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Love Wins Redux

I never read Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  Along with the youth in our congregation, I have appreciated his Nooma video series. Actually, lots of our adults like it too.  I tried to read, even to like, Love Wins.  I really did.  But I never made it past about page 30.

I didn’t like the formatting—all these one sentence paragraphs and bullet points.

  • Seemed
  • like
  • there were
  • about
  • 25
  • words
  • per page.

It just frustrated me. 

And then honestly, judgment and hell have never really been a big burr beneath my saddle.  I probably should be more distressed about damnation and perdition, but I’m not.  Did I smugly think Love Wins wasn’t worth the fuss?  Guilty.  Do I roll my eyes when authors proclaim their own personal breakthrough is in fact the turning point for the entire Christian church, a revelation that shatters the universe, a secret truth previously unknown?  No doubt.  I read some helpful reviews of Love Wins (including an especially good one by The Twelve’s own Scott Hoezee) that were more compelling to me than the book itself.  They were generous, evenhanded, and judicious—not the “this is the end of Christianity” screeds that Love Wins generated.

Last Easter, a good friend had his family had come visit for the weekend.  Like so many of us, he has a sibling who hasn’t darkened the door of a church for 30 or more years.  Raised in the church.  Strong Christian family.  Somewhere, somehow it went sour.  Rebellion.  Rules.  Resentment.  Wounds.  Dark secrets.  Is it  something from the past that still haunts them?  Or after 30+ years is it just too weird to go back to church?  Are they “Christ-followers” just not church-goers?  Perhaps the all-to-familiar “spiritual but not religious”?  Who knows?  Does it matter?  Most families like this have made a sort of uneasy truce with it.  Why spoil a nice spring get-together by pestering them to go to church?  Just let it lie, please.

That is what they did.  The entire extended family tromped off to our Easter worship, sans the one.  My good friend had been reading Love Wins and his copy was lying around their living room.  During the weekend, he had noticed his sibling (sister) occasionally picking it up, thumbing through a few pages and putting it down again.  Easter afternoon, the family feast now complete, it was time for everyone to head home—a five or six hour drive for most.  Heading out the door, his sister casually asked my friend, “Hey can I borrow this book.  I’ll be sure to get it back to you.”

Equally nonchalantly, my friend responded, “Yeah, sure, whatever.  Don’t worry about it.  I’m done with it anyway.”  But inside he was doing backflips of Easter joy.  Amazed.  Touched.  Hopeful.  Trying his hardest to keep the lump in his throat from becoming noticeably moist eyes.  End of story.

His sister didn’t see a bright light above the interstate on the way home and pull into a rest area to pray the “sinner’s prayer”—at least as far as we know.  In the past year, that sibling has never said another word about the book.  Never asked her brother/my friend what he thought of it.  Never mentioned that she actually read it all.  Never has gone back to church.  And of course, my friend doesn’t bring it up. 

But I would guess he’s quietly a little hopeful.  Might it be just one small drop of healing?  Whatever the sting his sister still feels, maybe it doesn’t hurt quite as much now.  Maybe it’s a thread or two in a much larger, longer reweaving.  He wishes so.

As my friend shared that story with me, I felt chastened.  I’m glad for all the people who at least paged through Love Wins.  I am not the audience for every book.  Sometimes I need to turn off my theological-analysis-sensor that sorts and scores all things—or wish that I could—and instead receive things through different senses, different wisdoms. What doesn’t do much for me may be exactly right for someone else.  We all “know” that, but sometimes we need to know it on a deeper level.  As a pastor, I frequently console/delude myself by wondering, “Who knows how faith comes?  Who knows what combination of words and authors, encounters and holy moments, friendships and examples, will bring about trust in Jesus?  Who knows what tiny seeds scattered today might somehow sprout to life, even decades from now?” 

And in the meantime, Christ is risen.  Christ is still risen, indeed.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

One Comment

  • Chris Theule-VanDam says:

    Thanks for the post. I agree. Love Wins wasn't written for you (or me).

    I have a similar story. I suggested the book to my uncle, who grew up in the church but has rejected it for decades, probably 50 years. He told me that he bought it and it was interesting, nothing more, nothing less. His daughter, my cousin (who is a believer), recently emailed me to say thanks for suggesting the book, as it did – something.
    I think that is who the book is written for.

    My commentary is that it should have been titled, "Choice Wins" – as it's a book all about the possibility of always being able to choose God. I think the same book could be written from the Reformed perspective, and already has, it's called, "The Gospel According To Judas", by Ray Anderson, where God always gets to choose who gets into heaven.

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