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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Dating Charity

One day this summer, I had the desire to go on a date. Since I wasn’t dating anyone and since I didn’t really want to invite any of the girls I knew to a date-type activity for fear of starting something I didn’t want, I decided to take myself on a date.

Taking yourself on a date isn’t nearly as sad as it sounds. It’s actually quite fun. There are a lot of benefits. First, everything is a lot cheaper. Second, you don’t have to give yourself as much time to get places. You never have to wait on a late date. Third, you don’t have to compromise: you get to go to the restaurant you want to go to, and you get to see the movie you want to see. Fourth, there is absolutely no stress involved.

On this specific date, I decided, though, that I wanted to do something kind of special. Buying a ticket for one person to a movie is most definitely the lamest part about taking yourself on a date. And so I came up with this brilliant idea where I would buy a second ticket, leave it at the front desk, and then if someone else came alone, they could have it. I thought it was a really cute thing.

I was wrong.

When I explained to the cashier what I wanted to do, she was not amused. She didn’t even crack a smile, which is fine. She didn’t have to be amused by it. But then she was unsure whether or not she was allowed to do something like that. She had to call a manager, and it turned into this big hullabaloo. So I told her to forget it and bought my ticket and enjoyed the movie by myself.

Everything seemed really wrong about this experience. I was buying an extra ticket! Why wouldn’t I be allowed to do something like that?

I was listening to a podcast from Rob Bell the other day. He was talking about this book called The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The book studies the relationship between the wealth of a region and its health. They found some interesting things. The first thing they did was divided a lot of regions up by income into fifths. And then they compared the top twenty percent to the lowest twenty percent. In America, the top twenty percent makes more than nine times the lowest twenty percent. That’s almost the highest disparity in the world – second only to Singapore.

Anyway, Wilkinson and Pickett found that the greater the income gap, the less healthy (both in disease and in crime) that group of people were. So America is one of the least healthy countries in the world. And it’s not just the poor who are unhealthy. It’s everyone. The rich of America are much more unhealthy than the rich of Japan – a much more equal country.

I started thinking about this in light of all of the Occupy demonstrations. It’s hard to fathom that 1% of Americans own almost a majority of the wealth. That still leaves 99% that aren’t getting that wealth. It’s hard to conceptualize 1% helping 99%. But then I realized. The story from The Spirit Level says that things would get better if the top 20% helped the bottom 20%. And that’s really easy. And then I had an idea.

What if each person from the top 20% matched up with just one person from the bottom 20% and provided for that person as well? Instead of celebrities doing all of this charity work, all they would have to do is take care of one other person. And big things would happen. Crime would go down. Health would go up. Life expectancy would go up. Education would increase. Divorce and unplanned pregnancy would decrease. The economy would improve. It would be unreal.

I don’t know how to pressure the top 20% to do something like this or how to get the bottom 20% to agree to it and so I realize it’s probably just a fantasy.

But it seems kind of silly that it’s easier to donate five dollars to some random charity group than it is to pay for a stranger’s movie ticket.

An Addendum to a Short Math Lesson

I have written before about time management. After failing hardcore for a couple of weeks at keeping my own simple time constraints, I have found something that I very much missed the first time around. Sometimes, we don’t have enough time in a day to be the kind of person we want to be because we don’t use our free time to help ourselves out. As exams come to a close and free time begins to pour in on us like the good manna of heaven, here are some fun, educational, soul-serving things I plan on doing in the near future. Join if you like!

Leave some educational entertainment in the comments and have a great weekend!