What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

Last week, controversial Christian thinker Rob Bell released his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Remarkably tame compared to his best-selling Love Wins, the book is perhaps less interesting than Bell himself. Bell has been in headlines recently more for his affirmative support for same-sex marriage than the release of his book. Nevertheless, the book represents an important idea. It is an articulation of the emergent church to both the wider Christian community and the general public. In Christian circles, the emergent church has been struggling against more fundamentalist and evangelical communities for popularity, but this struggle has been one mostly limited to theologians and church leaders. WWTAWWTAG will probably be the first book many people read with emergent church ideas.

Like most of Bell’s writing, WWTAWWTAG is more question-asking than question-answering. The content is never dense, which is generally good, but sometimes Bell fails to make the connections that would link his ideas together. He relies on a structure throughout the book where he tells a story and then jumps into the idea he wants to articulate. Often, though, it is not entirely clear how the story is related to the idea. And sometimes, it feels like we could learn more from his stories and personal experiences than we can from his existential graspings. For instance, he tells about an Easter Sunday when he was doubting the existence of God but had to deliver an Easter service to thousands of people, and he ends talking about that experience by saying:

That Easter was fairly traumatic, to say the least, because I realized that without some serious reflection and study and wise counsel I couldn’t keep going without losing something vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge headfirst into my doubts and swim all the way to the bottom and find out just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I’d have my integrity.

The metaphor is beautiful, but I want to know what he did. How does a pastor who hardly believes in God deliver an Easter sermon? That’s interesting.

Despite these sorts of shortcomings, the book manages to land on some really important ideas. For instance, Bell is convinced that God is constantly drawing people forward. He confronts the idea that Christianity is backwards-looking, trying to achieve a forgotten Golden Age. Troubling passages from Exodus or Deuteronomy, he says, should not be read as a tribal, ruthless God speaking to ruthless tribes. Instead, the immeasurably awesome God is providing these tribes things they can actually do that are just a little bit more just and more orderly than what other tribes do. So Bell makes us consider historical context, but then he also challenges us to consider that we are not as different from the tribe of Israel as we might think. It is here where Bell is at his finest–when he is applying concepts like context and historical criticism and subjectivity to transcend and actually make our view of God bigger rather than smaller.

The first major argument in the book is that God meets us where we are and then pulls us into the next stage of godliness. God is always a little bit ahead of us, reaching out his hands to carry us to the next place. 

Bell, then, makes faith scary again. Because if God is always a little ahead of us, it’s a little hard to think about how we should think about modern issues–like same-sex marriage, for instance. Same-sex marriage is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, of course. Same-sex sexual relationships are condemned, even in the New Testament. But same-sex marriage is generally seen as a progressive, forward-thinking issue. And if it’s forward-thinking and God is always ahead of us, then He must be there also. But then is faith contingent on popular opinion? Are we supposed to believe Bell just because he says he is forward-thinking? Can we imagine a Christian leader who seems genuinely committed to progressivism but is against same-sex marriage or other progressive issues that are generally seen as in conflict with Christianity?

The second major argument in the book is that there is no distinction between the holy and the unholy or the sacred and the base.

And that the story of Christianity is about drawing us into understanding how everything is sacred. When Bell talks about this idea, it’s beautiful. And convincing. But it raises many questions. Like, is sin sacred? But there is this sense that if we were able to recognize everything that God has a hand in as sacred–our bodies, other people’s bodies, our minds, other people’s minds, the earth, resources, children, the elderly, married people, single people, Christians, non-Christians, priests, laymen, animals, and outer space–it would be next to impossible to sin.

I don’t think Bell is done with the world. I expect he will continue to be an important leader and will continue to turn people towards Christ. But I also think things are going to get worse in the Church before they get better. The more we hurl the insult of heretic on Bell, the more divisive things become and the more the Church backs itself into a corner.

Postmodernism tells us that everyone, in a certain sense, constructs God in his/her image. So Bell might be creating an overly-liberal God. But then what does that say about conservative Christianity?

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