Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.
Each week, they’ll read one chapter, and trade a few emails discussing the chapter. This week, they discuss Chapter 7: The Good News is Better Than That
Ben Bartlett: “But as Rob whirls us from thought to thought with beautiful affirmations of the life God can offer, my question is this; how are we to know when he makes a mistake, or when he goes to far?”
Rob Bell has a beautiful way with words. Despite a few key disagreements, I very much enjoyed his prose in this week’s chapter, as he described the great joys and beauties of the gospel as he understands it.
Rob Bell is a compassionate man. Even as he discusses theology, he keeps returning in helpful, context-setting ways to stories of people with especially difficult circumstances and challenges. Rob thinks in serious and sincere ways about the problems of the world. He has a clear, strong desire that his words might inspire more loving, compassionate living among his readers. His compassion defines his pastoral nature, as he clearly leads people through listening to them and understanding their hearts. I really love those things about him.
Rob is also a passionate and happy person. His joy overflows in discussing everything from relationships to God to parties to a better world. Rob clearly knows what it is to throw yourself into your life with verve; to enjoy family, friends, and faith. That’s an example we should all aspire to.
Finally, Rob is incredibly creative. His mind takes very simple stories, plays with them, re-imagines them, and then retells them with more force and detail than they had before. He moves seamlessly from analytical interpretation to philosophical rumination and back again. He knows how to take you, step by step, down a pathway you had not seen before. And he does it all with such poetry that you enjoy it the way you would enjoy choir music or modern dance.
But as Rob whirls us from thought to thought with beautiful affirmations of the life God can offer, my question is this; how are we to know when he makes a mistake, or when he goes to far?
Rob asks for a lot of trust; we are to trust his reading of the Greek, his hermeneutics, his analysis, his ruminations on how a loving God ought to act, his ideas about the early church and its use of metaphors. And really, it seems the basis for this trust is the emotion he makes us feel when he says beautiful things about life and about God.
As someone who loves to read, this hits me poorly because I find a lot of people compelling. I was drawn, seemingly against my will, to the powerful minds of Nietzsche and Rand and Ortega y Gasset. I was intrigued by the intricate, pragmatic honesty of Machiavelli and Conrad. I was moved, sometimes to tears, by the richness of Heschel and Malamud and Potok. And yet none of these could fully speak the truth, because none knew the truth. They mostly knew how to exercise a gift they had been given.
I fear that Love Wins began in the heart of a compassionate pastor looking to win back hearts that were hurt or disillusioned, rather than in careful study of the Word of God. He set out to recast the Biblical story in a more compelling and moving and gentle light because he knew Christ to be compelling and moving and gentle.
He did everything in his power to emphasize the beauty of Christ, but in so doing a new structure began to form in his mind. New ideas and ways of reading verses leapt to the fore. He experienced the power of confirmation bias, where we subconsciously tell ourselves stories and overemphasize anything that confirms those stories, while deemphasizing anything that challenges those stories.
I know I’ve done this. For years, I taught strongly Arminian theology, certain that everything about the Bible confirmed God’s protection of our free will and certain that God would be less glorified if he ever messed with that. And then I switched, and became strongly Calvinistic. And now? I’m probably somewhere in between.
Whatever the case, my mind is quite good at understanding and erecting philosophical structures, and it is very difficult for me to overcome my tendency to see what I want to see and deny those things that challenge my understanding. Isn’t it possible this has happened to Rob as well?
I think Rob’s creativity has taken him too far, and the implications of his compassionate musings have led him to support a position that is essentially heretical. He has changed the shape and meaning of the gospel, denied or ignored key elements of the character of God, and altered the central element of the cross from its legal function to take on the role of merely affirming God’s created order.
And though I understand how he got there and have high confidence in his compassionate, pastoral heart, I think he has made a mistake. I hope each person will consider carefully whether the beauty of the things Rob says are worth the danger they pose.
Kiel Hauck: “I think Rob Bell’s message in this chapter is not only beautiful, but vital for so many people in helping them to understand God’s grace. It truly is good news. It’s the kind of good news that makes me rejoice to know such a loving, merciful, caring God.”
I guess I want to start by asking who you think we should trust. Whose reading of the Greek, whose hermeneutics, whose analysis, whose ideas about the early church are accurate? Who’s really telling us the truth? By your own admission, your theology on different subjects has changed and evolved during your time as a Christian – mine has as well. As has almost everyone I know, including pastors, teachers, church leaders, and authors. With that in mind, who out there has it all together and has everything figured out? Because if we’re all incapable of grasping and knowing the full truth at all times, then we’re all flawed and in danger of believing and teaching false truths about God.
Here’s what I believe. I believe in the priesthood of all believers. I believe that the Holy Spirit lives inside of us and teaches us and helps us comprehend the things of God. I also believe that each of our lives, our experiences, play a role in shaping our view of things and how God speaks to us. The way God speaks to one person and reveals himself in that person’s life might be completely different than the way he does so in another’s. I believe that we are free to grow and understand God and have disagreements in the meantime because we’re only seeing as in a dim mirror – we haven’t yet seen face-to-face.
In this chapter, Bell beautifully unfolds the story of the prodigal son. We find both sons separated from the father for a number of different reasons, yet both sons have their father’s favor! The things that caused the separation are null and void due to their father’s love, it’s just a matter of them recognizing that instead of living under their own understandings – the younger son that he isn’t worthy and the older son that he can earn his father’s love through his devotion and rightness. Bell says:
Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive, ecstatic announcement of the gospel.
So are your goodness, your rightness, your church attendance, and all the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made and actions you have taken.
Why is it so many people explain the gospel like this: “You’re saved by grace. BUT, you also have to believe the right things. Make sure you have all that stuff sorted out and together before you die. Or before you talk about your faith to anyone else.” Where did that come from? Where do we get that? I have to agree with Bell on this one – the good news is better than that. He says that “Jesus meets and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don’t, in all the times we proudly display for the world our goodness, greatness, and rightness, and in all of the ways we fall flat on our faces.”
When you say that Rob Bell is “essentially heretical”, you’re saying as much about yourself as you are Bell. In saying that, you’re telling us that you’ve got a grasp on the truth that he doesn’t – you have a correct understanding where he is at fault. The problem is, you’ve admitted to us that you’re capable of being wrong too and that your own understandings of God have evolved and continue to do so. I don’t fault you for this, because you’re in the same boat as the rest of us – a flawed human trying to understand the supreme being of the universe – God, the great I Am.
I have friends who type out the word God like this – “G-d”. I’ve always thought that was beautiful. The idea is that God is so mysterious, so unsearchable, that we can’t even fill in his name. There’s mystery there. Characters in the Bible are regularly mystified by God. Paul erupts into worship in Romans 11, saying “how unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” We serve a patient and understanding God, Ben. I am thankful for this because I know how incapable I am of wrapping my small mind around him.
If at the end of all of this, you still find Rob Bell to be heretical, that’s fine. You are within your right to have that opinion. However, I do encourage you to think hard about the implications of such a statement, because I believe them to be quite large. I think Rob Bell’s message in this chapter is not only beautiful, but vital for so many people in helping them to understand God’s grace. It truly is good news. It’s the kind of good news that makes me rejoice to know such a loving, merciful, caring God. A God who loves us unconditionally, no matter how right or wrong we are.
Ben Bartlett: “Bell’s theology itself is a challenge to what every Christian has been believing and teaching for 2000 years. Doesn’t the gravity of that challenge suggest the weight of proof is on him?”
I think trust is exactly the issue here. For one thing, I trust a pretty plain reading of scripture, which for hundreds of generations of Christians has meant pretty much the same basic thing. For another, I trust the combined understanding of thousands of bible scholars and theologians, who almost universally agree on the basic structure of the gospel and the teaching of Scripture. And finally, I trust the fact that though some elements of my theology have evolved in response to the witness of Scripture, the core elements or pillars of the faith have not.
Let me turn that around to you… what makes Rob Bell and this unique teaching of his so trustworthy?
When I say Rob Bell is heretical (which, basically, just means his teaching is one that is novel to or different from the historic understanding of the faith), it is not a comparison between Rob Bell and me. It’s a comparison between Rob Bell and 99% of Christians across 2000 years of church history.
Now, you’re right to say that for me to challenge Bell’s theology as heretical, that’s a big thing. I do take responsibility for that challenge. But think of it the other way: Bell’s theology itself is a challenge to what every Christian has been believing and teaching for 2000 years. Doesn’t the gravity of that challenge suggest the weight of proof is on him? After all, Scripture is clear that he will be called to account, as all Christian leaders will be, for how he led those under his care.
I think by this point you and I have defined our two sides pretty clearly. Your appreciation for God’s mysteries gives you especially strong compassion for people and helps guide your theology in a certain direction, and my appreciation for God’s clarities gives me an especially strong passion for teaching people to believe Truth exists and that it should be pursued, and that leads me in another direction.
While we’ll continue to disagree on this (and maybe we’ll even discuss it again someday), I’m certainly thankful for the ways you model and teach me about compassion, and I hope I give you appreciation for the power of pursuing truths.