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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Truth, Beauty, and Rob Bell

August 4th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My friend Trevin Wax says wise things in response to Francis Chan's book on hell:

What is needed is a response that takes into consideration the beauty of Truth. We’ve got the truth portion down when it comes to propositions. What is needed is a beautiful and compelling portrait of Truth – the Person. God is inherently beautiful, but many times, we don’t do well at drawing out the inherent beauty of Truth with a capital T....

The problem with the responses to Love Wins is that, while we are experts at critiquing Bell’s vision of God, we aren’t stepping up with a more compelling portrait of God’s magnificence. We are scribbling down our thoughts under Bell’s chalk drawing instead of taking up the paint brush and creating something that reflects the beauty of biblical truth.

We can write 50-page criticisms of The Shack. Meanwhile, men and women like William Young continue to craft great stories. We grasp the issues, but others grasp the medium.

The substance of Trevin's recommendation is, of course, exactly right.

But we ought to be careful about where we put the target and even how we praise Bell's approach.  He's obviously an effective and popular communicator, but then so (in his own way) is Thomas Kinkade.   They resonate with different demographics, of course, but both of them offer an aesthetic aimed at the lowest common denominator.  That has its own value, in the way that U2's music has its own value.  But the intentionally populist approach inevitably must absorb the scintillation of the masses into its form, and the masses are sometimes more moved by what's easy than what is beautiful.

As Trevin notes, conservative evangelicals are playing catchup when it comes to aesthetics (though see Matt Milliner's work or David Taylor's for signs of hope).   But there is no sense in buying a stock at its peak, a danger that those who see the strengths of Bell's approach will be in danger of.  Bell will continue to make his mark and inspire both devotion and censure, no doubt.  But rather than look to Bell for guidance, some of us should hunt for the neglected and forgotten resources that can guide us to a form and style that manages to move without sacrificing substance.  Perhaps idiosyncratically, I think Augustine might be a good place to start.

Of course, walking down this path is a bit of a trick if you have to sell books.  We live in an aesthetic environment that has been so watered down by mass exposure to words and images that the genuinely beautiful creation risks being dismissed as "boring."  It is easy to view the Mona Lisa and wonder what the big deal is.  But to gaze, wait, and listen for the strains of the world beyond takes the discipline of a saint, and in the last analysis it is saints that we desperately need.

All that to say, I'm not ready to call Bell's work beautiful, despite his overwhelming popularity and ability to connect with my generation.  Because we live in a world where beauty is hardly valued and her imitators adored, we need a more subtle way of discerning what will be around in 500 years from what we will have forgotten in 50.  That's neither here nor there when it comes to Bell's work directly, but it does leave space for a conversation about the aesthetic merits and limitations of Bell's approach in such a way that requires us to look beyond Bell toward the beautiful itself in order to discern whether his work will endure.  Because though it may not always be popular, the beautiful will almost always last.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.