Saturday, January 28, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about what my late father might have said about Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. An Anglican minister who struggled mightily with his faith in the privacy of his sometimes tormented soul, my father practiced and preached the dogma of the Church of England to his various congregations--at times wrestling within even as he officiated at communion or read from the Bible at the lectern. He started out as a "High Church" man who loved the theatrical aspects of ritual--the robes, the candles on the altar, the ritual processions and gestures. His country parishioners generally disapproved of such frivolities, and he had to learn to cater to them--much as he had to temper, at least from the pulpit, his socialist beliefs. Toward the end of his life, he came to embrace the European ecumenism--based in Taize, France--that sought to find common ground between the various Christian denominations--catholic and protestant.

Like Rob Bell, my father was inclined to find the fun in fundamentalists. (A scurrilous aside: skip this if you have sensitivities about language. This country pastor used to tell, with considerable glee, the story from his undergraduate days at Cambridge, when a somewhat naive and humorless fundamentalist group saw fit to call themselves the Cambridge University New Testament Society, and cheerfully plastered posters all over town with their acronym printed in bold letters at the top.) I like to think that his beliefs were broad-minded enough to have acknowledged the truth that Bell propounds: the vision of a non-exclusive Christianity, paying homage to a generous, expansive, transcendent God whose love extends beyond the small number of his merely pious--self-righteous?--followers to include those countless millions of perplexing "others," no less human, but definitely not Christian.

(I should mention at this point that, through the intermediary of mutual friends, Ellie and I had dinner with Rob Bell and his family the other night. It was a joyous and rewarding encounter, full of good fun and laughter. Our hosts for the evening were David Vanderveen, editor of The Love Wins Companion and his wife, Sarah. Message: Do not read this as a "book review" in the usual sense. As I have reiterated many times in the past, I am not a critic...)

That said, it's my understanding that Bell's book was hugely controversial in the Christian community when it first came out last year (as usual, I'm the late-comer!) The author stood accused, it seems, of the heresy of "universalism"--the sin of diluting Christian dogma in order to allow for the good will of people of other faiths, or no faith, and their eligibility to share in the love of the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God in whom Christians proclaim their faith. Bell argues--rightly, in my view--that such thinking does not diminish God, but rather enhances his greatness. A non-believer myself at the best of times, I have never come close to an understanding of those who so readily condemn their fellow humans to eternal damnation even as they loudly proclaim their own sanctity and salvation. Heaven and hell are useful concepts only to those who credit themselves with being on the side of the angels.

So why is this book controversial? Could we not all agree that love--in its most expansive, all-encompassing form--is a Good Thing. And that unconditional love--the kind that is given with unreserved generosity, requiring no reward--is an even Better Thing? Forgive me, but this just seems patently obvious to me. Not easy to practice for us flawed human beings, certainly, but eminently desirable. Don't we all long to be loved that way? For the Buddhist, the ideal is to be able to actually practice such compassion. Since I myself am unwilling to believe in a God who embraces me in his love, I must learn as best I can to perform that function for myself, as well as for others. I have to wonder--perhaps a little enviously--how it feels to be wrapped in a creator's arms.

"Love Wins" is a fine read. It escorts us graciously and with humor through the minefield of theological conundrums. Bell's voice is filled with passion for his arguments, but a passion that is also intimate and conversational, direct in its address; rather than providing all the answers, it opens up questions for the reader to ponder and debate. I love that he leaves ample space on the page for this to happen, and that he's not afraid of the silence the blank space suggests. I like, too, his inventive use of the line break, the dramatic pause, the rhetorical exclamation point. He can, truth to tell, become a little arch--as in arching the eyebrows in mock surprise or horror, a verbal throwing up of the hands, a nod and a wink to the wise--but we forgive him that because he is at the same time so entertaining. He delights in playing with his reader. (Having been brought up with it ringing in my ears, I also miss the glorious language of the King James Bible in his biblical quotations. But that's just me.)

Most of all, Bell's voice sounds to me like a voice of welcome, kindly sanity in a field of human aspiration where insanity and contention all too often seems to rule. Creationists, climate change deniers and rapturists beware, you'll get no back-up for your arguments from Bell's God, whose stubborn love of humanity transcends even human ignorance and willful stupidity. If God is Love--and Love is God--I can go along with that, even as a disbeliever. I like to believe that my father would have, too. Not to mention the Buddha. Thanks, Rob!

1 comment:

David V said...

Thank you for this review, Peter! Your review reminds me of similar words of wisdom from Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, who also questioned the value of a stingy love:

A prominent evangelical had criticized those of us who have been in a sustained dialogue with Catholics for giving the impression that a person can be saved without having the right theology about justification by faith. My response to that: of course a person can be saved without having the right theology of justification by faith. A straightforward question: Did Mother Teresa go to hell? My guess is that she was a little confused about justification by faith alone. If you think that means she went to hell, I have only one response: shame on you.

Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people like that who want to keep too many people out? Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?"