Minus bathroom breaks, I read Love Wins in one sitting. I wouldn’t say this is because it is engrossing, but rather because the 200 pages is made up of such short, choppy sentences and large print that it reads more like 100 pages. Compare this, for instance, to the considerably shorter, but much more difficult Nature of Doctrine. Lindbeck’s classic was one of the densest tomes I’ve read; Bell, while a good read, feels unnaturally inflated to me. But I suppose no one would be willing to part with $20+ for a hundred page hardback.
That said, I liked the book. I didn’t find anything I really disagreed with in the book (it’s hard to disagree with something that is chock-full of questions, though). A few main points:
1) Bell is not saying anything new. He’s upfront about this. These issues have been wrestled with since the origin of the faith. Why is this book so controversial, then? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Resurgent Calvinism, so common in low-church Protestantism today, will despise this book. Anyone who likes to draw really clear and easy distinctions about the saved and the damned will not be happy with his reflections. Many of these folks didn’t like Bell to start with, as evidenced by the fact that he was being condemned as a universalist before the book was even released. I find it laughable that churches who subscribe to no official creeds, no Magisterium (an official compendium of teaching, like in the Roman Catholic faith), who lack any formal denomination or structure from which to excommunicate someone have still attempted to erase Bell’s name from the evangelicals’ Book of Life. Perhaps such folks are not so Protestant as they imagine themselves to be.
2) Bell has an astounding gift for communication. He is, no doubt, a smart guy, but that’s not what makes his work so impressive. His gift is communicating complicated ideas in ways that are engaging and attractive. I got to see him speak at Duke last year and I was floored. As a pastor, watching him made me feel like I was watching Mickey Mantle while I was still stuck learning t-ball. This is not a book that should be evaluated as if it were systematic theology; it’s not. It’s a book of meditations and questions, none of which are original. He is no Luther or Barth; he’s not dropping a theological bomb. He’s restating some old questions for a new generation in a way that is profoundly helpful.
3) This is solid, practical, and whimsical theology. At various points I laughed out loud and was tempted to cry. He goes between exegesis, stories, poetry, and theology with the nimbleness of a ballerina. If you haven’t read much in the areas of soteriology, the question of other religions, or the nature and scope of Christ’s grace, you may find a lot here that is difficult. For instance, the Bible knows nothing of oft-repeated concepts such as “the age of accountability” and a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Bell may well burst your bubble – but you’ll thank him for it.
A couple of critiques, for good measure:
Given the actual density of the book, I think it’s fair to say it is overpriced (at least if you pay full price for it). The total page count is, frankly, bloated beyond necessity.
He doesn’t cite his sources. There is a brief list of acknowledgments at the end, which is helpful. To his credit, he lists N.T. Wright (probably enough reason, right there, to earn the disdain of the John Piper fanboys). His view is heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which he does mention. But there is a lot that isn’t credited. At one point, for instance, he references “gospels of sin management,” which I’m pretty sure is a direct allusion to a chapter in Dallas Willard’s wonderful The Divine Conspiracy. But no reference is made of Willard or the book, even in the acknowledgments. I have heard it said that source citations scare publishers because they scare away potential readers, so perhaps this was not Bell’s choice.
Read this. Share it with friends, especially friends who have been exposed to a Jesus that doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the gospels. I wish this book had been available to me when I was journeying from fundamentalism to Jesus; it would have been profoundly helpful. As is, it was a fun read, something I heartily recommend, and something I will use as a reference and source for inspiration.
If you like it, do yourself a favor: read The Great Divorce. If you are really feeling froggy, go on to read Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope?, which asked these exact questions, in a more direct and controversial way, decades ago. I personally found C.S. Lewis and Balthasar much more engaging, but Love Wins is a much easier read than these and a great introduction to the notion that maybe – just maybe – God gets what God wants…everybody.
P.S. I said MAYBE. Don’t try to burn me at the stake.