24 March 2011

book review: love wins

Rob Bell, Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011).

Let me say that I thought the hype surrounding the release of this book was ridiculously disappointing and was a significant factor in my near-decision not to read the book. That is to say, I only come to this discussion out of obligation (and because of a copy that voluntarily landed on my desk). I don't have a wide readership, but I evidently will sleep better tonight knowing my two cents are posted.

In what has been a stunning display of evangelical slam-culture, Rob Bell has been (once again) maligned as some sort of heretic for what he proposes as truth in his latest book, Love Wins. What is particularly fascinating about this judgment is that it has been given a priori - which is to say that people decried Bell's position before they ever knew what his position was going to be. Sadly, those who are supposed to be more concerned with truth than anyone else were actually quick to judge without knowing truth. And that might be the biggest lesson from this whole episode: Love Wins (Except in Modern Theological Debates).

As to the book itself:

First, I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff Cook's comments (posted at Jesus Creed) that one would be hard-pressed to find any more controversial idea stated in Bell's book that in the writings of C. S. Lewis. However, I will say that one issue that I have with Love Wins is that Bell is content to leave some avenues of thought open to interpretation. While this might sound like the theological high road, it will make life difficult for those who are looking for more definitive answers to his direction of thought. I suppose the solution to this is for Bell to state his position and make a more concerted effort to guide the discussion to an absolute rather than playing the postmodern fog of eternal questions.

Second, in spite of my stated concern, I will say that Rob Bell has much to say that is definitive and straightforward. This is especially true for human freedom and the divine will. For instance, he makes the strong statement: "God gives us what we want, and if that's hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free. We can use machetes if we want to" (72).

Such a statement is also in the context of Bell's conviction that heaven and hell are not simply realities that are to come in a future and disconnected 'eternity,' but that they are descriptors of what life is like in the present. This strongly echoes the Jewish-Christian belief in exile and restoration, where the majority biblical expectation was for God to bring his kingdom of justice and righteousness into the present experience of the world.

Third, Rob Bell takes much from parables and apocalyptic/poetic imagery that sometimes calls into question whether or not he uses proper methods of hermeneutic, but overall I think he does capture the tenor of most passages. At first it appears that he is going to read too much into 'The Rich Man and Lazarus' but then unveils a profound point: that even in the stark realities of the afterlife the rich man still expects to be served by the poor man, which is why he is dead but still hasn't died (77).

Also in this area is his discussion of the Prodigal Son, to which Bell highlights the singular party, which is heaven for the younger son and hell for the older son . . . the same experience offered by the father. This is straight interpretation inspired by the singular experience of the Holy Spirit as both judgment and blessing as found elsewhere in the New Testament.

Fourth, Rob Bell arrives at what I consider one of the most significant and revealing theological questions in front of us, Does God get everything that he wants? How one answers this is significant. 1. Scripture says that God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim 2); 2. Not everyone will be saved. Therein lies theological synthesis and inquiry. Although, it appears that while God wants all people to be saved, most of his followers do not share his sentiment.

So the love of God seems to go further than human emotion. This is not surprising, but it is revealing. In the end, one of Bell's main points says it well: We do not need to be rescued from God . . . God is the one who rescues us from ourselves (cf. 182).

Notice that this review did not get bogged down with the discussions of hell and universalism that so many people have accused the book of containing. That's simply because the book isn't preoccupied with those things. Regarding both heaven and hell, Rob Bell makes a powerful point - the Bible doesn't say as much about them as we believe to be concrete truths. This reveals the evangelical tendency to narrow our thought based on the assurances of the unknown.

In the end, this is Rob Bell's best writing to date. There is a lot to investigate here, and nobody should expect to enter into the discussion without minor disagreements along the way. That might be true here. However, in the end Love Wins does not contain or assert any idea that falls into unorthodox categories. Much of the book reflects thoughts presented in N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. Other parts contain pieces which are reminiscent of John Sanders' presentation of Inclusivism as found in What about Those Who Have Never Heard? - which is an investigation into the destiny of the unevangelized.

What is, sadly, overlooked in the entire hype is Bell's personal testimony to the power of God's love and salvation which is included in the final chapter. It is quite powerful.

What We Should Learn:
1. Rob Bell doesn't conclusively know the realities of heaven and hell.
2. Neither do we.
3. God's love never stops pursuing us, nor does it cease to amaze us.
4. Everything else matters, perhaps more than our knowledge of heaven and hell.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Great insights, Mike. I've encountered a few people that say what Bell is proposing isn't "in the Bible". When I push them on this, what they are really saying is that Bell's work doesn't gibe with what they have been taught since childhood. Now, they are having to uncomfortably revisit whether or not what they were told as a kid really is what the prophets and Jesus said. Isn't that great? People having to develop faith by thinking for themselves. Imagine!