Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

Rob Bell and the book jacket for Love Wins

First, let me share what I liked about the book:

1. I am glad he wrote this book. It is the single most important topic of consideration for every single human being living in this world. The title is excellent and intriguing. The book is rightfully generating a furor of controversy and that's a good thing. Another boring, dusty theology book couldn't have created the fertile ground for discussion that this provocative book and title have generated. CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, the morning shows, youtube...fantastic debate has made it to the airwaves, and I have been wonderfully surprised that so many are engaged. I've never heard these topics make prime time in all my decades, so I would say that's a breakthrough of epic proportions. Bravo to Rob Bell for that.

2. I love his wide view of grace and God's mercy. That is, after all, what we are talking about when we say it's the gospel-- "Good News". I found his words on this topic to be his most eloquent and inspiring in the entire book. He debunks myths and bad thinking, and cracks the egg of grace wide open. He allows it to be a mystery instead of a formula. What he says here is quite beautiful. Grace has been bought by the blood of Christ and He can spend it anyway He likes...and He seems to do just that, as Rob points out through a variety of New Testament stories. A quick overview of New Testament passages confirms that there are, indeed, lots of ways to come to Christ. God is dynamic and personal. And Jesus tells us that we will be surprised at who will and will not be in Heaven. Ultimately, it is clear that Love Wins out in the end. Much more than any of us deserve.

3. Rob's questions, many that he himself answers imprecisely, inadequately, and naively are, nonetheless, fantastic, insightful questions. He is providing such rich fodder for the best thinkers, writers, teachers, preachers among us. I hope they will tackle them and give us better, more biblical, more rigorous answers than Rob has given to this point. Nonetheless, I salute him for asking them. That is the first and most important stepping stone in the process of knowledge, and he has kicked the ball into play. It feels portentous, like some very good things will come as a result of what he has done.

4. I love Rob's emphasis on the word ALL. He repeats a number of scriptures that say God seeks all people and will restore all things. He makes us really think about what that actually means. Does God get His way? I honestly admit I don't know how it works, I don't know the Greek and Hebrew, but I do love that it can't simply be ignored. God's great heart reaches out to save everybody and everything and how wonderful to be reminded of that again.

Those are some of the strengths of the book. The weaknesses? These are my personal objections to some of what he's written, from a layman's perspective without the benefit of a theology degree.

1. His view of the afterlife is such a mish-mash hodge-podge of verses on the new heaven and earth, paradise, the temporary heaven, hades, the temporary hell, the millenial age, the ongoing earth, that you wonder if he has ever taken a course in systematic theology. He makes bad sense out of something that Randy Alcorn in the book Heaven has already made much more clear. When you have an essential beloved person in heaven, you spend a considerable amount of time sorting what you can about the afterlife from scripture. On the basis of Rob's sloppy research, he has obviously never had a pressing need to do just that.

2. His argument that God wouldn't save a few and send billions to hell for not saying the "right" prayer is overwrought hyperbole. It makes the church look stupid, which isn't kind of him. I've never actually heard a preacher say a thing like that...at least no one that anyone is listening to. Jesus Himself said the road to life is narrow and few find it, while the way to destruction is broad and many go there-in. The terms, "few" and "many" are general terms that have no mathematical component to them, and to attach "billions" to it is a disservice. It causes people to stop paying attention to what Jesus said, (which was meant to inspire us to ask ourselves if we have entered by the narrow or broad gate --a question to which each of us intuitively know the answer), and to begin ridiculing the concept.

3. Rob's insinuation that Christians don't take care of social justice issues because we don't see the earth as ongoing, is a huge error. Christians are the largest, most generous supporters of human needs causes on the planet, whether they believe the earth will "continue on" or not. That generosity is motivated out of love and compassion, not simply trying to fix this place. I think it's pretty clear that this place will not arrive at "fixed". Revelation tells us it will eventually be consumed by fire and there will be a new heaven and a new earth. The demise of the earth is a bad chapter in a book that has a shining, happy ending, but loving the people on this earth has eternal value.

4. The most personally offensive to me? Rob's discussion of life and death as the cycle through which all good things come. His reasoning is that life and death are a cycle since creation, and therefore part of God's great plan. He uses the example that the plant has to die to give us life; the firefighter has to die to save someone else's life. I had a hard time with his shallow thinking on this topic. Having lived through the death of someone essential to my life, I don't see death in general as the mechanism that God uses to restore the earth. He used One Death, Christ's death, to make sure that death died and He tells us that death is the last enemy that will die. Death is an enemy, not a friend. An aberration, not the original plan. It is a result of fallenness, a consequence with which we are forced to live, not a blessing to the planet. How did he miss this great fundamental truth in seminary?

5. My last objection to the book is an assessment about Rob's character. I sense that Rob has never really suffered. He grew up loved and sheltered in an intact, Christian family. He is white, educated, and wealthy. He is a fantastically gifted communicator, he has a large and successful church, he appears to be happily married, he has healthy children, he is still young. How close has evil ever come to him? How much has he lost in life? It is not his fault he hasn't suffered. Who would wish that on anybody? But I have to say that he lacks experience and credibility with those who have suffered, and there is a blitheness in tone when people haven't suffered that can be instantly picked up on the radar screen by those who have. While he is compassionate toward the hurting, there is no indication that he has ever suffered enough personal pain to be left longing for relief and comfort and heaven. If he had, I daresay he would view this tired earth, and the glorious heaven to come, through somewhat different eyes.

Just a thought. My small two cents. What do you think of Love Wins?

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. —Philippians 3:20-21


Gberger said...

Thank you for writing this. I haven't read the book, and - to be honest - chances are, I won't, but I loved reading your well-thought-out, well-structured and clear comments, both pro & con. Your voice is strong, good, and needed in this world! I've missed it. xoxoxo

Beckypdj said...

Exactly what Karen said :), but I might read it.

Paul Reisser said...

Great post! Thank you for your thoughtful, non-knee-jerk observations. I'm still reading the book and wrestling with his treatment (and my understanding) of this all-important topic. Also planning on several interesting conversations with Dan, Dan and Dean over Friday morning breakfasts. (Yes, the tradition lives on.)

Daisy said...

"the firefighter has to die to save someone else's life."?

You gotta be kidding me? I'm with Karen G; I appreciate hearing what you had to say about the book.


Liza on Maui said...

Like what Karen G said, I loved reading your well-thought-out, well-structured and clear comments, both pro & con.

We have most of Rob's DVD (you got us started :) but I have not read any of his books (due to lack of time). It would be interesting to read it someday, but for now I enjoy reading the discussions going on abt it on Facebook and Twitter :) I like most of his teachings but there were times when I "felt" some of it were not right. Of course "feelings or intuitions" are not reliable, but it's a good "headsup" for me in many circumstances. It's a check, sort of a discernment.... anyways ...

By the way, can I tweet a link to this on Twitter and will cc Rob Bell? who knows, he might reply :)

Anonymous said...

Karen my dear, your post is absolutely amazing. I have not read it and won't for now but loved hearing you explain things. You should be the writer, you are so gifted that way and with all the other wonderful things about you it makes perfect sense to be blessed enough to have you as a friend. Been VERY busy but things are going well. xoxoxo Sharon

Steve and Janna said...

I lOVE your wise and insightful comments here Karen! I think you should email them to FOX, CNN, et al and it might help the network journalists de-construct his book and theology for all of us. Perhaps even Rob himself would be open to your critique. I especially loved your discussion of the book's weaknesses in points 4 and 5. That type of ivory tower, abstract "intellectual" theology always bugs me. Jesus clearly demonstrates His passionate heart and soon coming Kingdom of God in His love and compassion for others in His miraculous healings and His grief and tears in raising the dead!

Anonymous said...

Karen, I love and appreciate you for so many reasons!
Here are a few of them.
1.Your commpassion
2.The suffering you've experienced and now put into words for all of us. You'll never know how much this has meant to me. You speak for many.
3.Your loving, self sacrificial, teaching,sharing and building up of our families.
4.For showing up. over and over.
5.That what you love most is God's grace and mercy.
6.Your honesty.
7. Your transparency
8. And you're so darn smart.
Love you! Becky L.

_klv said...

Your review really honest. I like that. And that's why I felt like saying something about it. I think you are the type of person that actually engages in conversation, not arguments.

I have not finished the book, but have been following the interviews and articles for a while. I agree with you when you say that Bell has not offered the final answer to the questions he raises, and I wonder if we'll live to have them answered. They are questions that have been open for thousands of years! But like you said, maybe our part is in the struggle to find the answers as much as it was in every character of the scripture to push the truth a little further since we all belong to a bigger story.

Regarding the weaknesses of the book, I'd say:

1. You are right, Randy Alcorn explains a lot of Heaven in his book but even he has some holes that he admits and recommends looking for George E. Ladd's books. Maybe Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright would give you more answers on the "tecnical" aspects of heaven. I believe Bell didn't engage in that because the main purpose of the book is the implications here and now more than the details of the then and there.

3. I have not done research on statistics, but I've been a christian for 28 years now and my experience is that more than 90% of the time, the churches I've met (and I have a lot of relatives as pastors and denominational leaders) are more interested in their growth and administration than in social justice.

4. I haven't got to that part yet in the book. If you have not seen the "tomato" volume of nooma, maybe you should. You'll probably understand what he means by death as a process. You can also read Gene Edwards "The Divine Romance". The bible makes it clear that we all need to participate in Christ's death to be able to participate in his resurrection. You mentioned that someone died for you, that gives you a perspective that maybe not all of us have, but he is talking from the other side, seeing other people as worth dying for. Ie., "I won't leave this room in the middle of the argument, because my partner is worth dying for" or "I won't give up on my teenagers because they are worth dying for". When you give more of yourself for the sake of others, sometimes feels like dying. You see the cycle in nature, no tree is forever green, winter looks like death. Life needs that process of rejuvenation.

5. As for Rob's character, I'd agree with you if financial stability and education was everything we needed to be happy. We all have our gifts and lacks, some have worked more on them than others. Rob does not seem to me the type of person that tells his story seeking for commiseration. I think there is a lot of pain we don't know. I wish too I had half of the gifts he has, but then I wonder if I really don't have mine and I'm just wasting them. I think that eventually somebody will write his biography (if he does not do it himself), then we will know. He's changed church's history, and that does not happen sitting in a couch just thinking what your next controversial book will be.

Please don't take anything in a personal level. I liked your post, I hope I'm just adding to the conversation.

Grace and peace.

_klv said...

I apologize for nor reading the whole blog before posting. I'm sorry for your loss. I truly believe that I can't understand the pain of people who have lost a child. May God's grace and peace abound in your family.

Just one more comment. Even I have not experienced a loss. The last four years have been the most painful in my life and one of the authors that has helped me the most is Henry Nouwen. Specially "Turn My Mourning into Dancing". His books are simple but have helped me to heal. Maybe they won't mean much to you, but wanted to share a blessing.

Thanks for your blog.

Anonymous said...

Haven't read the book Karen but remember this about grace!
From a dear friend.
Lamentations 3

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
2 He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.
4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones.
5 He has besieged me and surrounded me
with bitterness and hardship.
6 He has made me dwell in darkness
like those long dead.
7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
he has weighed me down with chains.
8 Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.
9 He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked.
10 Like a bear lying in wait,
like a lion in hiding,
11 he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help.
12 He drew his bow
and made me the target for his arrows.
13 He pierced my heart
with arrows from his quiver.
14 I became the laughingstock of all my people;
they mock me in song all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitter herbs
and given me gall to drink.
16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the LORD.”
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.
28 Let him sit alone in silence,
for the LORD has laid it on him.
29 Let him bury his face in the dust—there may yet be hope.
30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.
31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.

And another beautiful quote in my Bible: Eph, 17-18-19
18 And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. 19 May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.

No, don't agree with all of Rob Bell(especially about everyone going to Heaven)but would like to read his book.
I on the other hand thank God for those called to evangelize!
I do think though He is on to something about God's love just as Martin Luther was on to something about God's grace. Rob is stretching our sacred cow and we immediately want him silenced. But as I said, I haven't read the book.

I think the key comes from Lamentations 3:
25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.

Steve and Janna said...

Karen, have you read Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo? I was wondering about your thoughts, I just read it and was so encouraged!

The Girl Who Lives In My Head said...

Wow Karen. Thank you so much for taking the time to write out your review. In so many ways you articulated thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head regarding Rob Bell and the his writings. I am a black and white thinker so I get really impatient with his writing. I love and can understand what you appreciate about his writings. I don't like to question things-it scares me but as I grow I see that asking questions isn't always a bad thing and I hope I get more comfortable with those ask them... As far as the books weaknesses, once again you were able to out fingers to keyboard on the loose thoughts that swirled as I read the book. I find him to be so arrogant and often feel like his books punch me in the face leavng me beat up and discouraged instead of inspiring me to move and be more like Christ. That is why I don't usually like his stuff. I am hard enough on myself. All that to say, thanks. I like reading your perspective and how you communicate your thoughts. You are a very intelligent, compassionate, articulate woman and I love your willingness to share your heart.

Maggie Rowe said...

Karen, thank you for the deeply thoughtful review. I work for Tyndale House PUblishers and we are releasing a response to Rob Bell's book in July called God Wins. May I send you a copy for review? I was also touched reading about your wonderful son Joey on your blog. I raised five kids and my heart has been touched by your son's life.