Well, I had a call from my local Christian bookshop yesterday that my copy of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has finally arrived, so later today I shall go to pick it up and read it – at last! It seems as though the controversy surrounding this book is now very old news in blogosphere terms, but it will be good to read what Bell actually says, rather than what others impute to him.
H/T to @Bruxy Cavey whose tweet brought to my attention a very gentle review of the book in RELEVANT magazine. The reviewer welcomed the book and the questions it raises but also raised some questions of their own as to how the view of hell expressed by Bell squares with the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels. To me it seemed the model of a good critical review.
However some of the comments following the review, while fairly good-natured in tone, seemed to me to demonstrate a mindset that I find rather unhelpful. One commenter responded to another’s comments with this:
I don’t disagree with your opinions, just with the tone of your last opinion. To state “keep your opinions to yourself unless asked” is, in and of itself, an opinion of how one should respond to Rob Bell’s book. Being open is not closing the door to criticism or to false doctrine or negative comments. It’s hearing everyone and everything out and stating why that person is wrong. [my emphasis]
I wonder whether we need to “state why that person is wrong”? What if the person is right? Maybe they are on to something that demands closer examination? And are we absolutely sure that we are in the right? And what is our real concern here? Can we bring ourselves to acknowledge points on which we can agree or which bring a different perspective? Are we coming with a humble attitude or are we seeking to score debating points?
Another commenter writes:
Rob Bell brilliantly and artistically, writes nothing, answers questions with questions, goes in circles, and dodges flat out saying what he makes obvious that he is flat out thinking…I prefer a more straight forward approach. It is a tedious task to follow his overly complex journeys through the scriptures. That interview on msnbc says it all. Just answer the question. [my emphasis, and some typos and grammar tidied up]
Hmm. “Just answer the question” is usually the cry of the frustrated interviewer. While it may be caused by, say, a politician’s desire to evade giving an an answer that might be politically and electorally disastrous, it may equally be the result of the questioner trying to force words into another person’s mouth. I surmise that the MSNBC interview referred to above was this one, rather than this. In the former, the interviewer does seem to be trying hard to make Bell say something using categories that Bell does not accept. Whereas in the latter the interviewer responds to what Rob is actually saying, rather than coming with their own set agenda.
“Just answer the question” sounds like a reasonable request. But suppose the question being asked is not capable of being answered in the terms in which it is set? Or suppose the underlying premises of the question are to some degree at fault? Or that the questioner’s premises are being challeneged? Or suppose that one needs to take a complex path through the scriptural material to come to a proper understanding of where scripture might be leading us (as opposed to taking a few proof texts)? “Just answer the question” may not help us get anywhere nearer the truth.
Reading the Gospels over the past few years has brought home to me just how often Jesus’ questioners must have wanted to yell, “Just answer the question!” Yet so often Jesus responds (just as many accuse Bell of doing) by asking another question. It is a not uncommon device in Jewish debate, and it forces us to clarify the terms on which we deal with one another. “You know the scriptures. How do you read?” says Jesus on a number of occasions. This then allows for follow-up questions that are far more profitable than simply “answering the question.” And notice too, if you will, how often Jesus responds with a parable; parables which, Jesus himself tells us (quoting Isaiah), are intended to distinguish those who will “get it” from those who won’t, those who are genuinely open and those who are pursuing a fixed agenda. It seems that Jesus rarely did “straightforward”.
In the same tweet, Bruxy linked to a post on The Rabbit Room blog concerning the tone of language used in the Love Wins and other debates, which notes the combination of aggresion and defensiveness which sometimes pervades. I have posted on this subject before, but it is good to find someone else concerned about this. It is almost 20 years since I began to question the fact that the tone of much evangelical debate seems to be intent on defending a particular position from all comers. A re-reading of the gospels convinced me that this was far from Jesus’ own normal modus operandi. He seems to have been far more open to the people who came to him – except for those who were convinced they already had their doctrine sewn up.
I will comment on the book itself in a few days once I have read it.