Friday, March 16, 2012

An Atheist's encounter with Rob Bell & Love Wins


The article is interesting and I agree with much of what he has to say about Rob. I'll be forthright, I like Rob but I was not blown away by Love Wins. I do think the fever people had over it was unjustified and contributed greatly to it's success. But, I'm with Ben Witherington in regards to Love Wins, and it is a work of artistic poetry, not systematic theology. It is more like Psalms, not Romans.

That does not excuse the instances of Love Wins' poor theology, but it ought to at frame the discussion.

The guest author (and atheist) Ronnie Stockton offers several thoughts in this article I found compelling as well as perplexing.

First, the perplexing.

He quotes George Bush Sr., who makes (at least it appears) an incredibly restrictivist (and also isolated) comment about how atheists should not be considered citizens or patriots. There is no citation given for the quote, and although I'm confident that Bush may have had one of his legendary slipups, to not cite the quote in it's entirely in a footnote doesn't quite aide Ronnie's case about much of "US evangelical Christianity, which can appear to be the shallow religion of a narcissistic, self-interested, rampantly capitalist society." It appears uncharitable, which is odd given that most of the article is actually pretty respectful. The quote by Ronnie is overly simplistic. 

I've had someone ask me why all prominent Christians don't act like Jesus and pray for their enemies and those that persecute them. I answered because these days, if you want to see Christians being truly persecuted, go to China or the Middle East.

But even then, the issue seems to be a superficial view of the prominence of some rather than the sincerity of most. I will concede that too much of Christendom is shallow, uncritical and self-interested. And it must be changed. But too much means that there ought to never be such a thing. His question is a generalization based upon a stereotype. The issue with stereotypes and the people that break them is that often those who break stereotypes are labelled simply as exceptions and dismissed. "Just because you've become enlightened doesn't mean your system or your camp is correct" is often what this can become.

Ronnie then offers a distinction between Rob Bell and George Bush. I'll let you chuckle over the obvious differences between both men. He points to Rob's inclusive statement about Jesus, citing this as clear and honest. And I agree. But Rob Bell is not the only theologian, scholar or pastor who is inclusive about Jesus. Roger Olson, Greg Boyd, Jurgen Moltmann and many others are great examples of people who hold to the same inclusive love.

Now, I disagree with Rob Bell when it comes to inclusivism, as I am an exclusivist. But this is not something I care to die upon. Just to note it. There are better and more scholarly examples to offer than Rob Bell on this subject. I may explore inclusivism in the future, if anyone is interested.

So I'm not convinced that the dichotomy built Bell and Bush is correct.

Lastly, the compelling.

I appreciate, first and foremost, Ronnie's honestly. By the end of the article, he has shown to be considerate and without condescension (except for the notes above). The attitude helps quite a bit in furthering genuine dialogue.

Ronnie's openness to Rob has nothing to do with Rob. I think Rob would say the same thing, and point Ronnie instead to Jesus. Which, it seems, Ronnie is now beginning to investigate for himself. I also agree with Ronnie specifically about factional politics within the United States. After watching the debate between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler, I was struck by how different both men approached Jesus. Both had a systematic lens, but through very different methods. Both are Christians and love Jesus, but the emphasis is different. To someone seeking a more rigorous and apologetic-driven case, Mohler is appealing. To someone seeking a more open and practically-driven case, Wallis is appealing.

People need both systems. I see no reason to separate the two and think if one can figure out a solution to combining them, we might have something magical on our hands. If anyone has a book to recommend, hit me up in the comments.

Rob's emphasis on God's love for us seems to be quite appealing to many atheists. I know of several who have paused quite a bit when I mentioned God's overwhelming love for us, especially if it is transcendent and something they can experience, even so dimly. It seems that Ronnie desires a relationship with Christians and, simply put, to talk about who we are. Nobody likes being talked *at* but people love talking about themselves.

Its time we sat down and let them speak. The more we learn about them, the more we can empathize and love them. Even Ronnie admits that what Bell did was point him to Christ.
"What is increasingly apparent to me though of course is that Rob Bell is talking about Jesus – thus the story that speaks to me is the story of Christ. Before this recent stage of my journey, I positioned my atheism from the perspective of someone who does not believe in organised religion. But now I want to explore the ties that bind my ethical beliefs to the perspective of faith. What I’m learning is that the Christian message chimes far more tunefully with my own than I had realised."
I'm not certain how I feel about him believing Rob Bell is a spokesperson for a generation, as I think Bell has quite a ways to go to figure out his theology, but I understand the sentiment. I do not think the progressive politics and theology are necessary, as Ronnie seems to indicate in his final paragraph. I know many conservatives who are open and honest with their doubts, their fears and their love for Jesus. I count myself as one of them. Progressive politics and theology does not equal openness.

But, at the end of the day, I admire atheists who are honest, irenic and seek truth. If the evidence leads them to Jesus, then I'm glad Rob Bell wrote Love Wins. This does not mean Love Wins was a particularly good book. But it caused a great many of people to think in ways they have never done before, including Ronnie. I would only hope that they progress towards Jesus and his teachings, and not rest until they've found him. I think Ronnie's final words written sum up everything nicely.
"Furthermore, from a self-interested perspective, although not ‘a believer’, I feel more involved and included and, most importantly, open and curious towards faith and the message of Jesus."
To future dialogues and to truth alone. God bless.



  1. Stockton's comment are pretty darn rad. If folks walk away from Bell thinking more about who Jesus is, then glory be to God. I certainly also concur with your sentiments about "Love Wins", most ardently with the idea that our response to it is going to be most substantially influenced by what genre we think we're reading. I had a hard time trying to turn off my theological lens when reading it, but am agreed, for the most part, it works as a meshing of Psalms.

  2. Hey Dante. Exactly. I thought it was very interesting how many non-Christians responded to it. Very much not a systematic theology book. ;)