In defense of those criticizing Rob Bell

How much does a person have to write, say, or communicate, before we’re allowed to criticize him or her? Is a blog post enough? A podcast? A short video? Or, do I need to wait until you’ve written an entire book before I’m allowed to criticize you?

A number of bloggers are very annoyed today. Apparently they’re upset because a couple of bloggers, namely Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung, had the audacity to criticize Rob Bell for saying things that sound rather universalistic. No one seems to be questioning whether they should be disagreeing with universalism; these bloggers are upset that they’re criticizing Rob Bell without having read his forthcoming book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in which he supposedly develops these ideas.

Okay now, I’d be the first to agree that we shouldn’t criticize books we haven’t read. That’s never a good idea. But, that’s not really what’s happening here. Both Taylor and DeYoung were careful to point out that they had not read the book in question. Instead, they were commenting on the publishers description of the book, the promo video that Bell produced in support of the book, and the pre-release chapters that Taylor got to read. That’s a fair amount of material, more than enough to offer some good food for thought.

Indeed, it’s far more than many bloggers have in their possession when they criticize someone. I find it interesting that many people have critiqued Mark Driscoll with far less. I routinely see his short You Tube videos  subjected to criticisms every bit as harsh. (I’ve critiqued one or two of these myself.) And, I would definitely question how many bloggers who criticize him have actually read any of his books.

So, why is this any different?

On the substance of the concerns, I don’t really have anything to add. From what I’ve seen, it does sound like Bell is encouraging a universalistic understanding of Hell. And, since I think that’s a bad idea, I would have no problem criticizing it. I wouldn’t try to critique the book, since I haven’t even seen the pre-release chapters, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t critique what material is out there. We all do that all the time.

For a good, balanced discussion of Bell’s position, see Trevin Wax’s recent post on the subject.

Until the book comes out, I don’t think we can accurately label Rob a “universalist.” Based on Rob’s tendency to ask edgy questions and then pull back, I expect that somewhere in the book, Rob will affirm that people who don’t want to be part of God’s kingdom won’t be forced to. In the end, Rob will land somewhere between optimistic inclusivism (most everyone will be saved) and universalism (all will be saved).

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on February 27, 2011, in Eschatology, Salvation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. I’m with you. Everyone who has criticized Bell for his video/book promo has been well within their rights to do so. I think it’s less about actual outrage over what has been said or who it has been said about; I think folks just like taking shots at the “New Calvinists” and those of their ilk every opportunity they get.

    • Marc (and Nick),

      I think this is a very balanced approach to the whole fuss. Thanks for pointing out possible flaws that may exist in both camps: the original critics and the ones now criticizing the critics.

  2. While I would agree that it fair to criticize Rob Bell it doesn’t seem to have been wise in my opinion. Let me first say Rob Bell is very much to blame for participating in the making of a video that he had to have known would stir the pot. So Bell is not innocent here. That being said, Taylor, DeYoung, Piper, et al. made a logistics mistake by taking the bait set out by Harper Collins, and indirectly, Bell himself.

    What this has done is given people a chance to accuse these folk of (1) the aforementioned critique-before-reading and (2) a underlying bias against Bell that surfaced as soon as there was something to awaken it.

    What this has done is caused people to run in defense of Bell (a much “nicer” personality than someone like Piper) because they like Rob Bell. Now they are in his corner defending him. They are hardly defending universalism, the real devil in the room. But they think Bell is being unfairly attacked so by default they will become sympathetic to his views.

    We have seen this before with Brian McLaren. I doubt most McLaren supporters agree with him on everything, but they sure see him as a much nicer chap than his critics.

    So what happens if the book is published and Bell does prove to be a universalist? Well, they write their more informed criticisms to a house that is already split around personalities and not the issue itself.

    When Taylor, DeYoung, and others wrote on this there should have been even more “ifs”. If Bell believes this, if he turns out to be a universalist, if this video accurately reflects the book. There were some, but they were tucked into language that assumed Bell has shown his true side. By revealing that one thinks there is a “true side” it shows they have had preconceptions about Bell already. Again, this doesn’t play well for them.

    Those who will agree with Taylor, DeYoung, Piper, et al. were not likely to be fans of Bell in the first place. Those who love Bell because he is a rock star likely don’t care about what comes out of TGC. But the middle people? Well, not Bell looks like the kid being bullied on the playground and we all know where that story goes.

    • I agree that they certainly could have been more guarded in their conclusions. Indeed, Justin Taylor has added an update to his post saying exactly that (though not changing his conclusions all that much). And, I also agree that much of this is driven by personality. As Nick commented, the New Calvinists have become a prominent target for criticisms of all kind. And, once people get in the habit of criticizing someone, it becomes easy to do it on every occasion.

      And, I’m sure that the conversation will change slightly when the book comes out. (I’m not sure that it would have made much of a difference, though. Bell is a gifted communicator, and his supporters would likely given him the benefit of the doubt no matter what.) I actually think Trevin Wax might have it right when he says that Bell’s actual position will probably be between universalism and traditional exclusivism.

      My point is merely that there seems to be a real double-standard at work here. We don’t require anywhere near as much data before commenting when it comes to many other public figures. But, for some reason, we think that such a bar is necessary here.

  3. I’d agree that there is a double standard and Driscoll is a good example of how quickly those on the other side can let their lips flap (I would include myself as doing this). But if I did learn one thing from your class on the Greek Fathers is that charismatic personalities can really draw the fighters into an awkward predicament.

    I think of Arius’ songs for the people that Alexander of Alexandria couldn’t duplicate. Alexander has orthodoxy (and lucky for him, Athanasius!), but Arius had personality. We know who “won” in the end, but history should warn us that the charismatic types need to be approached with caution lest they win the imaginations of the people.

    • That’s a great point. I remember thinking the same thing about Greg Boyd during the open theism debate. He didn’t necessarily have the best arguments, but he was the most charismatic. That’s worth keeping in mind when you engage someone. It doesn’t mean that you don’t do it, but it might affect your approach.

      Sent from my Android phone using TouchDown (www.nitrodesk.com)

  4. “Farewell” goes beyond criticizing…

    • Only Piper wrote “farewell”. He isn’t the only person involved.

      • I probably should have commented on Piper’s tweet in my original email. I was focusing primarily on those who were offering some kind of meaningful critique, and “farewell” doesn’t count. I would consider a tweet like that to be irresponsible at the very least because it declares a judgment (and a very significant one!) without offering any explanation. That’s just not going to cut it.

  5. Marc I am surprised that you think Bell is encouraging a universalist theology of salvation. In the video he simply introduces the topic and asks questions. Good questions. It wont surprise me if he ends up where does….

    And he is correct, no one other than God can tell us where Ghandi is.

    These guys from the GC have stepped out of line here. They have deemed him a heretic and burned him at the stake before knowing everything.

    Does universalism mean one is a heretic? Is it really a boundary marker?

    Just pushing back.

    • Keep in mind that it’s not just the video, but the publisher’s description as well. Those together definitely suggest more than just asking questions. I still wouldn’t say for sure that it’s a universalist position but it does sound universalistic, though Andrew Perriman also pointed out that there are other ways of understanding what was said that don’t necessarily lead to universalism (i.e. conditional immortality).

      Sent from my Android phone using TouchDown (www.nitrodesk.com)

  6. Sorry I meant Marc. My mistake.

  7. I think those criticising Taylor Piper and others have a rite to do so. The criticism I have leveled at them is based on their lack of integrity with this issue. It is not personal. These people need to be held accountable for what they have falsely said about Rob Bell. They may be correct in their views on heaven and hell but they are wrong in the way they have labelled Rob Bell based on a few chapters, a video =in which eh says nothing about his own view of hell and a blurbn written by a publisher. I cannot fathom why Marc would defend this! (sorry Marc, I still think you’re awesome and the head of our Glee club).

    • Since my argument is that people have a right to critique Rob Bell, I’d also agree that people have a right to critique Taylor et al. The critique, though, should be with the substance of their statements, not a claim that they had no right to make any statements at all. To take Justin Taylor for example, he saw a video, read the publisher’s blurb, and read several entire chapters of a book. That’s more than I usually have at my disposal when I critique a journal article. And, it’s far more than I have when I critique a blog post. Yet, no one has a problem when I do these things. As long as a person clearly indicates that they are critiquing on the portion of material they had available to them, then I have no problem with them offering their critique. I’d only be concerned if (a) they had chosen only to read a portion of a work when the entire work was fully available, (b) they pretended that they had read the entire work when they hadn’t, or (c) they neglected to comment on material at their disposal that would suggest a different interpretation. Since these don’t seem to apply here (as far as I know), I have no problem with them offering their thoughts on what was available. They may turn out to be wrong in the end, but that doesn’t remove their right to comment. And, as I indicated at the beginning of this comment, since they’ve gone on record, we can certainly critique their critique. That’s a part of the process, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

      But, I’m glad to hear that I still get to be head of the Glee club!

  8. Marc, when these guys call a guy a heratic it sticks. They need to be much more careful with their words. Other than I’d agree with what you said.

    It is interesting that I posted my thoughts on the video and comments have been sluggish…even though I agreed with Bell!

    • Then I think we’re actually on the same page (more or less). I really wasn’t talking about whether it was okay to call him a heretic. Unlike a lot of people today, I don’t have a problem calling something “heresy”. But, it’s label that should be used very carefully, after extended interaction, and (this probably isn’t possible, but it’s still the ideal) in a spirit of love and charity that seeks restoration and correction. And, I think “heretic” is a label that should be used even less often because now we’ve moved from the idea to the person.

      My argument, though, was limited purely to the question of whether people had done anything inappropriate by commenting on the material available. I say no. Whether they did anything inappropriate when they commented is another question entirely. I say some did (e.g. Piper), but some didn’t (e.g. DeYoung).

  9. I agree, Marc.

    Like I’ve said elsewhere, if Bell does not turn out to be a universalist; then the promo video will have turned out to be, simply, disingenuous. He may end up being some sort of inclusivist, nevertheless, I think the “leading” nature of the video — while great “PR” — is really irresponsible, given the gravity of the topic.

    I wonder what else Bell & co. (publishing house) expected? I’m sure exactly what they’re getting.

    I actually don’t think “universalism” is quite the scandal it’s being made out to be. I mean, there are plenty of universalists around nowadays; and I would imagine (being presumptuous, I don’t know that much about Bell [“emergent” etc.]) that the sub-culture that Bell inhabits has plenty of universalists around — it seems to almost fit the PoMo (or “emergent”) ethos (to generalize).

    PS. I adamantly oppose universalism (just for the record 😉 ) — I’m quite traditional when it comes right down to it.

  10. I go to seminary in Grand Rapids, MI and a handful of my classmates who actually work at Mars Hill and have read the book in its entirety. They said just wait and read the book. 🙂

  11. The problem I have is that the article that kicked this all off was very specifically basing the critique on the upcoming book that the author admittedly had not read. If one wants to criticize Bell, Driscoll, Piper, Wright or anybody (and hopefully do so with humility and love) based for something they say or do not say, great, but don’t base it upon a book you have not read and then when called upon it say “well, there are other reasons too.” It is very poor practice and makes you think — why be quick so quick to get off the bullets of critique, why not instead be slow to speak (or write) and quick to listen (or read).

  12. Viral Marketing Among Christians
    A PLAY

    Act 1, Scene 1

    Publisher: Let’s get everyone talking about this book. Let’s build some buzz. Let’s get a video and description that SOUND really controversial when the book will be far less so.

    Rob Bell: Okay. It should start some good conversations.

    Angry Blogger #1: And we will play into your hands by reacting just as you suspect that we will, guaranteeing a lot of buzz and far more sales than the (mildly controversial) book would have gotten otherwise.

    Angry Blogger #2: Doh! Maybe this is all a marketing ploy.

    Publisher, Rob, Chorus: YOU WILL JUST HAVE TO READ THE BOOK AND FIND OUT.

    Random Christian consumer: Must… buy… book… everyone… talking… about… it.

    Exuent.

  13. Doug, I would actually disagree slightly. The posts that I’ve read made it very clear that they were not commenting on the book as a whole (they couldn’t). Instead, they said right up front that they were commenting on the material available to them (video, publisher’s blurb, pre-release chapters). And, the whole point of my post is that they had every right to comment on this material. It’s publicly available information and we bloggers comment on this kind of stuff all the time. In that sense, they didn’t do anything unusual. And, as long as they were clear about what they were comment on, which they were, I don’t think they did anything wrong by commenting.

    Now, that’s a completely separate issue from the question of whether their comments were any good. We can and should have a conversation about that. These posts are also publicly available now and are definitely open to critique. But, that’s different from saying that they had no right to comment in the first place.

  14. And, I’m sure that I’ll buy the book and read it now. Partly because it’s my job to stay in touch with discussions like these and partly because now that I’ve commented on the subject, I feel like I need to close the loop and see what Bell has to say.

    So, Matt’s right. The publicity worked and I’ll have another book in the queue soon.

  15. I admit I am a hypocrite on this issue – I did not blog about it (I was traveling) but in my heart I am quick to prefer to deal the issues raised by Bell than by Driscoll.

  16. How about listening to hundreds of Rob Bell messages? How about watching all of his Nooma videos?

    This promo vid starts off just like many of his Nooma videos… introducing topics, asking questions, before coming to a completely different conclusion.

    There is no way Rob is a universalist. All you have to do is look at what he has actually said the past 10 years.

    He believes in a hell… he just doesn’t believe it should be presented in a type of “you must fear God or burn in hell” kind of way.

    Rob is a great Christian who has brought thousands to Christ and raised millions of dollars for good. It’s sad Piper and others slam him for a 3 minute promo video before even reading the book. That is exactly what Rob is arguing against. LOVE WINS!

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