This week one of my Seminary professors, Dr. John Byron, wonders in his blog why the church isn’t having a conversation about homosexuality. Too often we hear pastors and other members of the church saying that they are “for” or “against”, “pro” or “con,’ but how often are we actually talking about the problem and searching for what is right? Surely the Bible has something to say and can inform us as we wrestle with a difficult problem, or have we given up on the authority of scripture? I find it especially odd that Methodists, who claim to be the people of ‘Holy Conferencing’, are so quick to draw lines in the sand before having a real, genuine, and honest conversation in pursuit of the truth.
As I said, Rob Bell asks some great questions and they are important, life or death questions but his approach to answering some of them is sloppy. I found that disappointing in someone who writes so well. When I say that Rob Bell’s approach is sloppy, here is what I mean: In seminary we were taught that we should always allow the text of scripture to speak for itself. We were taught how to properly interpret scripture, how to translate difficult words and to look at how that writer, or other Biblical writers used those words in similar contexts so that we could correctly discern the intended meaning. Beyond this, we were taught never to proof-text. Proof-texting happens when we decide what the Bible should say and then proceed to dig out Biblical texts that align with, and therefore seem to prove, our initial theories. Rob Bell may not be proof-texting in “Love Wins” but he seems to draw awfully close to that line. Bell begins his book with an entire chapter devoted to describing what he wants to find in the Bible and uses whatever texts that seem to agree with him and either ignoring or skipping over texts that present significant problems. Ben Witherington even finds occasions where Bell has grossly misinterpreted scriptures so that they agree with his arguments where the correct interpretations would stand in opposition to it.
Bell says that heaven and hell are real and that they exist here on earth. It’s a nice sentiment, but that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus said that heaven is in another place. Jesus said that hell is real. Rob Bell says that we can decide, after death, to accept Christ but Jesus says that a great chasm exists between heaven and hell and no one can bridge that gap. Bell thinks that if we can decide to choose Christ after our deaths then sooner or later nearly everyone will come to their senses, follow Jesus and enter into heaven. Jesus says that at the end of the age the weeds will be separated from the wheat and thrown into the fire. Jesus says that the weeds are the followers of the evil one and the wheat are the followers of God. I agree with Bell that some of the things in scripture are troublesome. Like Bell, I wish that billions of unbelievers would not be sentenced to punishment in hell, but I can’t just pretend that scripture doesn’t say what it says. We struggle with the texts of scripture. It isn’t easy and we do no one any favors when we take shortcuts.
If we have a high view of scripture, we believe that it says what it says. If we have this view, then we must define ourselves and our beliefs why what we discern from it. We cannot force what we wish to be true upon scripture.
In summary, “Love Wins” is very well-written and engaging but for all the good ideas and excellent questions contained in it, there is too much theology that is poorly thought out, too much off-target interpretation and too many places where the layman (because it is well written and engaging) is going to have difficulty discerning one from the other. For those reasons, I cannot recommend reading “love Wins” unless you have a copy of a reliable analysis (like Ben Witherington’s) alongside it to help you avoid the pitfalls along the way.
Amid the hubbub earlier this year over Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” I had several friends who either read or commented on it (or both). I have not been a follower of Rob Bell (although I have seen one or two of his Nooma videos) and so, despite the fuss, I wasn’t terribly tempted to read it for myself… until Pam, a Facebook friend, challenged me to read it for myself. Up until then, I had limited myself to sharing links to some really well-researched and well-written blogs about it by folks like Ben Witherington and Dr. John Byron (who was my Greek professor in Seminary). I promised Pam that I would read the book but I still didn’t want to buy it so I put my name on a list at the local library and waited. As luck (or the providence of God) would have it, the book came in just as we were preparing to leave for our church’s Youth Annual conference. I attend this conference with our youth, but the youth, and the youth leaders attend the business meetings and I only attend the concerts and listen to the speakers. As a result, I was able to squeeze in enough time to read through the book.
I was going to re-read the book and take notes but if I had, I would be writing a six part post (instead of two) and I would have been late returning the book to the library. Besides, other writers have more ably and more thoroughly dissected it already.
Frankly, the book made me sad.
It made me sad because I really enjoyed reading it. Rob Bell writes the way I talk. He isn’t hung up in sentence structure or having perfect paragraphs but writes in a style that reflects how we speak with one another. I find that style, occasionally, to be refreshing. What’s more Rob Bell writes well, has many really great ideas and asks some very important questions. Problems arise, however because of how Rob Bell proceeds after he has a good idea and after he asks a great question.
Rob Bell seems to want to have things both ways. He says that what Jesus did was done for us, with no exceptions, no confessions, and no believing required (p. 11), and yet he believes that this sort of Christianity should motivate us to do good. Why? If I believed that nothing is required of me in order to go to heaven, if I believed that I am not responsible for carrying the Good News to others (because nothing is required of THEM either), then what motivation do I have to do good or to tell others about the truth that I’ve found?
(continued in Part 2)