Credit where credit is due: the title of this post comes from Mike’s answer to the last question in this interview.
Mike Wittmer’s book Christ Alone was written in response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins, and Wittmer’s book appeared within one month of the release of Love Wins. In this book Wittmer models charity and firmness, clarity and creativity. He is as kind and fair to Rob Bell as he is unrelenting in the force of his logic and the power of his critique. These two books represent a paradox: Wittmer’s is a masterpiece of erudition and delight. Love Wins is nowhere close to being in the same league with Christ Alone, and yet to this point Bell’s book has sold far more copies and received far more attention. I suspect that as the decades roll by this situation will be reversed.
Prof. Wittmer was kind enough to answer a few questions on his book. Thanks, Mike!
Remarkably, you had a book length response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins in print within a month of that book’s publication. You had a pre-pub draft of Love Wins, right? Did you clear your schedule entirely to crank out Christ Alone? And what was the turn-around time between handing in the manuscript and holding the published book in your hands?
I knew in November that Rob was coming out with a controversial book, but I didn’t see a copy until three days before it was released. I was on sabbatical in Florida when the Internet began buzzing, and while there I received an email from a publisher asking if I’d be interested in writing a response. I said that I’d have to see Rob’s book when I came home, and after a quick read I decided that it deserved a book-length critique.
It’s a lot of work to write and publish a book in six weeks—and I don’t necessarily want to do it again—but I had a terrific editor who turned chapters back to me the day after I sent them to him. Most important, there were moments when I felt that God was directing my thoughts. More than once I looked at my blank computer screen and asked God for an illustration to open a chapter, and each time He gave me an idea that expressed my point better than I had ever done before. I didn’t run into any dead ends, which I didn’t have time for anyway. I was researching, organizing, and drafting all at once. Usually that spells disaster, but this time it turned out very well.
You live in Grand Rapids, where Rob Bell pastors, and you mention that you guys know and appreciate each other. I’m sure you’ve given him a copy of the book. Any indications as to whether or not he has read it?
Rob and I talked about the issues in Love Wins about a year before I knew he was writing it. At that time I gave him a copy of my book, Don’t Stop Believing, which I hoped would bring many emergent Christians back to the faith. Obviously, it didn’t have that effect on Rob! I don’t want to share the specifics of our private meeting, but it’s fair to say that we didn’t understand each other. Our failure to communicate—and Rob’s response to the critiques he has received—led me to conclude that it would be futile to send him a copy of my latest book. But as I think about it, it seems that would be an appropriate thing to do, and I will send him one tomorrow, along with a note offering to buy lunch.
I think it’s important to add that Christ Alone is not responding to Rob per se but to the content of Love Wins. My goal is not to correct Rob but to counter the false gospel of Love Wins. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to readers what Rob personally believes, but only what they think Love Wins is saying. And it’s that message that Christ Alone seeks to correct.
Have there been attempts to organize a public forum where the two of you can discuss the two books?
A local television station floated the idea but nothing ever came of it. I’m appearing at a local bookstore next week, but they said they wouldn’t have room to put all the people if they invited Rob! So while I think that could be a very interesting meeting (perhaps even bring in Kevin DeYoung from Lansing and Richard Mouw for Rob’s side), I doubt that will happen. Rob doesn’t do many debates, and the ones that I’ve seen haven’t been particularly productive.
In this book I think you’ve out-belled Rob Bell–you’re doing what he does better than he does it, particularly in provoking thought by asking better questions than he does, refusing simple answers while affirming what can be known, and you’re a lot better with the actual evidence than he is. It mystifies me that his book is a New York Times bestseller and yours isn’t. Why are people attracted to Bell’s book when other books (not least Christ Alone) are so much better on so many levels?
I was surprised to find that Love Wins doesn’t tell a compelling story. It’s ironic that a man who is rightly praised for his story-telling is now telling a story that has nothing at stake. The story of Love Wins is as bland as a children’s bed-time story. Everyone lives happily ever after, because they were never at risk. No one fought for them. God does nothing heroic, for there is no danger that calls for heroism.
Still, I think Love Wins is popular for several reasons. 1) Rob is a rock star, and celebrity sells. 2) Love Wins says what the culture wants to hear from the evangelical world, which is probably why Time magazine put Rob’s story on its cover. Love Wins gives our culture a reason to think that conservative evangelicals really are ignorant and foolish, as one of their brightest lights now says. 3) There’s the Internet uproar, which stoked interest in Love Wins several weeks before it was to be released. We’ll never know how Love Wins would have done without the controversy (probably pretty well), but I hope we have learned not to feed the narrative that “we criticize before we’ve read the book.”
You show again and again how Bell is selective with the evidence–this happens both in his use of the Bible and in use of church history. I’m shocked by the way that he quotes Luther out of context, for instance (Christ Alone, 68–69). Is Bell kind of a bumbler who is making a bunch of honest mistakes, or has he repeatedly, intentionally, dishonestly misrepresented reality to gain rhetorical advantage?
I am afraid this will sound harsh, but I think Love Wins displays either ignorance, dishonesty, laziness, or some combination of the three. The best defense I’ve heard is that Rob is an artist who doesn’t think in logical categories, but paints with a passionate though not finely tuned brush. That may be true, but artists still can’t make the unforced errors that occur in Love Wins.
I’m curious about the title of your book, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. For one thing, I might have expected a play on the title Love Wins; for another, with titles like Heaven Is a Place on Earth and Don’t Stop Believing, I might have expected something that had to do with pop music in the 80’s. Were there other possible titles? Why did you ultimately settle on Christ Alone?
Our original title was God Wins, but we feared that it sounded too polemical. Christ Alone also comes with a soundtrack (so my streak of song titles is still alive), but more importantly it corrects the natural theology that lies at the heart of Love Wins. That is the unique contribution of Christ Alone. Other books address the issues of hell and universalism in Love Wins, but these are symptoms of a much deeper problem. The fundamental issue with Love Wins is that it changes the meaning of the gospel. Jesus no longer dies to save us from our sin, but merely to affirm that everyone who dies will live again. Love Wins says this truth is hard wired into creation, for it’s “how the world works.”
As you know, the biblical gospel isn’t that every human is saved just because they’re born, but we all must be born again by placing our trust in Jesus. The cross and resurrection don’t merely reveal that life comes after death, but they are the very things which make it true. The gospel says that we aren’t saved by nature, but by Christ alone.
Thanks again for engaging these questions, Mike!
In my opinion, even those who have not read Love Wins and are not interested in that book can nevertheless benefit from Christ Alone. How much more for those who have read Rob Bell and are wrestling with these issues. Do check out http://www.christalonebook.