If you are any stripe of Evangelical Christian and have been online in the last few weeks you have no doubt come across numerous reviews and reams of chatter about a book called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived and interviews with its author, Rob Bell.
The response to Bell’s book and the appetite for information about it and its author has been astonishing. Justin Taylor initiated the frenzy on February 26th with a post called “Rob Bell: Universalist?” By that evening, “Rob Bell” was one of the top trending terms on Twitter. Within 48 hours, Justin Taylor’s original post had been viewed some 250,000 times and at present has been viewed close to 370,000 times, received over 1,500 comments and registered over 30,000 Facebook likes. (To give you some idea of the strength of the enduring controversy, a review posted by Tim Challies 11 days later received some 50,000 views the day it was posted, and now has over 200 comments and over 8,000 Facebook likes.) And those are just two of the, by now, dozens of reviews and posts about the same subject.
But for all the reviews of the book itself, one three-word Tweet has probably drawn more focus – and more fire – than any of the full reviews. Via Twitter, John Piper posted the words “Farewell Rob Bell” followed by a link to Justin Taylor’s post.
A tweet by John Piper, with a link to a blog post by Justin Taylor, set the Internet on fire about Rob Bell and his new book. And with that the book’s publisher, HarperOne, welcomed us all to social media marketing 101.
Rock Star of the Church World
The question, as TIME magazine put it in their 2007 profile on Bell “is whether he can sell his approach to the rest of Evangelicalism or whether, as Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch puts it, he will ‘remain more of a singular rock star in the church world.’”
Some may see the release of Love Wins and its surrounding controversy as Rob Bell’s brass ring moment, when he crosses over from “rock star in the church world” to an even more popular rock star of mainstream spirituality.
Instead, Love Wins may very well be Rob Bell’s “Dear John” (no Piper pun intended) letter to Evangelicalism. Here’s why I think that…
The McLaren Moment
About a year ago Brian McLaren released A New Kind Christianity to a similar, although significantly less colossal response by most of the same people who have taken issue with Love Wins. In addition to those voices, people who had long been on the sympathetic side of McLaren’s writings were now also saying he had finally gone too far.
Even Scot McKnight, who described himself in relation to McLaren as, “a friend and a chronicler for two decades,” began his review of A New Kind Christianity with what now seems a prophetic statement: “Brian McLaren has grown tired of evangelicalism. In turn, many evangelicals are wearied with Brian,” and ended with “Unfortunately, this book lacks the ‘generosity’ of genuine orthodoxy and, frankly, I find little space in it for orthodoxy itself.” Reviews and responses similar to McKnight’s appeared frequently at first, with many who had been on the fence finally stepping off, but onto the side opposite McLaren.
But the frenzy faded, the reviews dried up and since that time it seems that many Evangelicals, following the lead of early reviewers have stopped paying much attention. Case in point: Brian McLaren just released a new book (three days ago in fact and also, as it turns out, published by HarperOne) and we’ve hardly noticed. You can make the case that all eyes are on Rob Bell at the moment and that McLaren has flown under the radar on this one, but maybe there is a simpler answer – maybe most Evangelicals just don’t care anymore.
Love Wins is Rob Bell’s “McLaren Moment” and this is what I think Piper was getting at when he said “Farewell Rob Bell.”
The Resident Paradoxical Wildcard Threat of Evangelicalism
When the current Love Wins hype is over and the book completes its guaranteed run as a bestseller, Rob Bell will be able to release a book twice as controversial in the future and receive less than half the fanfare. HarperOne should enjoy the flood of free publicity from the power writers of the Evangelical blogosphere this time around. Next time out the bait will be a much tougher sell.
We have not seen the last of Rob Bell, to be sure. What we are seeing though is the end of his tenure as the resident paradoxical wildcard threat of Evangelicalism. Right or wrong, the current gatekeepers of Evangelicalism seem to have thrown him out of the deck and will now, along with their followers, consider him just another mainstream Liberal Protestant trying to sell himself and his books to the masses by offering a pleasant and palatable Jesus to people who are looking for… well, exactly that.
Other posts you might find interesting:
Book Review: Tim Challies – “The Next Story”
The New (global) Village Priests – An analysis of the John MacArthur/Darrin Patrick controversy
Tearing Down Our Idols – Hillsong, Chris Tomlin and the worship industry
A Different Kind of Fast
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