Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Love Wins?

Jo and I and several other friends went to hear Rob Bell speak on ‘Love Wins’ at Liverpool Cathedral during Holy Week.  I have also read the book; and read a number of the more graciously and thoughtfully measured responses, such as those of David Fitch, Scot McKnight, Andrew Perriman, and Mark Sayers; and the official response by the Evangelical Alliance UK, which is gracious and positive, and – rightly – articulates an evangelical position, but is also confused by an additional review which, I would suggest, fails to hear Bell across a generational divide [1].

The first thing that strikes me about Rob Bell, both in person and in his writing, is how passionately and infectiously he loves Jesus.  The second thing – and the two are inextricable entwined – is how much he loves people.

The third thing is how much he loves and respects the Bible.  Disagree with how he reads it, by all means, but to present him as someone who disregards scripture is grossly unfair.  As Eugene Peterson endorses: ‘It isn’t easy to develop an imagination, a thoroughly biblical imagination, that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation.  Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination.  Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all.’

I love Jesus, falteringly, and the Bible, and struggle to love people; but I long to love Jesus and my fellow men and women and children and the recorded narrative of salvation history as much as Rob Bell does.

The other thing that I would have to say is that there is nothing in ‘Love Wins’ that steps outside of the breadth of orthodox Christianity.  Controversial though Bell has been branded, nothing he says about heaven or hell or God or humanity has not been affirmed by earlier thoughtful, devout Christian teachers and leaders, within the Early Church, the big-C Catholic churches, the big-O Orthodox churches, and even (with qualifications against Roman ideas) the Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist traditions.  The vision Bell paints is an alternative one to that painted by the conservative evangelical and liberal progressive Protestantism that has so dominated late-twentieth century British and American Christianity – arguably both being reactions to an earlier loss of concern regarding heaven and hell, and so, along with Bell now, all contributions to renewing and reforming Christian proclamation – but neither conservative evangelicals nor liberal progressives ought to claim to be the sole guardians of true Christianity.

The loudest, shrillest criticism that has been made against Bell is that he is a universalist, and therefore a heretic.  But to accuse Bell of being a universalist, in any sense by which the word is generally used or understood, requires wilful misrepresentation.  Bell argues that the scope of the reconciliation God has worked specifically and uniquely through Jesus is universal; but that it is possible to resist and reject what God has done, both in this life and beyond this life; and that there are serious consequences, both now and in the future, to taking such a course.  He believes that the imperative to respond to Jesus’ invitation to die to one way of life in order to live the life God has for us is urgent, not so much as a one-off response, but the kind of response we are invited to make countless times every day.  These are not the beliefs of a universalist.  But Bell suggests that the picture scripture paints for us is one in which death does not have the final say in our destiny, and that ultimately God will somehow see his desire that all is reconciled fulfilled.  And while that is controversial to some, it does not take Bell outside of the hope of orthodox Christianity.  (To be honest, it doesn’t even take him outside of open evangelicalism – as I think was attested to by the overwhelmingly positive response in Liverpool Cathedral.)

Others have found things, even much, to affirm, but criticise Bell’s vision for being inadequate (of course it is inadequate: all human talk of God is inadequate, Bell’s critics as much as Bell; and yet we are compelled to speak of the God who reaches out to us); for being selective (it is: but this work is narrative theology rather than systematic theology; and, are evangelical choices any less selective?); for raising as many if not more questions than it answers (can’t we live with that tension, to which God has invited us since the beginning, and not least in Jesus’ questions and resistance to answer the questions by which we seek to exercise power?); and for not being as well-written as earlier and weightier works on which it draws, which people would be better reading instead (why can’t we write about something that has been written about by someone else, in another time, to another context?  can’t we write for different audiences?  doesn’t the story need to be proclaimed in and to every generation afresh, in its own language, language in its broadest sense?).  Perhaps the most crucial questions being asked are not around orthodoxy – right belief – but rather whether engagement in media manipulation is consistent with orthopraxy – right living.  And that is a hard call to make – or at least questionable grounds on which to pass judgement – for the gospel has always been communicated through engaging the normative media of the day, with all its flaws and biases and distortions.

Bell’s vision is a compelling one, and one which I find to be true: not in a provable sense, nor necessarily in every detail, but in its sweep and trajectory.  At the same time, I recognise that many thoughtful, devout Christians – including many I know personally, love, respect, and am deeply thankful for – hold (a range of) very different views, which are also well-attested to within the breadth of orthodox Christian belief.  That is why we must make space to hear one another; to disagree and to question; to honour one another, and to resolutely forgive and seek forgiveness where we fail to honour one another.  Authentic witness is not dependent on all saying the same thing (if it did, why have the Gospel of John alongside Matthew, Mark and Luke?); but where we allow room for different perspectives to coexist, robustly, without giving way to sectarianism – a visible and outward sign of the inner reality of fear – the world will see what it looks like to begin to enter in to the reconciliation Jesus has won.

[1] I suggested that in his book review of ‘Love Wins’ Derek Tidball fails to hear Rob Bell across a generational divide.  Here are some reasons why:

It is very strange to claim that Bell ‘never mentions repentance,’ when the absolute necessity to undergo a change of mind and heart and direction and to die to self in order to enter into the reconciliation God has achieved in and through Jesus is there on almost every page.

In locating a sacrificial understanding within a primitive cultural world, Bell does not ‘sidestep’ the cross as sacrifice.  Indeed, he sees Jesus’ death as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices – but argues that, precisely because that now-ended system is so alien to us in a West shaped by Christendom and post-Christendom, we might rethink how we present the cross, clearly including sacrifice, but not making it our starting-point or our pre-eminent point.

The use of a phrase such as ‘he assumes’ and a question such as ‘but why does he think ... ?’ invite an inference of a lack of setting out why, which is not the case.  Though this may well not be implied – for such an implication would be unworthy – it plays into the negative rhetoric being engaged in elsewhere.

While Bell is critical of a particular popular view of heaven and hell, which leads to a range of withdrawals and engagements, I don’t see the portrayal of a uniformly unengaged evangelicalism Tidball appears to claim to find; nor would I think it fair to imply that Bell would identify ‘nasty people’ with evangelicals.  Perhaps there is some unwarranted defensiveness here?

Lastly, the critique of communication choice – stylistically ‘confusing’ and ‘theology-lite’ – is a cultural observation, and made from the perspective of a culture that is not Bell’s primary addressee.  Bell is not for everyone, any more than NT Wright or CS Lewis are.  Where Tidball sees confusion, I see poetic clarity and beauty; where he sees ‘theology-lite’ I see refreshing accessibility.

I note these issues not to discredit Tidball in any way, but because he is, rightly, concerned for truth.  Truth cannot be conflated with Tidball’s – or Bell’s, or my – interpretation of the truth.  Moreover, we cannot even hear one another accurately: there is always a degree of distortion, even in our best attempts to listen and speak back what we have heard – and where I have misheard Tidball, I ask forgiveness.  The best response is ongoing conversation, in a spirit of love and humility, recognising our limitations and yet daring to speak out.  That is why, for all our falling short, we ought to be grateful for these conversations.

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