Rob Bell. In the bizarre sub-culture of Christian media and church, there are few more polarising names. He’s even been on the cover of Time magazine (US edition). To say you find his work valuable is equally likely to earn you opprobrium as it is welcome. It just depends on who you talk to. If this is new to you, just try googling his name.
‘Sex God’ was written before his fame was at the stratospheric, inflammatory levels it reached in 2011-2. It’s his second book, but the one it’s taken longest for me to get round to read. Like all his books, it’s short – clocking in around 200 pages. It’s not a difficult read – though his idiosyncratic style of short sentences, sometimes only 3 word paragraphs, can grate even if you’re a Bell-believer.
This book explores the links between sexuality and spirituality; that might sound controversial enough, but he actually doesn’t touch on the two areas of this that are most bound to inflame Christian debate – same-sex relationships and gender roles. No, this is more about sex itself; or rather, to paraphrase Bell’s argument, how God’s gift of sex to humanity is really a pointer both to the work of Jesus and our eternal destiny. It’s heady, but quick-reading, stuff; and looking at it from this summary you might be led to think this isn’t really for single people.
You’d be wrong, because Bell’s approach is both appealing and inclusive – he wants to remove this discussion from the narrow confines of what we do with our bodies and who we do it with, to a far wider, more generous place. Those things matter – but they are signs, symbols, pointers to Something and Someone Else.
There are moments when you’re tempted to say “Really, Rob?”. But then you reflect on it a little more widely and deeply, and you think he may have a point. The last two chapters are brilliant; they are where this book really sings. They are where he moves gracefully to matters of eternity, and what Jesus is really on about when he says we won’t have marriage in the new creation. It’s stirring, thrilling stuff – and like much of Bell’s work, it’s actually more orthodox than we might expect. As always, in reading this it’s wise to remember those who are his primary audience – those alienated by religion and those vaguely spiritual seekers who may see organised church as something to be suspicious of. Read it through that lens, with that language and hear what he does or doesn’t say with those ears, and you find a deeper, more mainstream tradition remixed and repackaged with flair and the best kind of artistry.
He’s well known for his desire to return to the Jewish roots of New Testament literature – and often that’s what divides readers. For me, that’s largely good stuff, but it’s never bad to remember that at all times his opinion, interpretation is just one. You don’t have to buy it all to like some of it. Where there is much fruit to be harvested, in addition especially to the last 2 chapters, is in the footnotes. When they’re not giving you a Bible reference, they’re either witty asides, pointers and quotes to books that will quickly find their way on to your ‘too read’ list or little nuggets that are too good to miss. It’s not often you can say that a book’s footnotes – especially in such a short book – are essential and enjoyable reading. But that’s Rob Bell. With his audience he doesn’t need or want to ‘show the working’. He just wants to give us a consistent, thoughtful but enjoyable take on a crucial subject – but to do so in a way that’s going to leave us singing, not weeping.
Whatever you think of him, that’s no bad thing.
I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com