Love is Bi-Winning: A Review of Bell’s New Book

Posted: 03/28/2011 in Church
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Nothing lights up the Christian blogosphere like a good old-fashioned witch hunt. In the rise of controversy, words like “heretic” are thrown around like grenades, causing voices to rise up in a Bruno Mars-esque type fashion while sides are drawn via the battlefront of Twitter. All the while, pastoral concerns for love and nurturing of our brothers and sisters are abandoned, leaving the Christian community suffering in the shrapnel. The world looks on towards these people-called-the-church promising “hope” and “new life” like some sort of Obama campaign as we continue to provide lackluster results among our own community… like an Obama campaign.

So the latest media spin in the Christian world centers around Rob Bell, the mystical square-rimmed glasses wearing pastor from Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI.  I have grown quite fond of Rob and his teachings over the years… reading three of his books, attending two of his tours, listening to his podcast frequently, and even traveling to Mars Hill once to visit the community they’ve developed there.  I have nothing but profound respect for that church, and the theological musings of Pastor Bell have had a profound impact on my spiritual walk.  I have often found his voice refreshing among the influx of neo-hyper-Calvinists speaking for the Christian community in our culture.   I even owe much of my writing style to Bell’s influence.

Like my lack of indentation.

And my generous paragraph spacing.

But lately, for those of you who have been on the outliers of the heretic-name-calling bubble, Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has been a target of interest since Rob’s mysterious book trailer came out a few weeks ago.  The video itself seems to stir up more controversial questions than anything conclusive.  This marketing genius caused a huge ruckus about the book and pushed the book to be released 2 weeks earlier than originally stated and put the book on back-order for nearly 2-3 weeks. For the publisher, this means two words: “Cha-ching”.  I managed to get a copy of this book (thanks Jesse) and read it this past week.

Now, there have been MANY reviews circulating the web on this book, and many of them I have found to be one-sided (either singing immense praises or condemning Bell to Hell), really long (I think there are some reviews out there longer than the book itself), or complicated.  So I’m hopping on the bandwagon and adding to the noise by reviewing Love Wins, but I hope to be a voice to my friends and family that is fair and simple.  I’ll simply divide the rest of this review into what I liked about the book and what I disliked.  Hopefully, this will gear you towards what might be valuable take-aways from a book that I would encourage anyone interested to read.  Here we go!

What I Liked

  • Questions – There seems to be a lot of fear towards asking questions about one’s own faith.  Doubt is confused with denial, and so we forcefully blindfold ourselves behind things we don’t understand.  Rob Bell is notorious for asking questions, and this book is full of them. The first chapter alone just seems to be constant questions.  I think it’s good that we ask questions – questions about things we don’t understand or even can’t understand.  God is infinite, and we should entertain and approach God with wonder and awe.  Not asking hard questions about life, death and faith can stifle that wonder.
  • Who is Jesus? – For only the last century has the Church used the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” to describe salvation, and it’s found nowhere in Scripture (although there are many hints of it).  I have no issue with that terminology, but it does make one wonder what exactly salvation is.  And if we do stick with this terminology, Bell points out that we need to define who Jesus is.  Although many people knock Bell for his “generous” orthodoxy, I think he begs us to seek orthodoxy more deeply here than we have been.  Many people impose some pretty horrific theologies in the name of Christ.  Are you “saved” if the Jesus you believe in would bomb an abortion clinic? Or hate “fags”? Or represent child abuse?  Love Wins calls us back to examine who Jesus is and what he really came to do.
  • Pastoral Approach – I’ve heard a lot of griping that this book’s arguments center around Bell’s personal experiences.  I personally find no harm in that.  I think that a pastor’s role is to examine our doctrine in light of the people we encounter.  Doctrine is not as clear-cut as we think when real life people are thrown into the mix.  I had to re-examine my view of virginity when a student who was raped asked if she was still a virgin.  Real life puts a lot of holes in our theology, which I think is ok.  Scripture was not meant to be a comprehensive tell-all of theology… it is a vast array of stories and letters and histories and poems unfolding an image of who God is and how He interacts with the world.  I am glad for a pastor who hopes and prays that there is more than meets the eye.  I don’t think this book was meant to be a complete eschatology (doctrine of the end times) or soteriology (doctrine of salvation).  This book was written to reveal a real God to real people in real situations, showing the ultimate result that love wins.
  • View of God- It seems that Bell wants this book to be a starting point where people can open up to a renewed viewpoint of who God is.  There are many people scarred by the “Turn or Burn” fanatics who impose a view of a bipolar God… one who wants to love you and intimately know you until you get hit by a bus and die, and then he’ll torture you for eternity.  This misinformed theology is way more treacherous and prevalent than anything Bell has to offer, and it’s a shame that there is so little movement to clear those erroneous perceptions of God.   So I am thankful for Bell’s message of a God who is love.
  • The Real Message – In the end, Love Wins reveals a God who cares deeply for His creation and wants nothing more than to be united with his people forever.  This perception of God frees us to enjoy Him and the life that He has to offer us here and now on this earth.  Heaven begins now.  And Hell begins now.  The lives we live today matter.  Salvation is more than a prayer at an alter call or exceptional Sunday attendance.  Salvation invites us to lives of fullness and love that embrace and shatter every area of our being and doing.  If Bell would have us grasp just one thing out of the book, I think it would be this.  It’s even how he ends the book.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Bad Writing – As I mentioned before, I have been a big fan of Bell for quite some time.  I can assuredly say that this is his worst writing.  It appears that this book could have even gone through a couple more edits.  I don’t know if this book was rushed due to publicity, if his new publisher gave him a new editor, or if Bell himself is still wrestling with his conclusions, but I was thoroughly unimpressed by the writing in this book.  Points were rarely made and hard to follow.  Verses were pulled out of context. Greek and Hebrew were used without any real clarification.  It just all seemed a bit muddy to me.  For those of you who are greatly disturbed by the theology Bell portrays, I wouldn’t worry.  I honestly don’t think this book is compelling enough to do any real damage.
  • Answering Questions – I was tracking with Rob for a while as he posed question after question, trying to get the reader to honestly think about the realities of heaven and hell and who goes where and for how long. I loved when he looked at the Scriptures specifically pertaining to heaven and hell.  And he admits that they are vague and hard to comprehend.  However, he ignores his own advice and proceeds to offer up solutions in these troubling verses.  I really wish he hadn’t done that.  This could have been a fascinating and healing book over a subject that few preach about and even fewer understand.  He could have opened our eyes to dream or imagine the graces of God and the marvels of heaven.  Instead, he stifles the imagination and offers a rather unconvincing solution.
  • Redefining – Trying to get a direct response about what Rob believes in this book is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.  Very little is as it seems.  Often times, I’ll agree with a statement he makes, and then in the next sentence find that the words he said are not at all what I had in mind.  He offers maybe 3 or 4 definitions of hell throughout the book, and I am left with more confusion than definition.  It’s hard to walk away from this book agreeing or disagreeing with much of what he said.
  • Christian Universalism – The main theological thrust of this book tends to tilt towards the idea of Christian Universalism.  This is the idea that eventually all will be saved through Christ either in this life or the next.  It is a picture of Christ’s cross as the atoning sacrifice for the entire world whether you believe it or not (Sorry atheists… God is saving you, too, eventually).  It is NOT the idea that all religions are the same (universalism) or that truth is found everywhere (unitarianism), so I think we need to clarify that Rob Bell does not identify with either of those ideologies (despite what some may Tweet).  To be fair, Bell never identifies himself under any such terms, but his description is a textbook example of Christian Universalism.  It’s a real shame, too.  There are moments in the book that so closely resemble C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce that I could swear he ripped pages right out of it and stuck it in Love Wins.  However, he ultimately strays from Lewis’ meanderings about heaven and hell and lands on some form of Christian Universalism… a traditionally unorthodox view of Christianity (despite what Bell may say in the book).

The Result

In the end, I hope that the Church would use this book as a springboard to dive into deep conversations about these subjects, allowing ourselves to wrestle with things we ultimately may never know in this life.  I can’t safely say what heaven or hell will be like. I think it’s a profound mystery… and I’m glad for that.  Ultimately, I think we’ll all be surprised by who is there in the end and what it will be like.

My fear is that Bell will be elevated by some as a prophet and destroyed by others as a heretic with nothing valuable to say.  There are many other books I would gladly recommend before this book when it comes to this topic, but I still plan on listening to his podcast this week, and I’ll probably gain much from it.

What we need as a body is to have conversation. Real conversation. Maybe even informed conversation… rather than witnessing to the world that we are more than willing to throw one of our own off the ship when our ultimate message ought to be one of love and redemption.  So as the conversation continues to flourish and spread about this book, I pray that we find the grace to let love win.

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Comments
  1. peddiebill says:

    A refreshing and well-written review. It has always puzzled me why so many people calling themselves Christians seem to be focussing on how many things they say they believe, and yet who seem to have so little interest in the consequent influence on actions and real life decisions. People can tie themselves in knots over such learned questions as whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin or that other untestable set of hypotheses about how to get to heaven, who will get in and what it will be like when we get there. Yet these same people see no relevance of their faith to questions like pulling the plug on Grandad when his brain dies, getting justice for the underpriveledged, who forgiving enemies. At least the book raises some of the questions. http://billpeddie.wordpress.com

  2. Jer Nelsen says:

    Great review, man! Thanks for your honesty. I plan to read the book – if I can get to the end. I’ve had a hard time sitting down and reading through any of his other books due to (as you pointed out) the lack of conclusive thought.

    Thanks so much!

  3. Jess says:

    ah. je.
    I’m glad you wrote this review.
    and I’m glad it wasn’t 20 pages.
    First one i’ve read that didn’t make me feel terrible for asking questions.
    : )

  4. Amy says:

    So thankful for you, your insight, and your ability to bring some clarity to this topic.

  5. Adam Bodnar says:

    Thanks for getting your review on. Quite insightful and liberating in that I feel like I don’t need to actually read the book. God bless ya bro

  6. garybishop3 says:

    We will probably have much discussion about this soon, but I did want to make one comment on here. I walked away with a lot of thoughts about the book. Thoughts about heaven, hell, and the like. But, I also walked away feeling like Bell wanted to make sure he got one point across definitively. I was encouraged to see that you and I seem to come to the same conclusion.

    I wish I still had the book so I could quote it directly, but Rob made the same statement 3 times in the book and it went something like this, “The people who are most concerned about heaven and hell seem to be doing the least about the world now, and the people who are doing the most now seem to be the least concerned with heaven and hell.”

    Bell’s point, and Jesus’s concern, has to do with two periods: this age and the age to come. I think that, if anything, Bell stresses that we ought to be doing a lot more than we currently are to bridge the gap (whether literal or not) between heaven and earth. Today matters, and we need to be bringing God’s kingdom here, now.

  7. Katie says:

    You offer us a peaceful (and even witty) feedback for Pastor Bell and interested believers.
    You have made me interested and curious.
    And I imagine you looked really good while writing this post;)

  8. […] (Don’t worry, that’s not where this post is going. If you want to read a review, look here). Aside from all the talk of “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever […]

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