I've had a number of conversations lately where, not surprisingly, the topic shifts to Rob Bell's Love Wins. That's when a strange dynamic creeps into some conversations. If the person with whom I'm talking has read my review of the book, or knows I had some critical things to say, he's naturally hesitant to openly praise the book. The usual first move at that point is to say, "I don't agree with everything in the book, but …" And what follows is hardly unalloyed enthusiasm. It's usually a qualified, almost worried appreciation for this part or that. It's as if some people feel guilty for liking the book. Perhaps people who really like the book don't even bother to talk to me, but I suspect something else is going on.
That something else is related to what a Christian journalist friend told me: She feels she has to carefully craft anything she writes about Bell, lest she be suspected of really liking him—or disliking him. The atmosphere in some meetings where people are talking about Bell's book, well, it feels like some people have to apologize for reading the book. Or they seem concerned that if they like it, their theology will be questioned.
In short, it's starting to feel like Rob Bell is becoming a litmus test. If you like Bell, your orthodoxy may be suspect. And if you want to proclaim your orthodox credentials, you simply have to condemn Love Wins.
As far as this phenomenon is true, it is silly. That it is silly doesn't mean it is not a powerful current. But as far as it is true, it is a current3 we evangelicals must swim against.
First, Rob Bell loves Jesus. He wants to see lots of people come to believe in Jesus. He wants to see the world transformed in Jesus' name. He really thinks the Bible is a book through which Jesus speaks authoritatively. He believes in miracles. He believes Jesus is coming again. I could go on. The point is that Bell shares a number of values that are dear to evangelicals. He is, in short, a brother in Christ.
Naturally, because he's a brother doesn't mean one has to agree with everything he says. Brothers disagree, sometimes over important things. And sometimes the biggest blowups happen inside families! But they remain family—unless one party says he disowns the rest of the family.
Second, to make Bell's Love Wins a litmus test is a touch hypocritical. At any given time, there are always a few books on Christian bestseller lists that teach something odd, and we don't shriek in panic in the way many have over Love Wins. Probably the most controversial of late has been The Shack. There are a few theologically troubling ideas in that book, no doubt, but for the most part, evangelicals have "forgiven" Paul Young his theology at those points in favor of the book's larger theme of redemption in Christ. We recognize that an author trying to repeat the old, old story in fresh ways will sometimes overstep the bounds of traditional theology. But most of us do not judge another's orthodoxy based on their reaction to The Shack. We recognize that people read and react to The Shack for all types of reasons, and we are charitable about that.
Third, I believe we have no choice in this day but to listen to and respond charitably to ideas we had thought were settled long ago, ideas that make us feel uncomfortable, ideas that seem to threaten our faith. We've entered a new stage in church history, the Internet Age, in which all manner of beliefs are but a mouse click away. We are virtual neighbors to Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, Arians, Pelagians, Universalists, and so on and so forth. And their websites often present views that in small and large degrees differ from mainstream evangelicalism—and they express those views reasonably and compellingly. We can no longer get away with name calling—"Universalist!" "Arian!"—and think that is enough.