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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.


Image Credit: The New Yorker

Person of the Book or People of the Book? Love Wins by Rob Bell (Partial review)

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It’s too easy to fool ourselves.

Just how blind am I?

Recently I sat with some well-respected relatives who had devoted their lives to pursuing God. Our conversation turned to quick jibes at Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I had only vaguely heard of the book and the controversy surrounding his reading of the Bible. But knowing very little didn’t stop me from defending Mr. Bell purely based on my growing admiration for people trying to reframe stale old arguments.

My uncle said “You have to know the Book to know the Author of the book.”

I found myself in agreement and then in violent disagreement. I thought of my childhood and young adulthood growing up with the Book—that is, the Bible. We spent time in it every day. We memorized it, acted it out and generally knew it pretty well. But it wasn’t until solid conversations with others, both dead (that is, authors who left their books behind) and alive, helped me start to see the shortcuts I had taken in my own single-minded reading. That is, I started to see the blinders I wore that I didn’t even know about. I need conversation with others to help me see my blinders. I can now reassert my love for the Biblical texts, their authority in my life and the God behind those texts and Jesus the Christ who lived, died and lived—but I do so knowing faithful, admirable people can and do disagree over how some/many of those texts are read.

Can you be a person of the book without admitting others into your thought circle? There is a blindness that settles on us even more securely when we think we are just looking at the text and pulling out truth. The problem is not with the text. The problem is with our blindness, which is just another feature of the limitations of our humanness. This is not about more education. Nor is it about liberal vs. conservative. It is about seeking help to locate our blind spots. Of course, we don’t go looking for our blind spots. We go out looking for someone to tell something interesting too, and we end up finding out there is something pretty important we missed.

Also there is another piece: that of holding scripture in faith while allowing questions to sharpen and make visible some critical pieces we need to know to move forward. There is no letting go of faith here, but there is a willingness to help move closer to that truth.

I’m partway through Mr. Bell’s book and enjoy his fresh take very much. I find myself agreeing with his point that heaven is both in the future and partially present. Same with Hell. So far I don’t see anything anti-Biblical. And people from my particular tradition need only refer back to Dr. Ladd’s famous The Gospel of the Kingdom to be reminded of the now/not yet nature of Jesus’ talk about life on this planet. However, my reading of Mr. Bell’s third chapter makes me restless, because I believe there are consequences to what we say and do. I want to hear his full argument before commenting further.

My point: to be a person of the Book is to be a person of conversation.

My wife and I have been blessed by a group who will think together verbally about the Book. This group counters and challenges the inward-looking tendencies arising from my pietistic background. Certainly there is great benefit to carefully watching over our personal devotion. But real truth demands the relationships that talk.

Take-away: don’t rush to judgment in conversation.


Image Credit: Achille Beltrame

Written by kirkistan

June 23, 2011 at 9:42 am

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