Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Love Wins?

It's official: the end of the world has begun, and Rob Bell has been revealed as the Anti-Christ. Or so say members of the Gospel Coalition (not in so many words), who have been very vocal about their opinions of Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, whether they had read it or not.

As the book is being released today, more reviews have been posted, and though there is a mix of opinion among the larger Christian Evangelical community, there is an overwhelmingly vitriolic and even mean-spirited response from the contingent led by Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, Mark Driscoll, et al.

Their response, in essence, questions Bell's theological stance in the book, which is intended to be a thought-provoking dialogue on how the generally accepted view of Hell fits in with the character of Christ, and accuses Bell of universalism and heresy. Christianity Today has some great theological resources, including a explication of perspectives on Hell including universalism and annihilationism, but I have found that it is interesting that most of the dialogue seems to have focused on theology and doctrine when this issue is more ideological than doctrinal.

I'm not sure how many of the talking heads involved would acknowledge this fact, but allow me to explain. Bell's theology is not necessarily questionable, but he is content to remain outside the boundaries of traditionally conservative evangelicalism. Throughout his time as a leader in the North American evangelical church (the past decade or so), Bell has continually asked questions that few are willing to ask in ways that few are willing to approach.

He has, on occasion, in my opinion, pushed some limits that I would question his intent in pushing, but for the most part, I find Bell to be an informed, clear, non-conformist thinker who presents interesting arguments in a fresh way. He is not a dogmatist, theologian, or doctrinal expert, and as far as I can tell, he has never presented himself as such; his heart seems to be more pastoral, and he is attempting to contribute to a conversation.

What Bell (again) seems to be coming up against is a school of thought that does not allow for that conversation to happen. To oversimplify it (as I think Brian McLaren occasionally does) by labeling it "modern vs. post-modern" is perhaps a tad rash, but there are certainly elements of that schism in this attack against Bell. I think a more appropriate ideological divide is the difference between knowledge and relationship. Bell's intent is to guide readers pastorally through an issue, not to deliver a theological treatise; the Gospel Coalition is not willing to engage in that pastoral relationship, but are treating Bell as if this is a theological text in isolation from relationship.

It seems that this divide speaks more to a different way of looking at faith than it does core doctrine or scriptural interpretation. Bell, it seems, would point to Jesus as the Word of God; the GC would point to the "word of God" as the Bible. The problem that I see is that the conversation cannot be resolved as long as the GC are approaching it from their perspective.

Take, for example, Kevin DeYoung's comprehensive review. I have not read the entire review, not having yet read the book, but I have read DeYoung's explanation of his opinion on the emerging church, Why We're Not Emergent. Written within what appears to be a reasonably composed introduction in which DeYoung works through some of the possible arguments and discussion points (including some to which I have alluded) is this allegation: "The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief."

Apparently, he has worked through it and is able to authoritatively state the true nature of the emergent church; putting aside the ridiculously callous nature of this statement, never mind that Bell has seldom identified himself as emergent, or even that what DeYoung perceives as emergent is nebulous and tenuous at best. DeYoung is emblematic of a movement to "reclaim the gospel", to return to the roots of scripture, and to eradicate false teaching; what the GC fails to account for is that there can be different theological interpretations that can be equally valid, and for their own ideological prejudices.

It saddens me that this has become a theological issue, but it has merely revealed the underlying ideological tension that pre-dated this mess. It might be too much to hope that there could be a resolution between Bell and the GC, but I think this has inspired me to work through continuing to be open with my community about how I work through my theological and ideological beliefs.

I am looking forward to reading the book (though I will likely wait for the paperback) and processing what Bell actually says. I am entirely prepared for either the possibility that I will find his thoughts compelling, or that I may disagree with him and find his conclusions suspect; either way, I am willing to engage in the dialogue with both "sides" and to work through it in my community. In that way, I think that love will win where debate fails.


  1. corky turner15.3.11

    "I'm pretty much at the point where it's Fire Bad." Buffy Summers.
    After reading your article, all I can say is, Fire Bad.
    I think I was lost after "Robin Bell..."

  2. Well put, Derek. Thanks for this articulation of the "controversy." Something in me just doesn't want to like Rob Bell. I don't know if it's because he seems so slick and hip all the time... or maybe it's just because he's a famous Christian, and I tend to be on my guard at first when it comes to famous Christians. But I watched Bell answer some questions in a live webcast yesterday, and I do like the pastoral and relationship-driven heart with which he courageously broaches the conversation. I, too, am waiting for the paperback.



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