Sunday, March 27, 2011

What is Rob Bell?

Rob Bell is a theological tease.

That’s my conclusion, having read his new book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived - a book much talked about in the (religious) press and among all my facebook friends for the past month.

The online press and blogs were lively in the weeks leading up to the book’s release. Bell was, by turns, bid farewell by one of his fellow evangelicals for espousing universalism, and welcomed by others as the new heretic on the block for the same reason.

In recent years I’ve been interested in reading those who suddenly discover universalist theology – people like Carlton Pearson (Gospel of Inclusion) and Philip Gulley (If Grace Is True) – who have come to the conclusion that Love/God does indeed win. Could another evangelical megachurch pastor have reached the conclusions Pearson had? Um, no, not so much.

Bell’s not really espousing universalism. However, he is raising good and important questions. Unfortunately those questions are the bulk of the book. If this were a meal, it would be all appetizers with no main course. Tasty, with some interesting combinations, but ultimately unsatisfying.

I confess that Love Wins irritated me, even before I began reading it. Note to publishers: plastic dustjackets are uncomfortable to hold. Then, the book read like a mash-up of a series of sermons. Anyone who has read G. Robert Jacks’ works on homiletics will recognize the “written for the ear, not the eye” style. The style is very much “Gosh, wow – look at how amazing God is!” Questions are raised, few possibilities are discussed, fewer answers offered, piecing together arguments is impossible. I was hoping for a more logically consistent and theologically deeper work. My first words about the book, dashed off to a philosopher-friend of mine, were less than kind.

Then a good friend, who is a very liberal Christian minister, pointed out that I was probably not Rob Bell’s audience for this book. She’s probably right.

The “me” of thirty years ago would have welcomed Love Wins, when I was indeed asking many of the questions raised within it.

Questions like:
- How can a loving God condemn anyone to hell?
- Why do the evangelical Christians I know think they know how grace works, and that Roman Catholics won’t be in Heaven?
- What if someone just never had an opportunity to hear about Jesus? and...
- Why only Jesus? What about devout Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, animists, etc.?

But, I’m thirty years older, and I’ve answered those questions for myself. A loving God (if there is one) wouldn’t condemn anyone to hell. Whatever happens after this life, happens to all of us. I am a Unitarian Universalist.

Bell flirts here with universalism. He does seem to say that good people, like Gandhi (and, presumably, Mother Teresa) are not in hell. But I get confused in his discussion of Hell – on the one hand he seems to be saying that we experience heaven and hell right here on earth, and that it often seems that those most concerned with the afterlife are the least concerned with the hells people are enduring in this life. He still seems to be saying, though, that there will be a hell for some of us ‘later.’

In a later chapter, he writes the following, which rang a bell in my mind.

“There is an energy in the world, a spark, an electricity that everything is plugged into. The Greeks called it zoe, the mystics call it “Spirit,” and Obi-Wan called it “the Force. … This energy, spark, and electricity that pulses through all of creation sustains it, fuels it, and keeps it going. Growing, evolving, reproducing, making more.” (p. 144-145)

Sounds like what one of my seminary professors called “The Juice,” and what I understand as the creative process undergirding and permeating the universe. Bell channels The Juice here at times, but I think he pulls back from opening up and letting it flow freely because he’s still tied to orthodox Christianity.

One sign of this pulling back is when he talks about exclusivity and inclusivity, and he tries hard to be all-inclusive – but fails when he falls back on Jesus being The Way. This Jesus renders all other religions meaningless, and thus ends up not being very inclusive in my opinion. In the end, Bell falls back on a formula questioned earlier in the book. Describing his own ‘acceptance of Jesus’ moment from his childhood, he urgently admonishes his readers to trust, repent (which he claims means ‘be transformed’), and be saved. The more things change…

Rob Bell has said he’s not a universalist. I agree. But, dare I hope this is still the beginning of a longer conversation?

UPDATE: A friend of mine posted this on her facebook wall.


DairyStateDad said...

It's interesting to me that Bell's not-quite-universalism is getting more attention than the collected recent works of Brian McLaren, who seems to be much more willing to go out on a longer limb from evangelical orthodoxy... Thanks for the review, EBS -- I think I'll stick with my plan to browse the book at the library or bookstore, and save my money for McLaren...or maybe Gulley...

Earthbound Spirit said...

DSD - If you were to recommend one book by McLaren, what would it be? I'd also recommend browsing Gulley from the library before buying. His big three all start with 'If:'
"If Grace is True"
"If God is Love"
"If the Church were Christian."

DairyStateDad said...

"The Secret Message of Jesus," is the first of his I've read. I've got "A New Kind of Christianity" on my list to read -- but there are so many unread books on my nightstand I haven't yet been willing to buy it. (OK, so there's the library...)

However, this chapter [PDF]

that he LEFT OUT of "Secret Message" is very interesting -- it looks at the famous John 14:6 quote ("No one comes to the Father except through me...")

Never having been a Fundamentalist or an Evangelical, I never had to engage John 14:6 from the perspective of "having" to believe it literally. Still, I take the Bible seriously, and, along with many Mainline Christians, have pondered how to respond to this particular verse. McLaren's response is quite provocative, especially for an Evangelical.