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What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

Ironically, his description of fundamentalism centers on the elimination of paradox:

When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension and dodges the paradox and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are and gives black-and-white answers to questions, leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine, it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience. Especially if that person is really, really confident. (93)

What’s interesting is that, in reading the rest of the book, Bell eliminates more paradoxes than traditional Christian teaching does.

It’s traditional Christianity that portrays God as holy and wrathful against sin, while being gracious and loving towards the sinner. For all Bell’s talk about embracing “both/and,” it’s his vision of Christianity that emphasizes God being for us, to the exclusion of any idea that God would stand over us in judgment.

Traditional Christianity doesn’t just include “both” but “triple” truths — God against us in our sin, God instead of us as sinners, and God for us as the Justifier. Far from diluting the beauty of God in His transcendence, traditional Christian dogma leaves us with unresolvable tensions and paradoxes galore: free will and sovereignty, God in us and yet distinct from us, the Trinity, the inclusive call to salvation from an exclusive Savior. The list goes on.

The paradoxes of traditional Christianity multiply in ways that stimulate the imagination. Bell’s teaching lacks that kind of substance.

Bell’s book goes down easy, kind of like whipped cream without the cake. God is ahead of us, beckoning society forward, and (how convenient!) it just so happens to be in the direction that society is already headed. Who would have thought?

Oddly enough, after reading this book, I came to the conclusion that Rob Bell is a fundamentalist of a different sort. In fact, I could apply his warning to himself, adding to his own words:

When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension (between wrath and love, or immanence and transcendence) and dodges the paradox (between judgment and grace) and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are (traditional Christians) and gives black-and-white answers to questions (such as, you can’t be humble and certain) leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine (or the revelation of this mystery, as explained by the apostle Paul), it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience. Especially if that person is really, really confident (or really, really cool).

I believe this book will resonate with many because the idea of “spiritual experience” is popular today. The question is, does Bell’s vision of spirituality have the doctrinal bone structure to sustain faith for two thousand years? I’m afraid not. His artistic abilities aside, the book’s vision is boring because the drama is missing.

Dorothy Sayers was right:

It is the dogma that is the drama — not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death — but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world, and passed through the grave and gate of death.

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tw@trevinwax.com'
Trevin Wax is first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. Trevin currently serves the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. He has been a regular blogger since 2006 and regularly contributes articles to publications such as Christianity Today. He authored two books, "Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals" (2010) and "Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope" (2011).