(Edited 4/21/2011, LEK)
No, I haven't read Bell's book Love Wins. I have seen the promotional video that flitted about the interwebs. I have kept tabs with the controversy. I have read this review. At some point I'll pick it up, understand its a quick read and kind of like poetry. I can dig that.
I remember when I first encountered Rob Bell; I had finished up seminary at NPTS. One day a friend still in seminary asked me if I knew about Rob Bell and Mars Hill (Mars hill had been going about 3 years or so). I hadn't. My friend showed me a video of Bell teaching on the Song of Songs. The video was artsy, had high production value, and Rob Bell was compelling articulate and his speech had the cadence of spoken word poetry. I liked the video. The message itself, perhaps would stretch a particular type of Christianity one may call evangelical, but on the other hand I found the message itself unremarkable, and more or less typically evangelical. It was in the presentation, the artistic approach to preaching and theology that was remarkable, and not what he was teaching.
I've had a sense that this pastor and church outside Grand Rapids had grown, and was a significant force, but Mars Hill and Rob Bell are in a segment of Christianity with which I am associated but largely uninterested in, if I am to be honest. Primarily because as I experience it, founding an intentional Christian community drawing deeply from the well of the monastic tradition and starting a congregation that attempted to be ecumenical by simultaneously affiliating with three denomination just wasn't really in the orbit of the Christianity of Mars Hill and Rob Bell, which is American evangelical. And for this reason Mars Hill and Rob Bell were simply to me unremarkable, or at least something you'd expect of a Graduate of both Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. My wife has her MATS from Fuller and I did studies there before coming to NPTS. Artsy, edgy evangelical theologians and pastors, were for a time the student body at Fuller Theological seminary, and Rob Bell was a lot less edgy than quite a few of the theology students I rubbed shoulders with at Fuller between 1996 and 1999, all claiming to be equally evangelical.
Love Wins then doesn't come out of nowhere and out of the blue. I am a little surprised Rob Bell didn't write the book years ago, from what I can glean the ideas he puts out in this book where on the minds and lips of a great number of my fellow students at Fuller in the Late 90's, and they were in the air before that. Granted this irked a certain type of evangelical then, as it clearly does now. And one must keep in mind that when I told an elder at the Covenant church (that had been taken over by Fundamentalists) in 1995 that I had applied to Fuller Theological Seminary , he respond with "Isn't that a Liberal school?" I had to suppress my laughter, and a snide comment, about what he then thought of Claremont. Of course even in the middle to late '90s Fuller was still reeling from its split from a segment of evangelicalism in the "Battle for the Bible" that occurred in the late 1970's and early 1980's.
This is a ramble but one in which I'm attempting to point out that this controversy is perhaps a battle that has been waging among evangelicals for much of my life, and certainly all my adult life. If this seems like a tempest in a teapot it is because it is. Rob Bell maybe saying some important things as my friend Tripp says, but if it seems shocking to you, either it means you have listened to much to the strident voices of one segment of not only American Christianity but of evangelicalism itself.
I also wonder if this controversy is also, over control of a dwindling population of people that are adherents of this particular form of American religiosity. One of the strengths of American evangelicalism and what makes it "American" is its lack of centralization, it is also what makes for the volatility of these sort of controversies. There are no institutions or mechanisms for handing on theology and doctrine among evangelicals. Certain institutions may so proclaim themselves and attempt to make themselves the arbiters of all things Fundamentalist and Evangelical, whether it be an association of groups or denomination or groups of theologians signing declarations. As Fuller showed in the "Battle for the Bible" one can continue as an evangelical even after such declarations and denominations put you beyond the pale.
So, in the end as I discovered when I was at Fuller: I don't care. I really don't care if anyone thinks I'm an evangelical or not, and I really don't care if this or that theology is or isn't "evangelical". What I care about is something else entirely and because of that at times I tire of American Christianity and its tea pot tempests that in the end misrepresent what I am seeking for as a Christian.
I have been in or on the edge of American Evangelicalism for much of my life. The way American Evangelicalism raises these question, and navigates these disputes, and asserts theological claims, is irritating and flabbergasting to me because I don't think they actually get us closer to the truth! (sorry Rob Bell as much as I sympathise with your position, and as close as we may come). I think if one looks at my own theology one would find more affinity with Bell than with his detractors. But Rob Bell knew this would create controversy and he knew from what quarter of evangelicalism. His promotional video for the book, was aimed it seemes to me towards two audiences: those who would object (he was sticking it in their theological craw) and those including the media who think evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are monolithic entities, and he has played upon that misunderstanding of the fractured reality of Evangelicalism. I understand why, but I'd rather American Evangelicalism not be the reference point, whether it's Rob Bell's version or that of his opponents, for what is Christian. For me this is a distraction from what should be our actual pursuit and questions. Yet here I am writing on this, and yes I resent it! I resent it because it makes me tired and consumes us and I don't think it should.