I’ve been asked by friends and readers (overlapping, but not identical, categories!) to opine about Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. Some of you won’t know that Rob Bell pastors a large church in Michigan and is increasingly well known for his innovative approaches to communicating Christianity. Some of his innovations greatly please some of the people some of the time. His latest book has greatly displeased some of the people, and the blogwars have begun.
So why am I, a professional Christian teacher, not joining the fray?
1. Rob Bell gets too much attention. I’m sure he’s a good guy: he seems like a good guy from what I have seen of a few of his Nooma videos and what I have read of his books. I’m sure he gets good things done. I’m sure he inspires other people to get good things done. And I’m sure he makes mistakes, doesn’t speak as carefully as he ought, oversimplifies this and caricatures that, along the way.
And if he does something harmful, I am quite confident it will be noticed and noted and announced loud and long. Oh, boy, am I confident about that.
But really: Is he really saying or doing something all that innovative, all that different, all that important that mainstream news media should be picking it up? Is he really a harbinger of doom, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an Antichrist deserving of excommunication–and nasty, extended, “let’s make sure we crush every last atom of this guy and his teaching” excommunication? So far, I can’t see it. So I’m not going to get excited about it.
2. (And this is by far the more important reason) Lots of other books and people deserve lots more attention. I mean, really: Are the most important Christian sources for pastors, church leaders, serious Christians, and thoughtful inquirers of other stripes really Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll and John Piper and Charles Colson and James Dobson and Franklin Graham and Ravi Zacharias and the guy who wrote Blue Like Jazz and those good-hearted barely-out-of-grad-school folk down Durham way? Are Alister McGrath and Tom Wright supposed to be the only meat in the soup?
How about Christian Smith? Or Rodney Stark? Or Miroslav Volf?
How about Luci Shaw, or Alan Jacobs, or Richard Bauckham?
Do you even recognize these names?
(Readers of this particular blog might, but you’re by definition an odd group. The real question is, Who among your friends would recognize these names?)
Have you ever heard of David Martin? He’s only one of the most intelligent, eloquent, perceptive, savvy, and godly people I have ever met–an Anglican priest who also happens to be Professor Emeritus of the London School of Economics. And David, possessed of one of the world’s great Christian minds, could not get his last book of sermons published by a major press. “No one wants to buy published sermons,” David and I kept being told as we made the rounds at a major conference of publishers. As if what most of the Big Names are publishing as books aren’t lightly edited sermons, talks, or e-mails! The sermons finally saw print through our small publication arm at Regent College: Sacred History and Sacred Geography: Spiritual Journeys in Time and Space. Any mention of it recently on Facebook?
David’s brilliant and cogent essays on Does Christianity Cause War? languished in an inaccessibly expensive hardcover edition from the UK division of Oxford University Press (which, when it comes to book prices, might as well be the Venusian division: that’s why I always work with the US division). Again, I worked with him to shop it to American publishers, but without success. So now we at Regent have brought it out in paper. I’m guessing, though, that you haven’t come across any blog posts about it yet…
The same problem afflicted a superb set of reflections on kenotic Christology, the fascinating question of just how the Son of God became a human being such that he could truly experience the world as a human and thus serve as a proper model for us, too. The book, edited by the redoubtable American philosopher C. Stephen Evans, is Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God. Now you can actually afford to buy it. But has it shown up on Twitter so far?
Another book of sermons I have found eminently quotable (and how many books have you read recently that you’d like to quote to others–at length?) we enjoyed bringing out in an affordable reprint, by the late Scottish divine and NT scholar, James S. Stewart: Walking with God. If you find the current Big Names in Preaching just a trifle thin, read Brother Stewart. But you’ll have to look for him: Haven’t heard much about him, have you? Not unless you happened to be reading my blog a few years ago, I’ll bet.
And lest you think this post is simply an informercial for Regent College Publishing, or lest you are tempted to accuse me of selfless high-mindedness as I point generously to other people’s work, I will say that it also bugs me more than a little that my own books, the most recent being Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (OUP, 2008) and Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (rev. ed., IVP, 2009), don’t get one-tenth of one per cent of the attention garnered by the books of the too-famous people I’ve mentioned.
Now, envy is an ugly thing, so let’s not dwell on my own little disappointments!
But if it were simply an issue of my pathetic little envy, you could respond to this post with whatever mixture of contempt or pity seems appropriate and we could move on. The issue is not just me and my books, is it? It is book after book, and author after author, being swamped in the tsunami of marketing, blogging, and warring that constitutes most people’s only access to what’s being published today.
So I’m not going to say one more thing about Brother Rob and his book–shamelessly as I have used its current notoriety to draw attention to my own message. (Yes, I’m not completely unaware of how the blogosphere works.) I’ll do what I can to draw your attention to other books I think are worthy of your notice.
I hope you’ll do the same with your own favourite under-noticed books–ideally, starting here and now in the comments section below, but also shouting far and wide–or Twittering, or Facebooking, or Skyping, or smoke-signalling–to help your social network find and read the best available. The best available is certainly not always the “currently most noticed.”