Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell
I recently got round to reading Love Wins by Rob Bell. It’s a book that re-evaluates a lot of traditional Christian ideas, and it caused a lot of discussion, debate and even denunciations when it came out last year, so I thought I should see what all the fuss was about.
Bell does a good job of knocking down traditional, conservative and even fundamentalist ideas, pointing out the flaws in their interpretations by quoting the Bible and using the conservatives’ own methods of argument against them to show that it’s rather more complicated than conservative dogma suggests. That’s clearly the strongest element of the book, and a very valuable one.
Where the book is weaker is in offering alternative interpretations to the conservative views he rejects. In supporting his position, Bell appears to be guilty of eisegesis and dubious interpretation as bad as any committed by the conservatives whose theology he rejects. He hangs one argument on the literal truth of an apparently hyperbolic comparison of unwelcoming behaviour with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and he even attempts to draw firm conclusions from the Book of Job, a massive and complex parable about suffering which begins with God making a bet with Satan about whether Job will reject God if he suffers enough.
When Bell isn’t reading the Bible with inappropriate literalism, he’s drawing speculative conclusions about the true meaning of certain words or the intention of the writers. He bases one point on his idea of the figurative meanings of the words “life” and “death”, and another on the numerological significance of the number of “signs” recorded in John’s Gospel. Add in his belief in the benefit of careful study to uncover hidden hints and allusions, and he appears to be preaching a hidden gospel.
Most bizarre and frankly irritating is Bell’s habit of posing difficult questions – the obvious questions that will spring to mind as you read the book – and failing, even refusing to answer them. The passage on theological understandings of what Jesus’ death achieved is a typical example. Having listed five standard interpretations, he asks:
Which perspective is the right one? Which metaphor is correct? Which explanation is true?
The answer, of course, is yes.
I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with ducking difficult or unanswerable questions, and sometimes it shows a welcome honesty, but it grates when the book shows such excessive confidence in knocking down views he doesn’t like, and when he himself keeps raising these unanswerable questions.
One lengthy analysis of the Parable of the Prodigal Son typifies Bell’s style. Over six pages, he paints a vivid picture of the scene, and makes some good, valuable and thought-provoking points. But he also leans heavily on some minor and apparently inconsequential details of the story to support his argument.
Like an amateur psychologist, Bell reads significance into not just everything the “other” son says, but what he doesn’t, including the fact that he doesn’t use his brother’s name, calls his own faithful service “slaving” and expresses a thwarted wish to have a goat to eat. All this, remember, is read into an English translation of the surviving Greek accounts, first written many years after the event, of a story Jesus told in Aramaic. Maybe these were all originally intended as significant points, but I have my doubts.
Bell has some interesting ideas, and is quite insightful towards the end of the book when considering what makes belief in hell so popular. For all the book’s good points, though, I think the most telling result of its publication was the outraged reaction from conservatives who found it unconscionable that anyone could even suggest that their beliefs were mistaken. That kneejerk defensiveness reflects very badly on them and their views, but it’s nothing to do with the arguments in the book.
My criticisms should probably be taken with a pinch of salt – I’m not really his target audience, so others may find the book more helpful. It marks a significant contribution towards making the church more moderate and less judgemental, and it’s a decent read if you want to know why conservative dogma is a bit dodgy, but not so much if you want to have a coherent and well-argued idea of what to believe instead.
It’s a book that doesn’t answer many questions, but it does question the answers. It doesn’t do much for me, but for some people, that may be just what they need.