A Year in Essays: Dissertation – Transforming Apologetics

Here it is. The big one – I know at least a few of you have been waiting to have a chance to read this, I hope you find it as interesting to read as it was to write. Despite the unassuming title, the subtitle gives away the potential controversy in the content of the dissertation:

A Critical Apologetic Appraisal of Rob Bell’s Love Wins

Despite the huge furore of early 2011, I’ve chosen not to focus on the argument over heaven and hell that erupted over Love Wins and take a rather more holistic view of the book. I particularly wanted to put it in its context and assess on its own terms whether it met its aim. On reading (and re-reading…) Love Wins, I suggest that the best way to read it is as a work of postmodern apologetics, which is something that the reviewers I read either ignored (most of them) or denied as a possibility (a very tiny minority). This means taking in both its postmodernity in style and context and its apologetic content, realising that the book is aimed at those on the fringe of Christianity, wondering if they could ever be/remain a Christian because of some of the beliefs that are described as Christian. Bell wants to show that there can be different Christianities, that it is a ‘broad  stream’.

My approach to assessing whether Bell has done an effective job of encouraging those postmoderns on the fringe of Christian faith that there is a home for them within is based on a ‘Triangulation’ from Kevin Vanhoozer. In an article entitled ‘On the very idea of a Theological System’, he describes the three points of ‘the Spirit’s speaking in Scripture, the belief-practices of the church, and the world made new in Jesus Christ’, which must be kept in view, triangulated, in Christian life.

If you take nothing at all from my dissertation, if your mind is made up on Rob Bell, or if you just don’t care at all, at least take this bit seriously. We have to keep in view the three points of triangulation to live a balanced and full Christian life – what God is saying through the Bible, the way the church (in its many forms) is acting and thinking and the culture around us, with all its potential for transformation and redemption in Jesus. Under-rating any one of these leads to serious defects in our spiritual life and our witness will suffer.

Taking the three points as section headings, I look at how Bell’s book can be seen in these three contexts, how well it sits in them. I took in a wide range of sources, as you would expect in writing a 20,000 word dissertation, from those who stridently opposed Love Wins to others that leapt to Bell’s defence, from postmodern philosophers to reformed theologians. I look at the way he uses scripture – both which passages he selects (and, tellingly – as is so often the case – ignores) and how he handles exploring them. Then I explore how Bell relates to the church, contemporary and historical – those whose writing he has borrowed from, those who agree with him and those who have opposed him. Finally, I explore how postmodern apologetics seeks to convince contemporary culture of the believability of Christianity, and how Bell fits in with this.

My conclusion was to draw out some strengths of Bell’s writing and suggestions for how other apologists might take his work further in giving reasons for faith to those at the edge of Christianity.

Bell’s understanding and interaction with the world is certainly a strength. He reads the concerns and questions that those on the edge of the church have and paints a picture of God in a style that they recognise that emphasises the aspects of His character that they want to see. Doing this has a high apologetic value as it removes obstacles to faith, showing that Christianity makes sense for postmoderns.

Bell’s handling of scripture and the traditions of the church have some greater weaknesses, however. He is not always honest in his selection of scriptures and his depiction of the sources he has used, which at least raises questions over the conclusions he comes to in some chapters.

Bell has met many of the suggestions made earlier in the paper on what postmodern apologetics should be like. He writes to postmoderns as a postmodern using a postmodern style. However, we can suggest that a stronger apologetic could be written based on the analysis of Love Wins in this paper.

Firstly, Bell’s overemphasis on experience can be balanced with other epistemological bases; revelation, reason and faith. This is not to say that Bell ignores them, but developing them more could strengthen the apologetic. This has particular application when Bell is using scripture; in the terms of our triangulation, it would strengthen his apologetic case if he made sure that scripture was seen to be privileged over experience.

Secondly, apologists must take care in their interaction with the church. While we can learn from Bell’s positioning as inside the church yet sitting beside those at the edges, his treatment of some of his sources, especially those that cannot be considered contemporary leaves something to be desired. Honesty is required in naming some views as traditionally fringe, while others were mainstream and clearly showing where your ideas invert that.

Love Wins can be seen as transforming apologetics, demonstrating a new approach to making Christian faith seem plausible and believable in the postmodern world. Our desire is to see more postmoderns creating apologetic works that take seriously the Spirit speaking in scripture, the belief-practices of the church and the world being transformed by Jesus.

I have published the dissertation as an ebook – on Amazon for Kindle and on Smashwords for other e-readers (also including Kindle, as well as .pdf and other formats for easier consumption). For a limited time (a couple of weeks), you can download it from Smashwords for free if you use the code WT94F (enter the code at the checkout).