Rob Bell Is (Not) a Universalist: What the Book Is

All this week, I’ll be posting about Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins.  And this Sunday, April 10, I’ll be guest hosting Doug Pagitt Radio from 12-2pm CDT, talking with Keith DeRose, Michael Horton, and a special surprise guest!  The entire two hours will be devoted to a discussion of the book, in advance of Rob’s appearance the following night at Wayzata Community Church.

Last Friday, I already complained about the font of the bookPaul commented that it’s Gotham, the typeface preferred by the Obama campaign and other movers and shakers.  I also pointed out a grammatical conundrum, and I commemorated the typo in the final line of the book, now available as a t-shirt!

Today, however, I want to muse about what the what the book is, and what Rob is attempting to do with it.

The book, I think, is a natural outgrowth of Rob’s primary gift, and that is his ability to speak publicly.  He is, as his various tours and his video have shown, an artist with the spoken work word.  In fact, he’s almost a performance artist.

He is not, nor does he claim to be, a theologian in the traditional sense.  In his interview last month with Lisa Miller, he said as much, claiming to be neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar, but a pastor.  But, of course, Rob Bell is much more than a pastor.

The book is, as has been noted elsewhere, deeply biblical. In many places, Rob uses single verses, sometimes bordering on proof-texting.  He also supplies lists of biblical references, like when he lists all the verses that mention heaven or hell.  But at other points, Rob has extended excurses into a particular pericope, as he does with the parable of the Prodigal Son.

And, of course, the book is also deeply theological.  I was reminded about a conversation I had several years ago with my friend, Spencer Burke, who had co-written a book about this very subject, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity.  Spencer, who advocates an “opt-out” rather than an “opt-in” version of heaven, was disconcerted about the vituperative attacks he had received from evangelical theologians.  When he protested that he was writing a pastoral book, not a theological one, I responded, “You don’t get to write about the doctrine of hell, debated for two millennia, without opening yourself to criticism from theologians.”

Well, Rob has done much of the same thing, but he’s shown even fewer of his cards than Spencer did.  There are no footnotes — even a block quote at the beginning of the book from Renee Altson is not referenced.  There’s a short section in the back with some titles for further reading, but in general, Rob doesn’t show his work.  This drives critics a little crazy, because it leads them to all sorts of speculation about whether Rob has a shrine to Ken Wilber in a corner of his house.

The book reads like the manuscript of a Rob Bell talk.  It’s not a book, in the traditional sense.  It’s more like a meditation on paper.  If ever there was a book to get as an audiobook, this is it (well, this and anything by David Sedaris).

But this does not exempt Rob, or the book, from theological and philosophical scrutiny, to which I will turn tomorrow.

  • Rob

    Spoken work! LOL! T-shirt!

  • Kenton

    While it is certainly valid to say that Love Wins is subject to review from the guild of theologians, the guild is not primary audience of the book. Joe Schmuckatelli lay person is the primary audience of the book. I somehow get the feeling that while you’re more or less on board with Rob’s theology, you may be thinking it’s “lightweight.” I think there are a lot of us sneaking in blog comments at work when we probably should be doing something else that are attracted to Love Wins because it’s so accessible. I bought extra copies of Love Wins to pass out, but only bought the one copy of Heretic’s guide (sorry, Spencer).

    Two reasons: 1- Rob Bell is (was) the rock star. Ad-hominem schmad-hominem it matters to people who’s saying what. 2- It makes the point briefly, clearly, scripturally, and without getting bogged down in the theological nuances.

  • Trey Lyon

    I enjoyed the book and Tony, I think you have some legit points on “showing your work” but I also agree that’s CLEARLY not his goal. He ain’t N.T. Wright, but on the other hand, as friend of mine said “N.T. Wright ain’t Rob Bell”. They (we?) need each other to articulate these things on all kinds of levels.

    That said, am I the only one who felt it was a bit less cohesive than SexGod and Velvet Elvis? (Jesus Wants to Save Christians was a bit too, but it was co-written, so I kind of get that) Just curious…

  • Patrick Marshall

    I’m getting a little tired of constantly hearing, “Rob Bell is not a theologian.” I have loved Rob and his work for years, but I was really disappointed to hear him say this in the interview with Lisa Miller (and several other interviews). I think it’s a cop out. I also think it’s deeply damaging to Christians who are NOT pastors, because it only serves to reinforce this idea that theology is done by “someone else.”

    Theology, as you well know, Tony, is ALL our words/talk/ideas about God. EVERYONE is a theologian insomuch as they make claims about God. For you (and Rob) to say Rob is not “a theologian in the traditional sense,” would seem to imply that the “traditional” theologian is an academic. That goes against the heart of every conversation concerning post-modernity and emerging Christianity that I have ever heard. And I would bet it goes against everything Rob would tell the folks at Mars Hill.

    I support Rob, but I do not by any means think we should give him a pass because he’s “not a theologian.” He is. So are you, Tony. So am I as a pastor. So are all the people I work with in this congregation. All engagement with the divine involves theology. So let’s quit dumbing Rob (and ourselves) down by saying, “Oh, well, it’s ok because he’s not a theologian.” This book is DEEPLY theological, as were all of his previous books. Maybe they weren’t Calvin’s Institutes or Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (or wait…is that Aquinas’s?), but are books like that really what we NEED for the life of the church today?

  • Charles

    I loved “Love Wins.” I spoke to me as a ex-evangelical. I’m not a pastor, let alone a theologian, but having been in the church all my life [66 yrs old] and continually redefining my personal theology, Bell hit a resonate note with me. I’ve slogged through N.T.Wright, Scot McKnight, others, and find practical, street theology much more valid. Bell seems to know his audience very, very well. I think the book is spot-on in attempting to re-frame Christianity in a relevant voice. Good stuff!

  • Carl Gregg

    For one perspective on your noticing that “In many places, Rob uses single verses, sometimes bordering on proof-texting,” I have been challenged for many years by Duke professor Richard Hays’ close reading of how the apostle Paul used scripture (which in his day was the Torah and the Prophets). To point, in Hays’ 1989 book “Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, he writes that, “Paul’s readings of Scripture are not constrained by a historical scrupulousness about the original meaning of the texts. Eschatological meaning subsumes original sense…. True interpretation depends neither on historical inquiry nor on erudite literary analysis but on attentiveness to the promptings of the Spirit, who reveals the gospel through Scripture in surprising ways. In such interpretations, there is an element of playfulness, but the freedom of intertextual play is grounded in a secure sense of the continuity of God’s grace: Paul trusts the same God who spoke through Moses to speak still in his own transformative reading.” His book gives many examples, but the point is that perhaps Bell is less “proof-texting” and more interpreting scripture in ways that he learned from forebears like Paul.

  • Matt Flinner

    I have not read the book. I would like to read the book. So, all of my thoughts are based on other peoples thoughts. But, one thought I have is this; is this topic of Heaven/Hell/Universalism a little more than Rob Bell can handle? I say that with great respect and humility knowing that this topic often reaches levels of philosophy and theology that leaves my head spinning. As I read your first critique here of Rob’s book, that is the question that comes to mind. Maybe the lack of footnotes and references is because Rob does not have all of this figured out. I mean, I know I have been really excited about a topic and want to tell everyone I know about my thoughts. But then, as I begin to write down my thoughts or express them verbally I begin to go in circles and paint myself in a corner and realize that I may not have done enough homework to comment on a topic. The difference between Rob Bell and myself is that he has thousands of people reading/listening to him. I have very few. Just a thought.

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