What I love most about Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011), is the way it has triggered a new debate about what is really at stake in Christianity.
The odd thing about Christianity, at least in the United States, is that tens, even hundreds of millions of its adherents can’t really articulate its core beliefs beyond the most superficial, kindergarten level.
That is not a snobbish slam on Americans but simply a fact of life.
Like most religions (with the possible exception of Buddhism), Christianity is not so much a philosophical system as it is a subliminal, pre-conscious worldview that is passed on from generation to generation through rituals, symbols, readings from canonical texts, stories, proverbs, finger painting and occasional catechetical classes. This cultural inheritance carries, of course, philosophical ideas and historical claims, but it is the rare adult Christian these days who has taken the time to examine systematically any of that inheritance.
It is the rare Christian indeed who gets a systematic presentation of the key ideas and philosophical presuppositions of his or her religion – perhaps in a parochial school religion class or in a Christian high school senior seminar.
Some Christian denominations do a better or worse job at this than others, but even those denominations that try to give a systematic overview of what Christianity is all about rarely rise above the most simplistic, elementary teaching. Most children today inherit so little of the “basics” of Christianity – the who, what, when and where – that few denominations or schools can spend much time on the “why.” When people are not all that clear precisely who the Apostle Paul was… or what the Exodus was all about… you don’t have much time to discuss what it means precisely to be “saved” or the Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s universalism.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had discussions with highly educated people – engineers, doctors, judges, movie directors – who will, when discussing ethics or religion, revert to what they learned from Sister Mary So-and-So in Eighth Grade or a class they took in Vacation Bible School.
It is a jarring shock to many naïve young people when they get to high school and college and start to actually think about the ideas and beliefs they inherited from their parents. The mere discovery that Christianity didn’t pop full-blown into the universe but evolved slowly over hundreds of years is unsettling to quite a few.
Some reject Christianity outright as soon as they make the startling discovery that the Gospels don’t agree on all the details of Jesus’s life… or that Genesis was written in a pre-scientific age and wasn’t supposed to be a treatise on astrophysics… or that the Gospel writers made use of Jewish scriptures in ways that, to modern sensibilities, seem a bit unusual.
So, that is why Rob Bell is such a bracing blast of cold air that should be welcomed by all.
His book, Love Wins, asks fundamental, Big Picture questions about what Christianity actually teaches. Even if you disagree with his answers – and judging from the firestorm in Protestant evangelical circles, many people do vociferously – you have to concede that his questions have rekindled thought. It is making thousands of adult Christians confront, often for the first time, what is really at stake in Christianity:
> How exactly did Jesus’s death save us from anything?
>> Who or what is Jesus saving us from?
>> Is the point of Christianity that Jesus came to save us… from God? If so, if he saved us from God, then how is that good news? Doesn’t that make God a deity from which we should, well, hide?
Of course, Christians have been debating these issues for centuries… but these debates rarely filter down to the masses in the pews. Pastor Bell’s book, precisely through its deliberately provocative questions and chapter headings, is forcing the issue upon a reluctant (mostly Protestant) Christian community – although I would say that the debate has profound implications for Catholics and Anglicans as well and even for non-Christians.
That’s because what is at stake in the “Love Wins debate” is what kind of a world we live in, what kind of a God we worship (if we worship a God), what we can expect from life, what we are here to do, the kind of people we should aspire to become, and so on.
These are questions that transcend denominational and even religious boundaries.
One tip: Buy the audio recording of Love Wins in iTunes or on CDs. Pastor Bell reads his book himself, and he is a marvelous narrator. He doesn’t merely read the text but interjects little comments so you have the feeling of attending a kind of small group seminar with him as the facilitator. It’s a great book for commuters, one that I am mischievously giving to all my Calvinist friends and relatives. (Rob Bell is the bête noire to all the followers of hyper-Calvinist preacher and bestselling author John Piper.)
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