Saturday, March 16, 2013

Ringing My Bell

At long last, I've read something by Rob Bell.  Meaning, not just a blog post or an interview or a Facebook status update.   An actual book.  Not his new one, not yet.  I will be, but I had some unfinished business.  I needed to read his last one, the one I made sure the graduating seniors from my wee kirk received before they went off to college.  I'd recommended that one on spec, and I figured it was about time that I actually knew what I was talking about.

Yesterday, I cracked open Love Wins at around one in the afternoon.  By three, I was done reading.

Not because I needed a break.  I was done.  Two hundred pages.  Two hours.  And that includes breaks to fold the laundry and do a huge pile of dishes.  It's always a huge pile of dishes in the Williams household.  They seem to breed like Tribbles.

Having recently read through a book by million-selling popular Christian author Stormie Omartian, I'd been struck by how simple and straightforward her prose was.

She has nothing on Bell.

Sure, he uses some more complicated vocabulary on occasion.  But the book itself was spare to the point of being spartan.   It felt, sometimes, like the kind of paper a professor might receive from their brightest student if all you'd given the class was a requirement for total pages.  The slightly large font coupled with lines that would occasionally be occupied by two word sentence fragments made for breezy reading.  It had less page density than, oh, gosh, something like "The Mouse and the Motorcycle."

This could have been a 98 page book, honestly.

But that didn't matter.  The white space was used judiciously and to good effect.

I can see, without question, why Bell succeeds.  He is, in my opinion, one of the best interlocutors for a more gracious Christianity out there today.  He seriously rings my bell, although quite the way Anita Ward meant.    Why?   Well, several reasons.

1) He keeps it simple.  It's easy to go all complex when dealing with theology, or with the nuances of faith.  Bell knows, either by instinct or experience, that doing this means you render yourself less and less able to speak to a broad audience.  That's one of the great stumbling blocks of the old-line, and one of the reasons our voice is fading in our culture.  We have, I am convinced, an awesome and authentically important Gospel message.  But we've been steeped in academe too long to be able to get that across.  Bell doesn't make that mistake.  He doesn't make it simplistic, and he doesn't dumb it down.  But he knows that if you think something is important, the point of writing about it is to share that.   And that gets to reason number two:

2)  He's a damn good rhetorician.  I say that not by way of insult.  Rhetoric is nothing more than the classical art of persuasive speech, and Bell is skilled at it.  Ancient rhetoric taught you to use emotion, reason, and shared cultural references to sway an audience.  Bell does all of these things.  He tells stories, real stories of his life as a person, to establish common ground.  He shows a deep grasp of scripture,  from a historical-critical and textual standpoint, and also just respecting it as sacred story.

But his writing connects on a human level, too.  Take, for example, this video for his latest book.  It connects, deeply, with pretty much every American who ever owned and loved a beat-up old car.  That's a lot of us.  His writing does that.  It's effective at conveying what he wants to convey.  It doesn't resort to in-group language, not ever, not never.   He speaks in ways that the world can understand.

That matters.

3)  He keeps his eyes on the prize.   Bell talks about what matters, and then he tells you about Jesus.  He is, without question, evangelical.  What is simply stunning is that he's telling the world about the Jesus I've known and encountered, in a way that feels both right and authentically faithful.   God matters.  Jesus matters.  Our faith matters.

He doesn't, for instance, talk about "church."  Or "being church."  The focus is not institutional, or structural.  It's big picture stuff, the stuff that's fun to talk about, the stuff that people who aren't already embedded in a faith community actually do think about.

I didn't agree with him on everything.  But danged if he doesn't get what's important.

That's what matters, eh?