** Published on Two Pints Later **
I teach theology, and because I’m likely to be asked on a daily basis over the next few months what I think of the book, I knew I could not avoid reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Now, I normally like what Bell as to say but I’m often disappointed when preachers put pen to paper. I was not surprised, therefore, to discover a book written largely in point form, single sentence paragraphs, that could be finished in less than an hour (okay, slight exaggeration, let’s give it two hours). Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want a book of this type to be written like Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. But you might hope that a manuscript that will make as much money as this would have literary qualities at least equal to that of a daily newspaper. At a bare minimum you would think that the editor of a Christian book would know that the possessive, Jesus’, does not have an additional ‘s’ (Jesus’s). Okay, I’m being churlish. My jealousy stems from the fact that academic books normally take more than a few weeks to write and make far less money!
My real complaint is with the shallow nature of the argument set out in a book purporting to address some of the more complex questions of Christian faith. It is not that I disagree with much of what Bell has to say. The opposite is true. There are important concepts and ideas throughout that need to be addressed if the church hopes to be anything other then an outdated, irrelevant and fear mongering institution. Bell is arguing for a move away from fundamentalism and for the embracing of a gospel focused more on the love of God than on hellfire and damnation; on a church that cares more about redressing hell on earth in the here and now then preaching about a future heaven and hell. Sadly, however, little of this will be heard as critics justly attack the unsubstantiated biblical analysis that frames his case. The most obvious is his re-translation of the phrase, in Matthew 25, “eternal punishment” as “a time of trimming”, or his related suggestion that “forever is not really a category the biblical writers used”. He provides no reference to a scholarly source that might help substantiate such radical claims, and that is the problem throughout. Readers are left suspicious of his interpretation of the Bible and, since they are not given the opportunity to investigate the basis of his arguments, are given no reason to trust what he has to say. If he can’t be trusted in matters such as these why should he be believed in the broader case he is making?
Bell has the basis of a worthwhile book. He has some cracking one-liners, such as his advocacy of the word “hell”:
- We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secret hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
- And for that, the word “hell” works quite well. Let’s keep it.
I agree wholeheartedly with the point. I just don’t think Bell’s argument supporting it was convincing.