During my first year of college I ordered a copy of Love Wins by Rob Bell. The book was incredibly controversial in religious circles, which drew me to it. I remember taking the book to a spiritual retreat with my new church and one of the leaders there asked me whether I was reading heresy. I told him I had to finish the book first, but would let him know.
One of the things I admire most about Bell’s writing is how it comes off as a series of casual suggestions. It is more of a musing than a thesis, with Bell just passively pointing out facts about history and scripture while asking relevant questions. He rarely tells the reader what to believe — or even exactly what he is arguing. Instead, he tries to prod at routine beliefs that have become true only through repetition.
For example: when talking about hell, Bell never explicitly says it isn’t a place. But he tries to blow apart the reader’s preconceived notions about it.
Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.
When talking about heaven, Bell doesn’t outrightly say that non-Christians can end up there, but he does bring up some “good questions”:
Martin Luther one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hands von Rechenberg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?”
Again, a good question.
Bell is foraying into some of the most contentious issues of the Christian church without even having a central thesis. A cynic might suggest Bell took such a soft approach to protect after his career (it didn’t work if so), but I think he just had an understanding of how to make people think.
He doesn’t say there is one “right” and one “wrong”. There is no executive summary you can reject before cracking into his words. He poses questions. People can summarily reject theses, but they typically have to consider questions.
I think Bell’s work appeals to me so much because I dislike dogma. I have trouble interacting with people who can’t stand to hold two competing ideas in their head at one time. The en vogue thing today seems to be only associating with people who agree with you, and then dog piling anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. My sanity is grounded in knowing that all of my views are my own, and that many of my specific opinions are “works in progress.” I have core values and beliefs, but I can be moved by facts.
I like being a contrarian. I think it’s a part of my war against echo chambers. The problem with echoes is that when left to their own devices, they tend to get louder and less distinguishable over time. I take pride in being the lone dissenting voice in any room I am in. Most of my friends think it’s because I’m obsessed with arguing, but really I just find passionate discussion more illuminating than a chorus of nodding and snapping. When I am with my liberal social justice friends, I like talking about the importance of broad free speech and the role of individualism. When I am with my conservative friends I want to discuss the power that identity has in defining our respective opportunities, and the importance of building an America where not everything has a price tag.
I don’t subscribe to cults of personality or witch hunts — even when there are actual witches. I believe society is better off when we have open discussions free from the fear of being labeled a bigot because you used the wrong word or didn’t phrase something quite right. I think it would be a rare case when you could judge someone a bigot after one conversation anyway.
I trust legal courts, with all their flaws, far more than the court of “what’s trending today?” I believe our system of free speech is far better than social censorship at weeding out offensive and stupid views from the public discourse. I like being challenged. I rarely feel threatened by ideas that oppose mine. And the more ridiculous and outrageous the idea is, the less I feel threatened by it.
I’m a pretty bad Christian today. I don’t go to church nearly as often as I should, and I am far too prideful and materialistic. However, I suspect whispers of my faith reverberate through how I process the world. My goal is to find compassion for everyone. I choose to believe that the world is mostly filled with good people who are trying to find their way. I try to condemn conservatively, and try to empathize liberally. I hold my core values close, but believe I can learn even from views I despise. I reserve my highest disdain for those on all sides who hold their views without humility, and who refuse to consider compassion for their opposites.
And you might think I’m totally wrong, but hey, I’ll listen to that argument.