The Taser's Edge

Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) by Rob Bell – Part III of III

When last we parted (Part I is here, and Part II is here), I was arguing that in Love Wins, Rob Bell’s shallow (truly not meant to be an insult but a description) sacramental theology is to blame for his backing off of the metaphors that Scripture uses to describe the power and work of God in the world through Christ.

To enter into that claim further, I’ll jump into a quote from p. 131:

Although the cross is often understood as a religious icon, it’s a symbol of an elemental reality, one we all experience every time we take a bite of food.

And another quote, from p. 137 (with his formatting retained):

That is why the cross continues to endure.
It’s a reminder, a sign, a glimpse, an icon that allows us to tap into our deepest longings to be part of a new creation.

The problematic piece is that when writing Christian theology (as Bell is, no matter how much he might want to deny it), you can’t say ‘icon’ without actually using the technical term referring to the religious art form (and the theology and practice surrounding it) especially important to worship in the Eastern churches. Bell seems to half-know that. He’s using the word somewhat in that sense in the second quote. But he also doesn’t know it, or else he wouldn’t say ‘icon’ to mean ‘meaningless symbol’ in the first quote.

Just as before, he’s coming right up against the reality, but then he’s not pushing through and into it, because he doesn’t understand metaphor and because he doesn’t understand sacramental reality. These two shortcomings are the same shortcoming, and he has it because he’s an evangelical Protestant (not because he’s “not evangelical enough”).

So what is sacramental reality? It refers to the belief that when we participate in the sacraments we are literally participating in God. By literally, I do not mean ‘figuratively’ or ‘spiritually’ (particularly if you hear ‘spiritually’ and think, ‘participating, but not really’). Sacramental reality is the belief that God is a reality so real that every other reality in all of Creation is ultimately not as real as God.

Some Hindus and other religious traditions talk about this. Plato and Platonists talked about this. St. Augustine talked about this. But more importantly, and more convincingly, God talks about it, from the midst of a bush which was on fire but not being consumed.

God is the only one who is I AM. Humans are created in the image of I AM, but the painting is not what it represents, and the human is not God. (For these purposes, I’m leaving theosis barely off the table.)

So an icon is not just a representation of something. It is a meeting between what is being represented, its representation, and the viewer of that representation. God consumes the bush (not in one way but very truly in another), Moses sees the flame and the bush, and Moses and God have a holy and life-rocking encounter mediated by a shrub. Bread and wine are consumed by Christ’s real presence (in one way and not in another) in the Eucharist and then Christ and bread and wine are consumed by us.

And the cross? The cross is not just a symbol “that allows us to tap into our deepest longings to be part of a new creation.” It is an icon pointing to the true reality, and it is part of reality’s consummation of our reality. Through the cross, we aren’t just tapping into our longings for the new creation, we are tapping into the new creation itself.

As for Bell’s talk of this reality which “we all experience every time we take a bite of food,” he’s exactly right. But even more right is that the way in which we tap into the reality of the cross (and the reality of God and new creation) is through the sacraments, biting into and drinking down that particular “true food” and “true drink,” sharing in Christ even as we remember him “until he comes.”

And even if I lost some of you along the way, you really might like Bell’s book. Read it, and read it with others. I promise he doesn’t get that technical.