I was in New York when Rob Bell’s book Love Wins was released, by pure coincidence, and so my dad and I got tickets for the Q&A session he was doing as a kind of book launch – and I have to tell you, it was quite something. I’ve never felt a Christian event that was so… tense. There were a lot of people with clenched jaws and fists there, everyone eyeing up their neighbour to make sure that they weren’t a closet heretic. All of a sudden it felt like we were against each other. As for me, I’d read a lot of the publicity material and about half of the book and I was frustrated with Rob’s refusal to give a straight answer to anything, and I also felt the tide turning, and I wasn’t quite sure what side I was supposed to be on.
So Rob came on and gave a talk about the book in the form of a Q&A with a journalist, which was ironic, as he refused to give any straight answers to her questions, and then we came to the audience question time and every person asking a question seemed determined to expose him, or trip him up, or get an answer out of him. Man, I was furious. I sat there, clenching my own fists and my own jaw, and wondering why he didn’t just tell people what he really meant, as it was already clear that the tide was turning against him. We even queued up to get a book signed and shake his hand, and my dad was star-struck and I was incredibly rude to him while he asked me polite questions about Newcastle United, or as he called them, “the Magpies”. He was so nice. It was the second time I’d shaken his hand, actually, having met him in Glasgow a couple of years earlier. It was a shame that he was a heretic.
I read Love Wins, and then I read about a million blogs about it, and then I stopped reading Rob Bell altogether, as that was clearly not a thing to do if you wanted to be a Christian. And I pretty much didn’t read anything else that Rob wrote for another four years… just in case, you know. I was so frustrated. How could I ever have been fooled by him, with his cool glasses (when I first bought glasses, I bought Rob Bell glasses. Soon after Love Wins, I bought some neutral ones instead) and his funky videos and his artsy Christian books that didn’t sound like Christian books at all?
I’d loved Rob Bell’s writing once. When I first set out as a Christian, trying to work out how to live this life as a sixth-former and starting out at uni, I was so on-board with his way of looking at things. Velvet Elvis was almost unbelievably life-giving for me. It was a deeply influential book, and one of the reasons I held on so deeply to faith at University – because I wanted to. I’d chosen it. It mattered deeply. And I chased it, questioned it, wrestled with it, and that was okay, because other people were doing that too. I’d become a Christian in a conservative church where there was one way to see things, and if you didn’t see it that way you were wrong.
I’d needed that space to question things, really needed it. I’d needed that space to question how I lived life in practice, as I was stressed and anxious and hopelessly introspective when I started university, but I’d also needed that space to question theology. To know that it was okay to explore things to work out what you really believed. I’d never have discovered the charismatic church, or New Wine, or the Holy Spirit, if I hadn’t. Over time, all of those things have brought me closer to God, made me more alive, more inspired, more at peace.
When all of that stuff with Rob happened, I was working as a youth worker and I didn’t have enough to do, and so I read pretty much all of those blogs. All of those people talking about how wrong he was, how heretical and misleading and evil. People quoting that verse from Jesus about false teachers being thrown into the sea with a millstone round their neck. I knew how Rob must have felt, with people trying to pin him down so they could destroy him. And as a result I didn’t dare question anything vaguely theological… just in case, you know.
That’s not a good way to be.
I read Love Wins again a month or so back, because it was going cheap on Amazon. It still espouses universalism, and it’s still wrong. It just is. I don’t agree with it, and I think Rob’s theology is really, fundamentally flawed on this. However, I’m allowed to read that for myself. I’m allowed to make up my own mind, and I’m also allowed to affirm the lots of helpful things that Rob has said elsewhere, and the many, many positives in his way of looking at things. For a long time I didn’t think I was, just like I didn’t dare read Steve Chalke, but I’m done with that. That’s just me being afraid of people, and exhausted by their limitless capacity to argue with me and tell me that I’m wrong.
I used to spend lots of time questioning, and I used to talk to God about it. To my friends too. And then that stuff with Rob happened, and it didn’t feel right any more. So now I have lots of questions, and I don’t really talk to God about them. Or other people, really. Because I’m not sure I’m allowed to.
How is that okay? How is that a good outcome? Yes, he was wrong, but in shutting Rob down the church inadvertently closed the door to other questioners too. And we’re still doing it four years on, only with dangerous, dangerous Vicky Beeching now, but we need to be careful with her, as she’s got mainstream backing. She’s been in the national papers, and making a coherent, positive argument to boot. People are starting to take notice of how the church deals with things like this, and it doesn’t look good all of a sudden.
Is this what church that Jesus dreamed of is supposed to look like? Really?
The damage has been done, anyway, at least for me. I haven’t quite got that openness back yet. But I’m still questioning. I don’t know how to be a Christian and a Teacher and a husband and a dog-owner and still have hobbies and friends. I don’t know if it can be done. So I have questions. And quite rightly too.
Don’t tell me how wrong I am, please. Trust me when I say I can figure that out in time. And I need to, as well, I think.