To Question or Not to Question? That is the Question [Part 1]

This is the first of three posts attempting to tackle the questions that have been asked of me concerning Rob Bell’s newest book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I had the opportunity to write a rhetorical analysis for an English class this semester of Love Wins. This first post is that paper. It does not deal with any of the theological ramifications of Bell’s claims, but it strictly analyzes the rhetorical devices he uses throughout the book to make his point. Enjoy.

Rob Bell is no stranger to controversy. From the time he stepped foot into the spotlight as a prominent Christian leader, there were those who saw he could potentially be headed down the wrong path. Starting with his first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, critics howled at his heavily Socratic approach to theological understanding. Bell’s seemingly unorthodox ways of asking leading questions that many have internally asked before stirred the pot in Christian circles and propelled Bell to the forefront position of a new generation of Christian preachers. It is no surprise that Bell’s newest addition to the Christian conversation, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, caused heated disagreement and discussion on Christian blogs across the nation—even weeks before its intended release. What did Bell say that caused the Reformed giant John Piper to wish him “farewell?”

Actually, that is exactly what Bell does: Bell asks questions. The topics he addresses—heaven, hell, salvation, etc.—have always been points of tension for Christians through the centuries. There is a sizable group who objects to what he says, but what you say does not always get you in trouble as much as how you say it. So, the better question to ask is: how does Rob Bell make his points and cause so many problems at the same time?

Audience must be established before any sort of analysis can be stated. Fortunately, Bell explicitly states who his audience is in the preface. Bell offers that “there is a growing number of us…” (Bell vii). The little word “us” is an interesting word to use in that statement and one that can be easily missed if the reader does not pay attention closely. Right off the bat Bell defines the group he is addressing, one that he is apparently a part of. He says “the book [is] for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that has caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be a part of that”… You are not alone”. He follows this statement with another reassurance that “there are millions of us” (vii). First, Bell is trying to spell out the audience he is attempting to reach. He wants this book to reach a specific group of people who have “been wronged or seem to be on the outside looking in” (DeYoung 2). Second, when Bell couples this desire with the personal pronoun “us,” he switches to a completely different audience. Instead of pointing out the audience as a “you,” he evokes a sense of personal relationship by stating that he is part of a larger movement that “[has] become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of stories…and it’s time to reclaim it” (Bell vii-viii). He attempts to create a feeling of empathy with his audience in order to build their trust and make them aware that they are not alone if they feel this way. What do we learn about the audience from Bell’s move to include himself in the audience? One critic accurately says that this reveals that “primary intended audience appears to be not so much secularists with objections to Christianity… but disaffected evangelicals who can’t accept the doctrine they grew up with” (DeYoung 4). It is a brilliant use of persuasive, emotional appeal (i.e. ethos) by playing off the audience’s assumed feelings by including yourself in their tribe. Inclusion is part of human nature, and in the preface, Bell rhetorically walks beside the reader as if to help him or her along the path of discovering reminding them they are not alone.

Bell’s rhetorical style is built around the idea of questions. Within the first nineteen pages of Love Wins, Bell asks almost 100 questions. Others have counted as many as 350 throughout the entirety of his book, many of which are never answered (DeYoung 2). All are used to develop a logos that emphasizes the natural progression the reader might question the Christian faith and its components. At the end of the first chapter Bell even states that “[the reader] could go on/ verse after verse/ passage after passage/ question after question.” But, he stops. He admits that while questions are important “this isn’t just a book of questions/ It’s a book of responses to these questions” (Bell 19). This is ironic, not only because of the number of questions he asked previously, but because Bell is known for asking questions that seem to create resistance in Christian circles. In this particular chapter, there is one section where Bell uses a rapid succession of questions to lead his readers into a kind of confusion. His initial question deals with the idea of going to heaven and whether it is dependent on something we do. Then, through different biblical passages and examples, he shows how the Bible tells of many different things to do—or not do—to obtain salvation. His final succession of questions ends like this:

“Is it what you say,
or who you are,
or what you do,
or what you say you’re going to do,
or who your friends are,
or who you’re married to,
or whether you give birth to children?
Or is it what questions you’re asked?
Or is it what questions you ask in return?
Or is it whether you do what you’re told and go into the city?” (16, 17)

Bell brings up questions that have plagued new Christians, searching Christians, or skeptical Spiritualists. Most Christians would squirm as they read these sentences, because all of these are biblical concepts but no one idea by itself constitutes salvation. The final set of questions he asks—coupled with the various Scripture references—seems to give a good picture of how many different ways people view how to become a Christian. Ask 100 different preachers today how to become a Christian and you will get 200 slightly different responses. Through his successive questioning, pysma, Bell captures the confusion that many Christians and non-Christians alike feel when trying to explain what it means to “become a Christian.” It is important to note, however, that Bell himself does not explicitly state what the “correct” answer to the question is. In fact, he leaves the audience hanging, almost on purpose. He does this possibly to taunt the reader into reading the rest of the book. Regardless of his end game, his constant questioning proves the point that he sets out in the preface: that Christianity is “a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences” (x-xi).

This proclivity towards questions is reminiscent of the Socratic method, but Bell does not just ask the same, stale questions theologians have asked and answered over the centuries. Many of his questions have a different feel to them. The Greeks called this method dianoea. It was the art of “using animated questions and answers in developing an argument” (Silva Rhetoricae). One of Bell’s main arguments centers around the question of “Does God get what God wants?” (Bell 97). At the end of the chapter, after discussing how God’s love wins over the human heart postmortem, Bell changes the perspective to a different subject by asking what he sees as a “better question…Do we get what we want?” (116). He takes a question he himself asks at the beginning of the chapter and turns it around on the reader in order to make a specific point. His point is that the choice of heaven or hell in the afterlife—and present life, for that matter—is not dependent on what God wants. Love “can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for others to decide” (119). With this statement, Bell advocates the approach that allows freedom of choice, and the decision is placed in our hands. This is important because it shifts the readers’ attention from God to themselves. Although it is not just a shift in the subject but a shift in perspective. Just the simple rewording of the question brings new meaning and life to the discussion which Bell points out in order to support his argument that in the end love wins.

Pastors love stories, and Bell is no different. He begins seven of his eight chapters with some sort of personal narrative. One story centers on a painting from his grandmother’s house. In another chapter he begins by referencing Eminem. One starts with a memory of Bell’s personal salvation experience. All of these are a prime example of paradiegesis (i.e. “an introductory narrative used to open a speech” (Silva Rhetoricae)). Starting off with a story engages the audience in ways that an outright, logical argument cannot. Bell shares these anecdotes for two reasons. First, he showcases his humanity to his audience. It is easy, as a reader, to subconsciously put an author on some sort of pedestal just because they published a book. Bell’s use of stories at the beginning of most chapters help deconstruct the myth of the “untouchable author” by giving the audience a glimpse, however so brief, behind the curtain. Second, stories make great metaphors for later points. For example, in a chapter about living and dying, Bell uses Eminem’s sudden disappearance from the music scene in 2005 and reappearance in 2010 to connect the idea of death being a necessary means for life—drawing the comparison to the resurrection of Jesus. Bell understands the power of story when convincing someone, especially right out of the gate.

To gain any traction with a professed Christian audience, an author must use Scripture in support of their conclusions. Anyone can throw thoughts out there based on other theologians or preachers, and Bell does. In the end notes, he refers readers to authors such as C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and Tim Keller who are all highly respected Christian thinkers. But regardless of the religious firepower these authors may carry, if an author wants his position to be taken seriously, he must have a line up of verses that seem to support his point. Bell obviously does this, but he also employs a couple other rhetorical tactics to support to his arguments. There are two terms that he uses that are very similar: anamnesis and epicrisis. Anamnesis is defined as a “calling to memory past matters, more specifically, citing a past author from memory” while epicrisis means “[quoting] a certain passage and [making] comment upon it” (Silva Rhetoricae). Both deal with the idea of quoting something from a previous source. While anamnesis is used more in orations rather than in written words, it is still important because this is the rhetorical device Bell asks the reader to engage in since he gives few Scripture references and footnotes. In the chapter he devotes to Hell, Bell lays all the verses that deal with Hell on the table at the beginning almost to tip his hand. The verses do not cause the problems; his comments or interpretations do. For example, he uses the end of the parable of the Prodigal Son to teach that everyone is at the party (read: Heaven), but some will choose to not take part in it (read: Hell). In another place he references the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Here Bell comments that the reason the Rich Man asks Abraham to have Lazarus get him a drink is because the Rich Man is still stuck in the mindset of Lazarus should serve him. Bell also references the Rich Ruler and how his question about eternal life is not necessarily one of eternal life later but rather now. Bell uses Scripture. The places where critics started to pick him apart are his interpretations and commentary on those passages.

One spin Bell likes to put on using Scripture is exploring the original languages of the Bible. Since the humanist reintegration into Christianity after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, there has been a call to return to the original languages of the Scripture. Bell likes to bring Hebrew and Greek into as many situations as he can to strengthen his arguments intellectually. He uses the Hebrew word shalom (i.e. grace) in the chapter about Heaven and olam (i.e. forever) in the chapter about Hell. However, using Greek exclusively as a rhetorical device called graecismus. Again in the chapter about Hell, Bell uses the Greek word aion to explain the difference between two nuanced definitions. He also uses the words gehenna and hades when referring to what Scripture says about Hell. When someone can reach back and bring ancient languages into modern day, people automatically respect that—although few rarely check the facts. Pulling from the original languages of Scripture in order to explain a complex truth allows Bell to exercise the “pastoral muscle” almost by saying, “I’ve been to seminary and learned these nuanced definitions that you have not.” Too much of a focus on ancient languages can set you apart from your audience by making you sound pretentious and lose trust. It is definitely a risky rhetorical chance, but Bell has perfected the art of using these languages in order to drive his point home, appeal to the reader’s intellect, and establish a reputable pathos as a communicator without overwhelming his audience with technical aspects.

Bell’s holds a keen sense of rhetorical awareness. He draws upon the essence of logic as he persistently asks question after question. He attempts to lead people through a safe, logical progression in which they question their beliefs in hope to emerge on the other side with a stronger faith because of it. He appeals to the human emotion of belonging by telling stories from his personal life. He breaks down the walls and extends a trusting hand of friendship by reminding readers that “You are not alone” (Bell vii). He strategically uses words from the original languages to remind the reader that his reputation as a pastor is one thing that is not in question. In fact, varied use of Greek, Hebrew, and the Socratic Method of Reasoning speaks to his affirm his position as a verified communicator. Bell is in full command of his rhetoric devices in Love Wins. Every sentence, word, and expression serves a purpose. While Bell never comes out and discloses his full intentions, at the end of the preface he settles for the bare minimum as a goal stating, “If this book…does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity—well, I’d be thrilled” (xi). Theological criticisms aside, if that is his aim, then Love Wins is a brilliant success. The question that remains is this: will Evangelical Christianity say the same?
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  1. Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedNew York, NY: Harper Collins. 2011.
  2. DeYoung, Kevin. “God is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True: A Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell”. The Gospel Coalition. 14 Mar 2011. Web. 10 Apr 2011.
  3. Silva Rhetoricae. Brigham Young University, 2007. Web. 12 Apr 2011.
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[Part 1] | [Part 2] | [Part 3]
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