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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Oh Great—Not Another Blog Post about Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

This is a post I didn't expect to write on a book I didn't intend to read.  But sometimes, when enough people tell me or ask me about a book that I don't want to read, I feel pastorally obligated to buckle down and read it—see also The Da Vinci Code and The Shack.  (For the record, Love Wins is much better than The Shack.  It's also more nutritious than The Da Vinci Code but much less exciting.)

I'm not going to write a review of Love Wins.  Such a review would include a list of what I thought was good about the book, which is a fair amount.  In fact, a person could get saved reading Love Wins.  (I know a guy who got saved reading Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth, and Love Wins is better than that too.)  It would also include a point-by-point refutation of what I thought was wrong with it as well as a list of dangling questions I have about Bell's thought that arise from avenues he starts down but doesn't fully explore, Scripture texts he leaves unconsidered, and his own self-contradictions.  But I'm not going to write that review for three reasons:
  • Why should I add to the bloated amount already written on the topic (and thereby, perversely, sell more copies of his book)?
  • Why should I contest Bell on ground Bell has chosen?  (I'll contest him on my own ground at another time.)
  • Why should I write a review that you don't want to read?
Because if you're like me, you don't really want to know what Rob Bell says in his book.  If you did, you'd read the book.  What you want to know is how what Bell says differs from what you say.  Unfortunately, since I don't know you, I can't answer that.  But I can tell you how what Bell says differs from what I say.  Contrary to what I believe, Rob Bell contends that:
  • There is a judgment that entails punishment for some, but it isn't permanent (or, to be precise, it may not be permanent, which is a "better story" than otherwise), and therefore all will ultimately be reconciled to God.
  • Repentance is necessary for salvation, but the opportunities to repent don't cease at death or judgment.
  • Christ alone saves but not necessarily through faith in his name.
There's more that Bell says and more that I might say, but these are the differences that are fairly straightforward (or at least as straightforward as he gets).

These assertions by Bell make some people angry, including some who are preacher-types like Rob Bell and I are.  But after reading the book, I don't think that preacher-types who disagree with Bell get in a tizzy just because of Bell's content but because of a technique he employs in presenting it.

I am the kind of preacher who very often says things like this when I preach: "Now when this says [English translation of Bible verse], the original text comes across with a meaning more like [the meaning it's more like]."  I do this all the time.  Many other pastors do too.  When we say this kind of thing, here's what we're really saying: "Unlike you, I've studied [Hebrew/Greek] for many years.  I've studied this passage in that language.  I think the translation of this passage that you're used to is at worst misleading and at best inadequate.  So I'm going to tell you what you would see in this passage if you knew as much as I do.  Now, it's almost impossible for you to independently verify that what I'm saying is true.  I know this, but I'm asking you to trust me that I know what I'm talking about and that I'm not lying to you and that you'll benefit more from listening to me talk about this verse than from reading it out of the translation you have by the team of scholars that translated it."

When pastors like me say this, we actually think that people do in fact set aside the words in front of them in black and white (to a point) and trust what we're saying just because we want them to.  And not only that, but we believe that when we say, "The original Hebrew says . . . ," or, "It says in the Greek . . . ," that that's like playing the ace of trump—people just immediately bow down before the unassailable authority of what we're saying.  Chances are, people aren't nearly as impressed as we think they are (or as we are with what we're saying, or, at our best, as we are with God's Unvarnished Word itself).  But I think that to some limited extent people do believe us and do yield to what we teach when we play the Original Language Card.

What infuriates some preacher-types, I believe, is that Rob Bell plays the Original Language Card too.  He plays it often and he plays it well.  Some of the time he is right on; he says things we would say.  Other times he acts smarter than he is and he mangles the original text in ways that take doctrine in directions that perplex us.  This causes preachers' blood pressure to rise for two reasons.  (1) He stole our weapon and he's using it against us.  It's like patent infringement.  It's not fair.  (Obviously this is a petty, stupid, childish reason to get upset, but I think it's lurking in some preacher-types.)  (2) If Rob Bell plays the Original Language Card and I play it back to refute him, which of us will people believe?  I'm used to playing that card to trump other people's inaccuracies if I have to, but I can't trump trump.  If people really blindly follow anyone who plays the Original Language Card (as we assume they do), then Rob Bell will lead a whole lot of people in a bad direction.  But if they don't follow him, then maybe they don't really follow me when I play the Original Language Card either, and that's disconcerting in its own way.

One more thing about Rob Bell and Love Wins.  At one point in the book he gives a short list of giants of Christian history who supposedly agree that punishment isn't permanent and all individuals will eventually be reconciled to God, which Bell thinks is the best interpretation of Scripture.  It would have been nice of him to cite his sources.  But whether or not they actually agree with him, a question remains.

There is a line that separates two kinds of errors of faith and practice.  On the one side are errors that a person can hold and yet adhere to the faith.  For example, Paul thought that people who refused to eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol because (as they thought) the meat had been tainted were wrong, but he didn't doubt their loyalty to the gospel so long as they didn't force that belief on the rest of the church.  On the other side of the line are errors that a person can't hold and believe the message of Jesus; to maintain such an error is effectively to be part of a different religion altogether.  For example, John insisted that people who denied that Jesus was the Christ, which John defined as being the preexistent Son of God come in human flesh, were alienated from the faith.  In fact, he calls them "antichrists."

So there is definitely a line that divides errors that disconnect from errors that don't, but it's a fine line, and sometimes it can be quite difficult to know which side of it a given faulty assertion is on.  Rob Bell asserts that even if people don't agree with him, they have to admit that he's on the Christian side of that line (though he recoils from talking about "lines"—one way he says it is, "[T]he historic, orthodox Christian faith [is] a deep, wide, diverse stream that's been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences," including his own [pp. x-xi]).

This is the only lingering question I have from reading his book that's really important.  Whether or not Bell is right in what he asserts, does he have the right to assert it and still be considered Christian?  If he's wrong, how wrong is he?

It may take generations of wrangling over Bell's assertions themselves (which, as he openly admits, aren't original to him) to come to a conclusion—matters this weighty aren't decided at the speed of tweets.  (Yes, I'm calling out @JohnPiper, though no doubt he is part of the Church's struggle to an answer.)  But it's a serious and urgent question that everyone who disagrees with Rob Bell should be thinking about.  As the years go on, more and more people will enter our churches who take Bell's position.  We need to start figuring out if we can have the same Church in common, if all of us can legitimately share the name "Christian."

1 comment:

  1. You wrote: "This is a post I didn't expect to write on a book I didn't intend to read. But sometimes, when enough people tell me or ask me about a book that I don't want to read, I feel pastorally obligated to buckle down and read it..."

    This is an amazing statement. Thanks for your honesty. Have you thought about why you had such strong feelings about not wanting to read the book? Is it because of some deep down bigotry against the author or the topic? Give that some careful thought.

    Also, since, against your better judgement, you finally did feel "pastorally obligated to buckle down" and read the book, do you feel that your inability to anticipate the questions and concerns of your "flock" makes you totally unfit to be a pastor?

    I think it does!

    Please get into another line of work.