What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

It’s tempting and probably a little lazy to suggest that the digital era discourages nuanced thinking. It is, though, at least partly true. Certainly there’s enough evidence in social media and comment sections of (some) blogs to lead us to that conclusion – it’s easy to take a tweet out of context because there is so little context to read it in. When it’s straightforward to publish an opinion to a broad audience, it’s easy to publish that opinion without really thinking it through – and then find yourself defending something out of pride rather than because you really think that way after giving due consideration.

It seems to me that mega-church pastors are lightening rods for precisely such unguarded thinking. Infamously, Rob Bell had been dismissed by some as no longer part of the evangelical movement by many based on the pre-publicity for his book Love Wins (in fairness some maintained that viewpoint after reading the book). There were all sorts of implications to that – not least that there exists a set of guardians who get to say who’s an evangelical and who isn’t; and that Bell himself wanted to be understood as part of that camp.

In the case of Rob Bell, or more precisely opinions held about him, we see this lack of nuanced thinking writ large. The implication of much of the debate around his work seems to be that either you accept his whole body of work or you don’t. In the heat of debate it can seem as if there’s no space to agree with some of his points but not the rest; no space to be open to the idea that Bell himself may actually change his opinion on some issues over time (don’t we all?); no space for those who just find the fact that he airs certain questions helpful even if we end up with different answers as a result of the same process.

Context isn’t everything, but is important. The church of which Bell was founding pastor was established with a mission, as I understand, to reach seekers – specifically those with a vague sense of spirituality but uncomfortable with established forms of religion. These are he sort of people who would have been very at home in 1st century Athens. Bell’s written and verbal communication style reflects that – he’s not trying to reach established Christians who like church as it is; while some of them may benefit from what he’s doing, he’s after those who are searching in different places.

What’s beyond doubt is that he is a supremely skilled verbal communicator – I’ve heard him live on a few occasions and he’s in that rare category of speakers who can hold comfortably your attention for well over an hour; I was also struck by how much he deconstructs any notion of his own popularity or celebrity; he showed willingness to talk about his failings and inadequacies.

So to his first book since leaving full time church leadership to concentrate on writing and developing other projects. What We Talk About When We Talk About God bears many of the hallmarks of his written work. It’s short; it’s clearly aimed at those who are spiritually seeking or struggling; and in the introductory sections he’s very clear that this is a book which has arisen from his own struggles and issues. He’s had a profound experience of doubt and this book is the product of an attempt to re-express his faith in a way which doesn’t give up but simultaneously does justice to the reality of the doubts.

I admit that once the book really got underway I wondered where some of it was going. He takes some really interesting and easy to read byways into areas like quantum physics – at comparatively great length in a short book – to try to help us connect with how awesomely strange the universe can be. It’s great stuff and I learned a lot, but I found myself a little skeptical of someone drifting into an area which, however well researched, is not his area of specialism. There was also too much of it – he could have achieved the same with less. When he finally takes it to where he wants to get us – awe at what God has put in motion – I was right there with him. I just could have done with taking him less time to get there.

Much of the rest of the book is Bell trying to get us to see that God is fundamentally for us, with us and ahead of us – beckoning us deeper and inviting us on. It’s warm-hearted, generous spirited stuff. It raises questions too – theologically we are left to wonder how he understands the authority of Scripture, and if there is such a thing for him as a fixed morality. Those are questions I’d like to hear him address some time. What this book isn’t, though, is marshmallow centred liberalism with nothing solid at the centre. It’s a hard-bitten, bought with blood wrestle with the reality of trying to understand the unseen and the seen together.

To answer questions which I do get asked – no, I don’t agree with everything in the book. I don’t always agree with what I read myself as having written, so how could I possibly agree with everything somebody else says? I’m suspicious of anyone agreeing with everything any one person says. No, it’s not his best work – for my money that’s Jesus Wants To Save Christians. However I want to say a big, emphatic yes – to the asking of the questions, to dealing with the reality of doubt but refusing to give up on faith, to the fact that on more than one occasion in the course of reading this latest book I put it down and said prayers of thanks and sung songs of worship. Which, at end of it all, is what the book is aiming for.

I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com

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Sex God by Rob Bell

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