Monday, March 21, 2011

The Media Storm Surrounding Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

As promised yesterday, here is a collection of links to some of the many stories about and responses to Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

First up is an interview Bell did with Martin Bashir of MSNBC - Bashir asks some tough questions and makes Bell look very uncomfortable. Although, in my viewing of this, Bashir comes off as belligerent, making statements that would seem to come from critics, followed by, "Isn't that true?" Not a very honest form of interviewing.

Two Huffington Post bloggers, at least, have written on the book and the controversy.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, in the Washington Post's On Faith column, had a few things to say in The afterlife shapes this life:

Over the centuries, millions of people have been subjected to everything from regular degradation to the most horrendous suffering, including mass murder, all because they were outside of some other group’s salvation scheme. That tragic behavior continues to this very day in more places and ways than we can name.

Unfortunately, even those who are well-intentioned, including Rob Bell, may be guilty of perpetuating this problem. While not necessarily as toxic as consigning people with whom he disagrees to hell, Bell’s description of them as “truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation” is not much better. Am I in that category because I am a non-Christian? Are atheists in that category because they don’t believe in the existence of God?

While Bell argues for love, he does so in a way which embraces a belief in the still real spiritual failings of what I am sure equals billions of people. While his approach is a big deal within Christian theological circles, and is certainly an upgrade on those beliefs which regard many of us not only as damaged but as eternally cursed, it’s far from where I think such beliefs need to be.

Read the whole article - I tend to agree with what the Rabbi says here - but I still will have to read the book to know what Bell is all about.

Baptist Press gave the book the expected critical review:

Few events in recent memory have caused as much controversy and confusion among evangelicals as the latest book by well-known pastor Rob Bell, who in "Love Wins" denies hell and affirms universalism -- all the while claiming he has done neither.

Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., is nondenominational, but his books, "Velvet Elvis" among them, are popular among young evangelicals of all denominations and his Nooma videos -- well-produced and thought-provoking -- are used in even the most conservative of churches.

Bell -- a key figure in the emerging church movement -- often has flirted with controversy, such as the time in 2007 when he was asked about homosexuality and danced around the issue, refusing to take a historical biblical stand. Nothing that Bell has written or said, though, has been as controversial as Love Wins.

Read the whole review - at the end of the article they link to several evangelical reviews of the book.

USA Today offers up 'Love Wins': Pastor's book kindles firestorm over hell with a few brief excerpts from the book:

Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, has provoked weeks of fierce infighting among pastors, theologians and anyone else who scans the Christian blogosphere where critics rage that he's a hipster heretic.

In Love Wins, which arrives in stores Tuesday, Bell claims:

• Heaven and hell are choices we make and live with right now. "God gives us what we want," including the freedom to live apart from God (hell) or turn God's way (heaven).

• Death doesn't cut off the ability to repent. In his Bible, Bell sees no "infinite, eternal torment for things (people) did in their few finite years of life."

• Jesus makes salvation possible even for people who never know his name. "We have to allow for mystery," for people who "drink from the rock" of faith "without knowing who or what it was."

• Churches that don't allow for this are "misguided and toxic."

Small wonder that traditionalists call him a false teacher of a Jesus-optional Gospel, leading innocents to damnation and a traitor to the evangelical label.

Here are the excerpts:

Excerpts from Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate
of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived

"A staggering number of people have been taught that a few select Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."

"At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church has been the insistence that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins."

"When people say they're tired of hearing about "sin" and "judgment: and "condemnation," it's often because those have been confused for them with the nature of God. God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone."

"For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don't articulate matters of faith as they do."

"None of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will."

The Boston Globe presents Alex Beam's A heck of a theological debate, which observes:
Happily for Rob Bell’s book sales, conservative divines across the country are denouncing him as a heretic for his core message: “Love Wins,’’ also the title of his book. There is even a modestly populated Facebook site called “People against Rob Bell’s (and Mars Hill’s) heresy!’’ “The purpose of this group is not to attack this man personally, but to attack his false teachings,’’ we read.
Nothing sells a book like a good controversy.

At the Wall Street Journal, John Wilson's article is What Happened to Heaven and Is Gandhi There? It feels like a fair review from someone who has been tracking Bell's career and theology since Bell was in his 20s.

So is Mr. Bell one more Christian liberal describing God as a mountain you can climb any way you want? Not exactly.

I first heard him preach in 1999, soon after he founded Mars Hill. The service consisted of about 20 minutes of music and then a sermon that lasted 70 minutes. I'd heard Mars Hill described as one of the so-called "seeker churches," disdained by some for softening the gospel to get people in the door.

Really? With sermons lasting 70 minutes? And about Leviticus? You could go to many evangelical churches every week for 10 years and never hear a single sermon on Leviticus. Mr. Bell—then still in his late 20s—talked about God's judgment in a way I'd not encountered.

His book, in other words, didn't come out of nowhere. It seems the measured culmination of his work as pastor and teacher.

Why, then, the bitter controversy? Consider this: In a promotional video about the book, Mr. Bell asks, "Gandhi's in hell? He is?" And: "Will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that's the case how do you become one of the few?"

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading conservative evangelical, wrote that in the video Mr. Bell "affirms what can only be described as universalism," the belief that ultimately all people are "saved." Most evangelicals find this position incompatible with scripture.

But anyone who carefully reads "Love Wins" will see that Mr. Bell is not a universalist.
Philosopher Timothy Dalrymple who writes at Philosophical Fragments, offers a more nuanced review of the book in his post, A Framework for Understanding the Rob Bell Controversy, which is less a review and more of a delineation of the Universalist accusations against Bell:
I wanted to offer what I hope is a helpful framework for understanding some of the issues at hand. I happen to believe that only 10-20% of the controversy is really about universalism. The greater part of the controversy is about the questions behind the questions — progressive accommodation to contemporary culture versus conservative holding-fast to inherited theological tradition, selective reinterpretation of the Christian message versus a profession of the whole counsel of scripture regardless of its offensiveness to modern ears, etc; the other, central theological issues Bell reformulates — the character of God, the nature of the person and work of Christ, and the means of salvation; and the way in which Bell thoroughly and repeatedly casts doubt on, caricatures, and condemns what has been the traditional teaching of the western churches for many centuries now.

Bell is to be complimented and thanked for some things, and criticized for others. But more on that anon.

For now, it strikes me that people are wrestling with the question, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?” in part because the terms have not been sufficiently clear. Some say Bell is clearly not a universalist because he says that God will not forcibly save everyone, and some may continue to reject God even in the afterlife. Some say Bell clearly is a universalist because he strongly implies that God’s loving pursuit of every individual — in the present life and in the life to come — must eventually prevail. Still others say that Bell should properly be called a Christian universalist or an evangelical universalist, because he believes that all (can?) (will?) be saved but through the intermediation of Christ.

Read the whole review if you want to understand all of the issues around Universalism in Christianity.

Scott McKnight, whose blog is called Jesus Creed, offers a measured and supportive perspective on the book, since he has not read it he is commenting on the controversy - Waiting for Rob Bell. This is only one section of the article.

I’m grateful to God that Rob Bell is opening this after-life door and, from what I’m hearing, he’s only looking inside the door to see the prospects of universalism, asking you and me to realize both that we have some thoroughly unbiblical ideas and that we need to rethink this stuff all over again. I don’t expect Rob Bell to say one thing new, though I expect him to say what he says well enough to grab our attention.

Friends, this is an old discussion, and there are some great studies out there. Rob Bell is almost certainly not adding something new, but he’s pushing the door open and saying, “Folks, this vast and massive room of universalism and what’s awaiting us when we die are things we must take much more seriously. The next generation of Christians are pressing upon this door and we better stop and listen and think it through one more time.”

My contention is this: the approach to this generation is not to denounce their questions, which often enough are rooted in a heightened sensitivity to divine justice and compassion, but to probe their questions from the inside and to probe thoughtful and biblically-responsible resolutions. We need to show that their questions about justice and God’s gracious love are not bad questions but good questions that deserve to be explored.

I’ve not read the book, and I don’t trust blurbs or excerpts. Nor do I trust my own judgment of watching a provocative promo video and think I know where he’s going. Nor do I trust those who say they have read the book or parts of the book.

But I’ll tell you this: Rob Bell is asking my students’ questions on that promo video and then, as you watch the video, he walks away. Rob and his people are artists, and you can read that walking away any way you want – but I’ll wait until I read that book for myself. I hope you do too.

Finally, Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, weighs in with his perspective in Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context.

A great many of the responses to Bell assume that there is only one right way to think about the destiny of people who do not put their trust in Christ in this life: they will experience eternal, conscious punishment in hell. Despite the cultural stereotypes, people don't think this because they are cruel and vindictive, because they relish the thought of people roasting in hell. No, they are trying to take seriously the teaching of Scripture, especially the words of Jesus. As Tim Keller has pointed out, Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. So if you take Jesus seriously, you are going to have to take hell seriously.

This view has become the standard among contemporary evangelicals. Two evangelical books that have rested comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list are Crazy Love by Francis Chan and Radical by David Platt. Both are ardent pleas for more committed, sacrificial devotion to Christ and love for the world. And both motivate readers with the occasional mention of the huge numbers of people across the world who have yet to hear the gospel. For example, Platt notes anxiously "the 4.5 billion people, who … at this moment are separated from God in their sin and (assuming nothing changes) will spend an eternity in hell."

Many faithful, devout Christians, then, assume the scenario criticized by the CT letter writer. But not all, and what is being lost in the anxious chatter is that faithful, devout Christians try to reconcile the love of God with the judgment of God in a number of ways. Many evangelicals who hold to the standard view assume, as one prominent blogger wrote yesterday, that the Bible's teaching on this is "clear." But especially in the last century, things don't seem that clear to many of the devout.

To keep this article from wandering too far afield, let's talk about one of a constellation of theological issues raised in this discussion: the fate of the person who has heard the gospel portrayed fairly, lovingly, and clearly, and yet refuses to respond in faith.

Read the whole article.

I'm sure I could find dozens more links, but this should give you sense that within the Christina world, there is an important conversation taking place (at least among those willing and able to entertain other perspectives) that may help reshape Christian theology from premodern into modern and maybe even into the postmodern.

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