What Launched the Bell Battle? – Part 1: Rob Bell is No C. S. Lewis

What Launched the Bell Battle? – Part 1: Rob Bell is No C. S. Lewis March 30, 2011

guest post at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, from philosopher/author Jeff Cook, suggests that “the debate over Love Wins is not actually a fight only about doctrine. It is about angst caused by different cultures and philosophical precommitments.”  The anger directed at Bell is partly because he “intimidates some because he is part of [an urban, postmodern] culture they do not understand and cannot control,” and because of “envy and resentment of a very talented man” and (to paraphrase) a sense of creeping cultural irrelevance on the part of modernist conservatives.  Thus, “the issues at hand” are “about culture and control” and “the continuing fight between postmodern and modern expressions of Christianity.”  Professor Cook’s primary evidence for this is that C. S. Lewis, he says, advocated more or less the same ontology of hell as Rob Bell does, and yet he evokes none of the ire Bell has.  Indeed, Lewis is widely admired.

I do not entirely disagree with this argument (although I disagree with the claim that some are intimidated by Bell; I don’t sense that at all).  The response to Bell is not “all about” anything.  It has multiple layers to it, and it’s important that careful writers and teachers who care about the future of the church differentiate those layers and deal with each properly.  But I think Cook gets Lewis wrong, and fails to see what really differentiates Lewis and Bell.

There certainly are — and I think this comes through most clearly in the comment sections on both sides — deep aesthetic and cultural antipathies that form, beneath the disagreements, undercurrents of dislike and distrust between the pro-Bell and anti-Bell camps.  The detractors see the “hipster Christian” chic of Rob Bell, the black-rimmed glasses and the trendy outfits and the overuse of secular buzzwords, and it fairly screams “cultural conformity” in their minds.  Bell is automatically associated with progressive politics, with the self-absorption of the fashionable young urbanite, with coffee-house snobbery against conservative Christians, and with a desperation that is willing to abandon core theological commitments in order to be liked.  All of this happens before the book is opened.  And on the other hand, when an evangelical (even a moderate like our own historian Thomas Kidd) posts something mildly critical of Bell, he is accused of being a fundamentalist who hates science and probably would have opposed interracial marriage and supported slavery.  The critic (in this case Kidd) has never mentioned science, or politics, or social issues, and yet the commenter already has a full profile of him in mind.  This shows the power of these subterranean cultural battles in the current debate.

And there may also be personal antipathies, a resentment based in the feeling that Bell does not really deserve all the attention he receives.  Detractors likely feel that Bell receives an awful lot of attention not only because he’s talented — there are many folks out there with extraordinary teaching talents — but because he says fashionable things, things the secular media love.  Bell is the kind of Christian that non-Christians want us to be.  He’s the kind of Christian that non-Christians would want to have a beer with.  So he is lavished with attention; he’s called a “rock star” and “the next Billy Graham” and “the most exciting voice in religion today.”  There may well be resentment that other pastors/writers/speakers also toil away, and with great talent, yet receive no such accolades and no New York Times bestseller status because their claims are not as trendy.

These cultural and interpersonal reasons for the antipathy between the Bell supporters and detractors are just the natural consequences of human sinfulness.  There is nothing nefarious at work, except for good old-fashioned sin.  And it runs both ways.  Most of the comments we’ve seen at Patheos have been from Bell supporters, and they’re responded pretty nastily to those who make criticisms of Bell, however mild those criticisms might be.

Now, let me lay my cards on the table.  (I am now free to do so.)  I found “Love Wins” deeply frustrating.  Not because it advocates something close to universalism.  Not because of its inclusivism (if not outright pluralism) and eternalism (I explain here).  I’ve always been surrounded by people — even Christians — who believe things very, very different from myself.  And I actually think the biblical witness on the afterlife is fuzzier than some on the conservative side of this debate will admit.  I find the hopeful (yet ultimately agnostic on the matter) attitudes of Karl Barth and C. S. Lewis profoundly attractive.  All of which to say: while the fact of Bell’s influence concerns me, I don’t particularly care that Rob Bell is something close to a universalist.

Rather, I found the book frustrating because (1) of the way it treated scripture and (2) the way it treated what has traditionally been considered the orthodox teaching of the western church.  I do not blame Bell for being a universalist.  Actually it’s almost boringly predictable.  But I do blame him for the way he treats God’s word and the way he treats the majority report of the church.  This — apart from some subtle but important theological differences (more on that later) — is what separates a Rob Bell from a C. S. Lewis. Even when C. S. Lewis wrote something that might depart from traditional orthodoxy on some matter, Lewis did not caricature or mock what the church has taught as “toxic,” “psychologically crushing” or irrational and backwards.

I believe that this is responsible in large measure for the very strong negative reaction that has flowed toward Love Wins from certain quarters of American Christendom.  Again, there is no one thing the Bell Battle is all about.  But I do believe this was one of the factors that provoked such acrimony.  Bell’s book, to many, feels like an attack.  An attack upon orthodoxy, an attack upon a traditional interpretation of scripture, an attack on what they have been taught throughout their lives.  Lewis’ books never felt like an attack on orthodox Christian belief; they felt like an eloquent defense and a careful, biblical, theological and literary rendering of that belief.  Yes, it’s a matter of philosophical pre-commitments.  But it’s also, simply, that Bell caricatures and condemns traditional Christian teaching while Lewis represents it thoughtfully and charitably, even when he wants to suggest the possibility of a different view.

So I am going to publish three more posts (this being the first) on Bell’s book in the days to come.  SECOND, what does Bell — in my view — get right?  It’s important to begin here, to represent one another honestly and charitably.  (I will include here a comment on the most important theological matter Bell gets wrong, which is his understanding of the person and work of Christ.)  THIRD, how does he interpret the scriptures?  And FOURTH, how does he treat what the majority of the church throughout its history has taught?

Stay tuned.  And bear in mind I write blog posts erratically, so it’s important to subscribe to the RSS or email subscription.

Relevant Links [apart from those already linked above]:

Rob Bell Book Club Feature

Scot McKnight, “Are We At a Tipping Point?

Ben Witherington, “Does God Always Get What He Wants?

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