Essay / Culture

What Rob Bells Talks About When He Talks About God

Rob Bell’s new book just came out. In its title, borrowed from one of Raymond Carver’s short story collections, Bell promises to lay bare What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Carver’s quietly aching scenes of love, or perhaps more of the reality of failed and blocked and misconstrued gestures towards intimacy that pass for and fall short of love, lie at the intersection of reportage, elegy and hope. Love is hard, small, elusive, we learn.

The idea behind such a title is that talk is cheap: I don’t care what you say about God or love; I want to know God himself, to know true love. Worse, when we talk about God, we so often deceive. We deceive those who listen to us, those who trust us–not least because we have already deceived ourselves. “God told me…” Apparently, he tells people to do all sorts of things that run at cross-purposes to one another. He tells one person to marry another, while he tells the other person to run for the hills. Writes Bell: “Like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.”

Of course, this is nothing new. We’ve heard it for 200 hundred years from the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and, in the locus classicus, Feuerbach, who suspected that at bottom all our theologizing is nothing more than anthropologizing, an abstracting of all that is good in us and projecting it into the heavens. This is a real problem, too. It invites an inquiry into the human heart, with its fantastically subtle and diverse forms of manipulation and self-protection. Nor need this threaten the Christian faith. In fact, it’s a fitting posture for this time of year; consider Merold Westphal’s description of self-suspicion as the ‘hermeneutics of Lent’.

In the trailer for the book, Bell conveys this holy suspicion as a call to a better future with better ways of talking about and therefore knowing God.

“And as a pastor over the last twenty years, what I’ve seen again and again is people with a growing sense that their spirituality is in some vital and yet mysterious way central to who they are as a person–and yet the dominant perceptions and conceptions and understandings of God they’ve encountered along the way aren’t just failing them but in many cases are causing harm. Is God going to be left behind–like Oldsmobiles? I don’t think so. Because I believe there are other ways, better ways, of talking about God and understanding God. Because I believe God is with us and for us. And I believe God is actually ahead of us, calling us and drawing us, and inviting and pulling us all–every one of us–into a better future than we could ever imagine.”

Bell opens conversations. He prompts discussion. In keeping with that, let me suggest three lines for reflection in light of this recent work:

1)  Bell’s readers should pay attention to Bell’s style. Bell thrives as an evocateur, a visionary who asks generative questions and calls people to re-imagine God and the church and the world. He is not, however, at his best in offering comprehensive and coherent accounts of God and the church and the world. I suspect his greatest detractors miss this basic point about genre and thus come across as tone-deaf, nit-picky, anxious and mean. Instead, they might take Bell’s questions as an opportunity to explore a God-saturated vista on the world and model the beauty, joy, humility and freedom of Spirit-led talk of God.

2)  Bell should pay attention to Bell’s style. It would be awfully hard to be this successful, this much of a rock star, and not believe your press. If you made your name as a questioner, and if people started to turn your questions into answers, you might be inclined to think you’re a pretty great answerer, too. Bell has an uncanny ability to propose and package provocation–and I say that in all admiration and appreciation. The church needs provocation. A church of reforming sinners should be scared to death of resisting provocation. But, to be frank, Bell simply doesn’t have the chops to land the plane. His questions are often searching and salutary; his answers rarely are. To wit: the three examples he enlists in the trailer of friends exposed to outdated, harmful understandings of God concerned complementarianism, condemnation of homosexuality and a literal seven-day creation. Now, each of these are worthwhile topics to take up, but if that’s the best he can do in radically re-imagining God, I’m not optimistic. I’d love to see Bell recognize his sweet spot as a questioner and pull back from the temptation to become an answerer.

3)  What kind of an update in our talk about God are we talking about?  Some would shrink back from any talk of such an ‘update’. This is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end in whom there is no shadow of turning. Yes, and amen. And yet, as Christians have always known, the old, old story in a new, new context takes a new shape. That’s not (or at least not necessarily) liberalism; it’s contextualization. It’s mission. But here we might follow Karl Barth’s lead. Barth was in the hospital and couldn’t make the Second Vatican Council, but he spent a summer studying its documents in preparation for a week of discussion at the Vatican. Vatican II marked a Roman Spring in which the Roman Catholic Church called for aggiornamento–an ‘updating’ or ‘accommodation’. Barth asked a clarifying question: “What does aggiornamento mean? ‘Accommodation’ to what?” “Was the main concern a renewal of the Church’s theoretical and practical understanding of itself in the light of the revelation on which it is founded, or a renewal of her thinking, speaking, and acting today in the light of the modern world?” “On which of these two types of renewal will the stress be placed in the period after the Council?”

I’m heartened by Bell’s jaunty comment that “we are waking up in new ways to the God who’s been here the whole time.” If an update in our God-talk finds us saying new things that are actually more biblically faithful things of the eternal God who is with us and for us, there is nothing to do but repent of our tired, sinful ways of speaking and rejoice in these fresh, obedient patterns of speech. But if an update means sounding more like the modern world than the gospel’s word of grace and judgment to that world, then no amount of rhetoric can commend it to us. Here Bell does well to remember his holy suspicion, and to remember that even the most updated of talk about God needs to go under the scalpel of Scripture.

With those last two sentences, some of you will want to fist-bump, sure that I’ve delivered a knock-out punch to Bell’s project. Not so fast. Remember, these are three lines of inquiry, topics for discussion. Despite his over-reaching in recent years, I’m hopeful that Bell the questioner might have some very good things to ask the church, not least if he resists the temptation to provide answers.


Share this essay [social_share/]