I just finished Rob Bell’s new “controversial” book. While I reading the book I was agitated, both at Bell’s approach and perspective, and at the response that the book has evoked. The first thing that bothers me about Christian debate is that it implies an understanding that is confident enough in itself to assume a position which serves as a filter, or mouth piece for God and God’s message. This stance is not problematic because it’s disingenuous, but it is problematic because it is arrogant. Corinthians says that “no one knows the mind of God”, and Paul also states in Romans that there is “no one who understands.” There is an unavoidable road block here. I watched an interview with Rob Bell that was on MSNBC, the first question presented that thought experiment which we’ve all heard by now–“If God is all powerful then he is evil for allowing pain and injustice and evil to exist in the world, if He is loving and this injustice persists, then God is not all powerful. This presents a problem for anyone who preaches the comfort of the love of God, but the road block occurs in that this understanding of justice is based entirely within a system that makes sense, it is a system which was arranged based on a pathetically human understanding. It is aligning God’s concept of justice with our own. Lee Strobel’s book “A Case for Faith” illustrates an example of a bear trap to emphasize our inability to understand or fathom God. If a bear is trapped in a bear trap, then the trap has to be set in even more in order to release the bear. Of course, if a well meaning hiker happens to come by and try to help the bear, the bear would immediately retaliate out of fear, because the bear doesn’t understand that we are trying to help. This example can surely be refuted by anyone in an argumentative spirit, but it serves its purpose in that it shows how a misunderstanding can be born out of the inability to make sense, and as scripture mentions, no one understands.
So, while an attack on divine process by someone who is inherently skeptical can be leveled in a certain way that appeals to the inability to fully grasp meaning, a doctrinal thesis on Christian/Christology/Eschatology/Soteriology, etc. can only be taken so far. In Corinthians, it reads that God will destroy the wisdom of the wise. From Martin Luther and John Calvin, to Reinhold Niebuhr and John Piper–these prominent theologians are not more in-tune than anyone else, the are merely more read and driven to express themselves. I do not mean to say that these types of writers should be dismissed, on the contrary, I think that they should all be explored. Although, I am always skeptical of definitive statements or theological systems which dogmatize a vital concept expressed through a figure whose existence on earth only de-stabalized what had been commonly understood.
So what about Rob Bell? Is he a universalist? Does he believe that everyone will go to heaven? Does he even believe in hell? Is he scripturally honest? Is he intellectually dishonest? Well, who cares? Rob Bell has a motivation, he has a version of God’s message that he feels convicted to share. I read a review and critique of the book by a pastor named Kevin DeYoung who in his review states that “at least Bell is honest.” Is individual honesty in relation to theological convictions supposed to be secondary or tertiary? I would hope first and foremost that a book is written with extreme honesty, especially one which deals with such existentially consequential ideas. A theological treatise which serves to further an agenda which the writer is at odds with is entirely problematic and should not be written. Those who serve as de-facto mediators between the mystery of God and the “small mindedness” of sinners, should from the very start and above all, remain honest. The playing field must always be level.
All Bell is doing is raising questions, which are definitely not new or unique, but still present a discomforting problem that is persistent. The problem of evil, of hell, is insurmountable. Bell does not offer satisfactory answers, Bell does dismiss difficulty, and perhaps Bell is not being historically or scripturally accurate, but if this book inspires or convicts one person to address these questions with an earnestness that hopes to achieve a different understanding of his or her own faith, then the book is doing it’s job. The conversations/reactions that have been posted or written in response to this book reveals a pettiness and lack of faith. One who believes in God is inclined to make known–nothing, and especially no one, can derail the direction of God. In his book, Bell explains that throughout Christian history, there has always been a wide array of different points that certain believes hold regarding the specifics of Christianity, and that is true, and as we know today, Christianity still holds many forms while simultaneously sustaining its influence where it truly matters–not in the context of a global faith, but to the individual. A person’s conviction to express their faith in hopes of making others aware, regardless of whether or not all agree with what that person is saying, is understandable. If one cares for something, one wishes to share it. Why come down on Bell so hard, as if a response is needed to rescue people from the universalist propaganda and save the world for God. One’s heavy handed reaction can be said to reveal an insecurity, and of course, the same thing could be said for Bell. Kierkegaard wrote in his book Sickness Unto Death, “It is therefore certain and true that the first person who thought of defending Christianity in Christendom is de facto a Judas No. 2; he too betrays with a kiss, except his treason is that of stupidity. To defend something is to always discredit it.” What we’re exposed to in this back and forth between Bell and his critics is not any expression of ardent faith, it’s merely petty exchanges..vain hopes to espouse one’s view of God over the other. But as it says in the bible, no one understands.
Bell uses scripture to back up his argument, and in his response, DeYoung does the same thing…it’s funny, scriptures are like statistics. They can be used to support whatever view you hold, which is both the curse and genius of the bible…it’s entirely unfathomable. Books that push a certain world view inspired by theology are case studies that show the writer’s personality in relation to the God. Thomas Merton wrote that “our idea of God tell us more about ourselves than about Him.” There are certain things that can be attributed to every person–ego and insecurity–and these two characteristics make for a unique relationship with faith. The Bible speaks on everything, but in a way that relates specifically to each reader. That is one of the things which Bell explains, and I think it’s very valuable to anyone. Speaking on the story of the prodigal son, he writes, “Each brother has his own version of events, his own telling of the story. But their stories are distorted, because they misunderstand the nature of their father.”
Bell is as wrong as DeYoung says he is, and DeYoung represents exactly what Bell is trying to break apart. Both are doing what they feel God is calling them to do, and both are also plagued with the stink of their own ego. Does Bell render the decision to follow Christ unnecessary? Does DeYoung still not address the message and conflict of the love of Christ for all and what that love means? Are both still wresting within the small confines of human understanding? I would answer yes to all of those questions, and while this silly debate continues (one which I always jump to take part in) while God looks on…and either smiles or scowls. Who knows? I think the most important thing for an individual to do challenge oneself and require an honesty in the search for God’s meaning.
“For it is written, I will destroy of the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”