Friday, March 18, 2011

Love Wins. Justice Wins. God Wins. - A Review

One of the few positive things I have to say about Love Wins by Rob Bell is that it lives up to the hype. Bell's view-- especially on hell, God and the cross--really should be considered quite controversial in Christian circles. Considering that most of the hype started prior to the release of the book there was a decent chance that Bell wasn't saying anything too controversial, and instead he and his publishing company were just creating hype for the book's release. I thought that to be a distinct possibility, anyways. But it turns out he really is making some highly controversial claims, so in this sense the book does live up to the hype.

There are at least two ways one can go about writing a compelling, controversial Christian book. The first way would be to challenge some widely held traditional understandings on these matters by careful, thoughtful, exegesis of scripture, along with persuasive argumentation that the traditional view is in some sense incomplete, or perhaps even wrong. Then there's Rob Bell's way. Which mainly consists of posing challenges to traditional understandings of Scripture in a highly impressionistic, exegetically inept, and sometimes logically incoherent manner, while caricaturing and misrepresenting the traditional understanding of scripture.

While these are the central problems with the book--it's low view of scripture and tradition, its speculation in place of exegesis, its logical weaknesses--I think many others have covered these in greater detail than I could ever hope to, so I will continue the review by focusing on aspects that are also problematic but which I don't think have been covered as thoroughly--though I will briefly touch on the main problems as well.

In addition to the problems mentioned above, Bell's motivation also seems to be a problem. His motivation in writing often seems to be to make excuses for the sinful rejection of God.

[That Jesus is divine, eternal and created all things] is an astouding claim, and one that causes many to get off the bus at the nearest stop. Too out there, too mythic, premodern or superstitious to be taken seriously in our modern world. Haven't we evolved past such nonsense. God became man?

It's a common protest and it's understandable.

However unpalatable it is for modern sensibilities, it is true. We shouldn't, we aren't even allowed to, make concessions or accommodations on this point. It's an 'understandable' protest? Not really. It's foolish and evidence of a hardened heart or hardened mind that needs to be lovingly disabused of its false conception of what constitutes truth.

I've written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn and their heart to utter those resolute words "I would never be a part of that."

Let's for a moment put aside the fact that people's own sinful nature can cause them to react this way to the true Gospel, not a false Gospel. His argument seems to be that because people have different conceptions of God, because people bring baggage to the idea of God, because people sometimes have a 'false God' preached about in church, that therefore we can't be held accountable for our rejection of 'God'. Bell treats all of these as legitimate excuses--not to reject the false gods and false Christs-- but to reject Christ himself. Some baggage is apparently insurmountable in this life, and so these people are politely exempted from responsibility or accountability for their actions and beliefs. Seems reasonable and Biblical enough, right?

There are such things as false gods and false prophets. The Bible says that there are and it seems Bell acknowledges as much when it comes to Christians who preach false doctrines, or Christians who paint a false image of God by not behaving in a Christ-like matter. It seems that wayward Christians definitely have the potential to portray God in a false way, or to be false prophets. True enough, Bell definitely has that right. To hear Bell tell it, however, at least in other parts of the book, there are only differing ways that God reveals himself to humanity--not false ways. While most Christians would affirm the notion that God can reveal himself in many other ways in addition to Scripture, Bell seems to think that this means that any response by humans to any god in any manner are actually instances of humans responding to the true (but hidden) God in a proper manner. Which is a massive non sequitur. Just because God can and does reveal himself in many ways, does not mean that all human conceptions or responses to his revelation are good and right responses. Sometimes the responses will be improper and sinful. Sometimes the 'revelation' itself will be a false god or false prophet. And no, this doesn't require my personal view of what is and is not a good and proper response to be true, it only means that right and wrong responses--as well as true and false 'revelations'-- do exist.

Bell makes a point to celebrate seeming paradoxes about the nature of God a couple times in this book, rather than treat them as problems that need a solution. Fair enough. Yet Bell treats the notion of God being just and gracious as untenable. He thinks God's wrath and God's love are incompatible. He thinks that Jesus can't save us from God's wrath, because Jesus is God. The merry postmodernist, who celebrates God's mystery and paradoxical nature, can't reconcile these aspects of God? They are logically incompatible? Really? Not to mention that, with respect to God's mercy and wrath, one doesn't even need to shrug it off as a mystery or a paradox. God is merciful and wrathful, loving and just. There is no contradiction here.

The most controversial aspect of the book is probably Bell's conception of hell, and what it reveals about God's character. I think the lack of a scriptural basis for his views has been well documented, so in order to keep this review shorter I will defer to others on this matter, except to highlight one thing. The only book Bell cites for 'further reading' on the topic of hell is C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. Which is a work of fiction and speculation as to how heaven-hell could possibly operate, not how they do, certainly, Biblically operate. The reason the book is widely appreciated by Christians is because it is a work of fiction and acknowledges that it is speculating about the machinations of the afterlife. If Bell were to correctly pronounce his own views on hell to primarily be speculation--or better yet, fiction--I don't think they would cause as much consternation as they have. But even as speculation Bell's views would still be problematic because they seem to contradict scripture directly.

In addition to all these problems, as well as the more central ones addressed by others, I think the book also has a problem of tone. Bell's tone, if not his actual argument itself, often comes off as placating non-believers by suggesting that Christianity is something entirely different from what they've been lead to believe and that's why they reject it. While that might be true for some people, or it might be true in some small sense for a lot of people, many other people reject Christianity for what it truly is. Disabusing people of false conceptions is all well and good, but Bell aims to do that by caricaturing and misrepresenting more traditional understandings of the faith. His methodology seems to be: 1) consider what keeps people from coming to the faith (a good thing to do), 2) re-evaluate that aspect of the faith (also very good), 3) if it's some misconception that does need corrected in his view, attempt to address it (still fine and good), and lastly 4) if the stumbling block is something that is an intractable, non-negotiable aspect of Christianity, downplay it, redefine what it means or pretend like it doesn't exist (a very bad thing to do). As Christians we should go as far as we can to attempt to bring the Gospel to the lost--but not so far that the Gospel ceases to be the Gospel.

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