What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell
With the firestorm that came with his last book, Love Wins, Rob Bell ventures on new ground with his new book entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Most readers will soon realize when reading a Rob Bell book that he doesn’t use the traditional categories when speaking about the Christian faith. In the first chapter of this book, Bell writes, “But when people turn to many of the conventional, traditional religious explanations for this reverence, they’re often led to the God who is like Oldsmobiles, the one who’s back there, behind, unable to keep up” (11). For Bell, his experience and in those whom he speaks with, there is a radical disconnect between their experience and the traditional ways of talking about God. Bell goes onto describe an experience on Easter Sunday morning where a flood of doubts came rushing upon him, not even knowing if God exists, yet knowing that he needed to be passionate about the resurrection to his congregation. After diving headlong into his doubts, Bell began to realize that he needed ‘new ways of thinking about and understanding and most importantly experiencing God” (16). The first chapter ends with Bell setting us up for the words that he tackles in the rest of the book: Open, both, With, For, Ahead, and So. In other words, Bell is trying to relate God to the concept of being open to new ideas about God, seeing language as both a help and failure, understanding that God is with us already, that God is for every single one of us, that God is ahead of us calling us into new avenues of justice, and that these answers provide us with an answer to the so what of life.
In the chapter entitled Open, Rob takes us on a descriptive ride of the intricacy of atoms, human bones and the universe to explain the transcendence of the world we live in and the things we experience.
Bell writes, “This is because there are dimensions to you that transcend the actual parts and pieces that you refer to as your body-qualities and characteristics that emerge only at a larger, collective level, when all those parts are assembled to form you” (59).
There is a living breathing truth that the whole person is more than the sum of his parts. In other words, there is more than words on the page of a novel, more to a meal than just the base ingredients. These objects, people, and events transcend the mere components that they are made of and point to something that can’t be explained through a test tube.
Bell writes, “When we talk about God, then, we’re talking about something very real and yet beyond our conventional means of analysis and description” (63)
A mechanistic and scientific materialist approach to God will not do because God does not conform to things which are testable, but through intuition he is seen. I’m not sure Bell is bearing witness to a sort of intelligent design argument for God’s existence, but rather is bringing out that the physicality of humans and the universe cannot account for the felt experience many have with God. Bell goes onto describe that being close-minded is rejecting anything that doesn’t fit into our predetermined categories (80). It is one thing to see a supernatural God intervening in the world on occasion. It is quite another thing to see that the universe is pulsating with the miraculous, from stars to radical cures to the unexplainable.
Conviction and Humility
In the chapter on language, both the folly and fullness of talking about God, Bell mentions a particularly intriguing question. Bell writes,
“I believe that one of the most urgent questions people are asking at this time about the very nature of faith: Can conviction and humility coexist as the dance partners we need them to be?” (95)
Having strong convictions about the Christian faith and holding those beliefs with humility is not an easy road to walk down. Earlier in the chapter Bell points out that many have sought to distance faith from doubt, believing that doubts are a sign of the ensuing destruction to one’s faith. But, instead of seeing faith and doubt as an either/or matter, why not see them in concert (both/and) working together. Bell writes, “Doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that it’s alive and well and exploring and searching” (92). I would add here that Bell does not garner a discussion about the aim of doubts for those who are believers. In other words, having doubts is not the enemy, but realizing that an obsession with doubts can lead someone to a radical distrust of the faith and a blind certainty in suspicion.
God For Us
In writing about God being for us, meeting us in the person of Jesus Christ, Bell writes,
“Gospel insists that God doesn’t wait for us to get ourselves polished, shined, proper, and without blemish – God comes to us and meets us and blesses us while we are still in the middle of the mess we created” (136).
The good news is not a way for humanity to gather up enough brownie points to be acceptable before God, but condescension of God in the coming of Jesus to change the hearts and life of people. Yet, Bell is quick to mention that, “…at the heart of Jesus’ message is the call to become the kind of person who is for everybody. Especially people who aren’t Christians” (150). It is one thing to become the kind of person who blesses our enemies, loves our neighbors and shows no favoritism to people, it is quite another thing to water down the gospel. Here, in typical fashion, Bell steps aside the truth of God’s judgment and the reality of hell for an all-embracing idea that God loves everybody and will be them regardless of their lives.
As Rob closes the book tying up the pieces of how we as humans relate to God, he brings to the forefront an idea that is common in Reformed circles: the sacredness in the common. Bell writes,
“Jesus doesn’t divide the world up into the common and the sacred; he gives us eyes to see the sacred in the common. He comes to help us see things more, more how they actually are: that they matter, that they’re connected, and that they’re headed somewhere” (184).
Being temples of the Holy Spirit, believers are called to not segregate the sacred from the profane, but to see the world inundated with the spiritual. Even more, taking the Lord’s Supper is a prime example of a common bread and a common cup being used for a sacred meal. We might even mention that the New Testament Scriptures written in Koine Greek were written in the common language of a people, and yet reveal the Son of God. To segregate the common things in life is to wreak havoc upon the interconnected nature of the things that God has made.
While there are many things in the book I don’t follow with, including Bell’s insistence on the all-embracing love of God for all people without final judgment, I think this book will help some people in the way they experience God. There is a hinting at a kind of universalism here that I think is unwarranted and unsubstantiated also. Yet, Bell is not your mainstream evangelical, but seeks to push the bounds of orthodoxy far and wide. I do not recommend this book as a study for churches or small groups but for those who are discerning readers interested in what Bell has to say.
While there are a few major criticisms, there are also some good points here. Bell seeks to dismantle the notion that the only truth worth standing on is the one found in a test tube. Our scientific minds cannot encapsulate the way God works in the world because God is immeasurable. Also, Bell rightfully counters the notion that the Christian faith is about meriting God’s favor and offers a semblance of the gospel that God meets us in our sin, not calling us to clean ourselves up but come to Him. Yet, in saying this, Bell doesn’t fully articulate the gospel message, leaving out the truth that Christ absorbs the full weight of God’s wrath and gives believers his righteousness due his death and resurrection. Lastly, Bell calls his readers to see the mundane and common things of life as inundated with God’s presence. There is not sacred/secular split because all of life is under the hand of God.
Thanks to Harper One for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.