Remember that time I asked if y’all would be interested in my rambling thoughts on Rob Bell’s new book? Well, being as no one talked me out of it, I hereby begin a weekly series that shall be known as:
Love Wins! (You’d think more people would be happy.)
Part 1: Preface: Millions of Us
First off, let’s get this out of the way:
The layout is driving me up the wall.
I mean, really.
It reads like this.
Tiny little lines.
And questions? So many little questions?
Have you noticed?)
Either I am not trusted enough to read two complete sentences in a row, or he’s going for something akin to oral presentation in a written form (difficult to believe, given the overall vocabulary level of the book– that generally takes a lot of thinking/reading out loud in your head) or, option three, he’s segueing into a pseudo- poetical form, and trying to make the reader feel deep and insightful. Actually this would go along with a theory I’m beginning to develop about the way Bell is approaching this book, and its topic. More on that later.
Bell opens the book with stating something that should be apparent, but might not be, for the average reader of this book: Jesus’s central message is about God’s expansive love, but this central message frequently gets lost when surrounded by talk of heaven vs hell, and fiery damnation. So then, our struggle now is whether this heaven and hell stuff really is central (& biblical) to the message, or whether it is adiaphora. He points out that arguing and dissent is not new in Christianity, and that, in fact, the Bible records lots of debate, even with God. and, he argues that nothing he is proposing is new– it’s all been said before in the course of Christian history.
A few things:
Hooray for Rob Bell, given that he is a prominent evangelical pastor, and he is confronting this, most central, and most thorniest of issues for the Protestant-y community. That takes courage, and given the book’s reception, even before it hit shelves, he deserves credit for raising the issue. That being said…..
From reading the book, I am getting conflicting messages. On the one hand, Bell explicitly tells the reader that this isn’t new. On the other hand, the language he uses and the entire set up of the book suggests over and over that this is SHOCKING, SURPRISING, INFLAMMATORY information, that I need to be led to gently, lest my head explode. The text layout (as I mentioned before) strikes me as odd on this count as well. All short little sentences and lots and lots of questions. What are you trying to ease me into? Why am I going to need to be eased into this?!? Good Lord, man, WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?
At no point are there footnotes, citations, even explicit biblical verses (just descriptions). I’d expect if he’s trying to convince me of something that’s been out there before….that he’d show me these preexisting ideas. The way it reads now, despite the assertion of the preface, it seems like this is an idea, the rightness of which, has just occurred to him. (If so, honestly, even more credit to him. Changing like that is not easy. But in that case, he should cop to that. He didn’t just uncover the idea of universalism, bless his heart.).
Also, it’s striking to me, just in reading the preface, just how very assumed- evangelical this is. Which is not to say that it’s bad. It’s not. There are just many assumptions just under the surface that I don’t happen to share, being a non-evangelical, and not-so-Protestanty. For example, he makes the assumption that there is essentially a single story of Jesus unambiguously and harmoniously recorded in the bible, and that this Jesus can be easily and unequivocally understood by all people everywhere with minimal confusion.
Like I said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. My first reaction is that it’s sort of sweet, really. (Awww! Evangelical modernist assumptions!)
But it’s a big, huge assumption to make, and it guides a lot of his thinking. So, for example, he just goes ahead and cites Jesus, without making allowances for which gospel a parable appears in, what community wrote it or what their needs were, or (and this is sort of a biggie) the 2nd Temple Jewishness of everyone involved. This will come up more later, but suffice it to say that: Assumptions! Rob Bell has them.
As do we all.