Rob Bell is back, and the critiques of his latest work are coming in. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to read What We Talk About When We Talk About God, but I’m starting to peruse the reviews. Having read and taught concerning his previous work, I know that Bell’s claims about Christianity must be taken seriously and answered seriously. It is precisely that fact which causes me to cringe a bit regarding the reviews of his most recent work. So far, they seem to follow the typical pattern of analysis and refutation, which is well and good. But, similar to the last batch of critiques, they contain an element which subtly but substantially undermines the otherwise helpful work within them.
As with previous critiques, some reviewers seem to feel their work incomplete without adding a few spicy snipes at Bell himself, mainly poking fun at his persona and therefore that of the people pigeon-holed as Bell’s most ardent fans. Comments about Bell’s hipness (is it still hip to talk about being hip?), his horn-rimmed glasses and the apparently awful desire to sip lattes while discussing metaphysics, are standard fare for anti-Bell satire. Some comments are harmless enough. Although, as an avid coffee consumer – I like it black or loaded with milk and sugar and wouldn’t scoff if offered whipped cream and sprinkles – it pains me that some people think serious theology can only be discussed over cigars and cognac by amply bearded men. I’m usually clean-shaven, so my socio-theological virility is doubly in doubt! Comments about Bell’s commercial appeal can be and hopefully are offered in good fun. However, some of these cuts may injure the theological case being made by the critic.
Inclusion of these linguistic jabs in otherwise serious, strongly worded reviews suggests that they serve merely to mock, and their presence in general may reflect or encourage a dangerous dismissal of Bell’s teachings as well as a quiet disdain for people whose social customs the reviewer does not respect – i.e., only yuppies would buy Bell’s stuff! These comments sometimes smack of an elitism which Bell’s fans perceive at the heart of the established church from which, following Bell’s lead, they are increasingly distancing themselves.
Sometimes Calvinists are the first in line to offer critiques of trendy theology. That tendency can result from our having a historically rooted system of theology; its well-weathered and clearly articulated doctrines provide reliable and easily accessible answers to contemporary questions about the gospel. Or, we may simply have a tendency to be quick to criticize. Thankfully, Calvinists are showing an increasing circumspection and contrition regarding the pride stereotypically associated with our understanding of the faith. (Have you noticed the increasing amount of recent books by Reformed authors calling Reformed Christians to humility? See Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to Reformed Theology by James K.A. Smith, Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside by Greg Dutcher and Humble Orthodoxy: Holding the Truth High Without Putting People Down by Joshua Harris.) Such humility is necessary to minister Christ to people tempted by counterfeit proclamations of Him.
As it applies to our critiques of Rob Bell, if we are truly concerned for the souls so attracted to his teachings, we might do well to skip the satire and instead seek to understand why his teaching is magnetic to multitudes – don’t forget that Bell made the rounds on national news shows and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine upon the release of his 2011 book Love Wins, a New York Times best seller. Correction of the doctrinal/historical fallacies in Bell’s work is good and necessary, but it is incomplete as a witness for Christ without the effort to understand and address the heart level issues at which Bell intentionally aims.
We tend to forget that teachers like Bell are reaching out to a wide spectrum of people who have very good, very serious, very pain-driven questions about historical, orthodox Christianity, especially when it comes to topics like human suffering in this life and hell beyond it. Or, we tend to forget that mere refutation of error is not enough to help people attracted to that error by way of a broken heart. A big part of the reason why people are listening to Rob Bell, is that Rob Bell is listening to them.
Bell writes in his previous book, Love Wins:
“And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.”
When the hurting hearts for whom Bell writes see Christians steeped in historical orthodoxy taking so much time to mock him, or when they see his detractors gloating over a televised browbeating he gets while explaining his books – the proceeds of which typically fund mercy-ministry endeavors such as giving impoverished people access to clean water – their hearts tilt all the more in the direction of Bell’s teaching.
The easy response to this phenomenon is to complain about how false teaching often gets a pass because its proponents seem kinder than those who criticize it. Frustrating as that fact may be, let’s focus our energies not on lamenting the difficulty of proclaiming truth in a politically correct culture, but rather on loving the truth well enough to proclaim it lovingly, on being as Jesus instructed His disciples to be – “…wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mark 10:16). The proclamation of the gospel sometimes requires forceful and even loud denunciations of false teaching and false teachers, but perhaps in our pride we sometimes confuse godless bravado for gospel boldness. Perhaps we sometimes confuse righteous rejoicing in the truth with the macho celebration of making a false teacher look stupid.
We must remember that proclaiming and rejoicing in the truth means feeling its weight. Paul demonstrates this posture of heart in Romans 9-11, one stretch of Scripture particularly destructive to Bell’s theology. Before Paul ascends to the doxological stratosphere of Romans 11, we find him on the ground in Romans 9, weeping. He has unceasing anguish in his heart for his countrymen who’ve rejected their Messiah. Do our hearts truly break while we behold in our day so many souls being turned away from Christ by teaching which claims to represent Him?
As we turn our hearts toward those disillusioned with the established church, we must not turn them away from those delighted to be within it. The sheep must be protected from wolves who encourage them to be embarrassed at the Shepherd and His Word (See Mark 8:31-38). As God’s people, we must as did Paul rejoice unashamed in the gospel of Christ and long to see its life changing power recreate people in the image of the One so great as to be creation’s Lord, and so good as to give His life to reconcile rebellious people to the living God. So let the strident critiques of Bell’s teaching continue to come; let them come with a commensurate willingness to converse compassionately and not simply correct, and let them demonstrate not the pride of self, but the power of the Spirit.