Let me begin by saying that I have learned a great deal from Rob Bell over the years. His speaking and writing have stirred me to deeper places of discipleship, especially his emphasis on the Jewish culture and the Rabbinical traditions of Hebraic history. I get very defensive of someone like Rob Bell when people rabidly malign him and question him at the level of personal character making “low blows” that seem more personal than biblical in substance.
Though your belief and your behavior are intertwined, I find it appalling to read the reactive commentary of so many “so-called” Christians that seem to error toward personal attacks instead of theological higher criticism. I think Rob Bell is a good man. I don’t think his heart is malicious and cunning and deceptive at the core. I don’t know Rob personally, but I don’t sense that he’s “Judas Iscariot”, “The Snake in the Garden” or a “false brother”.
I guess I struggle with the vitriolic verbiage of the vocal minority as the respectable representation of Evangelical Christianity. I always have. I don’t feel good about aligning myself with the right or left wings of religion or politics, and as such, letting their voices characterize my conclusions. It seems so many feel forced to argue towards over-statements in order to make a point that draws it back to the middle. Blogs tend to over-generalize or over-polarize in order to capture what is perceived as a drifting population or market-share. This causes me to shy away from these deifying and demonizing extremes. I know it sounds like I’m straddling the fence, which can be quite painful if you happen to be a male, but I’m not. I’m simply trying to disassociate myself with certain sects of Christianity that throw the “baby out with the bathwater” in order to make their point. I’m not amused.
With that being said, I want to move onto some of my thoughts, which are anything but scholarly and exhaustive. Here are some of my personal observations.
I have read the book and am in the middle of reading it a second time. The first time I read it I decided to approach it as a learner instead of a critic simply letting it speak for itself instead of posturing myself with a presupposition and then looking for ammo to counter-attack the content. I’m glad that I did. It allowed me to enjoy the artistic side of the writing and to see the baby playing in the bathwater. And I mean it when I say that I learned some valuable things that I didn’t know before that have always been wonderments of mine along the way as I’ve read the Bible.
I learned a lot of stuff in the chapter on the Prodigal Son and the interactions of the older and younger brother. I know that he received a good bit of that material from Timothy Keller, but it was fresh stuff for me to chew on. I don’t agree with every conclusion, but I do see the merit in a great deal of what he shared.
I was deeply moved by the first chapter that talked about the variety of descriptions used to explain the ways that people came to forgiveness, salvation, and faith. These have been problem passages to me that I’ve noticed along the way and found myself nursing questions about, but never knew how to talk through. I found myself enjoying his questions, but pining for something more that just exploration. It’s like someone taking you on an expedition and then not planning on what to do when you get to where you’re going. I’ve been on that kind of trip before and it tries my patience. “You mean you didn’t have a plan beyond the joy of the journey?” This is what I hate about this “it’s-not-about-the-destination-it’s-about-the-journey” crap. It sounds so delightful until you run out of gas because you weren’t actually headed anywhere, you were just enjoying the scenery on the way to nowhere.
I also was moved by the Matt. 7 juxtaposition with Matt. 25 where in the one passage the people who did things “in Jesus name” weren’t known by God and the one’s who did things for the “least of these” where informed that they were doing it “to Jesus” without actually knowing they were. This is worthy of our thoughtful consideration. We tend toward little formulaic paradigms and I think God clearly wrote the Bible to avoid an overly “dangerous clarity” that leads to “self-righteous certitude”. This is why Jesus seems to be the most frustrated and angry with people that “think they know or see and hear” when in fact they don’t, and is most gracious to the ones who don’t think they “deserve or know and see” who do, much to their surprise. I want to honor God’s intentional writing style of suspense and contradiction in order to keep people from the “pride” that comes with “certainty”.
There are other things that I appreciated about the book along the way, but for the sake of this article, let me highlight some of my concerns:
“Questioning Answers without Answering Questions” – This tends to be the popular motif of the Neo-Evangelical mind. I understand its origins and find myself gravitating to this mindset based on my frustration with the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” fundamentalism of my past. But there are some subjects that I feel need explanation and conclusions. If Rob Bell felt compelled to write about some of the most deep and dear doctrines of Orthodoxy, I would hope that he would approach it with a bit more theological and historical research that allowed him to bring the topics he uncovered to a grounded place of truth. He must know that tons of people from all walks of life and all different places in their walks are counting on him to take them somewhere. I feel like he took people toward love, but didn’t care about taking people toward truth.
“Raising Doubt without providing Doctrine” – There is a great deal of good that can come from raising “reasonable” doubt in the “sacred cows” of ungrounded logic and theo-logic. But it must be “reasonable” doubt. If you’re going to raise doubt by asking a ton of “leading questions”, then as a teacher it is important to underpin those doubts and suspicions with counter-arguments stemming from reason. I think it emerges from a mindset that says good teaching is question-based, not answer-based. And though there is a time for questions in teaching and parenting and leading, there is also a time for clear and decisive answers. I don’t put my girls to bed asking the question: “I wonder if a robber will break into the house and take you while you’re sleeping?” while kissing them goodnight. It may not be an unfair question or an untrue question, it’s just important that if I’m going to bring up that question, I am taking into consideration their age, the timing of the question and ultimately whether I have an answer to how I’m going to go about preventing that from happening with logical steps as the protector of my house. I don’t stand in front of church and start the service by saying, “I sometimes wonder how many child molesters of attending our church, don’t you?” and then move on to taking up the collection without offering any context or conclusion to the leading question. This isn’t a perfect example of what Rob did throughout this book, but if he decided to crack open doctrine of this depth and breadth, I think he owed it to his readers to offer “reasonable thoughts”, not just “reasonable doubts”. This is not good teaching methodology.
“Gospels and Epistles” – I’ve noticed that pastors and authors that pitch this sort of “gospel of love and grace and compassion and justice” tend to use the gospels as their theological basis. I love the gospels. I think in my background they were neglected in comparison to the epistles. So I appreciate using Jesus’ life to show us what it isn’t Christ-like about our Christianity. But the epistles where included in the canon for a reason. Paul was called as an apostle “out of due time”/ “as one abnormally born” (I Cor. 15) for a reason. I think the epistles fill out the narrative of the gospels and mustn’t be divorced from them in our effort to take Jesus’ life and use it exclusively to create our theology. Theology must be synchronized with the whole of Scripture, not just the epistles (dry data) or just the gospels (lively drama) leading to our theology (incomplete dogma). I’ve witnessed both sides leading to an incomplete gospel.
“Incomplete is Incorrect” – One criticism you won’t be able to make about Rob’s book is that he didn’t have any Scriptural backing for his thoughts. It was chuck-full of verses supporting his arguments for or against cultural and biblical notions and interpretations. The issue I have isn’t that what he was saying was incorrect through and through, but rather incomplete. When you use John 3:17 to affirm your argument of ultimate and universal salvation where it says that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”, and then fail to mention the context in the next verse that states, “whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son”, you do an injustice to the text. This is a prime example of something being incomplete, not so much incorrect in and of itself. He didn’t change the text; he just didn’t include the context. It’s like your child telling you their version of a story and conveniently leaving out the pieces of content in the context that doesn’t align with their side of the argument. You can’t treat the Scriptures like this or you can make it say whatever you want it to. The reason I know this is because I’ve done it before as a pastor to my shame. It is an egregious approach to interpreting Scripture. To me, then, when Scripture is shared incompletely it is often shared incorrectly. A partial story is an errant story. This is not just a Rob Bell problem; this is a pervasive problem in Christianity today. You can “chapter and verse” your way toward any desired conclusion. The Prayer of Jabez is a great example.
“God is love, so love must be God” – I think it’s important to recognize that God is love. But I don’t think it’s wise to elevate this virtue of God’s character to the diminishment of attributes like Justice, Wrath, Holiness, Sovereignty, etc. It’s like taking the metaphor of “spiritual warfare” and making Christianity about battle and attack and fighting and forgetting that it is only one of many illustrations used to communicate the fullness of how God relates to humans. He is a father, potter, shepherd, lover, brother, warrior, creator, etc. The only thing more important than each of these is all of these. The same is true for his attributes. Love isn’t the only description of God character in the Bible, nor can love be defined only as compassion, mercy, forgiveness and affection. Love is also jealousy, anger, and discipline. Love leads us toward all sorts of emotions, not just a “warm embrace”. Love isn’t God, God is love; and when you use the lens of love alone as the hermeneutic to answer the doctrines of Hell, Heaven and the fate every person on the planet, I think you’re going to come to some incomplete conclusions at best, some fatal errors at worst. He very clearly was beginning his argument from the position of “I want to find a better alternate story than the one Christianity is telling” and began to look through the Scriptures to find what he believed that “better story” was. In this sense, he accomplished his mission. The only problem is all the stuff he had to cleverly avoid in the text along the way to arrive at his desired outcome.
“Leaps of Logic” – I think as I read the book again, I’m finding that Rob isn’t so much a theologian as he is an artist. His book is written with an artistry that is undeniable. Sometimes it felt like he wasn’t even trying to achieve an accurate “treatment of truth”, he was just weaving an aesthetically pleasing conversation in a writing style that was attractive and aesthetically gripping. As I reevaluate his thoughts, it was definitely style over substance if you are reading with the lens of higher criticism. He made mention of the verse that says God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” He then makes the argument that “God always gets what he wants.” It think this is a clever deduction, but throughout the Bible God’s will isn’t always followed and he allows people to make decisions that don’t ultimately comply with “what He wants”. It is clever in that it makes you feel like you’re saying God is not all-powerful if he, in fact, doesn’t get what he wants. So in this pressure-pinch it’s easy to then take this verse and twist it to say, “God wants everyone and so God will get everyone”. His desires will prevail. Why, he’s God. He can do what He wants. But just because God can “do what he wants” doesn’t mean He will always “get what He wants”. That is where our Free will meets the conflicting current of God’s will. And though it isn’t God’s will that someone murders someone else, he allows that to happen, thus letting us chose to do something He doesn’t ultimately want. These sorts of logical leaps fill the pages of this book. But I don’t think logic was Rob’s ultimate reason for writing the book. He very clearly was leaning into artistry more than theology in several sections of this book. This makes sense, because he’s an artist first, a pastor second and scholar somewhere down the line after that. Scholarship wasn’t nearly as important as Craftsmanship. This is quite all right if you’re building furniture, but not if you’re constructing theology.
“I’m not a scholar; I’m a pastor” – In several his interviews, I heard Rob make this disclaimer at the end of uncomfortable debates. On the one hand, it relieves some pressure from him and some pressure from the listener. “Oh, he is humbly admitting that he isn’t a credible voice in the dialogue of doctrine, I guess I can relax my judgment.” It sounds like he’s raising the white flag of surrender admitting defeat, but he’s not. When I first heard him say this and then heard him say it again, I thought to myself, “Then why did he tackle this sort of subject matter if he knew this to begin with?” It’s like sitting under a surgeon’s knife and him saying, “I’m not really a surgeon, I was just going to give this a shot for the fun of it and the love of people.” I don’t care if you love people! If you’re not a surgeon, don’t write on the subject of surgery or perform one. And if you’re not a theologian, don’t write on the subject of theology or perform any antics that pose as authoritative dialogue. He calls it a conversation almost glibly, but this is more than a conversation, it is a talk about matters of life and death for people. Another flaw in this argument is the idea that just because you’re a “pastor who is concerned for people” it somehow means that you don’t have to be a scholar or theologian. I think he is unknowingly sharing something that deeply concerns me with the modern notion of pastoring. It isn’t seen as important to be biblical as much as conversational. In this sense, a pastor isn’t to be help accountable for biblical scholarship and interpretation, he is simply to be appreciated as a lover of humanity sticking up for their cultural interests and felt needs. That’s a poser, not a pastor. A pastor must be a truth-seeker and a truth-speaker. A pastor must be “workman who doesn’t need to be ashamed, rightfully dividing the word of truth”. He must labor over interpretation, admitting wrong conclusions when he’s shown to be out of line. Anyone who steps in front of people as an oracle of God must care deeply about research, history, and fact checking. Being a pastor doesn’t abdicate this responsibility, it never has and it shouldn’t start to now. If anything, being a pastor and caring about people should make us fearfully responsible in our tasks on behalf of truth.
More could be said, but in general I feel saddened that so many are flocking to Rob for truth and they’re instead getting a mix of art and wonderments. He is far too intelligent to be writing such material. If he wasn’t intending for this body of work to be a thorough treatment of the text and context of scripture and history, he shouldn’t have taken people on this expedition in the first place. I felt like he forgot to go to the drawing board before running with many of his ideas.
It is quite possible that many of his arguments have sufficient data to back them up; I just failed to see them in this document. I hope people will read “Love Wins” for what it is, the questions of a man looking for a better story. Because that is, for the most par, all it is.
(It must be said that I have looked back upon my own life with sadness at my interpretation of Scripture along the way wishing I could go back and change my positions. I must afford Rob and anyone else the same forgiveness I hope people will grant me as I limp along in my representation of the gospel. I write all of these observations with a heart of humility. I know what it is like to speak as a mouthpiece of God and receive criticism from “stone-throwers”. I hope my thoughts don’t seem like the harsh rantings of a ‘know-it-all’ for that is not my motive even if it seemed like my mode. Like Bell, I am a pastor who is concerned for people, and I feel like his thoughts may actually create more harm than help for humanity. I can only hope I am wrong.)