Ok today we are going to examine what the structure and style of Love Wins tells us about our current Christian culture.
Love Wins has been the biggest selling book on amazon. Bell has appeared on almost all of the major US news cable channels promoting the book. The book has been on the front cover of Time Magazine, in the interview Bell proclaims,
“There is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian…Something new is in the air.”
They are some big words, they are St Francis, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley kinda words. To punch in that weight division, to link your book to a massive sea change in the worldwide Christian movement of billions of people, you need to bring some major theological chops to back that kind of talk up.
Thus after all of the buzz, the epoch shifting pronouncements, the warehouse emptying pre-sales, Love Wins comes as a profound anti-climax. Instead of a weighty theological tome, arguing powerfully for a new understanding of what it is to be Christian. We are given what seems like various thoughts, roughly welded together. There are bits of C.S Lewis’ the Great Divorce, some of Tom Wrights eschatology, some elements of Jewish teaching on Olam Ha-Ba, some dips into New Testament Greek interpretation, but on the whole the thoughts don’t gel together. Super blogger Andrew Jones succinctly sums up the book as a Lemon.
So what is going on here? How could such a short book, with no real new insights, roughly sown together, create such a maelstrom?How could it herald such derision and praise in equal measure? Well, as we established in the first section of this review, marketing is at play here, but there is something deeper also going on.
Bell begins his book with a Rabbinical insight, in which it is noted that surrounding the black letters of the Biblical text is white space. Bell uses this to ram home the point that discussions and questions are a key part of Biblical study, but as I read this illustration, I could not help thinking of another analogy. What is in the white spaces around Bell’s words? What are the assumptions, agendas, unspoken memes at play aside from the content and the text?
What is being sold and what are we buying?
We have to begin by asking how can a book so short, that I am able to read the whole thing while I ate my lunch (two pieces of toast with apricot jam), do justice to the project that it sets out to achieve? How can a book address such a weighty theological subject in so few words? Was Bell caught in the pressure of wanting to write a theological tome, while his audience demanded another pop release?
I don’t think so, rather what Love Wins offers, is similar to the way a forty second background piece at the end of the newscast, fools us into believing that we understand the complexities and nuances of inter-tribal loyalties in the Afghan war. In affect we are sold faux depth.
Therefore Love Wins gives the impression of depth, but the writing style disables the ability of the author to deliver actual depth and clear answers. Single sparse lines like,
“We are that Free”
May seem profound, but upon deeper inspection leave us empty. Such writing reminds me of the film Garden State, which is part of a whole genre of movies which contain scenes or sentiments which seem deep and profound but which after a second viewing minus the soundtrack seem really lame.
Love Wins offers consumers raised in conservative Churches, who wish to differentiate themselves from what they see as stifling forms of religion, yet who still wish to hold onto faith at the same time as their street cred, a feeling that they have sufficiently tackled and understood something theological, deep and profound. A get out of jail card, for an element of Christian dogma, that it is perceived to create friction with the current therapeutic culture.
The Reduction of Language
Love Wins mimics the way that we digest information today. Short, loosely connected soundbites of information. A book for a post literate culture which doesn’t read, which has micro attention spans, who has grown up with the quick cuts of MTV. The language to me in the book does not feel poetic, rather it feels reduced, kind of like the way that twitter takes language and conversation and reduces it. The more I read, the more I kept thinking of the media theorists Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, who both advocated for clear communication, who felt that in our media driven culture, language was being reduced into soundbites. Yes Love Wins maybe be easy and quick to read, but the problem, to misquote Spinal Tap, is that it is a fine line between pithy and paltry.
Choose Your Own Theological Adventure
So does Love Wins advocate Universalism? Well before I finally read the book, I noticed some bloggers who had read the confirming that the book did indeed promote universalism, while others blogged that the book reafirmed a belief in Hell and was not universalist. What was going on? As I read at first it seemed that Bell advocated Universalism, then he seemed to reaffirm the doctrine of Hell. What his definition of Hell was exactly was again confusing. So why the lack of clarity? Why did it seem that readers could leave the book with their own answers, was this the 21st century version of the Choose Your Own Adventure series in which the reader was offered alternate endings?
The more I read, the more I felt that Bell wanted it both ways. To push the theological envelope outside of evangelical boundaries, but to stay in the sweet spot of evangelical publishing. It is intriguing that in his recommended section at the end of the book, that he tells us to read evangelical heavyweight Tim Keller on the parable of Lazarus, yet Bell also advocates that in order to understand who and what God is, we must consult multi-faith practionor, pantheist and LSD enthusiast Houston Smith’s book on Christianity. Strange bedfellows indeed.
Al Mohler after reading Bell’s book comments,
‘With Love Wins, Rob Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism. His message is a liberalism arriving late on the scene.’
I empathize with Mohler’s concern, but rather than a reintroduction of Liberalism in its classic form, I think that this is something new. Theological Liberals from Schleiermacher to Spong have clearly articulated their positions. Rather it feels like what Bell is trying to do is to carve out a new space. A mutant theological encampment, in which questions, doubt and a lack of dogma move us into a kind of Bordertown in which we cannot be pinned down or defined. In which, in accordance with the zeitgeist, we can subscribe to the myth that we can have it both ways and not lose out. A place to belong for those who love the ‘maybe’ button on Facebook events.
In the next and final instalment. Is Love Wins Heresy?