Rob Bell’s latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (Collins, 2013), can be read on a number of levels.
First – there is the level of pure enjoyment, which even some of his critics are willing to concede.
Whether or not you like his message, Rob Bell is simply a good writer. In this, What We Talk About When We Talk About God does not disappoint, showing Bell’s considerable storytelling skills and ability to mix prose and poetic writing.
(Readers can get a sample of Bell’s writing themselves in this excerpt of the first chapter, or in Bell’s video “trailer” for the book, which compares our conventional idea of God to Oldsmobiles: outdated, and in danger of being “left behind”, p. 8.
You can also spend “An Evening with Rob Bell” tonight at !Audacious Church in Manchester and Wednesday at Central Church in Edinburgh. Both talks cost £10 and start at 7 pm, with tickets available at the door.)
Second – there is the level of critical engagement, which means weighing the ideas behind Bell’s fluid writing.
Here, the assessment of Bell will fall along the usual lines: most neo-Calvinist and evangelical readers will despair of Bell’s musings on God; while those who locate themselves in the emerging/emergent “conversation” or within liberal Christianity will find their heads nodding in agreement.
Third – in line with sociologist James Wellman’s observation that Bell’s later writings (such as the controversial Love Wins) are a “turn towards personal transformation and self discovery,” there is the level at which readers can join Bell on this journey of transformation.
As Bell admits (p. 13):
“This book … is deeply personal for me. Much of what I’ve written here comes directly out of my own doubt, scepticism, and dark nights of the soul when I found myself questioning – to be honest – everything. There is a cold shudder that runs down the spine when you find yourself face-to-face with the unvarnished possibility that we may in the end be alone. To trust that there is a divine being who cares and loves and guides can feel like taking a leap – across the ocean. So when I talk about God and faith and belief and all that, it’s not from a triumphant, impatient posture of “Come on, people – get with the program!” I come to this topic limping, with some bruises, acutely aware of how maddening, confusing, frustrating, infuriating, and even traumatic it can be talk about God.”
The second level – that of critical engagement – is relevant to the sociological work I am currently doing on the Emerging Church Movement (ECM).
In a forthcoming book with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church, we explain how evangelicals and neo-Calvinists do in fact differ from Emerging Christians on key ideas – one of which is “the nature of God.” It is important to distinguish between evangelicals, neo-Calvinists (there is some overlap between evangelicals and neo-Calvinists) and Emerging Christians, because the ECM has often been assumed to be composed of “hip” evangelicals, differing only in style, not substance. What We Talk About When We Talk About God will help readers see that there is theological substance to their differences.
But the third level – as a guidebook for personal transformation – is where What We Talk About When We Talk About God is most effective.
Indeed, I think this is what Bell intends. When I took off my sociologist’s lenses and thought about the book at that level, I found that it prompted me to look at the world in a renewed way – and I think that this can happen even for readers who don’t agree with all Bell has to say.
And what does Bell have to say?
The book is organised around seven “words,” with a chapter devoted to each: Hum, Open, Both, With, For, Ahead, and So.
Citing a Rolling Stone interview in which Jane Fonda says she became a Christian because “I could feel reverence humming in me,” Hum sets the stage for the rest of the book and explains the logic behind Bell’s choice of words (p. 9-10).
Open asks us to be open to what science tells us about the universe, mystery, and ultimately God. Both asks us to admit that language both “helps us and fails us in our attempts to understand and describe the paradoxical nature of the God who is beyond words” (p. 17).
I particularly enjoyed Open, which included a dizzying romp through recent scientific discoveries about matter, sub atomic particles, energy, quantum physics and so on. I am not sure what a trained scientist would make of it. After all, most of the chapter consists of Bell stringing together mind-bending scientific discoveries to make these wider points: most of the universe is unknown, what we discover turns out to be weirder than we’d ever suspect, what appears solid to us actually is not, and all of this is in some way “miraculous” (p. 79). As he puts it on page 45:
“What we’re learning from science,
however, is that that distinction [between the physical world and the spiritual world] isn’t so clear after all.”
With, For and Ahead are the three main attributes that Bell associates with God. Of course almost all Christians would agree that God is “with us” and “for us,” but Bell contends that the way we have understood that is faulty, as he writes (p. 18):
“In talking about the forness of God, I want you to see how many of the dominant theological systems of thought that insist God is angry and hateful and just waiting to judge us unless we do or say or perform or believe the right things actually make people miserable and plague them with all kinds of new stresses and anxieties, never more so than when they actually start believing that God is really like that.”
Bell’s claim that God is Ahead and “pulling us forward,” may prove to be the most controversial – or comforting – depending on your point of view.
This is where Bell gets to work exploring why God is not like an Oldsmobile, despite the yearnings of some of his followers to go back to the days of the Oldsmobile.
So the Ahead chapter includes reflections on a number of “violent Old Testament passages, the kind that are generally used as evidence for God being behind” (p. 156). Here, Bell concedes that God’s perspective in these passages looks primitive to us in the 21st century. But for those times, Bell claims that God was actually ahead of the culture in areas like appropriate punishments and the treatment of women.
As such, Ahead resonates with Brian McLaren’s view of God in A New Kind of Christianity. McLaren’s more conservative critics dismissed his conception of God as evolutionary and therefore at odds with the commonly held belief that “God doesn’t change.”
Bell pushes further, arguing that it is possible for the church to be behind the culture, trying to pull God back, while “the movement of God … is continuing forward in the culture around them” (p. 169). Readers may be aware that Bell has recently spoken publicly about his approval of same sex marriage, linking this to God pulling us Ahead. Bell also has been critical of the militarization of American culture and the churches’ support for this. As he puts it (p. 170-171):
“The United States has around 6 percent of the world’s population and possesses a little less than half of the world’s weapons. If there were a group of one hundred people, and six of them had half the guns – well, we would have a serious problem.
We need help.”
Finally, So aims to answer the perennial “so what?” question. Or as Bell puts it (p.175):
God with us,
ahead of us –
that all sounds great,
but what does it look like?
What follows is a chapter that ranges from meditations on temples, Eucharist, the tearing of the curtain at Jesus’ death, to (p. 176):
If that list doesn’t tickle your imagination, you aren’t paying attention.
Readers looking for a list of what they should “do,” then, will be disappointed. Bell wants to show us rather than tell us what God’s work in the universe looks like. He wants to encourage us to cultivate an awareness of God as present and at work in everything – not in a cosmic vending machine kind of way, which we can manipulate; but at work in the ordinary routines as well as the joyous and tragic events in our lives.
(* splagchnon is a Greek word for “where our desires reside” (p. 196); it is often translated as “bowels” or “guts.”)