Love Wins A Cultural Reading. Part Two: Choose Your Own Adventure

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?

The Product of Faux Depth

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”

“Beautiful”

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?


A Cultural Reading of Love Wins: Part One: A Pseudo Book

Well I was not going to read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins or blog about it, but a number of people have contacted me asking about my view on the book, and my perspective on the whole phenomenon. So here goes.

The book has been theologically dissected by far sharper minds than I, so in keeping with the theme of this blog I thought that I would offer an alternative review from a cultural perspective. My question as I read the book, and followed the media buzz, was ‘what does this book tell us about our current christian culture?’. In short the answer is lots.

The ‘Hero or Heretic?’ marketing strategy 

Love Wins was number one on amazon before its release. The internet flamethrowers on both sides of the theological divide were shooting off before 99% of people had even read the book. So what does this tell us? Well the obvious answer is that we should not judge a book before we read it, but the more intriguing and less obvious answer is, that the furore around Love Wins has little to do with the actual book Love Wins. It is about the story that we are being sold. It’s kind of like Angelina Jolie’s career, no one cares about her movies, or her wooden performances (as Ricky Gervais recently reminded us). Rather it is the story and the media buzz around Jolie that gets her A list status.

There is the story of the dark and mysterious seductress who stole Brad from Jen, the woman who likes to play with knives, who has quotes from Nietzsche tattooed onto her skin.  Then there is the counter story of the altruistic working mum, adopting kids from the two thirds world, estranged from her father, raising her children in the Kingdom of Cambodia, her and Brad rebuilding homes in post -Katrina New Orleans, the UN advocate on the plight of refugees.

These two stories or personas are sold to us by the marketing and publicity machine that surrounds Jolie. They force us to take sides. Is she the epitome of every wives nightmare? The temptress with otherworldly beauty just waiting to steal you husband from you? Or is she the underdog, suffering from bi-polar, estranged from her husband, trying to escape the fame machine? Are you part of Team Jolie or Team Anniston?

The marketing machine gives us a choice to choose between two polarities. Both which play on our hidden fears and desires. Notice in the Vanity Fair cover picture on the left that a question mark is attached to her name. She becomes a mystery that we constantly want to know more about. These twin messages, these two personas ensure that Jolie stays in the media. To use a marketing cliche, she becomes something that you discuss at the water cooler.

Its the same marketing technique that has been used by Harper One to promote Love Wins.I find it interesting that Harper One sent only  parts rather than whole manuscript to bloggers who they knew would lash out at Bell’s books. The troops would be mobilised, heading for their keyboards, beginning the flame war, and thus ensuring maximum media buzz for the book well before its publication. There were two media stories sold to us, one was of the heretical hipster pastor, pushing the wheelbarrow of orthodoxy off of the cliff, the emergent seducer, lurking ready to lead thousands of young believers into heresy.

The other story was of the open, progressive, creative poet/pastor/communicator, humbly asking questions. The (in the words of Harper One) rockstar of the Evangelical publishing world. The indie kid with glasses being beaten up online by the nasty, brutish, MMA loving, New Reformed guys.

Thus we are forced to ask the question which corner do we stand in? Is Bell a heretic or a hero? Whose side are we on? Pepsi or Coke? PC or Apple? Taylor Swift or Kanye West? Charlie Sheen or CBS?

Thus Rob Bell is now Rob Bell? Like Angelina, a question mark is now permanently attached to his name, ensuring constant internet chatter and maximum sales.

The marketing line we were being fed was that the people who were criticizing the book, were doing so unfairly because ‘they had not bought the book’ (again the question must be asked why only samples of such a short book were sent around, when the normal protocol as I understand it is to send the manuscript around months before release). As the speculation flew across the twitterverse as to whether Bell was leaving behind orthodox faith, this short audio clip appeared on youtube and spread across the web like the common cold, what I found interesting was not Bell’s statement of faith but his final line.

The marketing talking point that we were sold was, that we HAVE to buy the book to find out what Bell really says. The implicit message was, ‘don’t let the raucous theological gatekeepers decided if Love Wins is heretical. Only you the consumer can truly decide!’ 

Pseudo Events – Pseudo Books

Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image, noted that our current age was marked by a manufactured buzz around things rather than the worth of the actual things themselves. Boorstin called such manipulations Pseudo-Events, in which hype was created around an event in order to create a faux sense of importance. This is why Richard Branson is always creating Pseudo Events to launch his services or products.

Who cares if Virgin is opening a new service from Manchester to Mumbai? Well, we do if Branson stages a media launch in which he jumps a speedboat through a burning hoop, returning to the shore for the photo op, in which he beams at the camera, sprouting flirty double entendres with a bevy of beautiful flight attendants on his arms.

The reason that Love Wins has sold so many copies, the reason that it has set twitter and the net alight, the reason that I am even talking about it here, it not because of its importance, its theological insight, its high quality writing or its radical new viewpoint. Rather we are discussing the book because of successful marketing. 

Hidden Persuaders

Clark Pinnock was airing similar viewpoints to Bell’s in his books in the 90’s, but his books did not go gang busters. Perhaps because his books had really bad covers, with crayonesque pictures of doves on them, plus Pinnock was an old bloke, who looked totally uncool in his suit and non ironic eyewear. 

Love Wins reminds us that in the tough publishing environment of now, that mad man style broadcast advertising, has lost out to the subtle yet powerful media manipulations of public relations.  In the end the book and its content becomes secondary to the overall media scaffolding that surrounds the actual work. According to Boorstin’s definitions, Love Wins is a Pseudo – book. It aint about the book and its contents. It’s all about the stories attached to the book.

So if you found yourself tweeting in defence of Bell, or banging out face book status updates warning others over Bell’s book, or buying the book in order to find out if Love Wins advocates universalism, inadvertently you just joined the Harper One marketing team on a volunteer basis (And yes I realise the irony that I am doing the same thing.)

One of the real issues that has been lost in the controversy behind Love Wins, is around communication. Essentially marketing and advertising are forms of communication at their most basic. I have no problem with advertising or marketing in their purest forms, I have no problem with Christian books or publishing, I am an author and my books are marketed.

We need good Christian books out there to build up the people of God. What I am concerned however about, is the cynical tone and tactics that seem to be at play here. The real question for Christian publishers or in Bell’s case Christian authors being published by secular publishing houses, is how do we reflect the values of the kingdom in our communications? How do we not fall into the trap of simply mimicking the questionable tactics of those whom Vance Packard called the Hidden Persuaders?

Next time we will examine what the  structure, tone and style of the book itself tells us about our current culture.

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