Rob Bell is releasing a new book, Love Wins, raising the question of universalism. He’s been censured with astonishing speed by a string of American evangelicals, like these two at the Gospel Coalition. One guy has even written an embarrassing point-by-point refutation of — guess what — the book’s promotional video. How very thorough.
As for John Piper’s tweet, I can only describe it as an excommunication: ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’.
The ridiculous thing is that the book has not even shipped yet.
I’m sure there’s room for dialogue here, and it would of course be helpful to read the book. Yet I’m less concerned with Rob Bell’s faithfulness than with what this ruckus says about our culture as Western Christians. Why are these reactions to Bell so dismissive?
As Jon Coutts relates, Karl Barth was once asked to clear up some anxieties about his teaching. He initially refused to reply, and his explanation is pertinent.
These people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness.
The online dust cloud surrounding Rob Bell is not an exercise in truth-telling so much as an attempt to reassure ourselves, to batten down the hatches. It sounds like the chafing of a weak culture, a culture that ‘mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future’. It is another manifestation of Western Christianity’s struggle to describe itself outside the shelter of Christendom.
As we’ve noted before, Rob Bell is attempting to ‘speak Christian’ in appropriate ways, to make Jesus known to a new generation. Whether he is doing so effectively remains to be seen, but for me, this is somewhat beside the point. We are all ‘speaking Christian’, but some of us are doing a better job of it. Which is the better Christianity? And which will be seen to be the better Christianity?
We all need to be ‘speaking Christian’ in ways that are faithful, winsome, and timely. Whether he’s right or wrong, let’s see if we can outdo Rob Bell! Let’s not take our eyes off the ball. Let’s not walk in fear but in boldness.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.