I received an email from my dad the other day as I was headed to my Monday night Contemporary Literature and Theology course that said this:
“I’m reading a book called ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell, who says he is a Fuller graduate – - do you know anything about this guy? – - the book is certainly non-traditional in its descriptions of heaven and hell. Just thought you might have an insight.”
I love my dad, who is an engineer. Because of his engineer’s mind, he and I tend to think about things differently. Three years ago, as I was in the middle of my MA in English, he remarked in response to something I was saying, drawing a distinction between us: I’m an intellectual, and he is not. Since my dad is certainly one of the smartest people I know, I thought that to be interesting, something I had never considered before.
During my first quarter at Fuller, my dad asked me how I liked my classes and wanted to know what I was learning about. I started telling him about Nancey Murphy and non-reductive physicalism (the belief, essentially, that there is no such thing as a soul.) About three minutes in, he put his hand up to stop me and said, “Does this affect whether or not Jesus is our Savior?” I told him, no, it didn’t. “Okay,” he said, “as long as I don’t have to try to understand any of this stuff, then I’m okay.”
My dad wasn’t writing off what I was studying as not worthwhile—just as not of practical value to him. To be clear, this difference between us hasn’t been a point of tension in our relationship either. Lately he’s been marveling at the fact that currently two of his four sons are in graduate school studying things that are way over his head (a third is getting an MBA, which is right up his alley.) This difference between us has actually been fruitful in the sense that it has helped me to gauge whether or not a particular abstract idea (some hermeneutical tool, for example) would be helpful necessarily in practical application or at least to start to develop an idea of how it could become helpful someday.
I think that’s really important. One of the biggest problems I see as I sit in philosophy and systematic theology classes, have coffee with other like minded students, stay up late with my roommate smoking pipes around our fire pit, all the time discussing these lofty, invisible structures in our thought that lie behind and support practical concerns is that far too many people in the church still cling to modern ideology and ways of knowing, but they’re a long way off from seeing it. Many people will probably post comments on Church Unbound’s Facebook page under the link to this post, railing against me or Rob Bell without really reading this post or Bell’s book. Challenging the modern worldview is tantamount to challenging the reality of God Himself for many people. That’s one of the primary reasons Bell’s book has stirred things up so much: It’s a full frontal assault on that way of viewing the world. But the difficult issue for me becomes how to help people see that without dragging them through years of careful philosophical reflection and study. It’s not at all a matter of smart versus stupid—it’s a matter of intellectual versus practical.
I decided the very minute I heard about John Piper’s tweet (“Farewell, Rob Bell”) that even though I would be reading Love Wins, I wasn’t going to engage with it in a public forum like this or my blog for Fuller admissions. Other writers I know, either at Fuller or elsewhere, may have avoided it for similar reasons—we’re just not fans of drama here. Besides, Greg Boyd, Richard Mouw, and others have basically said all that needs to be said:
It’s a book that simply raises a question about something that is perhaps contradictory in Christian tradition and calls readers to seriously think about that question.
And somehow that is seen as heretical.
But then there’s my dad’s question.
Here I am, wrapped up in the culture of Christian pop-academia. I would venture to say that there are very very few people in my circles or on Fuller’s campus who do not know the name Rob Bell or who are not at least vaguely aware of what a controversial figure he is within Evangelical circles.
But then there’s my dad’s question.
My dad grew up in the church, coincidentally at Pasadena Covenant Church, where I now work. My mom is a Christian as well, growing up at Lake Avenue Congregational, down the street from PCC. They took my brothers and me to Sierra Madre Congregational. None of these churches lean very far in one direction or the other on the conservative/liberal scale. They’re pretty close to the middle. My parents now attend a church in Lafayette, CO called Flatirons Community Church—a place not unlike Rob Bell’s own congregation in size and style—which is also near the middle.
I responded to his email the next day, explaining who Bell is, what the controversy is over, and then pointed him to Boyd’s, Mouw’s, and [for a laugh] Donald Miller’s responses to Bell’s book. I told him that for me, the important thing Bell’s book does (and Bell really says as much in the preface) is not just to raise this one question about who is in hell and how we can know that but to raise a much larger question about where particular doctrine even comes from in the first place—something most Christians don’t really think about day to day.
My dad called me later that afternoon.
“I was going to email you, but then I thought I’d call,” he said. He thanked me for the links to the blog responses. He particularly liked Dr. Mouw’s.
And then he said something that I thought was profoundly important.
“It just seems to me,” he said, “that we can’t limit God by saying he will punish people in one particular way. We just don’t have enough information to know something like that. And I really like that phrase: Generous Orthodoxy.”
I realized then how vastly important Bell’s book and others like it could potentially be. My dad, a man with no particular academic or intellectual interest in his faith, who knew nothing of Bell or the controversy surrounding the book, just someone who simply cares about reflecting on his faith because he wants to grow spiritually—who saw the book at Costco and thought it sounded interesting—was able to grasp the thrust of Bell’s argument—the larger purpose at which he is driving. Somehow that gap between intellectual and practical was crossed. In my mind, that is an enormous victory for any kind of “postmodern” theological movement.
Rob Bell will obviously never see this blog, but someone needs to tell him that he has accomplished what he set out to do. Nice work, Mr. Bell.
by Joel Harrison