It is extremely hard to approach this book free from baggage. I would say that, to a degree, it is impossible. I’ve never been much of a fan of Rob Bell. Indeed, it irritates me a bit to use the word “fan” in reference to a preacher. But we are in an age of celebrity preachers and the American mind easily goes toward fandom. And, to limit this digression as much as possible, Bell has found a pulse in the desire of American Christianity for artistry and creativity. Rob Bell is an artist first and foremost. Sure, he studies theology and preaches, but his primary method of conveying information is artistically. Flip through any of his books and you will notice that design and layout is important to him. He has made a splash with the Nooma videos because they are well produced and quite artistic. The only problem with art is that it doesn’t always convey things concretely. Art inspires, it conveys emotion, but each person will interpret the art in a different way and this is linked primarily to personal experience and perception. Rob Bell is an artist. He does his best to convey his information as best he can, but ultimately he attempts to inspire and convey emotion. Thus, it is easy to connect with his material, it is easy to have a visceral reaction to his books. Indeed, we have seen such reactions. A quick search through reviews of Love Wins show how heated the debate over this book has become. To a degree, one may say that Rob Bell has given American evangelicals a kick in their eschatological complacency. He has challenged them to think about something that they have taken for granted: the afterlife.
I am only two chapters into the book thus far and at once dislike much of it (due primarily to style) and am still intrigued by it. Granted, I haven’t gotten to the sections on hell yet. Those are the sections that seem most contentious among the detractors. But I do, provisionally, agree with Bell on certain issues of Heaven and the Kingdom of God. Too often, Heaven seems nothing more than an escape from this world, a place where we go when we die that seems to have little impact on the lives of Christians. I realize I filter this perception through my experiences working in Christian retail, but often it seems like we take for granted that we are “going to Heaven” when we die, but while we are on Earth, our behavior doesn’t always matter. But I have come to believe that our lives on Earth are extremely important, that our behavior and renewal as Christians is a key factor. Call it holiness, soteriology, virtue, or theosis, we are to become more like Christ, imitating him in attitude and action. We do not pledge ourselves to a cause, then go about our business as if nothing else has changed. I don’t make reservations at a hotel, then not go through the task of preparing for and making a journey. It is a constant struggle, this change, this obedience. And reading Love Wins gave me yet another perspective on it. As we grow closer to Christ, the behaviors and attitudes that are un-Christlike, that are impurities or sinful, are burned away. On some level we must make the conscious effort and take actions to allow these changes, but growing closer to Christ makes Heaven a more pleasant experience. Or, to put it differently, it makes Heaven a more palatable experience if one has not quite developed a desire for it. Let me explain how this works for me.
I haven’t always longed for Heaven because I have seen it described in terms that are not very appealing to me. Streets of gold have very little appeal to me, nor do I much care for clouds or harps. Sometimes, for me, I feel a certain sympathy with Mark Twain, who wrote of man’s view of heaven in Letters from the Earth, “it consists–utterly and entirely–of diversions which he cares next to noting about here in the earth, yet is quite sure he will like in heaven.” I recall, as a child, attending a multi-night study on the book of Revelation, and while I enjoyed the awesomeness of John the Revelator’s imagery, I found the descriptions of heaven (in retrospect, more the imaginings of the speaker) to be less than inspiring. What, we sing all day and eat fruit? You can imagine that for the nine year old mind, this wasn’t all that appealing. And while, on some level, I recognize this isn’t the most accurate description, it is one that has stuck with me. Perhaps this says less about heaven and more about the formative years of childhood and what lessons, intentional or otherwise, that stick with us well into adulthood.
This year has seen emotional hardships for me as I struggle through a season of life that is extremely busy and, at time, quite unsatisfactory. I am experiencing what I can only think of as disillusionment with the modern world, something I hope to explore later when I write about Radiohead’s most recent album The King of Limbs. But life seems marked by constant tasks and not enough time. Case in point, this paragraph is being written three days after starting the review. I posted, somewhat frustrated, on Facebook that writing for only 20 minutes a day makes tasks take a very long time. It is my desire to finish this post tonight, but I don’t know for sure that I will*. And this anxiety as I struggle to both make ends meet and find some sort of worth and purpose in the moment seem to characterize where I am at the moment. And through this struggle, I must maintain my devotion to Christ. It is in these moments where prayer and study become sidelined, and that is part of why it has taken me days to work on this initial review. I chose to spend time with God and not write. Everything that is on the schedule may end up being sacrificed so that something else can be completed. And this is frustrating. As I struggle with the anxiety and frustration, this spills over into my attitude and actions. I do my best to not take my anger out on people, but I know that, while I don’t yell, I do grow cold or distant at times. And work seems a bit more confrontational, as anyone who works in retail knows. When the consumers are Christians, it grows more irritating. I often hope that we are better than this, but it regularly seems that we aren’t. We don’t really seem to have taken to heart the words Paul wrote about not provoking one another. This breaks my heart but it also makes me mad, and I find myself constantly struggling to not respond in kind.
All this to say, the promise of Heaven, the promise that these struggles of the flesh will be finally burned away, gave me the most appealing reaction to Heaven that I think I have ever had. To believe that one day I will not be faced with this struggle and will genuinely have peace and be who I was created to be is a hope that I have not often felt. Life is incredibly hard and we are promised many solutions to this in our culture, but for me, the idea that one day I will be complete and fully human, is a hope that can sustain me. I believe that is a promise God makes to us. I believe that we can feel glimpses of that now as we follow Christ. And at the moment, I am surprised to say that Love Wins helps me to see that just a bit clearer.
Having completed this post, I shall continue to read the book and check in as I have more thoughts.
*Although, it seems I have finished.