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Love Wins!: In which I finish the book. Because I said i would!

And I bet you thought this day would never come, huh?
So let us begin with the rest of Rob Bell’s opus.
Ch. 4 is entitled “Does God get what God wants?” (Spoiler: Yes!)

And remember when I said that my basic problem with the book was that Bell was unclear on who his audience was?
This is a prime example.
There is never a question, seriously, about what the answer to the question that begins the chapter. The reader knows who Bell is, what his basic tenets of faith are–so any half-bright reader will know that this is not a real question.
But Bell proceeds to act like it is. Which is all the more puzzling, because the chapter (like the entire book) is set up like a Hallmark card to Protestant evangelicals. It’s intended for no one else. And actually, anyone who’s not conversant in evangelical-speak will have a really hard time understanding what he’s talking about half the time.

So when he eventually gets around to suggesting that, in fact, God possibly gets what God wants, in the eventual reconciliation of all souls to himself, it’s not a big surprise. (Come on, guy! You’re a Fuller-trained pastor. OF COURSE you believe in a classical three-legged stool of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.)

What is more of a surprise, though, is that he doesn’t assert it outright. Never comes close to it, in fact.
He just points out that people have answered this question in a lot of different ways, and lots of really faithful Christians, through the years, have argued several different things, including:
1. Evil choices result in evil choices made to cover up the initial choices, thus causing a sort of addiction that’s nearly impossible to break, hence eternal damnation.
2. It is possible, through a lifetime of sin, to annihilate the divine image within you to the point where you become ‘post-human.’ (He leaves it there, but the implications of this give me a migraine. I really take issue with this suggestion.)
3. Second-chance people (here he cites Luther, Clement of Alexandria and Origen) who would argue that God’s love and action do not cease after this life, but continue acting even after death, such that all people are eventually transformed and reunited with God.

He basically ends it there. Look, he says, so many options! All of them so interesting! Oh look, something shiny over here in the next chapter!

What he does for the rest of the book, is expand the scope. So for the next chapter (‘Dying to Live’) we talk about various understandings of the cross, in really vague terms. And the next chapter, (‘There are Rocks Everywhere’) he hints at a cosmic Christ the same way he was hinting at a universal salvation before. Though, again, he never comes out and says it.
(Actually, I’m being a bit harsh. He does a pretty good job of pointing out that the Christ described in Colossians is not sectarian, and we should be mindful of that. This is as near as he comes to making a definitive statement on theology, and it’s taking the stance of ‘Everyone believes in Jesus, because Jesus saves the world. Even if people don’t call Jesus by his name, those silly, misguided Other-Religious-Folk!’)

But my frustration arises because I can’t help but wonder if he’s being slightly disingenuous. I honestly can’t tell. Earnestness is not a trait that comes naturally to me in normal conversation (I am a Millennial; sarcasm is my blessing and my curse.) and this book is extraordinarily earnest. So, I can’t tell if he honestly can’t make up his mind about what he truly believes, or if he is being so open-ended because he’s worried about what the results might be.

He speaks from such a privileged position within his movement; he has a large church, he has a huge following on the Internet, he’s recognized, he’s published, he has power with a great many people. And this book reads like he’s scared of what that power actually means.

One of the excellent points he raises towards the end of the book is that the good news of the gospel needs to be better than it has been presented as. Agreed! Wholeheartedly! And while I’m ecstatic that someone has raised this point, (along with the fact that the continued insistence on a God who would damn entire swaths of his creation to Hell because he was annoyed, tends to turn people off, rather than bring them to church), this scenario won’t change until it’s actually confronted. And for whatever reason, Rob Bell doesn’t do it.

Love Wins!: Questions at Heaven’s Door, Ch 1-2

Because of how the first chapter is laid out, I’m combining the first and second chapters of “Love Wins”.  Basically, the first chapter, entitled, ‘What about the flat tire?’ poses a series of questions which the book, as a whole, will answer, or attempt to answer.  (Spoiler alert.)

They are good questions, they need to be asked, and, again, Rob Bell is doing a noble, martyr-like  job in bringing them up to his community.  (Have you seen his YouTube page’s comment section recently?  His community hasn’t been so friendly.)
That being said, the questions are predicated again on assumptions  that aren’t examined.  Nearly all the situations Bell brings up are based around the idea of how you properly believe. What’s the ‘age of accountability’?  How do you know when you’ve sincerely said the Jesus prayer, and how do you know it’s worked? How are you saved, “saved” meaning “going to heaven to be with God and Jesus after you die”?
All of these are specifically Protestant concerns– more than that, they are 20-21st century American evangelical Protestant concerns.  (Fun experiment– ask any Eastern Orthodox Christian about any of what I just wrote.  See?  To make up for the fact that you just ran an experiment on them, in a gesture of ecumenical friendliness, promise to never again say the Filioque clause.).
In Bell’s defense, he makes the point that all of these things are, in face, problematic.  Have to say a prayer to “be saved”?  Ok, but what if you say it wrong?  Or you didn’t understand it?  And he’s right.  His questions are good.
My problem with what he does is that he doesn’t really deconstruct the assumptions– he just pokes them a bit.  He never asks what ‘being saved’ might mean, or, hey, how it probably means something really different for us today in middle-upper class suburban churches than it did for persecuted minority Christians in the Roman Empire.  Or for a slave in the American South in 1860.
Which gets me into chapter 3: ‘Here is the New There”. Which is about specifically about heaven.
:: takes deep breath::  When I read this chapter through the first time, I read the whole thing, getting progressively more excited, got to the end, and got really annoyed and frustrated.  Here’s why.
In Ch. 1, Bell poses all these questions about how someone gets saved, based on biblical quotes, wherein he conflates phrases like ‘kingdom of heaven’, ‘forgiveness of sins’, ‘age to come’ and ‘salvation’.  Which all mean entirely different things in context.  ‘Kingdom of heaven’, for example, means about 20 different things in Matthew, and that’s being conservative.
In Ch.2,entitled “Here is the New There,” Bell actually addresses that.  (Hooray!)  He points out that for a large part of the 1st century community, saying ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was another way of referring to God, and the reign of God on earth.  So there’s that.  (Hooray again.)
He also points out that it’s not like Jesus’s community had a clear concept of heaven-as-otherwordly-and-floaty-on-a-cloud.  Heaven, for them, was the complete manifestation of God’s will.  As he puts it.  Heaven, then, is achieved not so much by dying and getting transported somewhere else, but by doing God’s will on earth, and by participating in God’s recreation of the earth.
He follows this up by talking about how there are tons of different dimensions that we simultaneously participate in (via string theory), and heaven can be more real to us (sort of like being in love) than our present reality.
Ok.  It’s not that I disagree with Bell.  I don’t.  It’s just that I don’t think he goes quite far enough with some of the ideas he puts out there.  He’s pulling his punches.
If you are going to start to deconstruct the biblical passages that undergird ‘salvation theology’ then do it.  Tell me what exactly salvation means for Jesus. (Hint:  Jesus never says–Have a personal relationship with me.  We have jackets!)  Bell starts by pointing out that for Jesus’ community, it’s not otherworldly, but that also means it was material and physical.  It was in the here and now.
That is a huge statement to make, and it needs to be unpacked and explained, especially for an evangelical Protestant audience.  (Trust me.  I said that last night to a Lutheran college group reading this book and everyone stared at me.  Fun times!)  Bell never quite gets there.  He opens the door, but never goes through.
Also, an aspect that Bell never addresses is the communal aspect of heaven.  He brings up the story of the rich man and Jesus (Rich man asks Jesus how to enter heaven).  Salvation, being physical and not otherworldly-on-a-cloud-someplace, is also not just between me and Jesus.  When the rich man asks what he must do, Jesus responds by listing the commandments that have to do with our relationship to other people:  (don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, etc).  Salvation depends on others in a real way.  We are saved for each other, not from each other.

Love Wins: And so do tiny sentences, evidently.

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.
(Whole thing?
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.