Friday, June 01, 2012

The Eternal Destiny of the Cool: My Review of Love Wins

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedLove Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was sympathetic, but I was skeptical, when I first heard of Love Wins, a hipster treatise on Jesus and human destiny. I've appreciated Rob Bell the several times I've seen him speak; I liked his cadence and his rhythm and his horn rims and color scheme, but I also liked his way of thinking about the Bible. As evangelical as he is--he was raised in Michigan and educated at Wheaton College, for pete's sake--he manages to step back from evangelical subcultural ways of seeing and find a new angle that is nonetheless evangelical. And hipster. Bell makes it cool to be nerdy about the Ancient Near East. Without Rob Bell I'd not be hip to Jesus' Hebrew identity and its implications for how I read the New Testament. I'd probably also still be wearing lame round Harry Potter glasses instead of these cool boxy black frames. I owe Rob Bell a lot.

But given all that, perhaps you can understand my skepticism about Love Wins, which was, barely a year ago, aggressively promoted and derided as a book rejecting the cosmic reality of hell and the eternal, conscious punishment of the wicked. My skepticism was, frankly, partly due to my sympathies. It's neither fun nor cool to think or talk about the fate of people who don't believe that Jesus is Messiah, the Way, the Truth and the Life, that his cross and resurrection secure our eternities for us. Hell is a major buzzkill, and I'm sympathetic to any argument against it. But I had my doubts that someone as stylized as Bell could write a strong enough case for setting aside the well-vested evangelical tradition about hell. Those three-, two- and one-line paragraphs, those vast blank spaces between thoughts, this mere 35,000-word book could hardly knock hell off its privileged perch. Could it?

I owe Rob Bell an apology because I've made style and substance mutually exclusive, and Bell has shown that they don't need to be. As fast a phenomenon as Love Wins was (it's been in print fourteen months and had two books refuting it within four months of its release, but when was the last time you heard someone talk about it?), I'm now imagining that it took Bell years to write. In some ways it consolidates years' worth of themes that he's traveled around speaking on--he almost slips and tells us on more than one occasion that "the gods aren't angry," and each chapter could be easily reimagined as one of his popular Nooma videos--but it also reflects a whole lot of reading and digesting and thinking, and writing and revising and refining and distilling. Love Wins is simplicity on the far, far side of complexity.

That's good, because Rob Bell needed to do his homework on this one. It's not just hell he's playing with, his critics would argue; it's the very nature of God. And Bell knows it: in fact he writes Love Wins because of what a more hell-happy worldview has insinuated about God's character. Bell includes a nice, albeit too brief, list of further reading at the end of the book; I'm not sure it's an adequate list, because while Bell has clearly done his homework, his book is really only the Cliffs Notes on the subject of hell for the rest of us. There's no rigorous debate with his opponents; you could read this book and imagine that any such opponents are on the fringes of society and the verge of extinction. Trust me, they're not: I'm a little nervous to click send on this review for fear of how people near and far will react to the number of stars I gave it. My initial reaction when Love Wins came out was (and I think I posted this somewhere), "If I'm going to read about something as significant as the fate of every person who ever lived, I'm not going to read about it from Rob Bell." I'm glad I did, and I think he did a great job with it, but I'm not going to debate anybody about it till I've read a lot more on the subject.

In this respect, Rob Bell reminds me of Miles Davis. Not the greatest trumpet player who ever lived, Miles Davis was nevertheless a musical genius, understanding the evolution and interplay of multiple genres more acutely than almost anyone. He was also a great popularizer, tracking emerging trends and new insights on the jazz scene and bringing them to a wider audience. Given the hegemony of more traditional evangelical perspectives on the fate of those who have not professed faith in Jesus, and given how freely the dominant culture-makers in contemporary evangelicalism use their power to maintain that hegemony, and given the trauma that such a view of hell can induce on people of good will and fragile souls, I'd say a little Miles Davis might be the best thing for us. So thanks, Rob Bell, for Love Wins and my glasses and for giving me new ways of thinking about the eternal destiny of the cool. And I'm sorry I've not given more respect to your particular genius, your particular coolness.

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1 comment:

JR Woodward said...

Dave,

Well said. Glad you finally took the time to read the book and found it a theological and artistic contribution. Here is the introduction to the six part series I did on Rob's book: http://bit.ly/gQDJQZ