Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
Ten years ago this month, Rob Bell, then pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, set off a firestorm in mainstream evangelicalism. The spark? His latest book, Love Wins. Short and accessibly written, Love Wins pushed—and pushes—back against prevailing evangelical teaching about the afterlife. In it, Bell warns against a tendency among evangelicals not just to fixate on hell but to elevate their conception of hell, as a realm of unmitigated, eternal suffering, to de facto confessional status. Such a view, Bell maintains, is a toxic distortion of the good news. It also imposes implicit limits on the time and space of God’s boundless, loving grace. For these reasons, therefore, Love Wins turns back to Scripture to develop a more nuanced and grace-filled vision of what comes after, where what comes after is, of necessity, inseparable from the heaven or hell that we make of the world we inhabit now.
As Damon Garcia remarks in a recent video, Bell’s intervention in Love Wins is, in some respects, not so very different from C. S. Lewis’s vision of the afterlife in The Great Divorce. But where Lewis has generally met with approbation in evangelical circles, Love Wins was vociferously condemned. Scenting, they claimed, universalism in the water, evangelicalism’s leading lights closed ranks and closed in. By the end of 2011, Bell had left Mars Hill, branded, in the view of many, a heretic.
Fast forward to today. I wonder how many of those who called for Bell’s head ten years ago still find themselves thinking about him, or about Love Wins, every once in a while. I wonder how many of them read the book before forming their opinion. Very few, I think. But then I can only speak for myself. A senior at a Christian high school that (until the publication of Love Wins) sometimes screened Bell’s NOOMA videos during chapel, I remember being, at most, peripherally aware of the controversy. Mostly I remember observing with some small, vague interest the outrage that Love Wins had managed to wring from a handful of adults I knew and from a few of my more theologically astute peers. But to be honest, I really didn’t care—about any of it. I didn’t care about Love Wins, which I’d never read. I didn’t care about Bell, whom I’d never met. And I certainly didn’t care about the deep sadness that must have accompanied Bell’s departure from Mars Hill, or about the profound loneliness he must have felt, or about the bizarre alienation that must attend the experience of watching yourself, in real time, become an abomination in the eyes of those who claim to love you.
Or at least I thought I didn’t care.
Then came this dubious ten-year anniversary of Bell’s ouster, and out of curiosity I took the opportunity to pick up Love Wins for the first time. To my shock, I found that I could barely bring myself to open it. The thought of reading it just felt … wrong. Wrong in the way-down-deep of my gut. Bad. Wicked, maybe.
What a ridiculous thing to say. It’s a book, for heaven’s sake. And I’m an adult. Yet in that moment, as my critical faculties raced to catch up with what my gut was so improbably insisting, I realized something. I realized that somehow, despite my indifference toward the initial controversy, and despite the decade that’s elapsed since then, and despite what I now know to be the actual content of the book—somehow, despite all those factors, I’d still absorbed the dominant story that conservative white evangelicalism had told me about Bell. I had absorbed it and, in some primal, unconscious way, accepted it.
Bell, my gut whispered, is a traitor to the faith. And you are too if you read him.
When I first set out to draft this post, I had an idea of drawing a parallel between Bell in 2011 and me in 2021. In that post, I would have told an ambivalent progress story about my political and moral education. I would have described how, with time and experience, I learned to be critical of the assumptions of the white conservative Christian culture that raised me. And I would have shown how that culture’s occasional monstrousness prompted me, in turn, to explore and embrace views that would, in the eyes of that same culture, make me the monster. What would old catechism teachers think of my opinion about the CRC’s ungenerous, uncreative, and poorly researched report on gender and sexuality, or about that petty, cruel bit of theological theater on Calvin University’s lawn earlier this month? What would the parents of old friends think when they learned that my first reaction to hand-wringing about critical race theory is to scoff? And what would family think if I tallied up for them the total number of Christian leftist—and often just leftist—podcasts I keep up with?
Had I written that post, it would have ended with a startling recognition of my unlikely affinity with Rob Bell, this theological boogeyman I’d been taught so long to fear.
But I didn’t write that post. And in a way I’m glad I didn’t, if only because the one I did write takes to task any confidence I might have had in my own progress. Monsters haunted me as a child. Monsters, it seems, still haunt me as an adult. And that ought to serve as a warning—to me as much as to anyone else. Monsters do not precede our invention of them. We make them, with our own hands, our own lips, our own thoughts. So we ought to be damn sure of ourselves when we do.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.
It’s a nice turn of phrase, but in the name of being succinct, it’s accurate to shorten “the CRC’s ungenerous, uncreative, and poorly researched report on gender and sexuality” to “Ignorant bigotry.” Saves time and pixels.
Wow, I had completely forgotten about this until now. We watched some of Bell’s NOOMA videos during youth group before that all happened, and I also remember having a vague interest in what was making people so angry with him but not knowing much about what exactly it was. I really like the warning in your concluding paragraph.
Churches can be ruthless place if people make them so. I slightly want to read that other article, the one that gets you to maybe empathize with Mr. Bell. But this one was great too. Bringing awareness to the monsters we bring into being is something more of us should take time to explore.