Sunday, March 20, 2011

Does Dogma Win? The Backlash Against Rob Bell

What the hell is up with the backlash against Rob Bell? To listen to the pushback against the preacher’s latest book Love Wins, we might begin to second-guess the message of our Savior. Is it satisfactory? Is Jesus enough?

Hearing and acknowledging the American poet Walt Whitman when he urged “Argue not concerning God,” I tiptoe into this worldwide online discussion to talk my truth, to see how my truth squares with The Truth. Is Rob Bell right or wrong? Does love really win?

Maybe Caesar Wins. Maybe Satan Wins. Maybe Empire Wins. Maybe Greed Wins. Maybe Hate Wins.

Maybe John 3:16—that cosmic verse that conveniently finds itself in the common liturgy this week—really reads, “For God so loathed the world that he sent his only Son to condemn us to Hell that we might experience eternal torment.”

Living in a postmodern but still militaristic and capitalist America, it sometimes baffles me why folks are so eager to follow this particular crucified and risen and unlikely Lord, this common worker and unschooled rabbi that we call Jesus. It confuses me why we frame all the revolutionary things he’s alleged to have said and done for subversive peace and radical humility in the first century as a kind of military victory (even if it’s just in metaphoric terms) to further feed our addiction to violence and conquest through the ages.

So maybe Rob Bell is wrong; and if so, the Jesus I follow probably is wrong, too. Maybe love loses. To confront the cross in logical and worldly terms, love loses. To read the history of conquest and war, love loses. To look at the legacy of general forgiveness in the planetary predicament of demonic denial and destruction, it’s pretty clear that when authoritarian armies win, love loses.

When I read the Bible, especially the New Testament, especially Christ’s creativity and Paul’s passion, there’s so much more going on than a logic of an eye-for-an-eye, tit-for-tat pain and punishment—there’s an irreverently reverent, irreligiously religious, illogical logic of love and liberation. When I read Love Wins, I feel the presence of God in the purposeful poetic voice of a compassionate pastor and jazzed-up Jesus follower. I hear someone who not only “got Jesus” when he confessed his sins and accepted his savior as a young person but someone who gets Jesus as the vast and visionary force for cosmic good that Jesus is.

To listen to the outright bashing and slander and accusation hurled at Bell by his sister and brother Christians, we cannot help but wonder if it’s the same Jesus that we’re talking about—a sober topic Bell addresses in the book without mincing words. Do we really need to fight and squabble over Jesus as if Jesus were a toddler’s toy truck in the transcendent sandbox?

Christ’s body was broken for us on the cross. We break Christ’s body when we share the Lord’s Supper. This breaking Body brings unity and love across boundaries and divisions and doctrines and denominations. If “the church” is this Body in the world, do we just need to keep breaking the bones of the Body to score points in online debates? Do we draw our brother’s blood instead of drinking our savior’s blood?

In the book, Bell suggests, “The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle [a] vast range of perspectives.” Is it?

A particular YouTube version of an interview conducted by Martin Bashir with Rob Bell crystallizes the contentious nature of the controversy. The “version” posted by Greg Hengler is intended to discredit Bell and is titled “MSNBC Host Makes Rob Bell Squirm: ‘You're Amending The Gospel So That It's Palatable!’”

When I first encountered this video the day it aired, someone remarked that Bashir “nails” Bell. I responded: Bashir only nails Jesus right back on the cross as we all do every day. Another popular response proposed that “Bell can’t answer direct questions” (even though he clearly and obviously does.) To that, I felt prompted to say: I do recall another teacher who often answered in riddles that led to more questions.

If the hordes of people commenting in totally derisive prose are correct, Christ-following is not a faith that can handle and sustain difficult questions. If the backlash is correct, Christ-following is not a deep and diverse and ancient story that includes more than one meaning and is infused with many more mysteries. If these folks hating on Bell with a such vigorous hate are actually the right ones, then questions that reveal more questions—that is, creative, critical, and paradoxical thinking—have no welcome place not only in our sound-byte, fast-food world but in our faith and fellowship world as well.

Bashir contends that Bell is making up his own gospel to be “warm, fuzzy, and popular.” The gospel of radical love has never been any of those. And the culture in which we live regularly mocks, persecutes, murders people who teach it. Bashir interrogates Bell decisively while the folks commenting on YouTube cheer him on, “Let’s get the heretic.” Bashir claims that the gospel of love that Bell teaches is not the same gospel of love that Jesus taught and that the gospel of love is just trying to be more “palatable” to a contemporary audience who “can’t handle” the Bible as interpreted as a right-wing, hard-core conservative, fundamentalist gospel of fear.

Apparently, Hengler posted this as some sort of disparaging “proof” that Bell is wrong about the Bible—an allegorical, mythopoetic, deeply paradoxical, and self-contradicting text if there ever was one. Apparently, some people read the same Bible I read in an entirely linear, legalistic, and “logical” fashion. We live in a culture where the so-called “logic” of a perverse, dualistic, violent, and hate-filled ideologue “God” is much more palatable than the God of love and light. If this gospel of “unconditional love wins” that Bell celebrates were actually palatable, the entire murderous narrative of the last 2000 years of rapes and abuses or of wars and conquests would be null and void. But in the same world, every day and everywhere, people take the risk to love in courageous ways. Why do we do this?

Is the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself and to love God with all of yourself contingent on a doctrine of permanent damnation as framed by the church or not? And if our love of God and neighbor is contingent on divine and permanent wrath, is it really love, or is it just the petrified and pitifully disguised fear of a good whipping from the divine Dad?

Judging by American Christianity’s reaction to Rob Bell’s new book, seems to me like we who call Christ our Master still might not be ready for how radical Jesus's love really is. I want to be ready for the loving and liberating Jesus, ready for Christ’s enormous and expansive love, so I will continue to wrestle with my doubts and fears that the Bell-haters might be right as they prove the atheists right: that God might really be a mean hateful dysfunctional jerk and his creation might be a cosmic mistake.

Not only does my heart tell me different, my miraculous conversion proves fear wrong. I want John 3:16 to be true—as my pastor this morning preached, in the form of an invitation and not a threat; I want to accept the wondrous, gorgeous, generous blessing of Christ’s gift to the world, a gift that keeps giving to me in the teaching, interpretation, and words of pastor Rob Bell.


  1. This is quite a post! How much time do you spend reading the Bible? Another question: If you die and find out that when Heb. 9 said " is appointed for men to die once and after this comes the judgment" it meant exactly that, are you going to be angry at Bell? Or if you discover that when Jesus pulled back the curtain for John so that he said, "And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books....Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire."...are you going to blame Bell for not warning you and those you care about? Just a thought.

  2. Hear! Hear! Andrew William Smith! Will the REAL Jesus please stand up! :) I know the Jesus you and Bell know. Thank you for your post. I will share this.

  3. Its crazy how we all have the same teacher but all get the different answers. I like Rob because all he is trying to do is to get us to question God, not man. Do I believe everything he believes? No. But We are all deprived of the Truth in the process of being redeemed, so let us all cling to Jesus and love one another, and pray for one another. Don't let this be a distraction from furthering God's kingdom. Perfect Love casts out fear.

  4. This has been the best review of Bell's book by far. Great job!

  5. Love Wins is just a troubling title. God wins. God is love, but love is not God. God is love, God is just, etc. So to isolate a particular divine quality is misguided. God wins. So for a God to win and for that God to be just, loving, etc then the full expression of his nature would need to come to bear on what it looks like for that God to win. So, going back to the anathema of Nicea and through the creeds and scripture, the Chritian tradition has affirmed that indeed, God does win, but that victory is expressed both in eternal life and judgement.

  6. Thank you for this. Best response I have seen so far. There's nothing "popular" about the stance Bell has taken.

    (I still can't figure out all the "He can't answer a direct question" silliness - he answered it clearly and directly. Just no one likes the answer.)

  7. "How much time do you spend reading the Bible?" -scott leonard. <-hahaha

    ...Anyways, I thought it was a great post!

  8. Great post. I followed a link here posted by Jay Bakker at Facebook. I like what you have to say and I like the books displayed on your background!

  9. Not only is John 3:16 true, but so is the oft-forgotten John 3:17! The "controversial" position Bell proposes is only controversial for those wearing Calvinist sunglasses. In fact, this is the position held by the Moravians who began the Protestant world mission movement, including Peter Boehler, who was most responsible for the conversions of John and Charles Wesley.

  10. Scott, you don't get it. But that's OK because Jesus got it for you.

  11. Hey Andrew, I hope you don't mind if I throw this into the mix...I think we really miss what the cross is really about.

  12. Wow, Martin Bashir really comes off as an arsehole who really loves to railroad people into binary thinking.

  13. Is it possible to discuss questions of theology without demanding the absolute truth of a position? I consider myself Christian, but view theology and religion to be a kind of language that we use to express and understand an incomprehensible truth. When we argue about whose position is correct it's like arguing whether English is better than French - some languages (or theologies) are better at describing certain things better than others, but that does not mean that one if more or less true. Understanding another faith enriches our own. Thank you all for helping me to enrich my own.

  14. I like Rob's gospel- it has a great ending because everyone gets saved. I think we all could ascribe to it,but I just can't see it in the Bible, I just don't think the arguments for it are strong enough!