I recently got a copy of Rob Bell’s Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived (I’ve got Kindle on my computer). I’m just starting to read it and thought I’d make a few comments about how I’m approaching it.
I’ve blogged about Rob Bell before. I’m neither pro nor anti. I’m not interested in either defending or attacking him. In any case, I don’t see him as a threat, so there’s no need to knee-jerk. But I’m very much interested in the shape of our faith in the post-Christendom West, which is what Bell is exploring. I’m less interested in what Bell is saying than in what questions he is addressing. Even if Bell is useless in doctrinal terms, we can learn from him some of the things that we too should be addressing.
I’m reading Love Wins as a cross-cultural exercise. I’m an Australian blogger. Rob Bell comes from a quite specifically American context, and the resulting discussion may belong quite specifically to the contours of that American context. Some of this discussion may have little bearing on Christianity outside America. For example, an ‘evangelical Christian’ is not the same thing in Australia as in America.
I’m dedicated to being irenic. Being irenic means being generous, taking people and counterpoints at their best, and being doggedly unwilling to let go of the fruit of the Spirit for anything, ever. It means winning the person, finding some sort of common ground with those to whom we may be opposed, truly interacting with one another no matter where that may lead. We will learn more about Rob Bell by listening to him than by reading any number of reviews.
I don’t have to assume that Bell is attacking me. In the preface of Love Wins, Bell explains that he is writing for the ‘millions of us’ who are asking questions about life and are disaffected with religion. Why, for example, should Christianity be angry? This immediately makes a few things pretty clear. For example, he’s not really attacking the idea of hell, as some have thought, but attacking religion that claims religion is all about hell. Bell is not so much questioning Christianity as folk religion.
I see Rob Bell as a pastor. Bell is responding to the needs and questions he sees around him, rather than setting out to be doctrinally comprehensive or definitive. It’s not surprising to find the Love Wins preface mentioning the Bible’s complaint literature, in which people argue with each other and with God. There is of course a place for speaking precise doctrine but, as with Job’s friends, there are times when this is most unhelpful. A Love Wins review like that of Tim Challies, which refers to things like ‘consistency and logic’, may not be applying the most helpful criteria.
I don’t mind a bit of over-emphasis. Bell is interacting with a religious status quo. He is quite deliberately emphasising some things that he believes the established religious language has overlooked. For example, Bell speaks (one/two) of creation care not because he thinks it’s all-important, but because few other Christians seem to have been pursuing it. When reviewers of Love Wins reiterate God’s holiness, like Kevin DeYoung, they may actually be performing a kind of justification for the book.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.