I won’t normally review two books in one week, but this is a special publishing event so I did not want to wait any longer.
I have been reading Rob Bell’s much-anticipated book Love Wins on my Kindle and can say unequivocally that, in my estimation, it lives up to it’s hype The book is important because it is written by a well-connected, highly respected evangelical who is acknowledging theological positions long-held by mainline Protestants, AS WELL AS the ethical commitments required by such theological beliefs. It is also important because millions of evangelicals are going to read this book and have their world rocked as a result. It is for these reasons that, though this is not a scholarly book, I am reviewing it nonetheless.
The big push back against Bell began weeks ago as the bulls in evangelical circles got wind of what Bell was up to and began denouncing the book before it had even been published. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, for example, devoted multiple editions of his blog to attacking Bell. Which of course, just made me want to read the book all the more. For as my friend John said, “If Al Mohler is against it, how could you possibly not be for it?”
So to balance the karma in the universe, and to block Al’s chi, I was sending positive energy in favor of the book out into the cosmos prior to publication. (I may ask for a percentage of royalties.)
And I wasn’t disappointed. It is an amazing book, and here are some reasons that I think this.
1). It is unwaveringly biblical. The book treats a whole range of subjects–it is not solely a book about hell, BTW, although there is a chapter about it– but whatever topic Bell takes up, he presents the whole range of biblical texts which address what he is discussing. He is thus faithful to his evangelical roots, a fact which will not be missed by his target audience.
2) his use of the biblical material is sophisticated, both linguistically in his use of Hebrew and Greek, but also hermeneutically in that he shows how a panoply of textual options on a given topic can shade the meaning of a doctrinal belief in one direction or another. If you’ve read a lot of evangelicals, you’ll recognize right off when reading Bell that this is not your grandpa’s evangelicalism. Bell doesn’t condemn other people’s reading of scripture, but he does show that a) the text can be read otherwise and b) that the preponderance of texts suggest that his views are far more the main theme of scripture than what has been the standard position in evangelical circles.
3) Bell reads with an awareness that the good news is not limited to the New Testament or Old Testament messianic texts. The good news is everywhere in scripture and it’s main theme is that God’s relentless grace will not give up on any of us. This isn’t something the church stumbled on but was rather the core of Israel’s teaching as well. Bell recognizes that we stand on the shoulders of Hebrew ancestors and reads the texts from them as gospel texts in their own right, which is a powerful corrective to the Christian supercessionism that has long been a feature in many evangelical congregations.
4) Bell acknowledges that his views are not new and connects them with the great theologians of the church from the patristic period to the Reformer Martin Luther. He disclaims originality, attempting to place his work in the broad stream of orthodox Christianity.
5) The book is very well-written, deceptively so. It is not high brow at all. It is conversational. Short sentences. Lots of humor. Scores of rhetorical questions. All laid out on the page in poetic style, almost as the book of Psalms appears in modern translations. Bell neither attacks nor condemns anyone else ‘s positions, always maintaining a charitable, respectful voice. But he does question those other views, often relentlessly, always by piling up scripture upon scripture and by a raft of rhetorical questions which flow from the scripture. It’s almost like reading a Socratic dialogue. But it is always understandable. Bell is.first and foremost a pastor, not a scholar. That’s not a criticism of the quality of his scholarship but a compliment of his capacity to explain things in a way that non-specialists can grasp. His goal is not for anyone to think him the smartest man in the room, but rather to persuade his readers of a more excellent way.
Bell’s argument is that God’s love, at the end, in some place and in some manner not necessarily known to us, will overcome everything. God will not be thwarted, Death is not the end of God’s capacity for redemption. Moreover, the good news is for all of creation and that the people who live in the knowledge and experience of grace are to make it their life work to mend the world. Heaven isn’t just the afterlife; the work of god’s kingdom starts now, not when we die. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is important, but there are many other dimensions to grace and it’s work in the world that this one element that has so absorbed evangelicals.
I grew up in this world and can state without hesitation that nothing like this has ever happened within it before. The simultaneity of nearly a million people getting a book like this from a respected writer of the their own flavor of Christianity and reading it unfiltered by powerful pastoral lenses is bound to shake things up. I would love to be a fly on the wall in the evangelical congregations whose members have gotten hold of this book Because the book is so deeply grounded in scripture, any attempt to refute Bell is likely to be met with significant resistance. Anyone in disagreement had better bring their A-game. Bell did his homework.
There are lots of positive things that can come out of this book’s appearance in the culture at this time. Ecumenically, for example, it could open the door for cooperation at all levels between mainliners and the traditionally reticent evangelicals in missional activity. Politically, if readers actually listened to Bell’s argument that salvation is for the whole of creation and not just humans, the whole landscape could be altered.