I’ve written more about the new Rob Bell book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne; $22.99) and the controversy around it than I have about any other book I’ve described here at BookNotes. I’ve done a few serious reviews over the years (my strong critique in 2002 of John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart still gets forwarded around sometimes) and a few of the monthly columns get pretty lengthy, but most often we just highlight, announce, celebrate and ruminate a bit on new titles we have here in the shop. And, we love making lists, bibliographies, answering questions. So in a way this epic article and review isn’t characteristic of our work here, and I’m not sure why I got so involved, writing so much. It just seemed like what I should do. I’m glad some of you found it interesting. A few even found it helpful. Thanks be to God.
I have just a few more comments and I’ll be done. Thanks for following along. You know we make our living selling books and we hope that if you found any of the titles that I listed, mentioned, referred to or cited to be interesting, that you’ll order ’em from us. I tell you about the books that have been influential and the books that seem pertinent because I guess I’m a sort of a teacher at heart. But I can’t tell you how jazzed we are when one of these books mentioned in passing shows up on our website’s order form page. We truly appreciate and value your support.
I hope you didn’t give up with my round-about essay, daunting as it was. In it, I attempted to touch base on a variety of key topics that are important to us. My thesis was that a few background ideas, if properly understood, will at least help you understand the way Bell pitches his vision, in all of his books, and in the new Love Wins, which suggests a view that God’s love wins all people into His new creation; that is, it seems close to what some call Christian universalism. Getting where he’s coming from (discerned in some of the Noomas and reading that I suspect he’s done and authors he knows) may help you at least understand more of his approach, and that is always helpful for fair and fruitful consideration and debate. Then, when you read the book itself (the only reliable way to hear him out) you’ll be better prepared.
I realize I could be wrong, and there are others ways to tell this story. For instance, I do not think (but many do) that it is best to recall the old modernist/fundamentalist debates of a century ago, and pitch Bell as nothing more than “souped-up Schleimacher” as one clever critic put it. I don’t think that is accurate and I don’t think it is fair and I don’t think it is that helpful, finally. But I could be wrong…
IT IS WHAT IT IS
Bell is not a systematic theologian, but an artistically-gifted pastor, of a community of faith that has an ethos of open dialogue and authentic seeking and social action, with a decidedly contemporary (postmodern?) style. He “tells it slant” to use the Emily Dickinson allusion. He loves questions and he invites us to think. He doesn’t like easy answers (even if it could be countered that he offers a few himself.) His style frustrates some who are pretty right-brained and used to systematic, logically arguments, points, outlines and organized cases being made for this or that coherent position. His free-flowing style—his writing sounds just like his edgy short-form Nooma videos—is adored by some others. They like his writing style, the allusive punch, the honest invitation to be provoked. I think this is important to realize, and we ought not accuse him of failing to use a style that he doesn’t intend to use, or for not having written the sort of book we expected. It is what it is, and it is not a seriously thorough study, systematic and comprehensive. It is a sermon or two, a polemic, a piece of performance art, almost. This is not to say it ought not to be critiqued, but it doesn’t even have footnotes (as I never tire of complaining about.)
It is what it is, which may not be what you wanted or what is needed. Some think it is very exciting to hear, and helpful. People I admire and trust, like Richard Mouw and Eugene Peterson, have recommend that it be read and considered. Please see my list below if you want something more detailed and studious, a slow gaze under the microscope rather than an exciting look through a telescope.
DO YOU LIKE THIS FROM THE PREFACE?
I know that the emergent folks and those moving away from evangelical certainties and the supporters of iconoclasts like Rob Bell often say that they have come across churches that don’t allow questions, that demand conformity, and they know folks who have been spiritually abused. I don’t doubt it. But I sometimes wonder how common this is. Maybe guys like Bell and McLaren create this tableaux, this picture of rigid fundamentalists that stomp on any free spirit that is a bit overstated. And I’m not so sure that’s fair. Ahh, but then I realize that the other Christian bookstore in our area had little warning signs against the last Donald Miller book and can’t stomach selling books by Catholics. And I hear of somebody who was ridiculed by her youth leader for asking a deep question. So, the lock-step enforcement of orthodoxy may be a bit heavy-handed at times. (And don’t get me started about how political or theological conservatives feel if they are a part of largely liberal parishes or judicatories. You have to know this stuff cuts both ways, and we find as much bigotry on the left as we do the right.)
So Bell has this on the second page:
Some communities don’t permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe, “We don’t discuss those things here.”â€¨â€¨I believe the discussion itself is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering. God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he’s asked with…a question.
“What do you think? How do you read it?” he asks, again and again and again.
The ancient sages said the words of the sacred text were black letters on a white page—there’s all that white space, waiting to be filled with our responses and discussions and debates and opinions and longings and desires and wisdom and insights. We read the words, and then enter into a discussion that has been going on for thousands of years across cultures and continents.
My hope is that this frees you. There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issues too dangerous.
A GOD WHO CRIES—BRILLIANT OR EVASIVE?
I’m not sure why so many were angry when, being interrogated by a remarkably rude MSNBC interviewer, Martin Bashir, Bell pointed out that he is not a theologian, but a wo
rking pastor. I do not think that was disingenuous of him; he is not an academic (and he has not claimed his book is a scholarly treatise, or even his last word on the subject.) Bell has written an easy to read book full of invitations to think things through, offering plausible Christ-centered, Biblically-oriented answers to what he suggests are concerns that many have, and that have been voiced often throughout church history. He is replying to felt needs of his tribe. I do not think he is merely trying to “make the gospel palatable” (which may be an insulting accusation as if he is knowingly fudging the facts; Bashir could have asked it in a much more fruitful way instead of how he did which was professionally inexcusable.)
Love Wins attempts to point towards a vision–God’s love is more than one attribute but his most defining essence—and that love is wired into the nature of things, and will be effective to inaugurate redeeming goodness—which he thinks may resolve huge human tensions, contradictory Bible teaching, and allow him to proclaim the gospel (as he understands it) both faithfully and fruitfully.
To make these sorts of judgments of him–he’s disingenuous, he’s intentionally evasive, he’s making stuff up, he’s sneaky—isn’t my read at all. â€¨(This does not mean he is right, of course, or couldn’t do a better job of articulating the basics of the book.) Making these sorts of observations come close to maligning his character and verge on judging his motives and heart, a move that is forbidden by Jesus.
MSNBC AND THEODICY
In that interview the very bluntly asked first question was the unanswerable quandary of the mysteries of an all good and all powerful God allowing the horrors of the sort that we just witnesses with the earthquake in Japan. Rob answered—excellently, I thought—that we start that conversation (trying to wrap our minds around paradoxes and mysteries and sorrows) with the assumption that God weeps with us, that God has deep empathy for human suffering. He avoided the dead-end debate and asserted something profoundly true and pastorally helpful on national TV. The interviewer was irritated, implying he wasn’t answering the question, asked him again. And many have accused Bell of equivocating, being evasive, and knowingly provocative.
Well, if I were caught off guard on national TV and asked first off one of the most complicated theological questions one can ask, I’m not sure what I’d say or how good I’d look. Bell’s answer was true and rooted in the goodness of God and the uniquely Christian insight about incarnation: God cares. God gets involved and His love is empathetic. It is the starting point for him and he said that.
I once saw an hour long debate once between two exceptionally thoughtful, passionate, respected evangelical leaders on this very matter. One insists that God’s sovereignty is such that the question must be resolved in a way that highlights God’s control over all thing. This is a pastor who believes it is pastorally irresponsible to say that we don’t know about the why: we do know and should tell the suffering that God allows all things to happen for our good and His glory. So horrors like that are easily named. God rules everything. It wasn’t an accident. God is good and has the whole world in his hand. Trust him and find joy in all things. As when they asked Jesus about whose sin it was when there was a disaster Jesus said just be glad it didn’t happen to you. That’s what we should advise folks who wonder about the horrors of this world.
â€¨â€¨The other rigorous, evangelical leader, himself no stranger to global suffering and the problems of evil, wasn’t buying it. He took a very different approach. He cited a verse that suggested it was wrong to even hint that God might be behind what we simply have to call evil. No, God is not to blame. And on the conversation went between to men I respect. The first, with tons of Scripture on his side, nonetheless seemed really weird to me. Who says these kinds of things? Is that what Bashir wanted out of Bell?
Recently, an entire book came out on this, especially on the topic of natural disasters. (We know there are many on theodicy, and practical ones for individuals like C. S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain, or, more interestingly written, Phil Yancey’s Where Is God When It Hurts?)
Lutheran Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim has pondered these things his whole life, it seems, and has written Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Brazos; $19.99.) I don’t think it resolves all this, but it is a mature study of all kinds of Biblical texts. It has gathered rave reviews from the likes of Dennis Olson (Princeton Seminary) and Walter Brueggemann (Columbia Theological Seminary) and Tremper Longman III (Westmont College.) It certainly would resonate with Bell’s convictions about the goodness of creation, the unleashing of creation-wide disturbance, and God’s loving purposes as the forces of chaos are conquered by Christ. It would also resonant with his sense that there dare not be easy answers or glib rebuttals…this is vexing, untamed stuff.
Maybe the TV guy should have Terry Fretheim on and as him that question. To say that Bell was wishy washy because he said that we must start with a God who sheds tears along with us seems to me quite unfair. But, anyway, this is the book to read on this exact question, written by somebody who knows the Biblical material about creation and chaos well.
I have very good friends that think Bell was evasive and weak in that interview and do not share my frustrations with Bashir, the host. There is very interesting to me, this diversity of dispositions, I guess, to interpret this in very different ways. But there ya go…
THIS IS WHAT ECCELESIA REFORMATA SEMPER REFORMANDA LOOKS LIKE
There is, it seems to me, a lot of anger about Bell, anxiety about evangelicals who, from within the movement, ask questions that others (especially mainline pastors and thinkers) have asked for a century or more. I wonder if he is a bit of a symbol of theological drift, and he’s being treated as a bit of a case study, or a scape goat. I think this theological confusion matter is of great importance, and on one hand I really understand the angst about it. I share some of that angst. But this is the way it works–we all get to share in this “priesthood of all believers” stuff, offering our views and submitting to each others ideas as we struggle to grow in faithfulness and wisdom.
There is, or so it seems to me, a pretty intense mistrust in this process, an unwillingness to listen, a drawing of lines, a choosing of sides, a quick jump to nail the other. Or to even think or read a book that might be “bad” or unpopular with certain gatekeepers. I almost fear it could lead to a disinterest in what I take to be a staple of Christian living: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. I understand, of course, that the reformation plea that the church always be maturing and changing and reforming herself isn’t an excuse for weirdo theological experimentation or for allowing any old idea to get equal play or be seriously considered. Of course not. But those of us who are Protestants, especially, are drawn to movements that are dynamic, not static. Right? Or, are the Catholics right, and th
at is the undoing of things?
We have reason to be concerned about the tendencies within church bodies and as my own denomination falters and evangelical churches get weirder by the year, who knows where it will lead. But I am not so sure that nailing down the hatches and ramping up the loudness of the critique is helpful. I’ve said before that I have concern about the ethics of reviewing, about playing fair, about civility as a requirement for Christian engagement. But I’m also wondering what is going to move the conversation and the church forward. Inviting everyone to think for themselves isn’t quite right–the apostolic tradition has been handed down and the Bible does have some pretty non-negotiable teachings. I’m just not always sure which of those teachings are the non-negotiable ones. There is tons more against social injustice, say, but those who feel the strongest about rebuking doctrinal missteps seem to be much less willing to respect the range of opinion on, say, economics or creation-care. Why is that?
IN CONVERSATION ABOUT WHOSE INTERPRETATIONS?
You recall that I’ve foisted upon you, dear readers, many mentions of the book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Walsh & Keesmaat (IVP; $23.00.) One of the great features of that book is the rather traditionalist conversation partner that appears–an interlocutor–in italics, in every so many chapters. This turns their unique (and they think deeply Biblical) interpretations into a discussion, and their critic is right there in the book.
Brian and Sylvia wisely anticipated what more traditionalist readers might say—theologically, philosophically, socially, politically—and made room in the book for those conversations to be hosted. It was a way to advance the themes and methods of the book by way of hearing and addressing the typical arguments from typical (evangelical) readers. I note this not only because it is ecumenical and hospitable and just but because it works. That italicized pesky fellow keeps coming in and holding their feet to the fire, asking good questions, and they end up having large and terribly important discussions about whose interpretations counts. Why some views or approaches are privileged over others. Who gets to say what fruitful practices emerge from a reading and why? These are the sorts of questions floating just inches below the Rob Bell controversy and Colossians Remixed is an example of how to have this kind of conversation.
Another resource I might mention here is one we have promoted before, a great book called Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community by Tim Condor & Daniel Rhodes (Baker; $16.99.) It is a call to wrestle with texts in a local, honest, supportive community. It seems to me most of us don’t really have people “doing live together” in intentional and vulnerable and accountable friendship who can do this sort of experiment in communal discourse. But this is the Bible as it is meant to be studied/debated/lived. Very highly recommended.
I AM SORRY
My first two pieces, before the two-part review, were mostly about the state of the art of the debate, advocating for this kind of convicted debate, conducted with civility and kept in perspective. I gather that most BookNotes readers appreciated that, more or less. You read widely and make up your minds (hopefully in conversation with a local faith community) about what you are reading, but always want to be kind and good. I admire our audience and am proud of our circle of friends and fans. But some have suggested that to even ask for “niceness” is itself a compromise. I do not think that. I think that we are called to be kind no matter what. And there were times in my last several posts where I have not been.
I have made some digs at dualists and those who are not interested in the ways and reasons the faith has become dysfunctional and confused, or at least not in my particular analysis. I have implied, perhaps, that those who have serious doubts about Bell are not really thinking very deeply, missing the big picture. Even if I didn’t say ugly things (I don’t think I did) at least one friend observed that my heat was coming on pretty strong, giving the impression that I was pretty mad. I did not intend that, but my cadence and tone and passion may have made me sound a bit dogmatic and unwilling to admit there are different takes on all this. I am sorry.
As one whose future is dependent upon selling ecumenical resources to a wide variety of readers who have an ongoing commitment to reading widely and thinking deeply and enjoying the give and take of what I called a “living theology” I am worried when folks just simply don’t want to allow for many different ways of expressing faith and the deepest questions of life. I don’t want to think that we are losing at our attempt to nurture a movement of open-minded readers, happy thinkers, eager learners, evangelical readers who read mainline scholars and mainline pastors who read evangelical authors, Protestants who read Catholics and–I believe in miracles—Catholics who read Anabaptists and Mennonites who read Pentecostals. I hope we aren’t just stuck in our own small ruts, echo-chambers of our own perspectives. I think this is the way of wisdom and learning, and it is a large part of what we do here, selling a real diversity of books to a wide diversity of friendly customers.
We have on occasion lost customers and friends because we carry this book or that one. To be honest, the books they disapproved of weren’t that bad, either. Sigh.
GLAD FOR SO MANY BOOKS
I do not agree with all of Bell (or McLaren) and I said so. But I am delighted to have a mind (such as it is) and the freedom to read and the ability to buy books and engage in these sorts of learning opportunities.
We once hosted some folks from the Soviet Union back during the cold war. We spirited a lady from their group away from the hotel (watched by KGB we had reason to think) at 3:00 am so she could see a real American bookstore. It was fun showing her books in the middle of the night, with this (very real) sense of danger around us. I will never forget my realization that we live in a culture that has allowed for the development of freedom of the press and the ability to buy books and the cool amount of publishers and bookshops here and there. I hope we do not squander that. And I hope the kind of thinking that goes on in a culture when there are a wide array of bookstores supporting a wide variety of publishers can be sustained in this internet, amazon world of ours. I guess–as Bill Mallonee says in the middle of one of his songs: I guess this is where the strings come in. And I give my pitch for indie bookstores.
So. I am glad that there are interesting, passionate, upbeat writers with their particular gifts, like Bell, despite my dissatisfaction with some of his method and some of his conclusions. We are happy to promote them and glad for the chance to talk about them. Buy ’em if you want to or save you coins for something more useful for you. But let’s do think about how we talk about the book, and think about the idea.
I understand those that think Bell is outside of the standard, orthodox tradition in his claim that there could be chances after death for people to accept God’s great love that he has for them.
And I understand those that think Bell is simply inadequate in dealing with the many Bible verses that say there is a literal hell and it will be populated.
And I understand those that say if one does away with the notion of sinners who end up estranged from God it most likely illustrates an understatement of the significant teachings of the attributes of God, God’s own self-revelation as One who is holy.
And I understand those who say that any such equivocation will surely lead to a radical shift in how the cross is understood; it will necessarily erode the most salient facts of the Christian faith, that Christ came to the world to offer His life as a sacrifice for many.”
And I can understand friends who will make fun of me for having
But I do find it hard to understand those that meanly mock him, that demand simple answers, that confuse nuance for equivocation, who wonder if he’s in this for the money, as if he loves the anguish of the controversy, as if this isn’t painful. I have a heavy heart about it, that is for sure. I think there is some mean-spiritedness out there and it makes me a little sad. And I can’t quite agree with (as I said in my second piece before my reviews) that it matters as much as some suggest. I don’t think that one loses one salvation for moving towards wrong views. We aren’t graced by God in Christ because of our articulation of the process of justification. The gospel is a gift, not earned or deserved, not even by understanding it very, very well. We do not need to be spot on about much of anything.
* * *
I was going to note a few specific concerns I have about Bell’s case, listing a few less-than adequate notions and a couple of Biblical texts he seems to miss. I can like where he’s going for a few pages, and then fine considerable disagreement with how he ends the section. But I think there has been plenty of that, tons of close readings, many critics and defenders. I don’t think I would say anything else of much worth, so I’ll summarize my lengthy essay by saying it quickly one more time.
â€¨â€¨ONE MORE SUPER SUMMARY
Bell rejects the weak-kneed, culturally-irrelevant, and sometimes toxic formulations of faith that seem to have been influenced in their understanding of the faith by a version of Christianity that has been enmeshed for centuries with a Western worldview that may have been influenced by the assumptions of Plato in the first century. Neo-Platonism, especially, separated God and life, by utilizing Plato’s assumptions about the badness of material things (“matter” he called it) and the ideals of spiritual things (what Plato called “forms.) The form/matter split evolved into the body/soul dichotomy, which was translated into the huge gulf between the so-called sacred and profane. Church and theology become more important than ordinary life and other topics, faith was reduced to the affirmation of intellectual propositions and most of the rest of life—science, politics, business, university education, art— was considered unrelated to the real concerns of the gospel. As the church argued amongst itself, the culture moved on, we ended up with a largely idolatrous society, reeling under the weight of Western modernity, secularized science, faith in technology and the gods of nationalism and empire. I didn’t say this, but there are both liberal and conservative political and cultural ideologies that have emerged from the thought world of the 1700s.
The best book on that, by the way, is by David Koyszis and is simply brilliant. It is called Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP; $24.00.) This is, as I have said, a study of political ideas, but it gets at how both the left and the right have their ideological roots in some of these same dilemmas construed by the Enlightenment because of the older influences of the Judua-Greek worldview. Yep, things really do go back to the Greeks, and this analysis could not only help us see the world that Bell is trying to step into in a new way, but help us somewhat understand the ways cultural progressives and traditionalists tend to see things like this. There are some exceptions (I’d like to think I am one) but by and large most critics of Bell and conservative and most supporters are liberal. This book helps in very profound ways get below the surface of some of that…
(Residual Christian values have indeed shaped much good in the West—think of religious freedom, literacy, notions of human rights, hospitals and orphanages and reforms that fought slavery and stood for women’s rights. No small things, to be sure!)
Still, a sacred-secular dualism, as described, for instance in The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (IVP; $16.00) one of my all-time favorite books, has left a legacy of the irrelevance of the church to much of public life, and our doctrines deeply disconnected to the ordinary lives of most ordinary people. People are confused because they don’t have a Christian worldview and can’t inhabit the world in a sane and sustainable and coherent way. Francis Schaeffer’s admittedly overly-simplified overview of Western civ, How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Crossway; $19.99) is well worth considering. I doubt if Bell would like it much, but, more than he may know, its tracing of the geneology of ideas from the pagan Greek dualism to the Renaissance Christian humanists to the secularized Rationalists of the Enlightenment to the rise (in reaction to them) the Romantics and the bohemian counter-culture—whose children so love the Noomas—it’s all there. Very interesting, and almost relevant, I’d say.
That overview has shaped some of Nancy Pearcy’s views, too, which is why I so, so commended her interesting, passionate take on the rise of modern art and pop culutre, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind Morals and Meaning (Broadman; $26.99.) You may recall that we named it one of the best books of 2010, suggesting that even if you disagree with some of her assessments of some particular modern art or films, say, her overall attention to the way dualism has shaped the rise of rationalism on one hand and romanticism on the other is brilliant.
Huh? So now I’ve gone and linked up the analysis of conservative art critic Nancy Pearcy to my effort to understand the secularizing deformation of our culture that animates Rob Bell, who wants to affirm the real, real goodness of creation (and culture.) I am sure Nancy would disagree with Rob’s heterodox view of hell. I wouldn’t know if Rob would agree with the thrust of the argument in Saving Leonardo. But I’m telling ya, here in Dallastown, tonight, I see a connection. She is one more powerful voice exposing the problem with a culture that has a twisted view of truth and a broken worldview which has born bad fruit in our congregations and mission. Bell gets that, and he realizes that an all encompassing vision of God’s reign on earth, th
e spirituality of everything, is the alternative script. All of life redeemed theology and the hope for new creation trumps dualism any day.
Yes, I think these things are connected. Even if Bell’s (admittedly large) detail about hell is still hugely contested.
Bell proclaims and invites us to live into a counter-narrative to that sort of Greco-Roman, dualistic faith, or the modernist versions of it Ms Pearcy grapples with, replacing it with one that I sometimes call, borrowing the phrase from Tom Sine “whole life discipleship.” That is, creation is being renewed in all ways because God’s Kingdom is bringing heaven to Earth. The Bible promises that Christ is reconciling all things to Himself and this means we are not destined to be ethereal souls evacuated to another place popularly called heaven. Our lives can become avenues for daily spirituality and God is glorified in our ordinary work, vocations, careers and callings. Which takes us to Bell’s insight about the Bible.
The great story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that God is rescuing his good but fallen creation and turning it into His Kingdom. The Bible says that those saved by Christ will live forever with God in a redeemed and glorified cosmos. I mentioned a forthcoming book and it will open our eyes and hearts to this in ways that will be incredibly good: Art That Tells a Story compiled, edited and designed by Chris Brewer (published by The Gospel That Tells a Story; $24.95. Due April 2011.) The brief text by Michael Witmer will explore this “counter narrative to dualism” by commenting on the wonderful array of contemporary paintings that illuminate “creation” “fall” “redemption” and “restoration.” I have seen most of the art for this and know of most of the painters (who are involved in reputable Christian art organizations such as CIVA or IAM.) The painters and Mr. Witmer and the designer Chris Brewer most likely do not know anything particular about Rob Bell, and he may not know about this coffee-table project yet, so don’t misunderstand. Bell has no connection to Brewer.
Although it is not released by a major publisher, this forthcoming book—combining artistic innovation and reliably solid Biblical commentary—may, in many ways, be more important than Love Wins. It certainly would at least get at Rob’s interest in how God is “making all things news” and Christ’s work is wide in scope and the way the Bible holds together as a narrative.
Rob Bell has taught us that we live in a time “between the trees” as he poetically describes it in the Nooma DVD called Trees. He shows us (by literally planting two trees, and then finishing the talk by standing between them) that we are in the time between the goodness of the first trees (the garden of Genesis 1-2) and the last ones (the trees in the urban garden of Revelation 21-22.) Faith is trusting God for the journey, realizing that our past and future impact how we live now, and believing that God’s great love will guide history towards its final disclosure.
This is fantastic stuff! Bell reminds those who have ears to hear that our lives do matter. And, as he said emphatically in the controversial MSNBC interview, what we think about Jesus matters.
Through no particular work or virtue of our own, God in God’s love is victorious over the dysfunctions and brokenness of the cursed creation (Romans 8) and this is the broadest way to understand the full scope of the impact of the Resurrection. Bell recommends N.T. Wright’s excellent book Surprised By Hope which in great detail explicates the implications for our views of heaven, and our mission today, if this notion is correct. We are not bound for heaven but we are bound for a new creation where all things are redeemed.
Within that counter-narrative—a new creation theology of all of life redeemed as Christ’s victory breaks into the sorrows of this world–we then can see that the old Platonic ways of asking the questions (do all souls go to heaven) is itself not particularly helpful. The questions of judgment and renewal are to be framed by a good God who wants to and intends to remake His whole world. Whether the huge facts of how God’s love gave human’s freedom, and whether that freedom allows for ultimate autonomy is a paradox within a mystery. Does God’s redemptive love “win”? Does God get what God wants? You can read the book for yourself, but Bell’s speculations about the compelling and effective nature of Divine love is not as troubling as some make it to be. I do not think he is fully correct, but it is position worth considering.
* * *
WE HOPE FOR GRACE & MERCY
The other day, when I was writing at my local coffee-shop—the time that attractive and composed woman offered support to a troubled dad, which was an epiphany to me that this debate is pretty arcane and uninteresting to most ordinary folks—I had another conversation. (Why do I go out of the bookstore to read when I know I’m going to bump in to as many interesting people there as I do here at the shop? Ha!) I was telling a customer what I was working on, a pastor of a conservative denomination and a strictly traditional theologian himself. I was a bit embarrassed to have him see me with Love Wins, since I assume he had followed the early days of the dust-up.
This fine pastor, with his orthodox and rigorous Reformed theology blurted out that he sure wishes Bell was right. He did not imply that he thought Bell had much of a Biblical case, but he says he knows many non-Christians, even family members. It is laudable and natural, even loving, to wish for their best. He is a passionate evangelist, too, so I am sure he is doing what he can to give mature testimony to “the hope that is within you.” But, at the end of the day, as a decent fellow who has good relationship with unchurched folk, he hopes for extended grace. We are all sinners who receive undeserved mercy. We trust in God’s goodness.
He was surprised when I complimented him; he said he figured everybody certainly would wish for the best for their loved ones. I replied that I had gotten more than one recent email, and read more than one blog post, where it seemed to me that the historic orthodox view had become grounds for seeming to delight in the lostness of sinners. For being glad that “we” have the truth and “they” don’t, glib (at best) about the fate of the damned. I don’t know if some of these critics of Bell have hard hearts towards others, but these few sure seemed to relish in the goodness of the idea of hell. They’re all about it, and (or so I seem to gather) they it isn’t just that they feel they must hold to this view because the Bible seems to teach it, but they are eager and happy to affirm it. I think that is odd.
And so, I commend to you again, the book Uncommon Decency by Richard Mouw (IVP; $16.00.) He believes in hell, and has a chapter about it, in fact. And he has some chapters about how to converse robustly but fairly on disagreements about theology, doctrine, sexuality and such. He a
dvises us to be civil and gracious in our congregations, church bodies and in the public square. And he invites us to a regimen of spiritual practices–Mouw likes the word piety—that create in use a civil spirit. We love because He first loved us, John tells us. Uncommon Decency is a fine set of guidelines for living that out, for learning to be people of great grace.
One chapter is especially important to me (and some of my fellow Kuyperians) and I have mentioned it often. Although Mouw is Dutch Calvinist who like’s Kuyper’s pushy vision of proclaiming the rule of Christ over “every square inch” of creation, he worries that those of us in public work, wanting to be ambassadors of transformation or agents of influence, forget to be humble. We need to serve others, and not just argue about our good ideas. That chapter is worth the price of the book. It is called “Abraham Kuyper, Meet Mother Theresa.” Pretty nice, eh?
Another book that has been rolling around in my heart and mind every since I started typing these long reports is one of the best books I have read in years. I named it so a year or more ago when it was released but I think we should all think about it again. It is called Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle (Eerdmans; $17.00) He writes both as a good educator and fine philosopher, but also as a deeply Godly man, balanced and kind and deep. He basically says that we need to do more than get our ideas right, our worldview lenses polished. God must do a work in our hearts. We have to want to be faithful, want to be civil, want the right stuff (in the right way, no less.) In other words, the work of the social change activist, or any serious Christian, must begin inside and our inner longings–our desires–indicate more of who we are than merely what we claim we believe. Amen and amen. This is a really, really wise book and I think all of us who tend to get fired up about ideas and enter debates of this sort need good guides to how to be the sort of people we should be. I like books on character development (The recent After You Believe comes to mind by N. T. Wright) but Naugle’s book is so much richer than most. Highly recommended.
THE OTHER BOOKS ROB BELL WANTS YOU TO READ
These are the ones that are listed in the back pages which he recommends for further study.
Bell is a very interesting guy, with diverse reading tastes, and is more ecumenically inclined than many evangelicals, or so it seems. He’s known to be very smart, and he is able to be pretty inventive since he serves at a non-denominational church which, I gather, has an ethos of being open-minded and wanting to explore serious questions of real discipleship. So he recommends some books.
Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement Mark Baker (Baker) $22.00 I described this a bit in yesterday’s post and noted that it is pretty important if this is the one book he chose to reflect on the nature of the cross, justification, atonement and such. He has a whole chapter on the topic in the book, and although I highlighted some unusual academic resources that show how some are re-thinking the nature of the work of Christ, those (that I showed) are not the ones he cites. This one is. It includes a diverse array of thinkers, short pieces, articles, essays, poems and readings. I agree with him that it is highly recommended.
He invites us to explore (as he puts it) “Christ over every square inch of creation” (a line he surely knows comes from Kuyper) by listing the remarkably interesting The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It by Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon (Eerdmans) $20.00 . Right on. We have any books of Capon that are still in print and regularly sell his renowned reflection on food and eating, Supper of the Lamb.
On hell, he suggests the classic novel by C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, (HarperOne; $13.99.) An interesting call, and safely provocative, for sure. You might know that this is something like an allegory, a fantastical novel about a bus-ride from hell to heaven. Those who have found themselves disinterested in the things of God seem well suited for hell, and, frankly, would be woefully unhappy in heaven. Bell seems to resonate and draw upon this general line of thought and it doesn’t surprise me that he commends it. I hope you know it.
On the two sons in the story Jesus tells (which takes up a chapter of Love Wins) he recommends PCA pastor Timothy Keller’s fabulous little book The Prodigal God (Dutton; it just came out in paperback; $14.00.) Excellent. The DVD of Keller lecturing on it is fabulous. This is one of the finest little books on the Bible I’ve read in years and I’m glad he borrows from it and we should be glad Bell is recommending it.
On “growth and change and all that” he says to see Fr. Richard Rohr, naming Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad; $17.95) and The Naked Now: Learning to See As The Mystics Did (Crossroad; $19.95) both are popular books of fairly generic spirituality. I said in my piece yesterday that I like the first better than the second as it don’t seem Christological enough–and is overpriced! Still, Rohr is quite prolific and usually pretty great. I am deeply drawn to contemplative resources but worry if they promote only a vague mysticism.
On “who and what God is” he recommends the interfaith scholar, Methodist theologian and true gentleman Huston Smith and his book The Soul of Christianity which is the oddest book on the list; it does do an interesting job doing some broad-brush strokes about modernity and the mess we’re in, and since I’ve made a big deal about Bell’s all-of-creation-restored, stuff as a counter to the history of dualism and the rise of secularized modernity, I suppose this fits. But it is a pretty standard liberal view of the Bible and faith; Publishers Weekly called his interpretations idiosyncratic. This choice is a puzzlement and not a great sign, in my book. What was he thinking? He recommended this for the nature of God. Go with Tozer, or Packer, I’d say.
On resurrection and new creation, as I’ve earlier said, he properly points us to the must-read N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne; $24.99.) Great. This is the most important book on the list, and in many ways one of the most important books on this entire topic. I’ve mentioned before the great DVDs that are available of Wright lecturing. Ex
cellent for adult ed classes or a small group study or book discussion group that doesn’t want to wade through the entire book.
And that is how the Rob Bell book, Love Wins: A Books about Heaven, Hell, and the Fare of Every Person Who Ever Lived, ends. Suggesting further study, more reading, thinking and living differently, in conversation with that wide stream he talks about. I think he’s made some fine recommendations, and it is clear that he wants you to take up your calling to grow in a variety of ways, not just by thinking about hell and judgement. The breadth of his suggestions is interesting and mostly pretty good.
The Last Word (and the Word After That): A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity Brian McLaren (Jossy Bass) This is the third in a series of novels where one of the leaders of the emergent conversation is hoping to illustrate his shifts in thinking about faith and Christian discipleship. This fast-paced, quick read is a story about some “new kind of Christians” that are researching and defending a more expansive view of God’s grace. You learn a lot in the setting of a novel.
â€¨â€¨Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgment Sharon L. Baker (Westminster/John Knox) $17.00. While it deserves a longer review, it might be helpful to know Baker, a pleasant professor at an evangelical college, spends most of the time in the book trying to understand and re-frame violent images of God, including vengeful images that are sometimes taught by those with a strictly penal substitutionary view of the atonement. It is upbeat and interesting, covers a lot of ground about wrath, encourages us to read the Bible through the lenses of Jesus and his Kingdom ethics, but really doesn’t study the texts about hell very much. She posits at the end a quick argument for a postmortem purifying fire, the possibility of a second chance and even, for some, they are extinguished in a limited annihilationism view. Whew.
Crucial Questions about Hell Ajith Fernando (Crossway) $9.99 With a forward by J. I. Packer, you can be assured this is classic, solid stuff. I do not think it struggles hard with hard-ball questions or the anguished concerns of those dissatisfied with the traditional view, but it is, nonetheless, the best, basic study of the traditional position, plainspoken and crisp. As Packer says, “When the badness of the bad news about Hell is unmuffled, the goodness of the good news about Christ and eternal life shines brighter. Very clear and Biblical. This is out of print and we only have a few left.
Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment edited by Christopher Morgan (Zondervan) $19.99 This may be one of the very best semi-scholarly collections by evangelical scholars making a strong case for the traditional view. There is a chapter by J.I. Packer against universalism, a piece by Sinclair Ferguson on how to preach about hell, Christopher Morgan critiques annihilationism, Douglas Moo, Greg Beale , Daniel Block and other esteemed academics offer valuable studies making this a must read for those seriously interested.
Hell: The Logic of Damnation Jerry Walls (University of Notre Dame Press) $24.95 Walls is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary and brings a philosopher’s expertise to this serious study. He maintains that some traditional views of hell are defensible and can be believed with intellectual and moral integrity. Some views, he demonstrates, are compatible with traditional notions of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but also with a strong account of God’s goodness. And, of course, he attends to questions of human freedom and the consequences of evil. This is careful philosophical theology, with reliable Biblical research.
An excerpt from his conclusion states, â€¨â€¨…the burden of proof clearly rests on those who take this option (universalism.) The fact remains that the doctrine of eternal hell has in its favor an impressive consensus which outweighs the universalist strand in theology. In view of this, the traditional doctrine of hell should not be abandoned unless the case against it is clear and compelling, both scripturally and philosophically.
Four Views on Hell edited by William Crockett & Stanley Gundry (Zondervan) $16.99 This is another in the popular “four views” point/counter-point series. There are four views (literal, metaphorical, purgatorial, and conditional.) Basically, two tend to favor more traditional views of hell, and two represent different alternative views. Each offer their chapter and then the other three respond. An excellent way into various views, options, explanations.
Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue Edward William Fudge & Robert A. Peterson *(IVP) $18.00 This is an argument about annihilationism, the view that says that the notion of an immortal soul is inherited from the Greeks and never taught in the Bible. Some who respond in faith to Christ’s saving initiative may join Him in everlasting life, but those who do not just die, without torment or consciousness. This is a very interesting discussion. Fudge has a bigger book on the subject, and Peterson has written widely on the traditional view. Fudge offers some very, very good ideas and Peterson refutes them one by one. You’ll have to read this to decide for yourself who makes the most reasonable and compelling case.
If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person James Mulholland & Philip Gulley (HarperOne) $14.99 This is a lovely essay, sweetly written and nicely thought-though with verve and hope. Of course, most would say it is not faithful to all of the Bible, but these Quakers are well worth knowing about. I think the more practical sequel, If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungraceful World is inspiring, and the next follow-up (If The Church Were Christian) is very provocative. Not hard to read, and many will not agree, but we can at least ponder their simple faith and affirm their urgent call to take Christ seriously.
Universal Salvation? The Current Debate edited by Robin Parry & Christopher Partridge (Eerdmans) This is the best scholarly overview with a variety of pro-and-con perspectives and numerous other angles and nuances. This includes several very well-argued essays in favor of a more universalist position written by a strong evangelical British philosopher, Thomas Talbott, with others offering critique and rebuttal. Serious, valuable, dense. A helpful forward by Gabriel Fackre.
The Evangelical Universalist MacDonald (Cascade) Gregory MacDonald What an interesting new case, made by someone with a pseudonym, apparently unwilling to allow his professional reputation to be attacked because of his floating this perspective. (Gregory, by the wa
y, is an allusion to Gregory of Nyssa and MacDonald refers to C.S. Lewis’ favorite write, the Scot George MacDonald. There is a lot of Bible in here, and he shows how a Christ-centered universalism is, in his view, at the heart of the Scriptures. This mystery man has also just edited a source reader examining Christian universalism in all sorts of historic figures called All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann. (Cascade; $40.00) It includes some very sharp scholars (for instance, Robert Sweetman, one of our finest medievalists, on Julian of Norwich) and Jesuit Edward Oakes on Hans Urs von Balthasar. Nik Ansell has a chapter does the chapter on Moltmann.