Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My non-review of Rob Bell’s Book

I have decided not to review Rob Bell’s latest Love Wins, A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Which means that this should be a short post. But it is not. My reason for not reviewing it might not be what you expect. It is not because I think Bell is a heretic or a false prophet or anything like that. Actually there are two reasons. One, it is because this is likely one of the most reviewed religious releases since The Shack. (I know that I will get an angry email for calling The Shack a religious release or lumping it in with Rob Bell or even mentioning it. So, go ahead. Just be gentle, I am prone to cry while under attack.) Second, there are some people who are angry about Bell's book. So angry that they are attacking, not just Bell, but any reviewer that has anything nice to say about him or his book. (Again, I tend to cry when under attack.)

If you want an in-depth analysis of Bell’s theology, how it stands alongside or against orthodox Christian doctrine, help yourself, you will find plenty. If you need a place to start head over to the website Jesus Creed: http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/03/19/rob-bell-reviews. They look at some reviews from every angle.

So, instead of a review, I just have a few thoughts. There has been a lot of controversy about this book. But let me say, if you are a United Methodist, you have nothing to be afraid of reading this book. Some of my UM colleagues could disagree with me, but I would think you would be hard pressed to prove that Bell falls outside the flaps of the tent that we call United Methodist doctrine. (Pretty good for an author who is not a United Methodist.) This is to say that you don’t have to agree with everything he writes but it would probably be a stretch to label him a heretic. If you did, you would likely want to add some more reading to your list and offer the same tag to some United Methodist pastors, authors and theologians. Besides this, Bell is not asking anyone to agree with every point he makes. He is doing what he does well, starting conversations, opening up dialogue, especially with people who feel that Christianity has nothing left to say. He has been doing this for a while, so this is nothing new. With this said, if you don't agree with what he writes, you are also in good company. There are a number of United Methodists who will disagree with the theology represented in the book. That is fine. It is not the point of this post to engage Bell's theology. It is to say that it is okay to debate theology. We don't have to label one a heretic or label a book dangerous because we disagree with it. We can use it to continue a theological discussion that has been going on for 2000 years.

Okay, something that I didn’t find in many of the reviews that I read. The author does a great job of talking about atonement. A little review: atonement (or at-one-ment) – that thing that happens in the death of Jesus on the cross the restores us into right relationship with God. Okay, that is what it is, but how does it work? I think Rob Bell does a decent job of getting the idea across that any theory of how the atonement works is just that: a theory. They are all just ways of trying to explain the unexplainable, ways of using what we do understand to try to explain what is beyond our understanding. He writes,

For these first Christians, something massive and universe-changing had happened through the cross, and they set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audiences in language their audiences would understand. And so they looked at the world around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and readers would have already been familiar with, and then they essentially said:

What happened on the cross is like . . . a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved.

This is the same sort of thing I share in a lot of my classes (though Bell does it better) - that most Christians have one viewpoint for looking at the atonement. That is fine if that view helps them begin to understand what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The problem arises when they try to share that view with someone for whom it isn't helpful. It is good to be able to look at the unexplainable from a number of different viewpoints, to be able to help others begin to see what God has done and is doing.

One other thing. There have been a number of comments in the twitterverse and blogosphere accusing Bell of being controversial just to sell books. I cannot know Bell's heart but there is another possibility. Rob Bell and I share the view that a lot of people that God loves have been left behind by the church. Especially here in America, it isn't that people have not heard the Gospel proclaimed. It is that they have heard it or think they have heard it and said "no thanks." Bell has a relentless desire to share the Gospel message in a way that people can hear. This is not to be confused with changing the Gospel message to make it more palatable. This is explaining the unchanging universal truths in ways that speak the ever changing culture. Sometimes when people think they already know what you are going to say, you have to shout a little louder.


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