30 July 2011

Intellect Loses: A Review of Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

I read Rob Bell's Love Wins on a dare. Before I started the book, knowing I'd write a review, I was prepared to respond with nuanced theological arguments and incisive philosophical criticisms. Having now read it, I'm not going to do that (OK, maybe a little). As inclusive as Rob Bell seems to want to be, I don't think I'm part of his target audience. I'm sure Rob Bell would tell you differently if you asked him, but as someone with a Master's degree in theology, who was an evangelical Christian and who has identified as an atheist for the past year or so, I'm confident saying Love Wins wasn't for me, and here's why:

I found plenty of things about the book I didn't like. Which was it that made me feel outside the book's scope? Maybe it was that it read like a sermon, right down to the bible quote-mining and the word-study on select Greek words, which are subsequently incorporated into sentences as if they'd suddenly become English words. Maybe it was the quasi-pithy statements meant to sound deep or poetic but which came off more as a set of shiny new platitudes.

Maybe it was the sentence fragments.
The clipped paragraphing.

Maybe it was how Bell glossed over ("glossed over" is a diplomatic term for "almost completely failed to mention") the whole history of views— orthodox and otherwise— on heaven, hell and the fate of everyone who ever lived. Maybe it was how he seemed to be writing as if I hadn't bothered progressing intellectually past 8th grade, which I suppose means he was writing mainly to evangelical Christians. Yeah, that's the one.

It's not a problem only with Rob Bell. It's a problem with evangelical Christianity, and the problem is that evangelicals, generally speaking, would prefer not to worry about the life of the mind apart from being comforted that all their questions— and anyone's questions— boil down to a lack of love for God, and/or some kind of pride that can be readily gotten rid of with repentance and not thinking (of those questions) again.

Mark Noll, who is an evangelical Christian, pointed this out in 1994 in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. I quite liked that book, and much like most thoughtful, insightful books written for the evangelical Christian community, it had a wildly nominal impact on the practice of evangelical Christianity.

Judging from statements in Love Wins, my guess is that Bell would say I'd only ever had experience with the wrong view of God, or a broken view of God, shaped by my sins and the sins of others, and that's quite tragic, but there's a better view of God available. Interestingly, Bell defends his own experience of praying the sinner's prayer as inexorably real, implying that he had experienced in that moment, the right view of God. The true view of God.

So, Rob, please don't insult me by thinking you're going to convince me of anything you say in a book, the entire premise of which hinges on a No True Scotsman fallacy. Not OK, guy.

Anyway, that wasn't the review. I was just explaining why Love Wins was probably not written for me. Here's the real review. The true review: I liked Love Wins about a thousand times better when it was called The Great Divorce and was written by C. S. Lewis.


Ken Tryon said...

I had missed your move from intellectual man about town to officially identifying as an atheist. Given that this is you and not some mealy mouthed pseudo-intellectual who is sloppy with words, I take it that you really mean "atheist" and not "agnostic."

I have long agreed with the proposition that Evangelicals are (often) intellectually shallow, imprecise, and incurious. I went to an evangelical liberal arts college, and to many members of its sponsoring denomination evangelical liberal arts was an oxymoron. I sometimes agree with that statement, albeit for different reasons than theirs.

I have to wonder why you haven't moved to a church tradition with a more robust intellectual tradition, such as Anglicanism or Catholicism, rather than chucking the idea of God entirely. Of course, if you find the idea of God untenable, atheism is the intellectually honest choice.

I haven't read "Love Wins" yet, but I'm hardly surprised to hear it isn't theologically rigorous. However, I applaud that someone is countering the popular notion that God is gleefully waiting to Smite The Wicked, especially Muslims And Other Bad People. At least I hope Bell is countering that. Life is hard, the world is fallen, and American Evangelicals are not somehow magically exempt from that. Oh, and we're as bad as the rest of the world (see also, total depravity). To claim otherwise is magical thinking, no matter what religious labels we may apply to it.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment, Tryonk. I do, indeed mean "atheist," and I would suggest that most good atheists and many good Christians could easily call themselves "agnostic" (and ought to) in addition to their other identifiers.

For me, although I am disappointed with the level of intellectual activity in the evangelical tradition, it's not intellectualism that has determined my move to atheism. In fact, there are plenty of atheists who are intellectually shallow, imprecise and incurious.

My move to atheism is, as you say, out of honesty. I found that any ideas I had about God led back to my choice to interpret the bible or events in a particular way and that I could just as easily understand them differently. To me, that exposes a lack of belief in God and a great amount of belief in myself. Given that, I don't feel comfortable calling myself a Christian, and I have yet to discover in myself any way to honestly believe in and live my life as if I believe in God.

I'd like to do some more thinking on the matter before I decide if I'm with you on applauding Bell. Every time I start to type that I agree, I hesitate, so you may see another comment from me on that matter once I sort out the source of that hesitation.

tommy hawkins said...

i think balthazar does it better, Tryonk. not because i'm a catholic (i am), not because i think rob bell is selfindulgnorant* (he is) but because what balthazar proposes in one statement defines christianity fully and does not tumble through the uncharted waters of the first universalist church where all faiths are balled in to one indecipherable mess... like hotdogs.

i don't believe he is deserving of your applause,nor yours tylash, because what has he done but meatiocred (spelled as such in honor of this forum) the authority and utter terror that God inspires. I understand Tyler's perspective and respectfully disagree, though, if there is a God I do believe He would not be a bluffer. You can believe or not in Heaven or Hell and you can believe or not in God but unless this book reiterates balthazar Rob Bell is doing nothing but throwing a wrench in his own money-mill theology. Balthazar says this (paraphrased) "I am told I must to believe in Hell, However I choose to hope that it is empty and pray towards that end, that the grace of Christ might save all sinners".

*an uncommon word to describe someone simultaneously as extraordinarily self indulgent and phenomenally ignorant as rob bell. the reason they must be paralleled and not in series is because his self indulgence must counter his ignorance by way of constructing circular arguments and indulging in blanket statements (aka Circketartements)