It has been almost 4 months since the release of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. This is a book that has ignited a great debate on the subject of hell. It has also ignited discussion on the way this debate has been handled, and particularly so by those of us who considered this a dangerously unbiblical book. In the past couple of weeks I have had a lot of opportunity to think about Love Wins—about how it appeared on the scene, how we reacted, and some of the lessons we would do well to learn. Let me share a few of my thoughts on all of this.
We Got Gamed
Love Wins was published by HarperOne—a company with an excellent and well-funded marketing department. I am convinced that their marketing plan involved you and me (and let me define “you and me” as conservative and/or Reformed Christians—exactly the kind of people who tend to read this blog). They drew us in and played us perfectly so that we did exactly what they wanted us to. We reacted with horror—very vocal horror—to the book and its implications. The first hint of the book’s content, the video trailer, was carefully crafted to suggest the purpose of the book but not state it explicitly. This generated a lot of buzz not just about the book’s contents, but about what Bell may have meant in the trailer. It was a brilliant marketing move that ignited a massive amount of discussion and controversy. The first people knew of the book was that it was controversial.
Once the fire had ignited, HarperOne quickly battened down the hatches, refusing to send any more pre-release copies of the book—a very rare phenomenon. This means that until the book’s release copies of the manuscript were unusually rare. I take this to mean that the marketing plan was moving along very well and that allowing reviewers to begin writing critical reviews prior to its release date would have been detrimental to sales. A few copies of the manuscript were passed around, but most reviewers had to wait until release day. Until then all people could do was speculate. And we did.
The long and short is that the marketing plan for this book involved you and me and we played our part.
We Responded Immediately & Forcefully
Our response to Love Wins was immediate and furious and began long before the book was released. The earliest responses were based on the video trailer and made some assumptions, which is to say that Justin Taylor’s earliest comments and John Piper’s infamous Farewell Rob Bell tweet assumed some context—that people were familiar with Bell and his steady theological decline. These were essentially insider comments—from one conservative Christian to others—that very quickly ended up going far beyond that demographic. Ripped from their context, many people took them as being self-assured and mean-spirited even though I am convinced they were done out of genuine love and concern for truth. No one guessed that they would go so far, so fast, and that they would draw such urgent and widespread response. These early responses, first Justin’s and then many others, made statements about Bell based on the hints in the trailer rather than the statements in the book. This allowed Bell’s defenders to declare that we were being unfair and too hasty. Social media did its work and soon tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of people were reading these comments and spreading them through their own networks; people were retweeting and liking and commenting and writing their own blog posts and everything else we do with news today.
Do not hear me criticizing John Piper or Justin Taylor or anyone else here; I think these men would be the first to say that they had no idea of what would happen and that if they had, they would have responded differently (and, in fact, Justin went back and changed his blog post in several ways).