Friday, April 08, 2011

Love Wins 3

Chapter one of Love Wins is a stream of consciousness. It is a set of ideas in the form of questions that loosely hold together.

Reading the chapter I felt like I often do when talking to my 4-year-old daughter. Mary, my budding conversationalist, beads ideas together whose only relationship is that the one idea caused her to think of another. But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps Rob didn’t intend for the chapter to be read like as a geometric proof. Perhaps the issue then is genre. This chapter is more like poetry than an argument to be dissected or carefully analyzed. Perhaps to treat it as such would be to miss the overall poetic affect. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the author, let's go with this more poetic approach.

What then is the poetic affect? What does it all add up to?

At least two stand out to me. One, the chapter leaves you with the impression that the author is a critical thinker. Someone whose thought hard about this stuff and is in a position to offer more convincing alternatives. Two, the chapter leaves you with the undeniable impression that there is something terribly wrong with conventional evangelical thinking.

What particular areas of evangelical thinking? Based on the lines of questioning I came up with twelve topics:
1. Presumptive epistemological confidence
2. Population sizes of heaven and hell
3. Infinite punishment for finite sin
4. The age of accountability and infant mortality
5. Postmortem second chances
6. “Accepting Jesus” / praying the “sinner’s prayer”
7. Heaven somewhere else
8. Perspectives of Jesus
9. Missionary responsibility
10. Monergism/synergism (Is salvation all God or a combination of God and us?)
11. Personal relationship with Jesus
12. Supposed diversity of NT teaching
So what do we make of these two poetic impressions?

The thinking behind the questions at points is critical in the best sense of the word. As examples, I point to the important problems of an infinite punishment for finite sin and the population sizes of heaven and hell. I do think these are important subjects that are at least worthy of reconsideration. How should the Bible’s figurative language of end-time judgment be understood? Does the Bible teach that God will punish eternally sin committed in a finite body? Will more people go to hell than heaven? I think there are solid biblical reasons to believe that both of these questions are to be answered in the affirmative, but there are also biblical counter arguments that should be honestly weighed and not ignored.

Also, to the extent that our evangelical telling of the Gospel is reductionistic to the point of making God look like someone with a polarity disorder, that should be redressed.

But on the whole the chapter appears to me be more a pseudo-intellectualism rather than real. The problem of a supposed diversity of NT teaching on the way to salvation which takes several pages of the chapter is a pseudo-problem for example. While appearing quite insightful, it really amounts to nothing. What’s more, several of the lines of questioning Rob traces are caricatures based on the worst stereotypes of evangelical teaching around.

Penetrating and important questions can be found in this chapter. But they aren't the only kind.

Post 1 and Post 2


Taido said...

Thanks for your series of posts. Of all the rhetoric that is flying around right now, I'm finding that your perspective is the one with which I find myself agreeing the most.
I am certainly not of the "let's-all-demonize-Rob-camp," but I have serious issues with how he is framing the conversation.

Tim Marsh said...


I appreciate this critical review of Rob Bell.

You wrote:

"What’s more, several of the lines of questioning Rob traces are caricatures based on the worst stereotypes of evangelical teaching around."

As a pastor I would argue that, in fact, it is the worst stereotypes of evangelical teaching" that are winning the day among common church-goers. I think back to the pamphlets, "The Fundamentals", that circulated in the USA during the early twentieth century. Among them is the idea that there is only one Isaiah (as opposed to modern scholarly work that suggested there were two or more voices in Isaiah.) What was purported is that it was fundamental to the integrity of Christianity to believe that there was one Isaiah.

Or, take the "Left Behind" novels as another example. Their popularity has many Christians convinced that the dispensational premillinial view is the one taught by the Bible.

Fundamentalism remains alive and well in the USA through the popularity of David Jeremiah and John MacArthur, the Southern Baptist Convention, and books sold at LifeWay and Family Christian Stores, and TV networks such as Trinity BroadCasting and the Inspiration Network. I do not feel that any of these resources represent evangelicalism. However, to those who listen, read and view these media, they are the gospel truth.

I cannot speak for Rob Bell, but I feel that it is these charicatures of the worst evangelical scholarship that I must continually battle. For many in the Southeastern USA, these are the views under which many have been raised. Maybe that is Bell's perspective, maybe not.

Because these charicatural views seem to win the day as popular Christianity, I feel that Catholic, Evangelical and Mainstream Christians must consider how to communicate the/their message to public so as to get a foot in the door with committed church-goers and seekers.

Steve Ferwerda said...

Thanks Joel for your series of reviews. In the spirit of full disclosure, I do believe that God will reconcile all through the work of the cross. This was after being a mainstream "evangelical" for 40+ years and not finding satisfactory answers for many important questions and seeming contradictions in the Bible. Universal Reconciliation (or whatever you want to call it if we must label it) and a closer look at Hebrew perspectives, has answered/cleared up most of those issues. I'm glad to hear that you don't believe our will is entirely free as most Christians seem to think, and I also like the fact that you equate heaven with the kingdom. Heaven, the soul, free will, and eternal are a few of the important words and concepts which I believe have been badly mangled by poor translation and theological/denominational bias over the years.

Thanks Tim for your thoughts above. The way that these Fundamentalists have responded to this Rob Bell issue is really not much different than how radical Muslims might react to criticism of their faith. It only serves to give Christianity a bad name...and like I always say, "If you believe you have the TRUTH, then why are you afraid of open dialog and sincere questions?"

Joel, my wife has just completed a book about our journey to belief in Universal Reconciliation and I'll send you a copy when it's printed in May. Thanks again!

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