonder what I have to say that will help the conversation. 

I will tell you that just today I posted a lengthy comment at an important web review of Love Wins co-written by the esteemed Reformed authors Tim Challies and Aaron Armstrong after they read an advanced copy.  I chimed in and commend my criticisms to you because I found at least five areas where I believed they (unintentionally, I suppose) mis-represented or mis-characterized the book. And these are some of our more reliable critics, not the simplistic ones that major in ugly name-calling. I mention it not only because Challies got 50,000 readers yesterday (not to mention the thousands at the Blogging Theologically site where it was also posted and the numerous blogs that linked to their sites) but because I believe it illustrates how even thoughtful and sound critics have not done a particularly good job at being fair.  After their posts at their respective sites oodles of folks then raved about the critique, posting comments thanking them for their insight. (It astonishes me how many posted comments saying the review was good; how would readers who hadn’t yet seen the book fairly determine if the review was good?) The damage has been done; Bell got a raw deal from serious thought leaders who ought to have done a better job.

Here, Scot McKnight offers a teacherly and kind overview of the topic, written before he saw the book, insisting that we shouldn’t speculate (or trust publishers blurbs or provocative video trailers.)  I was glad for this amidst the twitter-trending about Bell.  As expected it is sound and very helpful. 

So, in fact, I’m as interested, now, actually, in the caliber of conversation and what it means to do theological debate in responsible ways as I am in the book itself.  

Although Love Wins just came out I’ve had an advanced review copy for a few weeks.  I’ve read it twice, and have recently skimmed a handful of other books on the topic of hell, some that I had read previously.  I’ll discuss Love Wins in a day or so, and I’ll list a few other resources that might be helpful if your interested in a wide range of opinion.
As McKnight notes (in the link I gave above) Bell isn’t the first to write about this, and he won’t be the last.  In fact, Brian McLaren addressed it in a very interesting 2005 novel, The Last Word (And the Word After That) (Jossey Bass; $14.95) and it is an important part of his recent book.  More on that anon.

For now, allow me to say a few things that I want to get off my chest, and name some books that might help remind us of the need for good theology and fair debates.  Thanks for giving me your time—I know this isn’t simple.

We are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and we dare not fudge or minimize either aspect of that formula.  It is vital to seek orthodox truth, to struggle for clearly articulate Biblical formulations and to remind those in error of the plain teaching of the Bible when they stray from it, although I also think, as in other disciplines, we are free to be creative, to float ideas, to engage in commentary on new concepts and to carry on the on-going task of doing helpful theological ruminations;  while we ought not to this with abandon, unmoored from the great tradition, innovative thinkers shouldn’t be condemned as heretics for asking burning questions.  It isn’t wrong to offer critique and rebuke but sometimes we could lower the volume.  Not every wrong-headed idea needs to be denounced as full heresy.  (Bell is at times a bit too confident in his view, I think, and he is quite hard on the traditional formulation, but he does invite conversation, asks questions, and more questions.  I don’t think he presents his take as “the final word”—but as an invitation for deeper and more fruitful thinking.  This is a tone I also find in Brian McLaren, by the way, who, while critical of an older version of evangelical faith, is eager to admit to being unsure of all the new pieces, humbly submitting—with verve—some new things to consider.  Not everyone reads him as being that gracious, but it is how I “hear” him.  That’s not a bad posture, I don’t think, when an out-side-the-box thinker is at least humble and tentative creating space for readers to make up their own minds.)

My wife and I recently watched DVDs of Showtime’s The Tutors, vividly portraying in extraordinarily graphic R-rated ways, the sex and violence at the center of the English reformation, started by Henry the VIII.  What TV mini-series has Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and conversations about Luther and rumors of William Tyndale’s Bible being read, detailing not only early reformation theology, debates about the closure of the monasteries, but piety and politics and romance, too?  The gruesome, evil ways theological minorities were treated—drawn and quartered, beheaded, burned at the stake—was not new news to us, of course, but seeing it so vividly dramatized deeply and profoundly saddened us.  Such violent behavior is never, never permitted by followers of Jesus, and I only bring it up to recall, firstly, how we have come a long way from those awful days, but also how terribly important it is to learn to handle disagreements decently.  This horrible stuff is in our past and we dare not forget it.  We must not stomach the spirit of inquisitions or violent intolerance.

And, anyway, as is so often the case in the Old and New Testaments, there are great surprises for those who think they have their ideas about God or God’s expectations all figured out.  There are reversals and upsets and we should never be too confident or complacent or set in our ways.  In changing and anxious times (where there really are dangerous ideas out there and the church seems sometimes nearly unhinged with unorthodox nonsense) we sometimes run too quickly to “batten down the hatches” and “circle the wagons” into an unfaithful and actually unfruitful fortress mentality.  This is usually not a good sign and healthy faith communities will embrace creative thinkers, poets and prophets even as they hold to ancient truths. We will be hospitable and eager to learn, child-like, even, in healthy curiosity. And we will have a passion to learn new ways to explain the gospel in ways that make sense to our culture. The polarizing “pro” and “con” knee-jerk reactions about Bell’s book (before most bloggers had actually read it) has generated much heat and not too much serious insight.  It seems to me the twitter firestorm was mostly a knee-jerk reaction and not a sign of maturity or wisdom.  One might wish for a least a bit of the wise prudence of Gamaliel in Acts 5. 

Wisdom? Prudence? The spectacularly important book The Shallows: What the Internet is
The Shallows.jpg Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (Norton; $26.95) has reminded us that the blogo-sphere, with the distractions of hyperlinks, pop-up ads, flashing pixels and the temptation to think we are engaging in serious discourse when we argue in short-form rebuttals on twitter, is not always a helpful medium for sustained discourse or mature thinking.  In fact, as Carr painstakingly demonstrates, literally different parts of the brain fire when we are doing the skimming sort of reading that we do on line.  We think and process and even feel differently when we read and write on line.  Carr properly frets about the nature of our discourse as our neurology is rendered shallow (reminding me of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death or Marva Dawn’s precient concerns about contemporary worship capitulating to the culture of fast-paced screens.)

(Ahh, the irony is thick, isn’t it, commending The Shallows here at a blog post?  Ha!  And presuming that BookNotes readers actually read with nuance and care these long sentences of mine.  I hope you don’t do the F scan “read”—-reading the whole way across the first sentence, part way across the page a few sentences down, and then scanning the left margin, your eyes essentially making an F across the screen—that Carr says characterizes most on-line reading.)

(Again, with irony, I’ll interrupt your reading and suggest (maybe best to be visited later, not now) that you at least read Is Google Making Us Stupid?, The Atlantic Monthly piece that Carr wrote prior to releasing The Shallows in 2010. Now that is worth having a fire-storm about!)

Or, see this New York Times review of another book I recently read, and found hard to put   down (and hard to argue with), The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen (Crown; $14.00.)  It worries that the Web 2.0 user-generated media invites us to an unhelpful democratization where even encyclopedias are created by, well, any high school kid with a lap top and entertainment is reduced to watching vapid home-made youtube clips, eroding long-enduring standards and expertise, which is “destroying our economy, culture and our values.”  Can you see where I’m going with this: does having access to a blog account qualify you to do serious theological discourse?  To critique books (you haven’t even read?)  I’m no elitist—-I want you to read me, obviously and I’m not too credentialed—but the firestorm on the web (noticed even by the data-miners at twitter) surely should give us pause.  Bell’s book needs to be read, and discussed.  In that order.  Face to face, hopefully, with real friends who can hold one another accountable and learn from one another’s diverse Biblical

Which is to say—if you are still with me—that you really ought to buy Love Wins and make up your own darn mind.  I obviously believe in reviewing books (I write them and read them) and obviously hold in high regard the task of the critic.  But let us be clear: no book of this nature can be captured adequately in short review and it is simply irrelevant how many people click “like” on somebody’s review.

So, my first point, then, is this: realize that knowing about the firestorm on line and having read a few blogs, including my own, is simply no substitute for serious reviews (in real journals by reputable critics with some literary expertise, some critical thinking skills and some theological chops, and not the rantings of anybody who claims to have discernment or is a self-appointed prophet.  Note that most serious reviewers usually say that their comments and critiques are no substitute for reading the book yourself, and talking amongst trusted friends.

(A hopefully relevant aside: my wife and I were once engaged in deep spiritual warfare, working hard to stay in relationship with a gal who had gotten deeply brainwashed by an unequivocally evil cult that had ties to the occult, hoping that we might minister to her.  She told us she was not allowed to read our literature.  I asked her if she was troubled by this intellectual censorship, and, of course, she said no.  I asked her why that didn’t trouble her and wondered with her whether her disinterest in whether she was being bullied by these cultists  may be a sign that, actually, she was brainwashed.  As you might guess, it wasn’t a winning strategy, but I use it still when I’m talking with Mormon missionaries who come in our shop, disallowed to read.  That it doesn’t bother them that somebody tells them what they are not permitted to read for themselves never ceases to astonish me.)

Secondly, it should go without saying that we need to be honest and fair.  We ought not speculate about an author’s motives and should refrain from uncharitable pot-shots.  In the critical review I mentioned above they slid into a clever line they should have omitted, saying, in so many words, that Bell’s hermeneutic seemed designed for “your best life now” suggesting the rather shallow and self-indulgent prosperity preaching of Joel Olsteen.  Perhaps their point was that Bell finally shares with Olsteen a view that allows one to cavalierly pick and choose whatever they like in the Scriptures, but that would be a serious charge that, if levied, would have to be proven. Does he handle the Scripture like this?  That Bell has preached passionately against the American Dream consumerism of our culture, it seemed a particularly ill-informed shot.  Similarly, they suggest that Bell simply doesn’t love God enough because we must love others and God enough to be honest about Him.  Of course, that may be the implication in Bell’s own book, that our traditional views of God’s wrath and hell fire haven’t been honest before the texts that suggest otherwise (and boy, does he list ’em!)  I did not sense in Bell’s book that he felt that advocates of the traditional view don’t love God enough—as his accusers said of him—although he in no uncertain terms thinks that some have portrayed God in hurtful, even vile, ways. (More on this when I describe the book.) This illustrates an important principle: it is fair to be robust and even colorful in a critique, but one ought not judge the motives or piety of an author with whom we have differences unless we have proof of our accusations or insinuations.  That is unwarranted.  Bell can say that presenting God as an eternal torturer is wrong but he dare not say that those who hold to such a view are badly motivated.  Bell’s critics can reasonably say he is some sort of a Christ-centered universalist, but they can’t say that he is lukewarm in his piety.  The critics of the critics can cry foul if they make unkind insinuations or unfounded claims or if they (knowingly or unknowingly) misrepresent or caricature the idea they are robustly criticizing.  However, a good portion of the long comment threads were Bell supporters whining about reasonably fair and obvious critical assessments. It isn’t necessarily unkind to call a spade a spade and it isn’t unloving to firmly say if you think something is untrue or Biblically unsubstantiated.

Thirdly, and this follows as a way of saying a bit more about the call to be honest and fair, and to not take potshots or punch below the belt, so to speak, we must be civil in our disagreements.  Our loud talk show radio culture has not helped us here, and both extremes of the political spectrum these days have earned enough blame to go around.  (Saying that those who disagree with Obama are racists, without evidence that this is so, or saying that those who agree with him are socialists who hate America, or suggesting some vile conspiracy behind an opponents view, or lifting less than stellar quotes out of context are too-common examples of incivility that Christians must boldly askew.)  And so, our theological conversations should not be carried on in the manner the world carries out, say, political discourse these days. We should certainly be trying to be agents of calm and clarity and gentle candor in the public square, but we should at least be exhibiting gracious civility within the faith community, eh?  

0830833099.jpgRichard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP; $16.00) remains for me the best book on this I have yet read.  I have gotten it out again to re-read his chapters on inter-faith conversations and his chapter “Is Hell Uncivil” as I prepared my heart to try to draft a review of Love Wins.  Mouw, as is usually the case, holds fairly conservative, traditional views, but holds them with great grace, always honest about the strengths and weaknesses of the views of others, and the strengths and weaknesses of his own impulses and conclusions.  

Here, for instance, he writes about “What’s Good About Pluralism?”

Christian hearts must be open to other people.  God wants that of us.  That is what I have just been arguing.  But how open are we supposed to be? We live today in the midst of many lifestyles, many systems of thought—don’t we run the risk of having our hearts pulled in so many different directions that we will finally have no center of our own?

That is an important concern.  There is much about contemporary pluralism that frightens me.  But there is also much that I find exciting from a Christian point of view.

After a good several pages outlining the dangers and benefits of engaging religious and cultural diversity, Mouw ends up with a favorite Bible text from Revelation 5 which illustrates the ethnic and cultural diversity of the heavenly chorus who honors Christ.  And then he writes, “We cannot be any less affirming in our own–more earthly–encounters with created human diversity.  To cultivate that spirit of affirmation is crucial to our growth in civility.  It is also a good way to get ready for heaven!”

Learning the habits of heart that allow us to see the good in other’s arguments and positions does not mean giving up our own convictions.  In fact, Mouw has a chapter on the limits of civility called “When There is No Other Hand”  But even here, we are tempered by love, by our kindness and sense of respect shown towards others.

This humble and open spirit shapes his chapter called “The Ch
allenge of Other Religions.”  His story of his own work at advocacy for Muslim friends in the dangerous times right after 9/11 was moving.  His call for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation (even as he highlights the importance of Christ-centered evangelistic efforts) is right on.  I think there is more wisdom in this short chapter than in some whole books on the topic, and I commend it to you.

And, again, to be clear, Dr. Mouw doesn’t think that interfaith conversation means compromise of essential Christian convictions.  After a string of tough questions that might be raised by others regarding his desire for interfaith friendships and mutual learning, he says,

These are not cranky questions.  They express important concerns.  I have to admit it: if entering into dialogue with Muslims means that I must be willing to set aside my belie in the uniquely redemptive work of Christ, then I cannot do it.  For me that is one of several nonnegotiable convictions.

He starts the book, in fact, with a call to convicted civility.  That is, some people have few convictions (so it is easy for them to be civil, since they don’t believe much.)  Others have great conviction, but press them on others to forcefully.  He commends the balanced approach of strong convictions and decent civility. 

And, then, eventually, he gets to the subject of hell.  It seems a bit odd since so much of his book is about the deep instincts we’ll need and the gracious habits of how we engage in public discourse, how we debate and discuss.  Here is is tackling (albeit briefly) a traditional Christian doctrine.  Is this doctrine itself uncivil and even if not, how can we speak of it in kind ways that are not needlessly off-putting?  (This reminds me a bit of another favorite Richard Mouw book, Calvinism at the Las Vegas Airport Making Connections in Today’s World  (Zondervan; $14.99) where he tries to explain the somewhat controversial “five points of Calvinism” in a kind and gentle manner.  You know he’s a generous guy when he has even written a fantastic book on what we might learn from fundamentalists, an enjoyable read called The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (Zondervan; $14.99.))

In his chapter in Uncommon Decency on hell, Mouw cites a favorite Dutch theologian, G.K. Berkouwer, who wrote about the topic of hell.

 “He observes,” Mouw writes, “that when a questioner asked Jesus, “Lord will only a few be saved?” Jesus began his answer with a command: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” (Luke 13:23-24).  This may seem an evasive response, says Berkouwer, but it really is not.  This is Jesus’ answer to the question. We are not to understand the hereafter by speculating about the demographics or geography of heaven and hell.  The appropriate mode of understanding is to obey the will of God and to invite others to do so also.”

 “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”  The stakes are very high–they have eternal significance.  Caring deeply about how people respond to this imperative can be an important way of being a gentle and reverent Christian.”

Well, I like Uncommon Decency and I think the chapter on hell offers four or five very good points about how best to approach the discussion.  Maybe you should order that along with Love Wins.  I’m not kidding.

Insisting on civility and fairness is itself a fairly difficult job.  (I don’t know if I did it very graciously or well over at the Blogging Theologically blog.)  Still it is our job to be vigilante against sloppy thinking and unfair accusations.  Here is an example of what I mean:

I recently reviewed one of those “pro and con” books about hell (I’ll describe it in my next post) written by two Bible scholars, one who argues for annihilationism while the other offered a counter-point in favor of the more traditional position on hell.  In the reply to the first author, the second names four things that first author did in his opening chapter that he thought was unhelpful.  In a section called “techniques that do not advance the debate” the second author maintained that the first used “straw man arguments”  (that is, he refuted all kinds of things that the second author himself doesn’t believe, sort of going against a caricature of a view, not the real thing), he used an “argument from silence” (saying what the Bible doesn’t say, rather than what it does say), he engaged in “ostentatious use of Greek” (which gives the impression of scholarly weight and privileges his argument, whether they were cogent or not) and, finally, that he used dramatic and overblown rhetoric that appealed to the emotions in manipulative ways.  Whether these criticisms of the essay of the first author are valid, the points are well taken. 

The second author then also said this:

In the interest of fair play I add one more thing.  Obviously I am not impressed by Fudge’s employment of these techniques.  I will leave it to readers to judge whether Fudge has played the game according to the rule.  But in fairness to him I want to state that although these techniques do not advance the debate between us, neither do they prove Fudge wrong. Even as readers should not embrace Fudge’s position because of the techniques, neither should they reject his view simply because he employs those methods.

Now that seems to me to be an admirable and even noble approach.  He warns against some under-the-table approaches that he discerns in his opponent, but even as warns against them, he says they should not, on the face of it, disqualify his opponent’s argument.

Learning to think fairly and honestly, using critical thinking and rejecting faulty arguments and unfounded attacks–and sometimes calling people out on that– is a part of what it means to “speak the truth in love.”  We need to be discerning about books and we need to be discerning about the critiques offered to the books, even when those critiques come from usually reliable sources.  (And, naturally, you should take my own reviews with a grain of salt, considering them carefully, although I do appreciate being given the benefit of the doubt.  Who doesn’t?)   Learning how to exercise careful consideration and how and when and where to say it is part of what it means to be wise and helpful and civil.  Of course we need to expose some bad thinking in some bad books—although in Matthew 23:23, Jesus, in telling the theologically-conservative and intellectually rigorous Pharisees what matters most, “the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faithfulness” seems to tell us what we should get most riled up about.  If Rob Bell had said, “You know, I’m not sure we should be talking about social justice quite so much as we do here at Mars Hill” do you think the righteous bloggers would have created their uproar?

Perhaps the bloggers and attackers who are shouting that Bell must be roundly condemned—one guy has as his blogging picture a barbarian with an axe!—are not interested in this sort of humane, open-minded dialogue, or Mouw’s call to the the virtues of civility, or even “the weightier matters of the law”.  Our bookstore has been named as a peddler of heresy already and a year ago one blogger (writing anonymously, of course) implied at her site that she advocating burning some of our books.  Since we have also gotten a veiled death threat from the KKK for our anti-racism books, I won’t say it didn’t scare me at first.  Yet, they are obscure and cultish. Ignore them. Sorting out the legitimate and responsible critics of Bell from the nutty ones is itself a large project.

Good fol
ks within the body of Christ know that the church has not been on one mind about the nature of end time judgment and wrath and hell since, well, since the earliest church fathers.  And most of us realize that the Bible itself–as Bell in Love Wins makes pretty clear—can be read in a few different ways, depending which texts are taken figuratively and which ones are taken literally.  He thinks we have good reason to take literally those that teach of an inclusive salvation based on God’s redemptive intentions in Christ.  Most serious Bible scholars understand that some of the talk about fire and brimstone may be metaphorical.  So church tradition and the Bible itself isn’t as single-mindedly clear as some think.  Recognizing this, and admitting it, prohibits glib judgments about Bell’s view.  As we try to parse this, whether we end up affirming or reforming our older views, let us do so in discussion with the church writers who have gone before us and with the whole Bible in view, with prayerful thoughtfulness, kindness, honest and grace.  Let’s follow Mouw in his call for civility.

Lastly, and perhaps a bit ironically, I’ll note that Mouw suggests we not talk about this too much.

Is hell uncivil?  I think not.  Hell is about God’s honor and our freedom.  Those are very important issues.  To care about such things is to care about human flourishing.  But that does not mean that civil Christians should devote much time and energy to thinking and talking about hell itself.  There are more helpful ways of highlighting the importance of God’s honor and human freedom.

Even though Dr. Mouw counsels that we need not devote too much time and energy to thinking about hell, it is a topic about which Jesus (and the rest of Scripture) speaks. So it is good to know what we believe and why.

To that end, I’ll describe Rob Bell’s book a bit in a day or so.  And I’ll list a few others, too, that might be helpful, like the pro/con one I mentioned earlier.  For now, allow me to suggest this bit of advise:  no one doctrine (like salvation or hell) can be properly understood outside of a larger narrative of Biblical theology.  And while systematic theologians sometimes overstate their rigid dogmas and their air-tight logical systems—rationalistic theologyism, I call it, making an ideological idol out of their own doctrinal formulations—it does help to have a broad reading of a bit of general theology under your belt before diving seriously into any specific sub-topic.  Just because we may be tempted to turn our theology into a hammer to bludgeon others, or an idol, even, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t humbly study it.  We should and we must.

So, rather than diving into the Rob Bell’s Love Wins book itself, at first, at least, if you haven’t read this sort of stuff before, may I suggest, for instance, something like these. 

jesus-wants-to-save-christians.jpgJesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile  Rob Bell & Don Golden (Zondervan)  $19.99  This is a controversial book, and I think an important foundation for reading Love Wins.  This is mostly a Biblical study, sort of Bell’s take—in his Nooma-esque writing style—on how the whole Biblical narrative leads us to a counter-imperial view, great reversals, and the coming of the reign of God “on Earth as it is in heaven.”  He seems to have been reading Colossians Remixed (by Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat) and Evil and the Justice of God by N.T Wright and maybe Dom Crossan; certainly this might appeal to those who liked Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw.   Whether you agree with all of his politics of empire or not, you will learn much from this feisty overview of the Bible, showing God’s intention to bring restoration and healing to an unjust, broken world.

41604_86559675245_3755_n.jpgDon’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Isn’t Enough  Michael E. Witmer (Zondervan) $16.99  Here, Witmer offers a critique of the emergent and missional tendency to minimize doctrine and to follow “in the way of Jesus.”  “Not creeds, but deeds” an earlier liberalism professed. This is a fabulous book on the significance of doctrine, the role of belief, the uniquenesses of the Christian truth claims, and the wholistic vision of knowing and doing, faith and action, doctrine and discipleship.  I believe this book really ought to be better known and I cannot say enough good about it.  I liked his previous Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God, about a wholistic Christian worldview, quite a lot.  This one is hard-hitting but very fair.  Very well done.  

What’s Theology Got to Do With It? Convictions, Vitality and the Church  Anthony B. Robinson (Alban Institute) $18.00  Tony is a beloved and wise UCC pastor who you may know from writing in The Christian Century.  He invites those in mainline congregations (and others, I’d think) to good conversations about what matters most.  He makes a good case that doctrine, in fact, does matter, and can be explored in life-giving ways in our local parishes.  This would be a fine study for an adult class, asking good questions in practical ways for ordinary church folk.

Head Heart Hands: Bringing Together Christian Thought, Passion and Action  Dennis Hollinger (IVP) $15.00  Some of us are drawn to highly intellectual engagement, thinking about the Christian mind, theology and such.  Others are passionate about the inner life, things of the heart, spiritual formation and sensing God’s affections.  Still others are quite willing to minimize theology and spirituality in order to get busy, living out mission in action.  As you might guess, this book not only affirms the importance of all three, but insists that without all three—a faith of the head, heart and hands–we are not just imbalanced, but woefully unfaithful.  I think any doctrinal dispute (like the Rob Bell controversy) must be entered from this viewpoint that it matters what we think, how we feel and what we do.  This is brilliant stuff!

Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters Joshua Harris 
dug-down-deep-frontcover.jpg (Multnomah) $19.99  This author became a bit famous as a home-school youngster who wrote a popular (if a bit odd, in my view) book on dating a decade ago.  As he matured in faith and became a pastor he realized the need to determine more fully and deeply what he believed.  This is a wonderful story of his learning about conservative Calvinist theology.  He’s wise to invite us to this important journey.

Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition  James K.A. Smith (Baker) $14.99  I named this as one of the books of the year, inviting readers (including those that are neither young nor Calvinist) to this series of gentle pa
storal letters, slowly nurturing some of the new-Calvinists into a broader Reformed worldview.  I love these gracious, informative, wise, short missives. They are good reminders of the way theology can be helpful, why knowing stuff like this is important, and how to be discerning about what’s most important.  While you’re at it, read anything else this guy writes!

NotTheWay-01.jpgNot the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin  Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Eerdmans) $22.00  Some of our customers have said this is among their all time favorite books.  If we are going to study the doctrine of hell, if we are wondering about God’s wrath, then it is essential we reflect on the nature of sin.   Plantinga is an elegant writer, drawing on classic old books and contemporary films, wisely offering some very relevant reflections. This is without a doubt the best book on the topic.  Wow.

Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital for the Future of the Church John Armstrong (Zondervan) $19.99  I’m sort of on a roll, here, now, but this book really is relevant.  I’ve reviewed it before and named it as one of the most important books of 2010.  Armstrong is a generous-minded evangelical, seriously Reformed and deeply committed to global ecumenism. (For what it is worth he was somewhat inspired in this by a powerful call to such unity by a serious essay by the earnest and respected Puritan scholar, Anglican J. I. Packer.)  We are so glad to read a Biblically-solid defense of working towards rapprochement within the divided body of Christ and this reminder of the wide nature of the church could be a good reminder even as we debate particular theological ideas. I recommend subscribing to his blog which always is written with charity and humility.    Very nicely done.

The Body Broken: Answering God’s Call to Love One Another Robert Benson (Waterbrook) $9.99)  I’ve raved before in these pages about the sweet writing of this fine author, and how much I enjoy all of his books.  He’s written several books on prayer, one on Benedictine insights about neighborliness and community, a great one on home gardening, and maybe The Game, his baseball one, would be good to commend about now—we can’t get too angry with one another if we are thinking about that great American pastime, can we?  Here, though, The Body Broken, is perhaps his most tender and serious one, a lament about the divisions in the Body.  He works, mostly, in spiritual direction, so, even as a Protestant, he ends up staying at Catholic retreat centers.  He cannot receive Eucharist, of course, and this grieves him in quiet and responsible ways.  This is a very, very good book, part memoir, part meditation on the unity (and disunity) within the Body.  Again, it seems to me that how we engage in theological debates might be softened if we had this sad and deeply moving and strangely hopeful book under our belts.  I suppose that those most interesting in high-octane heresy-hunting won’t be drawn to this, but one can wish.  And hope.  It is a good book by a good man.

9780830834495.jpgLove One Another: Becoming the Church Jesus Longs For  Gerald Sittser (IVP) $15.00  This is a considerably revised edition of an earlier book by the wonderful and wise author of A Grace Disguised
(the best book on grief I’ve ever read, and our best-seller in our
consolation section of the shop.)  Here, he invites us—liberals and
conservatives, amongst others—to handle our church conflicts in a way
that is truly loving.  Eugene Peterson says of it that it will “develop
spiritual maturity.”  We agree.  There is solid Biblical meat here and we really ought to take it to heart.  It is stuff most of us know, I’d guess, but we need a sustained, serious reminder and explication.  Very highly recommended!

Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World  Richard J. Mouw (IVP) $16.00  Didn’t I list this one already?  Well, maybe you missed it above, so I have to list it again. It is the internet, after all, and you’re probably just skimming.  Ha.  I can’t tell you how important I think this is.  Please get it, and give it away when your done.  Spread the word—whether we are debating politics or theology, writing letters to the editor about the tea party or blogging about Rob Bell, debating sexual ethics or thinking about hell, this guide to public manners and how to be fair-minded and civil  is simply a must-read.

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9 thoughts on “BookNotes reviews Love Wins by Rob Bell. Eventually. But first, a word on civility, diversity within the Body of Christ, the art of discernment and criticism, and a short book list on theology and unity.

  1. Thanks, Byron! Part of the Twitter firestorm that went across my feed was from an unbeliever, who said, “Watching evangelicals fight over universalism is like watching martians fight over 19th century corsets.” Sometimes it seems that way for believers as well! Thanks for pointing the way towards discerning what these guys are saying.

  2. Bryon,
    I am looking forward to your comments on Bell’s book, but I could not get the link to work for the Challies and Armstrong piece. Can you please send that to me again? THANKS!

  3. I’m so glad that you committed to writing about this. I’ve been looking forward to your response. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

  4. Thanks Byron. I appreciate you taking the time to do this, both this one and the upcoming post.

  5. Byron,
    Thank you for these words. It is difficult to be a person of peace and intellectual integrity.
    Two comments:
    I tend to avoid these sorts of debates, not because the issues aren’t important, but more because it is all so personal. Where did the idea that someone else’ different beliefs were a threat to my own? Our freedom in Christ includes the risk that we may be wrong, and others too. If so, it is God who sorts it out, not me or anyone else. It doesn’t mean I doesn’t have clearly defined positions on issues. It just means I chose not to treat other people’s beliefs as a personal affront.
    In addition, I find that much of these debates lack an awareness of how intellectual trends impact analytical thought processes. The historic context matters. Sixteenth century England is not the same context as Eighteen century England or 21st Century America. Every human expression about the Bible and the Christian faith is an interpretation rooted in time. For this reason, we should be gracious and fair-minded, and allow for ambiguity and changeability to be a real factor in the development of Christian thought. I’ll go even further to say that the historical epoch of my theological training, late 1970’s/early 1980’s is a radically different time than 2011. We should take that into consideration when sitting judgment as critics of other people’s thought.
    Thank you for your strong irenic presence.

  6. Very nice piece, Byron. Your love for your readers, books, civil discourse and God all come through clearly. I appreciate your wisdom and your respect for the wide range of readers who come your way.
    The original headline of the Atlantic article still makes me chuckle: “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”
    Keep up the good work, friend.

  7. Thanks, Byron!
    I appreciate how you widen the scope to look at both theology and “the blogosphere.”

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