This got too long for Twitter. And yeah, it’s another pointless post about Rob Bell, but I think I’m touching on something here I haven’t heard from anyone else.
Rob Hay points out the Evangelical Alliance official response to Love Wins. This raises lots of interesting thoughts for me. First, I didn’t realise that the EA were in the book review business, or otherwise I would have sent them a few. Second, they’ve clearly learnt a little bit from their treatment of Steve Chalke but not very much. Third, I didn’t realise that this book was so significant that it needed an official response. Heck, I didn’t realise that a similar, but theologically more rigorous, treatment of the same themes would not need an official response - which makes me wonder if they’re just going for the low-hanging fruit.
Or perhaps this is just another example of what is going on with the Rob Bell stuff: people completely talking past each other.
First, there is the generational issue. For me, this quote from Tidball’s review sums up the problem:
I can see now why people are asking whether Rob Bell is a universalist (all will be saved in the end) or not, because it’s unclear…. The book contains volleys of rapid-fire questions but isn’t so good at giving answers, at least not clear ones.
For an Evangelical and a Boomer, the point of writing a book is to give the correct answer. There cannot be anything left hanging. All loose ends must be tied. Four Gospels must become one. Everyone must be either damned or saved. Nothing can stay in the middle. But Bell is not a Boomer, (I don’t know if he identifies as an Evangelical), he is an Xer. And so, because Bell raises questions but does not come down with black-and-white answers he is, according to Tidball’s review, selling people short.
This is not a theological clash. It is a generational clash. It is a cultural clash.
Second is the audience issue.
Much of what Bell writes is based selectively on the writings of Tom Wright and C. S. Lewis. But it is ‘theology-lite’ and people would be better served by reading those authors for themselves.
Yes. Of course. Of course it’s theology-lite. But it sounds like for Tidball, only heavy theology will do. People are judging Love Wins as if it were The Evangelical Universalist and then castigating it for not making a watertight theological case.
But what if it’s not trying to? What if the people who prefer heavy theology just aren’t the audience for this book? Then of course it won’t satisfy them, because it wasn’t meant to. Their complaint basically reads as “Why is this not written in a style that I personally would prefer?” And the answer is, of course, because it isn’t for you.
Bell doesn’t write heavy theology, and in fact, the whole point is that he is happy to leave the heavy theology to Lewis and Wright.
Is heavy theology the only theology worth writing? And is the answer to that question a theological position or a cultural one?
Third is the Overton Window issue, which Tidball completely misses.
Bell is good at drawing on ‘the hard cases’ to make his point and ignoring the rest.
Yep. Maybe that’s the point too. Bell is clearly trying to push the Overton Window on hell, and is doing a very good job at it. Now people other than those who are stone-cold doctrinaire types are having the discussion about hell and positions other than exclusivism are getting an airing. That’s success. Again, it’s good communication even if it’s bad theology.
Condemning Rob Bell for being a good communicator but a bad theologian is totally, totally, totally missing the point of what he’s trying to do - he’s trying to communicate, and distil the theological talk of others. Let’s therefore read the book as it was meant to be read, not as we think it ought to be.
Update: Edited to retract some of the more, uh, exercised content - thanks to those who helped me see how it could be read. Rob Bell’s approach to his critics has been a model of grace, and I didn’t quite live up to that. Sorry.