Rob Bell’s latest work What We Talk About When We Talk About God is his first book after the controversial Love Wins.
Bell, former evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, moved to California after Love Wins became too divisive of an issue within the church.
Since his departure from his pastoral role, some individuals in the evangelical community have questioned his relevance. Does he even matter any more? Others argue that he does still matter.
I tend to agree with the latter – Bell still matters to our culture, and we need to be keenly aware of his sway over the spiritual matters of our day. So, when Rob Bell writes a book about God, I think it’s important to give it a look and separate the good from the bad and the ugly.
Others have already given much better reviews than I could ever give. There will no doubt be many more reviews coming, but there are a few things that crossed my mind as I read through the book that I wanted to share.
So, what does Rob Bell talk about when he talks about God?
First, a quick summary of the book. What We Talk About is a quick read – don’t let the 207 pages fool you. In typical Rob Bell form, the book is
filled with run-on sentence after run-on sentence to give you a sense of urgency! followed by calmness and reflection because Rob Bell is avant-guard.
So, if you choose, pick up a copy and skim through it in a couple of hours.
But, when it’s all said and done, What We Talk About argues that science is slowly proving that God exists. The God that science is discovering is a God who is for us as humanity and will save the world by pulling us forward through history to a more evolved, enlightened, and better future.
So, Bell invites (or warns), join in the trajectory that God is pulling culture or be left behind.
There are good aspects to What We Talk About. Like most of Bell’s writing, I agree with about 50% of what I read. I want to like him for his amazing communication skills and boldness to maintain (if even loosely) a Christian identity, but it’s that other 50% that makes me cringe at the thought that people might be influenced by the theologically baneful aspects of his writings. Especially because of that Christian identity.
So what was the good?
Bell kicks off the book by bringing to the reader’s attention current scientific discoveries that are forcing us to realize that the universe is much, much weirder and unpredictable than we ever thought. He argues that there is plenty of room for God in science. Indeed, science is actually providing evidence that such a being could exist.
This is great stuff for conversations with atheists and agnostics. It’s very compelling and begins to break down the rigid divide of Science v. Faith.
Also, along the same lines, Bell reminds his readers that the spiritual isn’t categorically separated from everything else. We don’t have a spiritual life – life itself is spiritual.
In fact, God’s creation of the human body and soul are connected to each other, which is why the resurrection of Jesus was a real, physical and spiritual event. It’s also why the resurrection at the end will be both a physical and spiritual event. Heaven is not simply a spiritual, ethereal dimension lacking any tangible matter. Heaven will be a combination of both – much like it is now – only recreated without sin and death.
But just before the reader begins to think along the lines of pantheism, that God is literally everything, Bell puts the kibosh on that (Pg. 109) and maintains that God is both separate from creation as its Creator yet intimately involved.
This is a reminder I think we all need once in a while. The spiritual and the material aren’t categorically separated. Need proof? Just look at the incarnation of God where the spiritual meets the physical in Jesus.
Unfortunately, What We Talk About seems to be a continued departure of Rob Bell from biblical Christianity. Of the many examples in the book, the one that stuck out the most to me was on Pg 128.
“It’s time for a radical reclaiming of the fundamental Christian message that God is for us. God, according to Jesus, is for us because God loves us.”
This sounds great, but it’s also greatly misleading. Yes, God loves us, but God isn’t necessarily for us; rather, God is absolutely for Himself and His glory.
Why? Because God, according to Jesus, is for His own glory and invites us along in a radical reformation of our lives, minds, and souls for now into eternity.
God is not on anyone’s side but His own. If we claim otherwise, we fall into the very same tribalistic trap that Bell has accused many religious institutions of falling into – God is on my side but definitely not theirs. Or we might believe that God is our own personal, divine life coach – God is on my side to make me a better me.
*cue applause from Joel Osteen fans*
On the other hand, if we believe God is on God’s side and invites us along, then we will come to understand that everything we do and are we owe to Him.
This dramatically shifts our focus off ourself and onto God. Because, at the end of the day, we were created by God to worship Him and to reflect His glory. We messed that up, but by God’s grace, we’re invited to participate in how He’s fixing it.
This is displayed in a very intimate prayer that Jesus prayed before His crucifixion. John 17:1-2 (emphasis added) reads:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to…”
Pause there for a second. What do you suppose comes after?
God gave Jesus authority over us all to be for us? To encourage us to be the very best us we can be? To pull us forward in a trajectory of an ever-evolving culture? No…
“…to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”
There it is. Eternal life through Jesus to the glory of God. That is the fundamental Christian message – not that God is for us, but that God is for His own glory and invites us to experience that glory through eternal life starting now and spanning through eternity.
I have to admit, Bell has four really great lines about the gospel in What We Talk About. But then later deflates the amazing point these first four make, which turns out to be the ugliest part of the book in my opinion.
“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.”
“Gospel isn’t us getting it together so that we can have God’s favor; gospel is us finding God exactly in the moment of our greatest not-togetherness.”
“Gospel is grace, and grace is a gift. You don’t earn a gift; you simply receive it. You don’t make it happen; you wake up to what has already happened.”
“Gospel isn’t doing enough good to be worthy; it’s your eyes being opened to your unworthiness and to Jesus’s insistence that that was never the way it worked in the first place.”
Preach it, brother!!!
But then, the ugly. Bell later concludes that the gospel accomplishes all this through Jesus, “announcing who we truly are and then reminding us of this over and over and over again (Pgs 151-152).”
This is completely contrary to the gospel.
Jesus accomplished (past tense) our liberation from sin and death on the cross, then proved it by His resurrection three days later. Now, today, God saves us by that work, His grace, and through faith. He then sustains us in our salvation through Jesus, announcing who He truly is and then reminding us of His person and work over and over and over again.
Throughout What We Talk About Bell has shifted the focus of the gospel away from Jesus and onto the individual. This is perhaps the most dangerous aspect to the entire book.
We cannot take the focus of the gospel off Jesus and onto ourselves, even for a moment. The gospel is about Jesus, not about us. But the gospel is for us. If Bell wanted to write about what is for us, then he could have picked the gospel.
Bell has blurred a very fine line that can cause a lot of confusion in our lives. God is not for us, God is for His glory. The gospel is not about us, but it is for us.
Bell needs to shift the focus off of us and back onto God – that’s truly avant-guard, revolutionary, controversial, novel, fresh. In today’s modern (evolved and trajectory-driven) world, we are becoming more and more humanity-centered. It’s all about us. And Bell falls right in line with this us-centeredness.
So, what does Rob Bell talk about when he talks about God?
Us. And God is simply the supporting actor.
Kyle Beshears lives in Cambridge, England, is the author of Robot Jesus and Three Other Jesuses You Never Knew and blogs at Dear Ephesus on church issues and apologetics.