N.D. Wilson writes children's books. I'm going to read them, because they sound fascinating, and I still contend that children's books and YA fiction have better stories than books for grown-ups, as a rule, especially when tossing in that loathsome category called literary fiction. That makes what I'm about to do more painful for me. He also wrote a parody that I thoroughly enjoyed many years ago. I'd just written a series of satire pieces for The Door about Harry Potter and Left Behind, so I was reading quite a bit of satire and parody in those days. His book was amusing. He's clearly incredibly bright. Which makes what I'm about to do even more painful for me.
I'd like to say up front that it's a good thing he writes children's books; that's a good genre for him if his understanding of God as articulated in a recent Books & Culture piece is any indication of his theological abilities. Unfortunately, the whole article isn't available online, but you'll appreciate the snark from the enumerated list provided in the excerpt. That is, I'm afraid, the high point of an article about Rob Bell's Love Wins, an article that continues for much too long. Let me say that I completely agree that Rob Bell is less than forthcoming about what he believes, but, unlike N.D. Wilson, I'm pretty sure it's because Bell has the humility to recognize that he's discussing a topic about which there is much room for disagreement, and because Bell is a pastor first (a point Wilson acknowledges with commendable grace in the piece).
Wilson goes on to criticize Bell for failing to "plant his feet when he thinks," a criticism that is too easy, too vague, and clearly unfair if Bell's corpus is considered as a whole. Wilson, a product of an education in the Classics, writes like a comfortable Calvinist or a Catholic in the Augustinian or Thomist tradition. It's difficult to assess where exactly he comes down on his theology, which is a shad ironic given his critique of Bell's ambiguities about hell.
He doesn't like that Bell allies himself with people who have been put off by presentations of the Gospel that made them uncomfortable, and then, without a trace of irony, he writes:
"When men pick up stones or spears or guns or machetes, when Nero's pulse quickened (when Herod's pulse quickened), their reactions were natural for fallen men when encountering the Truth."
The most charitable thing I can think to say at this point is that we have no access to this Person, so it's reasonable that we not be too quick to assert shit that can't be known. The next most charitable thing I can say is that Wilson seems to have skipped the 20th century when reading theology; he clearly missed Barth. How does he feel so comfortable jumping from Jesus as Truth to propositions about hell as Truth? That seems a huge step, or perhaps it's better to say he's made a huge leap by skipping over inconvenient segues from one point to another. This sounds like Augustinian arrogance, frankly, so I'm leaning Catholic at this point, but then he drops this turd:
Bell and I could talk about God's story and what we think He is doing. We might agree or disagree, but first we would need to ally ourselves to Christ, absolutely and totally. What He is for, we are for. He is the transcendent standard of goodness and there can be no other. If Gandhi is in Hell, we will say "Amen" and know that it was just. If Gandhi received grace we will say "Amen" and know that it was merciful.
Cool-shaming is a major player in all evangelical discussions of Hell and evil (along with any social hot-button issues). But our focus can't be cultural acceptance or sneers or growing congregations. We should strive to love what Christ loves and loathe what Christ loathes. We must think what He thinks, and peer pressure be damned (not purgated).
Is He anti-gay? Is He anti-science? Does He think that the earth is the center of the universe and all the planets and stars go through drunken epicycles to lap us? Then so do I. (He would know, after all.) Does He think Darwin is an idiot or a prophet? Does His story include creatures meant for damnation till the end? Know that He is good and can do no evil. If that's His story, then there is no better story (whether we understand right now or not). And there is no other Jesus for us to turn to...
I'm out of charitable things to say, except to remind you that this is an otherwise intelligent man. This is horseshit. Wilson will be an excellent children's book writer because he writes theology with the same annoying naiveté that parents use when telling their children to trust a cop. Only later, when the Haitian child is a man, and the cop's nightstick is up his ass in a bathroom in NYC, does he wonder why his parents lied to him. Let's just go through this chronologically:
- First, how can we be sure what Christ is for? It requires an interpretive tradition, and Wilson's seems a hodgepodge of Calvin and Augustine; it certainly smacks of the arrogance and naiveté of the former.
- If He is the transcendent standard of goodness, why the hell do churches worldwide ignore Him? I'm hoping that Wilson is a pacifist, because Jesus clearly was, and if he's the standard, Wilson has just obligated himself to that road. That issue aside, how does one access this transcendent information? Wilson writes with the emotional appeal of a storyteller but his thinking is muddy as hell—another irony, inasmuch as he's critiquing Bell's thinking here. It's clear who the better thinker is.
- If Gandhi is in hell and God sent him there, you're a fool for worshipping this God. No man in the 20th century better emulated the ethic of Jesus, and since He's our transcendent standard of goodness...yeah, exactly. Only in Christianity as explained by Wilson and his theological heroes does behavior not matter. Wilson needs some Yoder. That'll cure this muddy thinking right up.
- What the hell does Jesus think, and how in shit's sake can I know it? Unbelievable. Trite, naive, childish, "now I lay me down to sleep" theology, with a dose of Willard's "Jesus is the smartest man who ever lived" stuff thrown in for the non-Calvinist evangelicals.
- If His story includes creatures meant for damnation, then salvation, goodness, and God's character are ciphers at best, and He's an evil douche at worst (and that is far more likely the closer to Calvin you get).
- He is good and can do no evil. Wow. Thank you, ghost of John Calvin. You've just assigned every God-ordained massacre, flood, famine, pestilence, and holocaust to the category of goodness. Nice that you bring your literalist hermeneutic to the discussion. Where are the grown-ups? This is a complete surrendering of rationality to a hermeneutical naiveté that assumes God gave us our critical faculties just to fuck us real hard when we try to use them.
I'm nearly stupefied at how utterly horrible this piece is. What the hell was Books & Culture thinking including this drivel in the same issue with pieces from Lauren Winner, Mark Noll, Scot McKnight, and an interview with Don DeLillo? How did Wilson's shoddy piece get into that mix? In another comical irony, Wilson accuses Bell of writing a book that reads like a blog post. Um...pot, kettle.