The folks at HarperOne were kind enough to send an advanced copy of Rob Bell’s new book What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne 2013) without any strings attached as to the review. If you have spent any time at this blog you know that I am sometimes puzzled by Bell and sometimes awed by him–Drops Like Stars was brilliant as was Everything is Spiritual and Poets, Prophets and Preachers…Jesus Wants to Save Christians and Love Wins not so much. Where does the new book fall? Let’s look at what he has to say and then I’ll weigh in for whatever that’s worth.
Bell believes the way we talk about God is shallow. It pits Him against science and seems so black & white and un-awe inspiring. Bell then challenges materialists by surveying scientific theories about the way the universe works to demonstrate that many things are true while not making any sense. The idea is to urge the skeptic to open himself up to a deeper, more mysterious reality.
Bell then challenges the religious that human language is an inadequate tool to accurately describe God and His ways and that the authors of Scripture drew from their own confined experiences to describe the divine. Thus, the faithful must also be open to a deeper, more mysterious reality.
Without any sense of irony, Bell then goes on to use language to describe God who he sees as “With us”, “For us” and “Ahead of Us.” By this he means, that God is all around us and that in those all too rare moments of transcendence, we see that God is here, that all creation matters and is intimately connected to one another and is moving forward to an ultimate goal. Moreover, God is “for us,” which Bell defines as the Gospel. The good news according to Rob is that God meets us where we are and in that brokeness let’s us know that He loves us and wants us to flourish. Bell quickly notes that he is not speaking of “health & wealth” but of understanding and compassion. Finally, Bell asserts that when God meets us where we are, He also is pulling us forward to a greater reality, which consists of a fairer more just society. Bell ends his work by urging us to face our darkness, confess to God our complicity in it, accept that we are accepted by God and have “eyes to see and ears to hear” divine reality.
I read the book in a few hours. As always, Bell is a compelling and creative artist
this (does he think he gets paid by the page?).
There is much to learn from the book. I agree that all creation is connected and that all too often both materialists and Christians speak, or shout, past each other. I agree that Christians must be committed to justice and human progress. All true!
I also agree there is a great deal of mystery when it comes to God (see Deuteronomy 29:29). Yet, Bell is confident enough to say a lot about God and he should be for even if language cannot fully convey the reality of God, it does not mean that it cannot truthfully speak of God. To deny it can would be to deny God’s power to communicate to His own creatures through His chosen instrument. It would be odd to say God can create subatomic reality that defies physics but can’t find words to speak about Himself!
I certainly agree that God is with us, for us and ahead of us but is that all? Is confession enough? Is accepting that I’m accepted enough? I don’t think so.
According to Bell, Jesus’ death on the cross was an example of God’s willingness to be with us and of what it takes to confront injustice and drain it of its powers. Again, all true but there’s more.
I know God is with me, for me and ahead of me because He died FOR ME, in MY place to pay the penalty for MY sins. I know He lived a perfect life to give to ME as a gift and that I will be judged by HIS life instead of MINE (2 Cor. 5:21). That is how I truly know God is for me and with me and ahead of me because it cost Him everything to do so. This is what gives me power to serve a church filled with recovering addicts and college students. This is what gives my fellow church members power to move into and minister to those in a drug and crime infested neighborhood (see this!). This isn’t an outdated way of speaking of the Gospel, it IS the Gospel.
In the end, Bell’s book is worth reading and I understand where he is coming from (see this) but I think he is really missing THE most important piece of knowing who God is, which is the Gospel preached by Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller and so many others from North Africa in the shadow of the fall of Rome to Manhatten in the shadows of the fallen Twin Towers.
I have met Rob Bell a few times and I like him and hope against hope this book doesn’t create the crapstorm that the last one did but instead sparks a fruitful conversation.