Let me be clear: despite appearances, I am not trying to pick on Christianity Today. They often do a fine job of walking that moderate evangelical line. And I am a huge supporter of Books & Culture. But it just so happens that they have published some pieces recently that have hit a nerve and warrant responses. Last month it was Chuck Colson, this month it is the review of Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, by senior managing editor, Mark Galli.
First, a disclaimer: I have not read Bell’s book. My response to Galli is thus not a response to his portrayal of the book. Others who have actually read the text may offer their own responses to his presentation of Bell’s claims. For my purposes here, I will simply trust that he has represented Bell fairly and accurately.
Galli’s review is an attempt to avoid the empty rhetoric and hasty judgments that so characterized the recent online firestorm (e.g., “Farewell Rob Bell”). In this task, he is largely successful. Galli begins by embracing Bell’s concern to stress the cosmic scope of the gospel and the fact that Jesus cannot be confined to our safe religious boxes. As Galli puts it, “This stuff will preach.” But fairly quickly Galli changes his tune. He compliments Bell for being a “master” of asking questions that challenge “traditional doctrines.” But it’s a somewhat backhanded compliment; the implication—which later becomes explicit—is that Bell can challenge orthodoxy, but leaves one without a substantial or satisfactory alternative. This is essentially Galli’s thesis. Bell asks good questions, but doesn’t provide (the right) answers.
Whether this is accurate cannot be evaluated here for reasons stated above. What I wish to address is the way Galli goes on to locate Bell in the tradition of Protestant liberalism over against orthodox evangelicalism. It is this overly simplistic binary that I will interrogate, along with some related issues. I will follow the order of Galli’s review, beginning with (a) the question of universalism, moving to (b) the cross and the atonement, and concluding with (c) the liberal/evangelical divide.