Bowling Alone With God while Catching Hell With Rob Bell

Paul Harvey

In the Wilson Quarterly, my scholarly co-conspirator (and occasional guest contributor here) Kevin Schultz reviews the new book by the eminent sociologist Robert Putnam and American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (we have mentioned the book briefly here before, and Robert Wright reviews it in theNew York Times here, while plenty of the book's other findings, reflections on them, and links to other discussions of the work are posted over at the Social Capital Blog). The findings are not especially surprising, for religious history scholars anyway, but Schultz commends the vast data sets surveyed in the book. In short:

Putnam and Campbell’s thesis, supported by numerous surveys, including two they conducted themselves, is that since 1950 the American religious landscape has become simultaneously more polarized and more tolerant. While 72 percent of Americans today think “America is divided along religious lines,” a “whopping 89 percent” (including 83 percent of evangelical Protestants) nevertheless believe that heaven is not reserved solely for those who share their faith, a finding that suggests tolerance absent just a generation ago.

It's amusing that this review coincides with the latest internet flare-up of religious polemics: Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, publishing a new book Love Wins which, so I gather, questions the existence of eternal hell. For that sin, he's being cast down into hell by some powerhouse evangelical theologians and gatekeepers (not that they could have read the book yet -- the condemnation came based on some a publisher's press release promo for the book). Eric Reitan summarizes the story over at Religion Dispatches, where he terms the reception to Bell's book "excommunication by tweet":

This short description launched a frenzy ofreactions within the evangelical community. Justin Taylor, vice president of editorial at Crossway,quickly posted a fierce condemnation—based solely on advance material. “It is unspeakably sad,” writes Taylor, “when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.” He concludes that Bell “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.” Taylor’s post spurred a furor of tweeting and blogging, including a curtly dismissive tweet from Bethlehem Baptist Church’s John Piper: “Farewell, Rob Bell."

It reminds me of reading through countless denominational controversy polemics from the 19th century, esp. ones pitting the Methodists and the Baptists firing away at each other on Calvinism, infant baptism, and other controverted issues. Ultimately, that sound and fury signified little but the explosion of an antebellum evangelical empire. And internecine theological food-fights are fun to watch, and fun to study, in part because they suggest how much religion matters personally. And how much it doesn't matter in other ways. As Schultz puts it in his review, paraphrasing a part of Putnam and Campbell's book:

A Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, confronted with data showing that more than four-fifths of his denomination don’t believe that one’s faith is the only avenue to heaven, remarked that he and his fellow pastors had “failed.” But while most clergy side with that pastor, most parishioners are quite happily tolerant. This is the American grace of the book’s title.

And I might mention that some Appalachian religious folk, the "No-Hellers of Central Appalachia," beat Rob Bell to the punch a long time ago (a brief summary of their tenets may be found here). There's nothing like hearing Universalism preached with an Appalachian inflection. The downside of their theology: no "Hell Houses" on Halloween. And that leaves us with the question: What would Jason Bivins do/study?


You should never trust that Schultz guy...

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