by J.R. Daniel Kirk
July 5, 2012
A couple weeks ago, I was alerted to the fact that the Rob Bell Reader for Kindle was selling for just the right price on Amazon. Which is to say, of course, that it was free (as it still is today, as it is also at Barnes and Ignoble for Nook and in the iTunes store for whatever people read on when they buy at the iTunes store).
Having never read anything Bell has written prior to this, I figured this was as good an excuse as any to see what he’s up to. The book is forthrightly offered as a teaser for the books Bell has published with HarperOne and Zondervan (both part of the same parent company). Each of the five chapters is a selection from one of Bell’s earlier books: Love Wins, Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and Drops Like Stars.
Here’s my bottom line: Bell offers a compelling overarching theological vision, peppered with various detailed exegetical and/or theological claims that make me wince.
The book’s selection from Love Wins is Bell’s exposition of the Prodigal Son parable. It contains some vivid, beautiful insights about our lives as they stand in relation to God:
Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story. We all have our version of events. Who we are, who we aren’t what we’ve done, what that means for our future. Our worth, value, significance. The things we believe about ourselves that we cling to despite the pain and agony they’re causing us.This description of the brothers, each needing the father to retell their stories as stories of beloved sons, each refusing in their own way to believe it at different points in the story, is packed with insight. The brothers both have skewed visions. And the father offers them each a new story of acceptance and love.
But one wonders whether this metaphorical description of “hell” is really to the point when reading an author who is claiming to make a point about “hell” as a potential destiny for human beings who reject the work of God on their behalf.
We believe all sorts of things about ourselves. What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story.Yes. That.
Toward the end, Bell comes around to a stronger argument about Hell. If this God we serve is the one who is constantly rewriting our stories of guilt and shame with his story of peace and grace and forgiveness and love, then how can this same God turn on a dime and cast into Hell those who refuse?
What sort of grace and forgiveness and love are those?
What kind of God is that?
This is an important question for us to wrestle with.
How one understands the gospel they claim, and the God who offers it, will inevitably impact how a person lives. Bell joins the ranks of those who call us away from a gospel that’s too small: a focus on “getting in” that does not entail a whole new life, is a truncated gospel at best.
We’re invited to trust the retelling now, so that we’re already taking part in the kind of love that can overtake the whole world.Bell presents a captivating vision, and it is not without its challenge to us to examine our shortcomings. This is not just about “inclusion,” but calling us to repentance as well. He writes these challenging words:
The second truth, one that is much more subtle and much more toxic as well, is that the older brother is separated from his father as well, even though he’s stayed home. His problem is his “goodness.”
His rule-keeping and law-abiding confidence in his own works has actually served to distance him from his father.The parable is, in fact, told in Luke 15 to a bunch of older brother types who are grumpy about the folks Jesus is celebrating. Bell does a great job of bringing this back around to us, the presumed insiders, to challenge how we posture ourselves toward the rest. Ok, so that was just one chapter of the reader.
But perhaps its illustrative: Bell has a penetrating theological vision that is worth learning from, even when we find ourselves disagreeing along the way.