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At the Speed of the Web

Rob Bell may be a universalist. I don’t think this would prove surprising to too many people. Certainly his theological trajectory over the years has been concerning and it’s rare for a guy to suddenly and radically reverse that kind of a path.

Rob Bell Love WinsBell has a book coming out in the near future, one titled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. According to the publisher’s description, “Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.” It needs to be noted that this kind of copy is typically written by the publisher rather than the author and that it is intended to sell the book rather than necessarily provide an accurate description of the book’s contents.

A few days ago a video appeared on YouTube and Vimeo and other sites. In that video Bell describes the topic of the book. Here it is: (people reading via RSS may need to click this link):

Over the weekend several bloggers wrote about this video: Josh Harris, Denny Burk, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, Phil Johnson, and Z among them. Some of those articles went viral, garnering thousands of comments between them, making a bit impact on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

I am not going to comment on whether or not Bell is a universalist. To be honest, at this point I think it is a little bit too early to make that determination. I watch the video and read the marketing copy and think that it shows a very deliberate vagueness that is meant to raise questions but not answer questions, that is meant to generate controversy and sell books. And so far it’s succeeding admirably. My guess is that in the end Bell will take a vague universalist position—not outright universalism but still something that is still clearly unorthodox (as Brian McLaren did in his earlier days before he got into the kind of outright denial that has been the core of his more recent books).

My interest at this point is less in what Bell believes and what his book is going to say—that will be clear in March when the book begins to hit store shelves—but in the speed at which information and opinions have been disseminated. As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about digital technologies, about how our lives have changed because of them, I see here a clear example of the ever-growing importance we place on speed, on immediacy. This is not to critique any of the people who have written about Bell over the past few days—much of what they have said has been thoughtful and accurate. But still, I see in this situation a clear example of how the news works today, of how information spreads at light speed through digital media. Which draws me to something I say in my book The Next Story:

For centuries, humans have been captivated by the possibility of a perpetual motion machine, an invention that could provide a never-ending source of motion or energy while requiring no external source of power. The principles of the laws of thermodynamics have since shown us that, as far as we understand the laws of nature, such machines are impossible. Yet inventors continue to try to create them; the allure and the potential reward are simply too great to ignore. But while perpetual motion machines may be only the stuff of fantasy, our technologies seem to be successful in making us perpetual motion people. While the Industrial Revolution turned man into a machine, digitization has imposed on him the identity of constant activity, of never-ending motion.

When we buy a new digital device, it is typically described in reference to speed and capacity. When I go shopping for a new laptop, I find that the processor operates at a certain clock speed, that faster is always better, and that this in turn will give me a greater capacity to perform complex operations. Never mind that most of us will never tap into all of that speed or even need more than a fraction of the capacity—more is simply better. With our increased speeds and capacities we know we are getting a better deal, earning more bang for our buck.

But what if this emphasis on speed and capacity has begun to shape us?

What if our consumption and use of these devices has trained us to assume that greater speed and greater capacity are universal virtues? What if we have transferred the virtues of digital devices to our own lives?

The new generation of any device will inevitably be faster than the ones that came before, and the promise is that this will empower us to accomplish more things in less time. The discerning consumer may wonder why, if computers are twice as fast as they used to be, he doesn’t get his work finished in half the time! But it is difficult to stop to ask such questions. The pressure of life is such that if we don’t embrace the newer and better, we will be left behind. Because of this, our devices are obsolete long before they stop working. Instead of asking thoughtful questions—exercising discernment over our use of digital technology—we press on, trying to match the speed of our new devices, absorbing into our consciousness the idea that speed itself is a virtue, that fast is always good. We recreate ourselves in the image of our devices, through the ideologies they contain within them.

The speed of digital life, the understanding that e-mails grow stale if they are not responded to immediately, the knowledge that a text message that is a few hours old is already ancient, increases the pace of our lives. Eventually we begin trying to make everything faster. We try to speed up our families, our worship, our eating. We begin to race through life, unwilling or perhaps unable to slow down, to pause, and to reflect.

And yet when we turn to the Bible, when we turn to the source of divine wisdom, we see very little about a life dominated by more, dominated by speed. On the contrary, we look to our heroes—we look to our Savior—and see a life that is contemplative, a life that takes time to ponder the deep things.

King Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and his life gave little indication of speed. Rather, his life showed the virtue of deliberate meditation, deliberate slowness. He knew 3,000 proverbs, each of which took time to commit to memory and each of which only had value in the time taken to ponder it. Here is just one example of how Solomon grew in wisdom and understanding:

I passed by the field of a sluggard,
by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down .
Then I saw and considered it;
I looked and received instruction.
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.
(Proverbs 24:30 – 34)

Here Solomon walks by a field and pauses to observe that it has become overgrown with thorns and that the wall surrounding it has fallen into decay. He sees that only a lazy man, a sluggard, a fool, would allow his land to fall into such a state. Even in the midst of his busy life as king, Solomon responds by taking the time to meditate on this, to consider it. And having done so, he receives divine instruction: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” It was only through his willingness to slow down, to take time, that he drew a lesson from this foolish man and his misused land. Virtue was found not in hastening by but in taking time to slow down, to pause, to think. He did not immediately dash off a Twitter update or snap a photo to post to Facebook. He stopped; he watched; he learned.