NASHVILLE – Rob Bell’s new book came out March 12: What We Talk About When We Talk About God. In line with his previous offerings, it’s a conversational, thought-provoking monologue designed to raise questions and stimulate discussion.
It’s been two years since the release of Love Wins, a book that challenged traditional evangelical conceptions of hell and eternity. Bell has since left the pastorate and embraced a new role as a post-evangelical, spiritual advisor of sorts. He is positioning himself more an artist than theologian, more poet than preacher. That said, his poetry preaches. So what’s the sermon?
The gist of Bell’s new book is that the world is humming with spirituality. Far from being distant and removed, he says, God is present in our lives. We need to be reawakened to Him; we need the eyes to see Him at work. Dogmas and doctrines just get in the way of truly experiencing God. What once helped us now harms us and holds us back. But God is ahead of us, beckoning us forward to the new world that is coming.
Before challenging Bell on a few points, I think it’s good to mention some things that church leaders (especially traditional evangelicals) can take away from his book.
Ability to create memorable pictures
The first has to do with communication skills. Bell is compelling because of the vivid way he describes things.
For example, take a look at this scene where Bell recounts a conversation with a friend going through a divorce:
“He told me about their history together and how it got them to this point and what it’s doing to her and what it’s doing to him and what it’s like for him to go grocery shopping and then go back to his new apartment, all alone.
“Somewhere in our conversation the full force of what he was saying hit me – divorce, the effect on their kids, the image of both of them at some point taking off their wedding rings.”
Note the poetic way Bell puts together the first run-on sentence, letting us feel the misery of an unraveling marriage without pause or breath. Then look at the imagery of the divorce, the picture of two people taking off their rings.
This is just one example of how Bell utilizes language to create mental pictures. I could fill the rest of this review with similar illustrations. And while Bell’s artistic sensibilities aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (I grow weary from watching him weigh down verbs with multiple adverbs), there’s no question he can make a point in a memorable way.
Tapping into spiritual yearnings
A second takeaway is Bell’s ability to capture the sense that spirituality is breaking through the scientific, closed world that undergirds secularism.
There’s a memorable picture from N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian that imagines secularism as a dictatorship that puts down concrete as pavement over “dangerous” springs of water. All goes well, for a time, but the hidden springs eventually bubble up and erupt through the pavement.
In a similar way, Bell is tapping into the spiritual yearning of many people in our post-Christian culture. According to Bell, everyone is a “person of faith,” even the most ardent skeptic. The question is not if we have beliefs but what those beliefs are.
The best part of the book is Bell’s gentle, but firm challenge to those who refuse to believe anything science can’t prove. For centuries, skeptics who challenged the dominant religious dogma related to miracles were seen as open-minded, willing to step into a further stage of enlightenment and challenge the prevailing religious consensus. Today, now that secularism is the consensus, Bell turns the tables and casts the scientific skeptic as the closed-minded logician who fails to leave room for the mysterious, the mystical, and the soul. Science fails to deliver explanations that resonate with our experience, and Bell wisely exploits this failure of the materialist worldview.
This challenge to secularism leads to the biggest surprise of the book – a lengthy chapter in which Bell delves into the physical cosmology of the universe. His goal is to wow readers with the wonder of existence. And, in large part, he succeeds. Even with the evolutionary anthropology he assumes, Bell shows the weirdness of the world and why we ought to be amazed at life.
No place for dogma
Unfortunately, the strengths of the book are outweighed by the vagueness of Bell’s talk of talking about God. Nowhere is this more evident than his treatment of traditional Christian teaching.
For example, Bell chides religious people for their certainty. He believes certainty about God has limits. We have to leave the door open for mystery, he says. Knowing always takes place in the middle of unknowing. People who talk with too much certainty about God are attractive because people want to be right, but we should resist the allure of the religious know-it-all, he says.
It’s true that the Christian should have the humility to recognize that no one has exhaustive knowledge of God or truth. To point out our finiteness is not only humble; it’s really the way things are! There is no way to know everything we could know when we talk about God.
But Bell seems to make the jump from humility due to our inability to have exhaustive knowledge to the newly defined “humility” that says we can’t have certainty about anything.
Certainty is suspect. Except, of course, when it comes to the certainty of the harm traditional theology can cause. On this, Bell leaves no room for ambiguity. Our view of God may be foggy, but our view of fundamentalists is clear, he claims.
“You can believe something with so much conviction that you’d die for that belief,
“and yet in the same moment
“you can also say, ‘I could be wrong …’
“This is because conviction and humility, like faith and doubt, are not opposites; they’re dance partners. It’s possible to hold your faith with open hands, living with great conviction and yet at the same time humbly admitting that your knowledge and perspective will always be limited” (93).
First, it’s hard to imagine martyrs giving their lives when they think they might be wrong. Nothing would cause me to rethink and renege on my certainty than facing a lion in a coliseum.
Secondly, notice how Bell says we should have conviction and humility, as if these two things are opposites, like faith and doubt. He appears to see “humility” not as the gracious stance of someone who has tasted and seen the Lord is good, but as the willingness to hold doctrines loosely, as if certainty and humility can’t coincide.
Ironically, his description of fundamentalism centers on the elimination of paradox:
“When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension and dodges the paradox and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are and gives black-and-white answers to questions, leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine, it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience. Especially if that person is really, really confident” (93).
What’s interesting is that, in reading the rest of the book, Bell eliminates more paradoxes than traditional Christian teaching does.
It’s traditional Christianity that portrays God as holy and wrathful against sin while being gracious and loving towards the sinner. For all Bell’s talk about embracing “both/and,” it’s his vision of Christianity that emphasizes God being for us, to the exclusion of any idea that God would stand over us in judgment.
Traditional Christianity doesn’t just include “both” but “triple” truths – God against us in our sin, God instead of us as sinners, and God for us as the Justifier. Far from diluting the beauty of God in His transcendence, traditional Christian dogma leaves us with unresolvable tensions and paradoxes galore: free will and sovereignty, God in us and yet distinct from us, the Trinity, the inclusive call to salvation from an exclusive Savior. The list goes on.
The paradoxes of traditional Christianity multiply in ways that stimulate the imagination. Bell’s teaching lacks that kind of substance.
Bell’s book goes down easy, kind of like whipped cream without the cake. God is ahead of us, beckoning society forward, and (how convenient!) it just so happens to be in the direction that society is already headed.
Oddly enough, after reading this book, I came to the conclusion Rob Bell is a fundamentalist of a different sort. In fact, I could apply his warning to himself, adding to his own words:
When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension (between wrath and love, or immanence and transcendence) and dodges the paradox (between judgment and grace) and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are (traditional Christians) and gives black-and-white answers to questions (such as, you can’t be humble and certain) leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine (or the revelation of this mystery, as explained by the apostle Paul), it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience. Especially if that person is really, really confident (or really, really cool).
I believe this book will resonate with many because the idea of “spiritual experience” is popular today. The question is, does Bell’s vision of spirituality have the doctrinal bone structure to sustain faith for two thousand years? I’m afraid not. His artistic abilities aside, the book’s vision is boring because the drama is missing.
Dorothy Sayers was right:
“It is the dogma that is the drama – not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death – but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum line developed by LifeWay Christian Resources for all ages. This column first appeared at TrevinWax.com, a Gospel Coalition blog.)