This week I’m sharing something new. A bit of looking back on a book that seemed (at the time) to tear the world apart. This won’t be a deep dive so much into the book itself, but the reaction of the church I worked at, and my experience in it. Think of this more as a snapshot of one persons history with a book that literally changed the projection of their life.
Ten years ago tomorrow, my then fiancé (now wife) and I sat in a church in Illinois to listen to Rob Bell answer questions about any subject asked. It was a very unique experience. It had been less than a month after his newest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, had come out and he was on his book tour. This was the second of his book tours that I had attended and in contrast this was much more somber. In August of 2009 myself and some friends drove to Chicago for his kick off of Drops Like Stars which was held in the Congress Theatre. Little did I know at the time, my future wife and father-in-law were sitting right in front of me. It was a very interactive tour where you participated with the people around you. Nine months later on a dating site my wife and I connected and figured out this unique experience.
There’s heaven now, somewhere else.Love Wins, pg. 62
There’s heaven here, sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place.
When I proposed, I asked my best friend at the time (who had served on staff at Mars Hill) if he could help me get an autographed copy of Drops Like Stars with a blessing inscribed so I could use it as the “box” for the engagement ring. Rob heard about our story and was incredibly happy to assist. So when I compare the events of that book tour to the small church we found ourselves in for the conversation about Love Wins, the somber tone stands out. Now, human memory is a funny thing, and it could be that I only remember it that way because it had been an incredibly long couple of weeks building to this day.
It started when I was on Twitter and seeing this video pop up:
I will never forget watching this at my desk, being excited about the content, and preordering my copy right then. Nor will I forget the following weeks and months to come. If memory serves correctly, the book was originally scheduled to release for later in the spring but due to the popularity of the video and the content of the book it was released a few days later. The church I worked at, at the time had been a non-denominational for about twelve years but before had a rich history in the baptist tradition. Men were pastors, women were ministry directors, and Desiring God by John Piper wasn’t required to read but you were the odd person out if you hadn’t. So when I arrived and had my copies of Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and Drops Like Stars I stuck out a bit. I also fully admit, I wasn’t the best fit here which made it hard to do the best work I could. When you’re constantly being told what you disagree with is the way of God, it makes it difficult. My contract consisted of two phases, one where I would intern for the Executive Pastor for six months, get to know the church, and write up the college/young adult ministry proposal. The second part of the contract would be after the internship I would move into a ministry director/pastoral position and launch the young adult/college ministry.
The day after this video came out I remember the Worship Pastor pulling me aside as I was the only Bell fan that was comfortable making it known, and he was drilling me with questions. The conversation ended with him saying, “This calls in to question everything he’s done before if he’s a universalist.” And all I could think about was how ridiculous his statement was. But then I noticed all around me evangelicalism was starting to experience a schism. “Important” people were taking stances, and decries about a book that hasn’t been released yet were in full force. I’m sure most of us that were around at the time remember the “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet from Piper. To take it one step further, the lead pastor of my church one Sunday took a jab at the whole situation and said, “total control equals total love” in reference to how God really is in calling His people and figuring out the afterlife.
There is hell now,Love Wins, pg. 79
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.
The book was being released and people were receiving it. At the end of March my boss asked me to come into his office for a chat. He said that he wanted the both of us to read the book and have a discussion on it after it was over. This seemed innocuous enough, and I looked forward to having a hopefully productive conversation around it. As the days went on, Bell was making his rounds in various interviews about the book, and I remember being pulled into my bosses office again the morning after his appearance on Martin Bashir’s show. It was an interesting time. What was more interesting was the 2011 Gospel Coalition National Conference. Three days of listening to theology that I thought was awful, and after weeks of exhausting conversations about Bell, I was just over it all. I remember after waiting in the long line for coffee walking in to a large group panel the book was being discussed. It was just maddening, and when I texted someone I was there with confirming my suspicion he responded, “Yeah, but they’re doing it in love.” The only light that was at the end of that tunnel that week was my finacé and I had tickets to Bell’s book tour stop in Illinois which was the evening of the 14th. Also known as the last day of the Gospel Coalition National Conference.
That evening came and went. Rob answered every question about the book, and life that was asked. It was a real blessing in space and time for me after weeks of intense conversation. I had forgotten that since I spent so much time in a space that was not interested in questions, being okay with not having God in a person made box, that other views existed. That things were not as dire as they seemed. When we were up in the queue to get our copy of the book signed, I thanked Rob for the Drops Like Stars book for the proposal and he was overjoyed to meet us. To the point where he asked to get our picture. It was one of those days where it seemed like the bullshit was worth it because there is a bigger picture and version of God out there to grasp on to.
When I went in to the office the following Monday my boss asked me if I had went to the event, and when his suspicions were confirmed we chatted about it. After that we had set up a time and day (the following week) to have a deep conversation about the book. Something it seemed we had actively avoided. When the time came, I was a bit nervous, and we went to the Chinese restaurant across the street from the church. After some small talk we finally got in to it. He told me he had held back a few times in meetings on his thoughts because he wanted to have this one on one with me first. I told him I was still processing the book and didn’t think it was that big of a deal, after all it is one persons thoughts and nothing in there was original. It was at that point he laid every thing out. The book was heretical, my contract would not be renewed, and they would let me stay on a few extra weeks. This was not what I was expecting when I sat down to eat my sweet and sour chicken. What I expected less was when he told me one of the reasons why this was happening, “we don’t trust your theology” (great name for a book and blog don’t you think?).
I have thought back to this conversation many times over the past decade. It started my burnout and eventual leaving professional ministry for the better part of a decade. Moments like finding yourself without a job less than a month before your wedding can really stick out.
This past weekend I reread Love Wins, and I was anticipating it being a bigger deal than it was. While I was reading it, I thought of a lot of things I wish I would have said in hindsight (as one does). If I had known the weight that conversation would carry I would have been far less cavalier. For example, one of the things that comes to mind now is, “I’m sorry that you have to find a way to make your version of Jesus compelling without the fear of the afterlife.” It may be because I have been out of the evangelical sphere for a while but, this book shouldn’t have had the world breaking impact it had. My story is not unique. Many people lost their jobs over this book, and after years of counseling I can safely say that the only ones who had to fear from this were people who cared about maintaining their power structure at all costs. I share this because it’s been a decade since it happened, and it seems a good time to reflect. But also because, when we’re in the shit everything seems more dire than it really is. We’ve been in a pandemic for the last year and people are now finding themselves less churched and those who rely on them may be jobless. The biggest concern in my group has usually been couched less on why we think people should be in the church but more on how we need them to survive. But knowing that we can create our own hells where we are at is key in remembering this. Nothing this side of life is forever, it just feels that way.
At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.Love Wins, pg. 109
Grace and peace friends.