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Rob Bell and Our Costly Questions

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Conversations to engage a generation of questioners

There’s a telling line in the recent story of Rob Bell in The New Yorker (“The Hell-Raiser”), where the author Kelefa Sanneh conjectured that in writing “Love Wins,” Bell was “dreaming of a world a world without arguments—as if the right book, written the right way, would persuade Christians to stop firing Bible verses at each other and start working to build Heaven on earth.” (60) Conjecture about what others are dreaming is often problematic. But Sanneh, like the rest of us, take our cues from what others say and write, which is standard operating procedure for human communication events. Conjecture is always fair game for conversation.

There’s a lot the author gets right in the article and there are a few places with loaded language and mashed-up history. For instance, the notion that the “church matured” (60) out of the notion of Hell as a physical place is too loose a summary to really work. Debates about interpretation rage today, from all quarters.

Sanneh’s focus on how a preacher became a questioner among a people who do not respond generously to larger questions makes for interesting reading. These are my people and I confess that I too have responded without generosity too many times. And yet these larger questions are exactly the conversational fuel that can help move forward this often awkward project called the church. Especially because the generations behind me are increasingly wed to questions rather than dogmatic answers.

Much of what Bell wrote resonates with me. In particular, I’m smitten by this notion that people can talk—even about very deeply held things—without demonizing or judging each other. The notion reminds me of those noble people who early in the history of the church were in conversation with the inveterate letter writer. They eagerly heard what he had to say then examined it on their own to decide whether it was true or not. I imagine them discussing with authoritative texts and possibly disagreeing, but maintaining their relationships.

Bell has done us a great service by voicing these questions, even though the penalties for him have been high.

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Image Credit: The New Yorker

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