Chapter 1 of the book is entitled ‘What about the flat tire? [sic…]’ It is an example of the questioning methodology recommended in the preface: for twenty pages, Bell offers a stream-of-consciousness meander around questions concerning the accounts of how salvation is achieved, and what that says about God. The purpose of the chapter is unstated, and (to me) unclear; is Bell wanting to validate the questions he imagines his readers might come to the book with? Or is he wanting to disturb the reader who believes that she has all this sorted out on the basis of what she has learned of the historic Christian tradition? (Or perhaps both?)
The first is a noble purpose: it is a service to your readers (or hearers) to say to them ‘it’s OK, you’re allowed to wonder that. It’s not a dumb question, it doesn’t mean you’re not saved – stick with me and we’ll see if we can find some answers together.’ But you have to make good on the promise, discuss the issues you’ve allowed them to formulate clearly and obviously. To say ‘great question – that’s a real problem, isn’t it?’ and then not to offer any further reflection by way of answer is no help to anyone. I suppose in doing this my approach would be more analytic than Bell’s; I’d want to tabulate the questions raised, say ‘we’re going to discuss these in chapter 2, these in chapter 4, and so on.’ The point of this would be to make sure that the questions were followed up on and (just as important) that the reader could find her way to where they were followed up on. My concern with Bell’s more discursive approach is that, on several issues, having invited the question, he offers nothing further in the book. This is simply unkind to a reader.
The second purpose can also be appropriate. If the assumed orthodoxy is in fact wrong (and there is some of this in the chapter – see next post), then it needs to be gently and lovingly deconstructed and remade. Even if it is right, faith should be encouraged to think, and there are times when an unreflective acceptance of this or that should be challenged. If God’s people are to be effective in displaying and declaring the good news of Jesus to the world, they need to be able to give reasons for the hope they have within them. All that said, the wise pastor is careful in introducing questions people have not yet asked. Being ready to help them to explore more deeply is one thing; introducing them to problems they had never imagined and might not be able to cope with is another.
The chapter begins with the tale of a Gandhi quotation in an art show in church that became famous through the promotional video. A written comment (anonymous – aren’t they always?) asserts that Gandhi is in hell. Bell queries the certainty of the comment; are we so sure that only a ‘select number’ will ‘make it to a better place’? (2). What kind of God would make that the deal? A similar story follows, about a teenager, a self-declared atheist, dying in a car accident, prompting the comment ‘So there’s no hope then.’ Bell asks ‘No hope? Is that the Christian message?’ (3). (I’ll say more about this in the next post.)
These two stories prompt him to articulate a series of questions about access to salvation. Who has hope, and why? He mocks, quite unpleasantly, the idea of an ‘age of accountability’ (p. 4; I don’t know I’ve ever met anyone who believed in an age of accountability; but maybe in the USA some do?), and wonders about what gets you to be a part of the ‘in-crowd’: luck, or upbringing, or baptism, or church membership? If, as some claim, it is saying a sinner’s prayer, then what about those who said it and didn’t understand it, or no longer believe it?
All of this strikes me as profoundly unhelpful. Processes of Christian initiation are well-defined in all major Christian traditions, typically including (in some order) repentance of sin and personal profession of faith, catechesis, baptism, reception into church membership, ongoing sacramental participation, and continued practices of discipleship. Whilst there is a hypothetical question sometimes raised about the eternal destiny of someone whose participation in this process of initiation is incomplete or in some way imperfect, the question is usually left unanswered, with an appeal to the mercy and righteousness of God, and our inability to second-guess that. If Bell has a question about the appropriateness of a well-ordered account like this, then he should specify it with exactness; if his point is merely that there are a variety of untenable popular speculations about the ‘soteriological minimum,’ then indicating that these speculations are not serious but merely ill-informed is necessary for a responsible treatment.
Bell’s next move introduces a recurrent theme of the book. Is salvation merely about ‘going somewhere else’? (6); if so, does that make you careless of what goes on here? Bell says:
If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it… (6-7, emphasis original)
Ouch. (Although I want to ask how true the caricature is. Evangelical Christians in Britain aren’t ‘known for doing much about it,’ but every bit of hard data I have seen suggests that we spend far more time volunteering, and give far more money to aid/development charities than any other section of the population. We’re not too bad on creation care, either. Of course, we could – and should – do much, much more, but the public perception is badly skewed when compared to the actual data. Perhaps being ‘known for doing’ is less the issue than actually doing.)
Then Bell suggests the right answer to questions of eternal destiny is ‘how you respond to Jesus,’ and he agrees wholeheartedly with this (7), but immediately raises more questions – there are many false presentations of Jesus out there; perhaps someone who has rejected Jesus has rejected a false Jesus? (7-9) So we need active and informed evangelists who will tell people about the true Jesus (9). But – the chapter title – what if the evangelist gets a flat tyre? Does that contingent event damn others to hell? What kind of God would arrange a world like that?
Bell then turns to grace: if Christianity is a religion of grace, not works, he asks, how is it that we say you have to accept, believe, confess? (11). Again, this seems to me unhelpful. There is a stable and settled answer (well, there are two, actually, one Calvinist, one Arminian) to the question of how salvation by faith relates to a denial of works righteousness. If Bell thinks he has seen a hole in these standard arguments, then let’s have it, set out clearly against the best representative of the tradition. If not, why raise the question, particularly as he never pauses to point to the standard answers?
Bell then turns to a long string of Biblical citations, each of which, on a naive reading, seems to suggest that salvation comes from a different source. Mt 6 (the Lord’s prayer) suggests our being forgiven is contingent on our being forgiving; Mk 2 (the paralysed man lowered through the roof) suggests forgiveness of sins is contingent on the faith of friends; 1 Cor. 7 suggests a believing wife will save her unbelieving husband. Bell has many other examples. I simply don’t understand his point here: is he wanting to say that one or another, or the whole collection, of these texts is not consonant with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone? In which case extensive Biblical exegesis, exploring and disproving the readings that are routinely offered in commentaries, would be necessary to even make the point plausible enough to pause over and consider (to carry it one would have to show that the settled position that the broad witness of Scripture is to salvation sola fide is based on misreadings of texts; a extensive wander through the more radical ends of the New Perspective, perhaps). Perhaps he is simply wanting to destabilise, to shake his readers’ certainty enough that they are ready to consider alternative and radical proposals. But he is not going to offer anything alternative and radical about the nature of salvation, as far as I can see; his most radical proposal is on hell (see several posts down…), and being convinced that I have thought wrongly about salvation should not, logically, prepare me to question my ideas about hell.
There’s a nice line at the end of the chapter, that suggests that destablisation has been the main point all along. Bell points out that in the gospels most people are pretty confused about Jesus, except the demons, who know exactly who He is. Undoubtedly true, and a nice pause for thought. (The answer, of course, is that we lacked the categories the know who Jesus is prior to His passion and resurrection; after those events, and after receiving the gift of the Spirit, there is not much evidence of uncertainty and confusion about who Jesus is in the NT church…)
The whole chapter is concerned with asking questions The argument that the questions are designed to make the reader follow appears to go something like this: if it is true that only certain people make it to heaven, then it is vitally important to know what the conditions for making it are. But there is some confusion about the conditions, and anyway, they seem in many ways to be rather random (the flat tyre…). If all this uncertainty and contingency is really the reality, then it seems that God is arbitrary, capricious, and somewhat small-minded. There’s a problem here, which the rest of the book will deal with.
OK, agreed; but along the way some of the questions have been misdirected, encouraging the reader to question the wrong things. Others have been irresponsible, in that they admit of good and non-controversial answers from the theological tradition. It is as if Bell got carried away in a rush of Cartesian doubt, questioning everything and anything. The result is that his core point is obscured.
This is a great shame, because his core point is a good one.