Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

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When Love Wins came out I wrote an 11 part review that pretty much expressed my dissatisfaction and aggravation with the book. So when I picked up Rob Bell’s newest book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” I was pretty skeptical. The cover only confirmed my suspicions. I am not much of a design guy and things like this don’t usually bother me but this cover is an eye-sore. It is just all over the place and I just knew that the book would be too.

You really can’t judge a book by its cover…This is a really good book. Even in light of all the past aggravation I have no reservation in saying that. I know others have said it is bad. Rick Ianniello posted a review by Timothy Tennent entitled “Farewell Bell” that blasted the book and others have said the same. I am afraid that preconceived ideas and the new media of Bell saying he is for gay marriage is muddying the waters on how good this book really is if you just picked it up and read it, not knowing who Rob Bell is…just for what it actually says about us and about God and about how we talk about God. That doesn’t mean I have zero  complaints or disagreements. More on that later.

As mentioned in a previous post, this book is the result of Bell’s own faith struggles and the conclusions he has reached through wrestling with his doubts and questions concerning God, faith, religion, etc. Bell puts his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture saying that many view belief in God as a “step backwards”. This book is written to help people understand how that isn’t the case at all. This book is written to help Christians and non-Christians alike understand God in deep and profound ways. It is written to get us back in tune with God and with ourselves and with others. It is written to give us a glimpse into the complexities of everything from life to emotion to aesthetics and beauty to physics…God is not a step backward. Walking with God is a step forward. Bell shows us that from scripture and from science.

This book is popular level theology, anthropology epistemology, eschatology and apologetics all wrapped up and wrapped together with personal stories. In this book, Rob Bell explicitly affirms his belief in some very important Christian doctrines including the reality of God, the reality of sin, our need for repentance, reconciliation and confession. He affirms the human condition and the power of sin and our need for reconciliation with God. What is more, he affirms the reality of the resurrection. The post I linked to above says that Bell does not clearly affirm the Resurrection in this book,

“As noted earlier, Bell tells the story of his own growing doubts about the credibility of the Resurrection (p. 12), and only brings it up again late in the book when he says, “In Jesus we see the God who bears the full brunt of our freedom, entering into the human story, carrying our pain and sorrow and sin and despair and denials of God and then, as the story goes, being resurrected three days later” (p. 145). Using the phrase, “as the story goes” leaves the reader with the impression that this is what Christians teach, rather than an historical event upon which the whole faith rises or falls. Either Bell no longer affirms the Resurrection or he has failed to understand its true significance. Either way, it is very troubling. Throughout the book, Bell consistently gives us a pre-resurrected Jesus, carefully choosing texts which connect Jesus to the deeper spiritual consciousness which keeps our “reverence humming within” (p. 15), but carefully avoiding the radical exclusivity of Jesus’ teaching as well as the post-resurrection confidence in the cosmic supremacy of Jesus Christ.”

Let me give you the rest of what Rob wrote right after the “as the story goes” comment. Here is the very next thing Bell wrote on that page,

“For the first Christians that was the compelling part, the unexpected twist on Jesus’ life, the ending that is really a beginning. They saw in Jesus’s resurrection a new era in human consciousness, a new way to see the world being birthed, a way in which even death does  not have the last word…it isn’t over, the last word hasn’t been spoken–a savior dying on a cross isn’t the end, it’s just the start. And so when I talk about God, I’m talking about the Jesus who invites us to embrace our weakness and doubt and anger and whatever other pain and helplessness we’re carrying around, offering it up in al of its mystery, strangeness, pain and unresolved tension to God, trusting that in the same way that Jesus’s offering of his body and blood brings us new life, this present pain and brokenness can also be turned into something new.” (p.145-146)

In that quote Bell affirms the resurrection. He affirms the divinity of Christ. He affirms that this is not just about how early Christians saw it but that it comes back to us and how we live and interact with God in light of the resurrection…pain and defeat aren’t the last word for us either. I really don’t see why Timothy was so troubled by the section on the resurrection unless he just read part and got frustrated and didn’t get the rest of it.

What I do think Timothy got right was that what this book lacked was pointing us to Christ through scripture. It left me with the impression that Bell puts his own intuition on level with scripture if not slightly ahead of scripture. That bothers me a bit…we have to realize, though, that you aren’t going to put down every single thing you believe in the pages of any given book. If I had to ask Rob one question based on this book it would be about his view of Scripture’s place in the life of a Christian.

Last, I the only other criticism I have of the book is that it ended very poorly with some decent conclusion but horrible supporting evidence in regard to aesthetics, intuition, etc (like when he was trying to talk about the intangible connections between people and things and mentioned that we all exert a gravitational pull on each other, therefore we really all do affect and influence each other…good conclusion, terrible support). Also, in various places in the book Bell almost sounds like a pantheist and New Age. I know he wouldn’t support that but the book almost sounds New Age at times in talking about cosmic and spiritual humming and energy. I could have done without that…I think it really distracted from his overall point. On the whole, I was blessed by reading this book and found it very engaging. I actually just had a discussion with a friend who shared with me some of his doubts and I pulled a few thoughts from this book to help him see it more clearly and he was very thankful for the conversation.

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