I just finished leading a group here at the church through Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Believing in Paul Tillich’s “Theology of Correlation” – that culture poses the questions that the church needs to address – I am always alert to what people in the world are paying attention to spiritually. And with Rob Bell on the cover of “Time” magazine and a guest on every imaginable television talk show this spring, I would have had to have been blind and deaf to have missed this one.
Rob Bell is no stranger to me. We both have Fuller Theological Seminary in our pasts. His “Nooma” (a transliteration of the Koine Greek word for “Spirit” or “Breath”) videos have been standard fare around here at church for years. He is as skillful a “question-asker” as anybody I know – ingenious, incisive, and invitational. I truly envy his gift of communication. And so stepping up to the buzz that “Love Wins” has generated in the culture and at church was a no-brainer. Working through Love Wins chapter by chapter with a roomful of engaged church members this summer has been a wonderful exercise and a great reminder of why it is good to be a big “D” Disciple of Christ.
The weekly handouts from our seven week study of Love Wins are available here – Love Wins
A great jumping in place to the conversation that Rob Bell’s book generates is Mark Galli’s article in Christianity Today, “Rob Bell’s Bridge Too Far” that can be accessed at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/ april/lovewins.html. There are lots of commentaries about “Love Wins” out there on the internet, but the best generally favorable one that I found and appreciated is Ben Witherington’s at http://www.patheos.com/community/bibleandculture/ 2011/03/23/do-not-ask-for-whom-the-bell-tolls-a-chapter-by-chapter-review-of-love-wins/. And the best generally negative one that I found and respected was Michael Horton’s at http://wscal.edu/news-and-events/details/bells-hell-a-review-by-michael-horton.
A really intriguing “Symposium” on Hell that was published in the Christian Century in 2008 is accessible here – http://www.vitorw.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/What-to-Say-about-Hell.pdf
And a comprehensive Bibliography on the “Doctorine of Eternal Punishment/Hell” is available at – http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/esch_hell.php
In Chaim Potok’s wonderful novel The Promise (Fawcett – 1969), one of the main characters, a Hasidic Jew reluctantly studying for the rabbinate, comes across a book in the library in which someone has scribbled in Hebrew on the title page – “This is the book of an apostate; those who fear God are forbidden to read it” (74). The character in the story checked it out and read it anyway, explaining that the author “asks very good questions,” adding that “I don’t like his answers, but he asks some very important questions.” And then later, showing his father, a very stern and traditional rabbi, the warning and the prohibition in the book, the wise old man surprisingly observed, “It should read ‘those who fear ideas,’ not ‘those who fear God.’ There are times when those who fear God make themselves very unpleasant as human beings” (75). The condemnation that Rob Bell has received from some corners of the Christian community for the questions he asks and ideas he pitches in Love Wins are only confirmation that there are people in every religious community who are afraid of ideas and who can in fact make themselves most unpleasant as human beings.
It’s my hunch that Karl Barth knew what he was talking about when he said that anyone who doesn’t hope that the sorts of things that Rob Bell writes about in Love Wins are true is an “ox,” but that anyone who would dare to say them out loud is an “ass.” Well, Rob Bell has dared to say them out loud, and I am glad that he has. We Disciples are not afraid of hard questions or dangerous ideas; in fact, I’ve always thought that if we had such a thing as a “Patron Saint” as a church, that Thomas the “Doubter” would be ours. If this lumps us in with Rob Bell in the “ass” category, so be it. It’s better than being those unpleasant human beings who have confused a legitimate fear of God with an illegitimate fear of ideas.
My own personal motto has been a saying of the Anabaptist Reformer Balthasar Hubmaier (born 1480 – martyred 1528) that I stumbled upon inChristianCollegealmost 40 years ago. At his trial for heresy by the Catholic Church, after explaining his heart’s newly settled Protestant convictions, he said –These, brethren, are my opinions… which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures. But if there is any error in them, I pray and beseech you, by Jesus Christ our only Savior, and the day of his last judgment, to condescend to set me right through the Holy Scriptures in a fraternal and Christian manner. I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks; I will confess the error, and in accordance with the decision of the divine word I will gladly and willingly, with greatest obedience, submit myself to you and follow you most carefully as followers of Christ.
This spiritual modesty with its willingness to be taught better about the mysteries of God from Scripture is the ground that I have consciously tried to occupy in my faith’s constant search for better understanding. And because I detect it in Rob Bell as well, I gladly call him brother and I am truly grateful for his book.