"All theology is prolegomenna," said Karl Barth. He also said that all theology is just sermon preparation. In both cases, he was correct, by and large. What we have in Rob Bell's Love Wins is little more than a series of topical sermons on matters that would seem to indicate serious theological reflection and study, deep Biblical exegesis, and an attention to pastoral concerns flowing from the heart of one deeply committed to the life of his congregation.
Except, they don't indicate those things.
In matters of style, the book - around 200 pages of widely-spaced text - is organized in much the way sermon notes would be. The chapters seemed designed for preaching. There is an ebullience in the phrasing, a joy in stringing together words that show on paper a little of the power Bell has as a speaker.
In matters of content, there is little in these chapters that is either surprising, nothing that is new, and much for solace for the heart troubled by what Bell feels is the distortion of the Gospel message. While hardly revolutionary, and even less heretical, in a context where adherence to certain doctrinal developments is deemed necessary both for salvation and for being considered truly "Christian", Bell does the most dangerous, revolutionary thing possible - he sidesteps doctrinal rigidity, is insouciant toward matters some within what is known as the evangelical community consider both right and true, and offers a vision of the Christian life rooted in God's love rather than fear of eternal separation and torment.
In this sense, the book is laudatory. Bell neither denies the existence of hell, nor of God's judgment, nor of human sinfulness. Bell's vision of what it means to be a Christian hints, at least, at the reality that it isn't about us at all, but rather about God, God's glory, God's justice, God's desire for communion and relationship with us. In this sense, there are areas where Bell just doesn't go far enough.
There are problems, however. Several critics, both friendly and hostile, have noted that Bell's use of Scriptural citation is bad. They are right. He will give a book title and chapter, but not verse. His treatment of some Biblical themes seems superficial at best; I am forced to agree with one hostile reviewer that, in skipping over the more difficult passages in the Revelation to St. John in his rush to the end, he misses an opportunity to talk about the vision of God's ongoing struggle with what St. Paul called the powers and principalities. It isn't just the vision of the New Jerusalem, gates wide open, no more tears or pain, illuminated by the love of God present again in the New Temple that is the source of solace. It is the very fact that the book details the reality of persecution, violence, and death so many Christians face from the powers of the world Bell describes in other parts of his book (in their contemporary form) always with the reassurance of Divine presence in the midst of that turmoil. One should not skip over the ten-crowned beast or the Whore on Babylon riding the Dragon from the Sea just because it is hard, or because these texts have been distorted out of any recognizable shape by people who try to relate them without really understanding them. Nothing comes easy, and getting to the New Jerusalem without going through the tribulation and violence is a cheat. Bell, trained at Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, should know that.
Furthermore, I have serious issues with the structure of the work. The subject - the triumph of God's grace over human sin and evil - needs some kind of foundation. Bell begins his book with two chapters, the first on heaven, the second on hell, which, to my mind, should have been combined and saved for the end. In other words, by and large, the books is structured in reverse. What Bell has to say about personal eschatology needs a grounding in what he says about who God is, who Jesus is, what we are called to be as Christians, the life of the Holy Spirit. Bell works backwards, a frustrating way to build something. While I realize this isn't a work of theology, the overall effect might have been better had Bell worked from the ground up, rather than the top down.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in ideas that are challenging, to small groups looking to think through questions of the meaning of grace and salvation, the Christian life and worship, and who God is and what this God wants for this creation God called "very good" once it was all done. I also would recommend some of the hostile reviews I wrote about yesterday, as a way of understanding the context within which Bell is writing. This isn't an earth-shattering, revolutionary work. It isn't a great book. It is, however, for all its flaws of presentation, a good book that has already provoked a reaction far beyond either its content or intention. In that way, it is surely in a line stretching back to St. Paul, who managed to stir up the entire city of Thessolonica simply by proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Messiah.