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.

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

As I wrote in Part I, Love Wins does not say anything more controversial about heaven and hell than beloved-by-evangelicals C.S. Lewis, particularly in Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which is unsurprisingly listed as further reading in the back of Bell’s book. (Yet another book with a similar view of God’s love might be Isaiah.)

Still I do have some issues with Bell in Love Wins.

I don’t think that he understands metaphors. Sorry that that sounds like the lamest, most nitpicky thing you’ve ever heard, but it’s true, and it matters, because his talk of metaphors is his talk of the atonement. In the quote that follows, I’ve preserved Bell’s formatting and my added ellipses are only found in brackets, because he uses so many of his own (from pp. 128-129):

 What happened on the cross is like…

a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved.

[…]What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand.

“It’s like this…”
“It’s like that…”

The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular image, explanation or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a “correct” or “right” one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors. They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp.

The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is.

Bell is exactly right for a long time in that quote. Scripture does talk about what the cross is and does in a lot of different metaphorical ways, and the Scriptural authors indeed did this in order to try to communicate an “epic event” in terms their readers could understand. “The point,” yes, “is Jesus.”

What’s interesting is that by the end of the second-to-last paragraph quoted above, Bell is actually talking about himself and the Biblical authors: “They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp.” That is exactly what Bell’s life project seems to be, in and long before Love Wins, and it’s a beautiful thing in that it comes from his imagining along with Biblical authors, which is exactly what pastors and Christians in general are supposed to do.

BUT…Bell also strongly limits the impact of what Scripture has to say by the addition of that little word at the beginning of that big quotation above: ‘like.’ There’s a reason that Jesus says, “This is my body,” when he holds the bread at the Last Supper, but then some Protestant pastors who genuinely love the Scriptures and Jesus misquote him in their Communion celebration – “This is like my body.”

The reason is this: metaphor is so powerful because the metaphor is the reality. The Eucharist will turn your eyebrows to ashes if you really realize what it’s about, and the bread’s not just ‘like’ His body.

Likewise, in Love Wins, Bell, because he doesn’t understand the power of metaphor to talk about (and even bring about) reality better than any other language, doesn’t realize that

What happened on the cross IS

a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved.

The problem here is not that Rob Bell is not evangelical enough (as some have claimed). The problem is that he is too evangelical. His explanation of image and metaphor falls short because his sacramental theology is malnourished (which will be post three, if that’s gibberish to you). He gives this away by his last words in the quote above.

(To head off one reading of what follows I’ll say this: I’m not questioning whether Bell’s Incarnation Christology is orthodox, because I have no reason to believe it isn’t. Rather, I’m saying that his language evidences that he is not able to advance further in to the mystery of the Incarnation because his sacramental theology is puny.)

Bell writes,

The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is.

But Bell is wrong. Rather, The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine IS flesh and blood. He’s where the life is.


Part III begins now.

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

I love reading books because some Christians are talking about them. It’s one of the best perks of being a pastor. Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, The Shack. Even (a while back) I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

And I hate feeling the pressure to read books some Christians talk about: Left Behind, random Christian-branded self-help crap.

Rob Bell’s newest falls in both camps. People are angry, and I don’t particularly care about what they’re angry about. But I had seen one of Bell’s videos (The Gods Aren’t Angry), and although only somewhat drawn in by the message, I was blown away by his communication skills. Watch it, and you will be too.

Earlier this year, Love Wins dropped like a bomb with a beautifully (but not in the ick-slick way of some megachurchness) produced video, and the shock waves rocked the Twitterverse for a couple days thanks to a blogpost pushed by John Piper.

Rob Bell is an evangelical pastor that many evangelicals don’t like. For years, they’ve felt like he’s been squishy on some fundamentals (and I use that word purposely), but they had nothing really to get him on. Until now! Without reading the book (as you can see if you clicked through to that blogpost), they began to label Bell a universalist. Once again, however, there is still basically nothing to nail him for…at least from the perspective of evangelical theology.

The first half of the book (preface and chapters 1-3) are definitely the strongest. Here, Bell works hard and with great talent to help his readers explore the Biblical imagination of the breadth of God’s embrace of all things. Sometimes his exegesis is spotty (although I think he knows this, and is trying to push the envelope), but his main points come out well. And it’s totally uncontroversial to someone who has read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (or, at least, I haven’t yet heard about John Piper tweeting that Lewis is apostate).

As a review in one sentence, “Love Wins is what The Great Divorce could very likely have been, if C.S. Lewis were a gifted American hipster pastor instead of a gifted stodgy Oxford don.”

Part II begins now…

I’m telling you

I’m telling you

God is love,
and love is always more than you think,
because love has no endings, only beginnings:
As St. Paul told me, “Love never ends.”

I have consumed more Woody Allen than you want to,
Ditto for Augustine the African.
But I’ve read far less than I want to
Of Barth and Merton and Billy Wilder
and a whole flock of living witnesses
who will never write a word
or even be heard of in the next town over.

I’m telling you

The Holy Ghost is calling us to imagine that
Some morning soon we’ll have wings
Just like hers, but for now
We just have some baby feathers coming in.

Downy fuzz made of gold like glass,
making us itch like hell,
which is why this is the point (for now):
I’m supposed to irritate you too.

Note: I was rewriting the About section for the blog and this poem is what happened. It is the About section. And I posted it too for RSS followers.

on rob bell (and thankfully not)

From Romano Guardini‘s The Lord (emboldened by me):

Woe to me if I say: “I believe” and feel safe in that belief.  For then I am already in danger of losing it (see Cor. 10:12 [sic]).  Woe to me if I say: “I am a Christian” – possibly with a side-glance at others who in my opinion are not, or at an age that is not, or at a cultural tendency flowing in the opposite direction.  Then my so-called Christianity threatens to become nothing but a religious form of self-affirmation.  I “am” not a Christian; I am on the way to becoming one – if God will give me the strength.  Christianity is nothing one can “have”; nor is it a platform from which to judge others.  It is movement. I can become a Christian only as long as I am conscious of the possibility of falling away.  The gravest danger is not failure of the will to accomplish a certain thing; with God’s help I can always pull myself together and begin again.  The real danger is that of becoming within myself unchristian, and it is greatest when my will is most sure of myself.  I have no absolutely no guarantee that I shall be privileged to remain a follower of Christ save in the manner of beginning, of being en route, of becoming, trusting, hoping and praying.