Is Love Wins Heretical?
So let’s get to the answer you have all been waiting for. Is Love Wins heretical?
Pardon the pun, but hell yeah!
Does Love Wins advocate a heretical doctrine of universal salvation, condemned by the majority of the Church since the fourth century? Well if Bell was clearer I might be able to answer that. He certainly flirts with the notion. Love Wins however, is heretical in a different and perhaps more profound way than just theologically.
Bell claims that Love Wins is centered around our view of God, I think the great irony is that the book is really about our view of ourselves. The book is a telling expose of how we, view ourselves as believers today. What drives the sales, what the marketing of Love Wins connects with is a deep desire to live heretically amongst young adults raised in evangelicalism.
Formation of the Christian Heretical Nation
James K. A. Smith in his intriguing book on cultural and Christian formation, notes that we are formed not just intellectually, but through what he calls liturgies, which,
whether “sacred” or “secular” – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the worlds is shaped from the body up more than the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts.
Love Wins plays the cultural heresy card. It is according to Smith’s definition a liturgy, powerfully tapping into our deeper desires. It is not just about the concepts and theologies contained in its words. It connects with a submerged, heart held desire amongst evangelical young and not so young adults, to hold onto faith, whilst maximising social status in a culture which values highly the horizontal self. To define against, rather than for.
By purchasing a copy of Love Wins and rocking up to your Baptist young adults gathering in small town Ohio, you are not just ensuring heated discussion and worrying looks your way to see if you are backsliding, you are building up your personal feeling of worth through what Heath and Potter expose as a rebellious consumer purchase.
So yes Love Wins is heretical.
Heresy is punk rock. Heresy is hip, heresy is sexy, heresy sells. Heresy is the middle finger to the establishment. Heresy is currently Christendom’s hottest underground commodity. Heresy is today’s must have accoutrement for the Christian Horizontal Self. By advocating heresy within a subculture of orthodoxy, you will instantly tap into a rich cultural vein which worships the countercultural, romantic individualist, who walks against the mainstream, whilst piling up social currency.
Jumping the Shark, Getting Drunk and Punching Fonzie
To use that much loved analogy from Happy Days, Love Wins and its accompanying media storm feels like the moment the emergent church/post-evangelicalism/whatever you wanna call it, jumps the shark. In fact I would say that it is more than Fonzie jumping the shark, it feels more like the final season of Happy Days, when everything went weird and it felt like the 80’s even though it was meant to be the early 60’s, Arnold’s had burned down, and Richie came back to the series and was all angsty with a moustache, said ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ a lot, got drunk and threw a punch at Fonzie.
So much of the movement of which Bell is a part of, and that probably I have been a part of more than a decade, was a reaction to what was seen as an evangelicalism that was too obsessed with dogma, which had no time for mystery, for questions, for doubt. An evangelicalism which at the time seemed as if were permanently wedded to the values of the enlightenment. An evangelicalism which seemed distant and disconnected from what was happening on the ground with the 90’s, Generation X and what was described as postmodern culture.
So a natural questioning began, a re-evaluation. A great sorting out occurred. Everything seemed up for questioning. Mainstream evangelicalism had sold its soul to modernity and we wanted to walk away. Driving these initial questions was a missional impulse, a desire to connect those culturally disconnected from the Church with Christ. But overtime this agenda was at worst hijacked or at best forgotten. The heart desires to lessen the friction with mainstream culture, to find a place with both the camp of hipness and social acceptance, and the camp of faith took over the conversation. And alas, we got drunk, grew a moustache and threw a punch at fonzie.
Unjust Economies of Cool
Yale professor of French history John Merriman, has wisely noted that most revolutions seemingly are sparked by ideas and new concepts, they really are kicked off by what are perceived as unjust economies. We all know that the French revolution symbolic stared in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, but there was also the storming of the tax offices. The American revolution was sparked by the Boston tea party, a reaction to what was seen as an unjust economy. And so it is with the so called current revolution of what it is to be Christian today proclaimed by Rob Bell in Time Magazine, in the New Christianity of Brian McLaren, and the great emergence revolution named by Phillis Tickle,
The Bell’s, McLaren’s and Tickle’s are probably pushing intellectual and theological agenda’s designed to move the centre of faith to a less conservative positioning. But the sales, the response, the movement is fuelled by a reaction to what is seen as an unjust social economy. That is the fact that it is totally uncool and socially isolating to follow Jesus in a 21st century culture driven by an existential hedonism. We sort of know this deep down, we know that despite all of the dressing up, all of the slick make overs, that faith cannot be truly cool in our culture of unbelief. So we engage in a new posture, we choose to be the hip fish in a small, square sea. This explains the rise of what Brett McCraken calls the Christian hipster.
Heresy Feels Cool
This is where Heresy comes in.
Why? Because cultural Christian heresy feels awesome.
It feels good to be sitting up the back of the young adults gathering thinking that you are only person in the room hip enough to be pondering if Jamie XX’s solo work as a remixer is superior to his work with the XX.
It feels good to put up a facebook status update which carries with it a whiff of heresy, knowing that the Mark Driscoll fans in your intro to New Testament class will soon fill your profile with angry comments, making you appear like a modern day cyber martyr minus the pain, torture and imprisonment.
You were probably completely morally and biblical right to confront your denominational leader with the fact that there was no fair trade coffee on offer at the national gathering. But admit it, you loved watching him squirm, you enjoyed the fact that for a second, you felt spiritually superior to him.
In the past when someone within the evangelical world, moved into theological liberalism, the natural progression was to move to a more liberal church, college or denominational. Now we stick around for the street cred.
Heresy and the Unbounded Self
Historian Peter Gay who more than anyone has communicated the social power of ideas, notes in his expansive study of modernism, that the movement is defined by two attributes, a fascination with heresy and the self. If I was Rob Bell I would make the point like this,
At first heresy or new post-orthodox expressions of Christian faith seem progressive and appealing, they seem to be the perfect antidote to a faith with a P.R. problem. But the lure of heresy has more to do with our desire to be free as individuals rather than the need for a new theological agenda. Alistair McGrath in his exploration of Heresy notes that our culture has bought the belief that any boundaries, limits or orthodoxy has been in set in place by the powerful and must be challenged. Yet Peter Berger reminds us that we are living in a culture in which demands of us heresy. A culture in which every individual is free to pick their own path, their own truth, Berger defines this as the essence of heresy. The Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth Sir Jonathan Sacks goes as far in his commentary on Genesis as to label the the desire to break boundaries, limits and orthodoxies as profoundly pagan, carrying with it the spirit of the builders of Babel.
The contemporary self is drawn to heresy because ultimately it offers us absolute freedom as individuals. I wholeheartedly believe that underlying the discussion on the after life and Hell driven by Bell’s book, is also driven by our desire to live in what Smith and Denton have called a morally insignificant universe, in which the individual is ultimately freed from eternal consequences to their choices. Heresy permits the promethean individual to be completely unbound, free to wreck their destruction upon creation.
The Sin of Forgetting Sin
The great irony is, whilst jumping into every tradition bar those of our own pasts, we ignored the reformational heritage under our feet. The doctrine of original sin, lay a forgotten and unused resource. A reminder that humans need boundaries and limits. Our evangelical forebears, understood that orthodoxy is the canvas upon which creativity can be painted. G.K Chesterton and the
magnificently named Dorothy L Sayers both reminded us of the mystery and magic of orthodoxy. They could both fly as high as kites, explain faith to a disbelieving world in such creative words and forms, because they were tethered to the solid ground of dogma.
I too grimaced as a minority of the New Reformed tribe openly displayed theological schadenfreude on social media as Love Wins was released. But one New Reformed voice I believe nailed it, Tim Challies noted that Love Wins, exposes a new kind of Evangelical hipness, defined not by faith, assuredness and confidence, but rather the new space that Bell was opening up was characterised by doubt, opaqueness and questions. Challies writes,
Doubt has become a virtue while boldness and assuredness have become marks of arrogance. The only thing we should be sure of is that we cannot be sure of much of anything. Doubt has become synonymous with humility. And so it was with the people who used to be known by that term emerging. This was a faith devoid of boldness, a faith that emphasized the unknowability of God at the expense of what we can know with confidence.
Doubt becomes disingenuous, a cover for not wanting to commit, for wanting it both ways. Heresy becomes an excuse for the individual to do what the hell (boom boom) they want.
The Garden of Doubt
On Good Friday just past, I stood with my Church community in the cold at Box Hill Gardens as we read and remembered the story of a young adult, in his early thirties, who had his moment of darkness, of questioning, of doubt. A young adult disconnected, socially isolated from his peers because of his belief.
As we walked up the hill away from the gardens, I felt my stomach tighten as I thought of this young man, despite his doubt, despite his profound loneliness, despite his social disorientation, who made a choice, a step of faith, a move marked by a gutsy determination. In his actions there was no wanting it both ways.
The site chosen for the reading of the crucifixion was behind the mall, in the loading bay filled with dumpsters and garbage, symbolising the way Jesus was thrown out of the city, onto the dumping ground of Golgotha. As the passage was read, as wafts of the stench of garbage moved across us, the thought of a God, the Creator of the Universe, dying in such a mundane, offensive, filthy environment filled my mind. Giving his life so that I do not have to die, so that the poor may be lifted up, that the unjust and the evil brought to justice, that the universe will be made anew. My heart was filled with thanks that two thousand years ago – that young man who was God in Human form, walked out of the garden of doubt and towards the cross of faith.