Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thoughts on "Love Wins"

Part of what's refreshing about Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins, is that it mostly refuses to answer the stubbornly human question, "What must I [do] [say] [believe] to be [saved] [whole] [safe] [right]?" In this way the book echoes the Jesus of the four gospels, who really had a remarkable way of not nailing down a doctrine of salvation in the course of his recorded teachings and interactions.

The opening chapter highlights that ambiguity by placing some of these conflicting passages alongside each other as well as several disturbing present-day exchanges--an adult telling a teen that there is "no hope" for her unbelieving friend that died; a churchgoer writing anonymously, on an artwork celebrating peacemakers like Gandhi, the words "Reality check: He's in hell"; and the modern assertion that what really counts is "a personal relationship" with Jesus.

Given all of this frank attention to problematic contradictions and Bell's brave solidarity with the less-than-convinced, what follows after is somewhat disappointing overall (though there are many good moments throughout). Bell seems to collapse the opening complexity and honesty into something too pat. The low point for this reader was Chapter 4, titled "Does God Get What God Wants?" Here, Bell goes to great lengths to assure the unorthodox that "not all Christians have believed [in an eternal hell], and you don't have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives" (page 110). Apparently this is supposed to be a relief, but I think it backfires. After all, isn't that like saying that within an organization that considers itself the epitome of love there is room for both horribly abusive authority figures and remarkably good ones? Not a perfect analogy, I know, but yikes, talk about a "big tent." Who knew love could manifest itself in two such violently opposed forms?

Maybe part of the issue with the book's trajectory is the nearly impossible task Bell has before him as it moves along. He's not going to make most of his fellow evangelicals very happy (exhibit A: John Piper, who casually consigned Bell to heresy with his influential three-word tweet, "Farewell, Rob Bell" before the book was even out). But Bell also won't loosen his grip on his assurance (certainty?) about the centrality/reality of the Jesus he describes, and that doesn't sit well with the agnostically-minded. He seems remarkably sure of this personal, good, monotheistic god and of all injustices being made right in a conscious age to come for someone who has just been pointing out the confusion and complexity of both the general and special revelation we have to work with.

Still, the book's high notes are a help. Especially moving was Bell's reading of the request Jesus makes from the cross in Luke's account: "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." There is no belief or trust or recognition on the part of this crowd, Bell observes. But they are forgiven nonetheless. For those of us still sometimes afraid of ourselves and our fellows being eternally screwed for not being able to know/believe the right stuff, this is a helpful idea. It frees us from trying so hard to figure everything out, leaving us energy to live with focus and integrity and heart.

"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." -Emily Dickinson