Should I buy Rob Bell’s book?

I love Amazon’s samples sent to my kindle. In this case the sample was disappointingly short, but like Velvet Elvis and most books pastors seem to write in today’s market Rob Bell is a very fast read. What I got from the sample was mostly reaction to our cultural reaction to Christian exclusivity and how it is applied by many evangelicals today.

There is some real grounding for Jason’s comment (posted on CRC Voices) in this. In reality many Christians occupy the middle ground between a hard line position that says “only those with a specific Christian profession of faith are saved” to a more “generous” position that says “we only have assurance of the salvation of those who have a specific Christian verbal profession combined with visible fruit in their lives.” I’m in the camp of the second position. That of course leaves plenty of room for God to do what he wants with whomever he wishes. God doing what he wants is a simple way of defining “sovereignty” just in case you don’t know.

In case you think that is a sudden change of events, I remember Fred Klooster, former systematics prof of CTS, a noted conservative essentially also espousing the second position. There are plenty of evangelicals, not always leaders, who maintain the first position. Many leaders when pressed will go to the second.

I too believe that our language about heaven and hell are sloppy and approximate. Realized eschatology means that we are in fact in this present age sometimes participating in the age to come and sometimes in the foothills of hell. “heaven” actually has a pretty broad lexical range, as does “hell” making it advisable to speak with some care and specificity regarding the subjects.

Bell wants to emphasize the love of God. That’s a good thing to do. Christians have sometimes majored on the warnings of hell to motivate people towards some specific behaviors. Jesus did this, but as is often noted Jesus usually uses this when he’s either talking to his disciples or the religious leaders. You’re hard pressed to find Jesus warning those considered “sinners” in his context of eternal punishment. This should be instructive to us.

I’m on the fence as to whether I want to spend another 11 bucks for the book because I don’t really expect to get anything new out of it. I assume Bell will make a lot of noises trying to differentiate himself from “that other kind of Christian” and position himself in a space that he imagines will be more accessible to the audience he imagines. I’ve certainly done plenty of this in my life. On the other hand, one of the things I’m thinking about is whether this actually has much value in terms of evangelism.

Bell is clearly “successful” in growing a large church. He’s done so, however, in West Michigan, a place known for having an enormous nominal Christian population that are in an estuary of cultural change. I think his audience is really a Christian one, not so much a pagan one. His brand of Christianity is not the kind that it sweeping Africa and Asia. In a sense it is domesticated further. Some of that domestication is what the new hardliners, the young and reformed (and loud) are protesting. They have a point.

Bill’s comment (again on Voices) about the fairness of the liberal straw man is also valid. Just like Rob Bell is positioning himself against a hard line group that is more historical than actual, so the young and reformed are reacting out of fear of yesterday’s liberalism. I thought the CT review of Bell was helpful in recognizing that the liberal church has made contributions as well, despite its flaws.

I think finally where I wind up thinking about Bell is “so what”. Is there enough here to make a fuss about? This is the same dilemma liberalism seems to face. “Be good to the poor and fair to each other” is hardly a new message. As many liberals will note neither is this message exclusive to Christianity. Muslims hosted the same homeless that my church did.

The failure of liberalism it seems to me is its overestimation of our capacity for self improvement. If we accept that “be good to the poor and fair to each other” is our duty, able to be discerned not only from Christian special revelation but also general revelation as seen in many world religions, why do we need to keep repeating it? Why do we keep failing at it? What really is our problem?

This naivety regarding our problem is of course not exclusive to liberal christians or post-Christians, many evangelicals seems to share in it as well. Can we fix it with a lot of talking and writing? Both evangelicals and liberals seem to have a high view of telling people they’re doing wrong hoping that this talking will somehow “fix” the other.

What is left often for church to do with this diminished sense of our own inability to remedy our condition are inspirational services, videos and work projects. We hope that inspiring people with slogans and feel good forays into generosity will make THE difference. I have my doubts and the reason I do is Jesus himself. The cross itself is a message to me that the heavy lifting must come at inordinate sacrifice, the kind of sacrifice that the Son of Man himself dreaded in agony in a Jerusalem garden.

It’s not my job to review Rob Bell’s ministry. I’ve never been to his church. When I’m in GR there are usually other churches I wish to attend for other personal reasons. God bless him.

My experience with myself and the rest of us on the planet is that I need a more dramatic difference maker and the depths of the drama that I see, experience, and hear about makes the heights of heaven and the depths of hell believable. We live in a world of wars, tsunamis, cancer, and death. I suppose my main question for Bell’s approach is whether it is diminished by the context of the suburban mall with reliable electricity and social security. When we paid a lot of attention to liberation theology it was regularly asserted that context informs theology. That was a liberal tenet. It must certainly apply to Grandville Michigan.

The good news of Christianity is a resurrection that is as real as tsunamis, cancer, war and death. It is no mere image or metaphor. If that isn’t true then I’m left with various strategies for emotional management of loss. There are lots of those and they do offer some comfort. I want the dead raised, nothing less.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Should I buy Rob Bell’s book?

  1. Pingback: The Hendiadys of the Human Story |

  2. Pingback: Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” Review, Pt 1 |

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