A REVIEW ESSAY: What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell (HarperOne) ON SALE – $20.00

Sorry this is so long.  That’s why I placed it as a monthly review column — it’s too long for a BookNotes blog post. But at least I didn’t do numerous posts like I did for Love Does. Whew.

Thanks to those who wrote nice remarks about yesterday’s prelude of a post about the newhat we talk about cover.jpgw Rob Bell book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne; regularly $25.99, now on sale for $20.00.  Just click on the order link below.) I tried to generate some interest in purchasing the book from us — it’s what we do, after all, as a bookstore — but mostly reminded readers to be gracious and fair in expressing thoughts about Bell or the new book.  Like with the 2011 Bellapalooza battle about Love Wins, already some are weighing in with strong views about the new one, even though they admit they haven’t even read the book.  We think this is beyond tacky.  My piece last night mostly hoped to set a little higher bar for discourse.  Writing, as one person did, that this book will be bad because in his last book Bell didn’t use “true Scriptures” simply is inadequate.  Saying he is a bad boy looking for attention, again, just won’t do.  So, if you didn’t see that post about how to engage this new book, you might appreciate it.  I’m no saint when it comes to on-line debating, but I do wish to honor God and be more understanding, and kindly. I bet you do, too.

But I did promise a few more thoughts about the new book.

It is hard to be succinct since reading Bell is, for me, a very enjoyable, thought-proving, and yet sometimes a frustrating experience. I was irked by the second page, in fact. Ha.  I needn’t digress about my own experience of turning his pages, but I can at least say this: I don’t mind his style.  I like his moody versification, his writing as if narrating a Nooma video.  Some don’t care for it — fine. Some go too far, though, suggesting it is somehow intentionally vague (which I think is an unfair accusation: one can say it may be ambiguous, or sloppy, but to say it is intentionally slippery enters into a judgement of his motives, which isn’t yours to know, without evidence, at least.)
So,  mostly I like his style; in fact, it actually helps me focus on his thoughts, line by line.  I thought a few of the Nooma’s, by the way, were absolutely brilliant and many were quite good (even if a few were disappointing, in both style and content.)  But saying that his books can be read/heard as one might hear a Nooma I mean to be a very sincere compliment.
Sure, I read dense theology sometimes, and still – when I want to think about God – I might pull down a copy of the rigorous J. I. Packer’s Knowing God or mull over the lovely depth of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and I hope our readers know A.W. Tozer’s Pursuit of God.  Rob Bell himself routinely (and in this new one, too) raves about the tedious, but important, The Divine Conspiracy by the remarkable Dallas Willard.  Most of us like different sorts of books in our literary diet, and so appreciate Bell’s bohemian edge, even if it isn’t the only kind of medium we like.  People that gripe about his style strike me as a bit myopic.  Would you critique a poem for being a poem? A reflective meditation for being a meditation?

Further, I like books with which I can converse, and his flamboyant style is well suited for this.  I like books to which I can talk back, scribble in the margins, smack my head, call my wife. Listen to this, can you believe this?  Agree or not, being provoked to think, to engage, to exercise the mind, to piece together parts of a growing worldview and wonder what difference it may make, all of this makes for a good read, and Bell delivers in spades.
Maybe you are a very young Christian, or at least unfamiliar with reliable Christian books about basic Christian beliefs.  I don’t think this interesting Bell book will hurt you – and it just might help! – but there are tons of other books that lay out the basic orthodox views of faith with greater systematic clarity, and you should own a few. Those are important to read, and we regularly recommend them to our customers depending on what they tell us about their needs.  New to Christian reading? Unsure of the basics?  Mentoring a new believer?  Shoot us an email and let’s talk. But don’t badmouth Bell because this book is not quite right for that purpose. Okay?

In yesterday’s post I wondered who is intended as the primary audience for Rob Bell.  As I insinuated, it seems to me that there are several key audiences.  Certainly, it is suited for seekers, agnostics, those who have given up on God.  It is an old apologetic retort, but it is common to hear it said that when somebody says they don’t believe in God, we might reply “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Chances are, I don’t believe in that God, either.”  So right!

RRob-Bell-ap3-922x613.jpgob Bell is very effective in reaching out and speaking with those who feel exiled from traditional faith communities, who are ex-churched or de-churched, or even hostile to Christian convictions. There are lots of people who may not feel comfortable in the most conventional of congregations (conservative or liberal) but yet are willing to consider Biblical claims when shared creatively, as Bell can.  It is a cliché to say he is post-modern, and almost as clichéd to say he is artsy, even if he is as cool as they come, cites a number of very cool bands, uses his share of irony, and embodies – as do his stylized book covers – a very particular aesthetic.   It’s how he rolls, it’s who he is, it is his own subculture. (He mentioned Sigur Ros in his live streaming event on Tuesday — see what I mean?)  Nobody writes off the work of Larry the Cable guy because of his cut-off flannel sleeves or the business casual slacks of Bill Hybels as we works the suburban crowd or the numbered jerseys of the many sports stars who have been given platforms to express their understanding of the gospel in terms to which jocks can relate. To criticize Bell because he has a certain look is unfair and I think betrays a misunderstanding of cross cultural witness.  I do not think this is a marketing ploy but it is just who Rob is, and it is just who naturally likes his work, his ethos, his books.  Coach Tony Dungy talks about Christian leadership using sports images while wearing expensive athletic shoes; Bell cites ironic mustaches and en vogue art installations.
Yet, as I said last night, I think others, too, are in that tribe of core readers, besides the hip un-churched and the interested but exiled.  There are many of us who are not necessarily jaded, not de-churched, but we are sensitive to those who are.  We want to be sure faith isn’t unnecessarily turning people off.  Like Rob, we have heard harmful things said about God, and harmful things said in the name of God.  We want this to stop, and we are looking for allies in the campaign to share the gospel in meaningful ways, learning how to contextualize faith in and to the 21st century, especially to younger adults.  So we are drawn to Bell’s honesty and his hopeful vision, appreciate his speaking out against the dumber versions of faith, and his creative and earnest desire to help those alienated from faith imagine a different kind of religious exper
ience than those that have turned them off. 

As he says in his apropos Oldsmobile metaphor, for many, faith is outdated, for then, not now, for others, not themselves.  Kind of like the great old cars that are not even made any more and are soon to be seen as merely a relic of the olden days.  Bell, it should be repeated, does not say that God has to change or be made to seem fashionable, but only that our way of telling the old old story may need to be updated; how we talk about God is what may need to be revisited. (I wish he were more clear about this in the video, frankly, but I think is is adequately clear about it in the book.) Do you disagree with this idea, as a matter of principle? Why or why not?  Saying God doesn’t change isn’t necessary to say, since that isn’t the point here, as Bell does not suggest otherwise. God is God. We don’t make up what we think God should be like. But we may need to wonder why ways of talking about God and faith and salvation are considered by some to be irrelevant, or worse. Bell does not use the word missional or evangelistic, but those of us with a heart for outreach will surely appreciate his intent, here (or at least we should.)  For those bloggers who have already taken him to task for this “we have to update God” meme, I’d suggest reconsidering, since that is not what he says, and I don’t think that is what he means. 

And there are other readers. You, perhaps. You maybe are not a cynic or agnostic.  You aren’t particularly interested or called to a ministry of reaching out to design-conscious, edgy, young post-Christian professionals who are jaded and de-churched. Maybe you are in a solid church, and know most of the right answers, you trust God and know His Word.  But you still feel like something is wrong.  Something isn’t computing, stuff you hear doesn’t fully seem right.  Or answers with which you were once satisfied no longer ring as true as they once did.  This can be scary, or exhilarating, or both, and I think Bell’s way of talking about things may be helpful for you.

You realize, I assume, that there are quandaries galore.  There just are. For instance, many churches thank God for specific good things that have occurred, but does that mean God has caused the bad things? (For every person for whom we give a “praise report” there are more whose similar prayers were not answered in that happy way, right?)  We thank God if a tornado shifts it’s course and doesn’t hit our town, but what about the town it did hit?  What we say when we say things about God’s work in the world is complicated and it isn’t wrong, and may be helpful, to just admit that.  So, maybe, this book isn’t just for the skeptic seekers or the jaded cynics, the prodigals or the exiles (or those who want to learn how to be in conversation with them.)  Maybe it is also for anyone who has the curiosity (faith? courage?) to want to learn more, to follow their noses, to think through some big ideas about the very nature of what we can know about the God who is there.

So, give it to your scientific agnostic friends, give it to your cynical de-churched friends, and give it to anybody who wants a fresh, inviting take on some very heavy questions.  Young or old, seeker or disciple, scientist or artist, I think there is content in What We Talk About When We Talk About God that can point you to new and appropriate ways to think about God and to embrace the goodness and wonder of God’s Spirit in our midst.  As I said last night, it isn’t the only book to read, and it doesn’t cover everything – not at all.  It is not prefect. But what it does, it does with verve and passion and candor, fascinating illustrations and great stories. As a bookseller, I think this is a fine specimen, and you will get your monies worth. (By the way, it is available as an audio book and we stock the CD as well.)
What does Mr. Bell actually say about how we talk about God?

Well, (sorry) first I want to note, briefly, two things he does not say, which I think are notable.  

He doesn’t say anything about the various attributes of God – God’s omnipresence, God’s holiness, God’s power, and the like.  At least he doesn’t catalog them systematically and explicate them. Other books do that (it is a time-honored habit, although the Bible itself, we might note, doesn’t actually give us a formal list like that, but we pick it up along the way of narrative and songs and mysteries.) Anyway, if a person isn’t even sure there is a divine being or intelligent designer or higher power, detailed descriptions of omniscience or immutability maybe isn’t what’s needed. (Some have argued that these ways of getting at our knowledge of God is itself perhaps more entangled with pagan Greek philosophy than the Bible, anyway, but that is a different discussion.) For those who are convinced the God of the Bible, or at least the one they’ve heard about, is not glorious, perhaps even a moral monster, we need a different way to even get at this question than a listing of attributes.   

Secondly, Bell doesn’t spend much time telling us that much of what we know about God is revealed to us in the Scriptures.  He cites the Scriptures, so there is this clear assumption that they are the primary resource for what we know (that, and our experience, itself a common enough insight.)  But he doesn’t go on about this.  Many will wish he’d have talked about that, this question of revelation, and how we know anything about God at all. (Happily, as we will see, he is clear that the best illustration of who God is is seen in the person of Jesus, so he is more than solid there.)  So that, in my view, is a weakness, to not even discuss this.
Well, if he doesn’t offer a standard fare cataloging of the attributes of God, and he doesn’t offer a perspective on the authority of Scripture as that which mediates the stories of God for us, what does he do?
What We Talk About When We Talk About God is fairly simple in format and the chief points it makes. And, I think, he right about them.
His three big points about God are preceded by three big preliminaries. These are important for Bell, and for us, and are about half the book. Let’s start there.

Not unlike the Nooma videos, and his other books, if I recall, each chapter title is one evocative word.  After a grand opening chapter called “Hum” where he suggests we all know there is something bigger than us, something going on, something alive and meaningful loose in the world, and in our lives, Bell invites us in a chapter called “Open” to be open to the plausibility of God, and he does this mostly by explaining quantum physics, black holes, the expanding universe and a whole lot of wacky stuff like Einstein’s theory of relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. 

This is the same Rob Bell the science guy we met in his amazing long-form DVD “Everything Is Spiritual” so we shouldn’t be surprised, and it is very nicely done.  This is as painless and wondrous a study of this stuff as you can find, so it will be beneficial to those of us who struggle to stay awake, despite the wonder of it all.  (The next step up for lay folks can be found in the short and glorious book by Barbara Brown Taylor called The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion (Cowley; $13.95) which has a similar jaw-dropping wide-eyed wonder to it, offering a theological/doxological response to these stupefying discoveries. Rob himself offers some other suggestions in the endnotes, including the work of Anglican physicist, John Polkinghorne.  We carry his books, too, by the way.)
Bell says we all know there is some sort of Something going on out there as we consider the magnitude of the universe – or inside us, as we are enjoying a good meal with dear friends and we know it has moved us deeply, in a soulful sort of way. Why do we feel as we do when we see a newborn baby?   Many human experiences seem to only make sense if they point to something Beyond us. He is poetic and honest and good on this, very good.  As another excellent book puts it (that I describe briefly below) we are “yearning for more.”

This is nothing all that new, of course — it’s just the argument from design spoken with edgy examples for post-moderns; it’s the the “signals of transcendence” argument for ordinary folks, as we are invited to wonder why we glory at the birth of a baby or are so stunned when we hear of heroism or tragedy or beauty.  Life simply is not meaningless, there is a hum just below the surface, and if you don’t think this is helpful to say when you’re talking with atheists or agnostics, I suspect you haven’t talked deeply with folks like that very much.  The sublime reality of the reality of God around us in this glorious but sin-damaged universe can only be said in countless metaphors and images, and Bell offers us a fabulous way to get it said, one more time. What he says and how he says it isn’t all we need to say – Something is Out There – but it is a good start, and he does it delightfully, with a moral seriousness that is more than commendable, it is honorable. In his heart, it seems he is an evangelist, wanting to share gospel news, blessings of grace and peace, to those distrustful or immunized against it.
I think of conversations I have had about these most deeply important things and I am nearly moved to tears just wondering if my agnostic friends would resonate with this…

An important part of this conversation is a huge, huge matter in our culture (and has been for more than a hundred years, as he explains) and What We Talk About… broaches it head on with gusto.  It is the matter of scientism, the ideology that goes beyond saying that science is good, that the deductions we make using the scientific method can yield amazing data about how the world works, but insists that this is the only way to know anything at all. 

Beauty, love, justice, dignity? How does one measure such things?  To those under the boot heel of scientism – perhaps the largest competing religion to Christianity in the last few hundred years – we cannot talking meaningfully about such matters.  If it cannot be measured, it cannot be known as true. (I was told this directly by more than one college professor in my days as a special ed major!)  We may experience things like that — awe, beauty, love — but they are inconsequential, chemical firings in an evolving brain, and we cannot speak of such things as anything other than cause and effect, data, chemicals, accidents of nature, so to speak.  This is sometimes called scientific materialism (not meaning that greedy scientists want a lot of consumer stuff, but that all that matters is matter.) This reductionism to the merely natural/material is a dead-end worldview, and fundamentally inhumane.  Interestingly, Bell says that our best scientists themselves reject this view. I don’t know how true that is, how many scientists reject naturalistic reductionism, but the mystery and wonder of the world is certainly discussed by the likes of Einstein, just for once example.  (It was his call to wonder, you might remember, that led Madeline L’Engle to study quantum physics, deepen her Christian faith, and write Wrinkle in Time.) One needn’t fully agree with all of the woozy Ken Wilber stuff that Bell is enamored with to celebrate his primary point: there is some weird goings on in this crazy world of ours, and most of it points to something grand, nearly inexplicable, and many of the deepest scientific thinkers are nearly mystical about it. String theorists nearly sound like poets.  Scientism and naturalism is boring and intellectually unsustainable in comparison.

An aside. Last week we had the opportunity to set up a book display at a Veritas Forum discussion at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania.  The agenda – which attracted up towards 1000 participants – was to explore this question:  is scientific knowledge the only true knowledge?  A winsome Christian professor from MIT, Dr. Ian Hutchinson, exposed the hegemony of this sort of scientism, and we sold his book with a very important title: Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism  (Lulu; $18.95.) An popular atheist professor from U of Penn replied, and the event was educational, enlightening in some ways, and altogether cordial.  But Hutchinson the scientist is right, and in reading Rob Bell this week, I realized, again, how important his thesis is.  “Monopolizing Knowledge” is a way to describe how traditional ways of knowing and therefore traditional religions have been marginalized or mocked in the modern world, that scientific naturalism, itself founded on shaky presuppositions, cannot adequately account for the very nature of the complex universe we all experience.  (Ahh, remember that Walt Whitman poem, When I Heard the Learned Astronomer?) 

Bell is not strident in rebuking this dumb idol, but he makes no bones about it: such a mechanistic view is not liberal or open-minded or generous, but is closed-minded and ideological and stuffy. I wonder if Bell been reading Hutchinson?

Another aside: I have mentioned Dallas Willard.  He has written amazing books about the process of becoming more Christ-like, works like the aforementioned The Divine Conspiracy (HarperOne), The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne) and Renovation of the Heart (NavPress.) He is interested in questions of spiritual formation and disciple-making. But he is also a top-notch philosopher, and has done in his own profession some important work on how we know what we know, and what kind of knowing counts. He has written about this, and although it is a tad heady, it is very important.  You should know his book Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne.) It has gotten blurbs by the likes of sociologist Peter Berger. Richard Foster calls it a “must read” and says,  that Willard “focuses like a laser beam on the issue of moral knowledge as a
legitimate source for understanding reality and applying it to daily
life.”  I wonder if Rob Bell is reading this one of Dallas Willard? 

Another aside. Bell does not explore this question, but we might as well bring it up: if there is only a closed system of atoms and material, and no possibility of Something Else, that is, if mere naturalism is the worldview that is true, then it also must be said (although few are courageous enough to follow this out to its logical consequence) that therefore there can be no binding right or wrong.  My friend Dick Cleary wrote a good novel about this, set on a modern college campus where the monopolizing of knowledge has been being played full court.  In The Absence of God (Xulon Press; $24.99) is a captivating fictional story that imagines the conversations among faculty and students who want to be revolted by a sadistic killer loose on campus, but are unclear how–given what they’ve been taught about relativism and atheism–to make moral judgments against it. If there is no God, there can be no absolute truth, and therefore no real right or wrong, so whose to say, ya know?  It is a book about campus life, faculty politics, collegiate football, a bit of romance, and a suspenseful thriller, too, but it is finally an exploration about the reductionism and inhumanity of the modernist worldview that says what you see is all you get.  I wonder if Bell has been reading Cleary?

The next preliminary chapter doesn’t take much to explain, but it is fascinating.  It is called “Both” and, as you can guess, Bell criticizes black/white dichotomous thinking, and insists that this is part of our starting problem when thinking about religious truth and God and faith.  Things are most often both/and, not either/or, he says. This could get funky, and I suspect it does, but Bell is persuasive insisting that simple answers and knee-jerk reactions and bolting down rigid formulaic replies aren’t adequate to explain the deepest matters of the heart.  One could say that this is a “straw man” argument but I think that it mostly is not, and to say so is nearly a cheap shot.  There are, in fact, overly simplistic formulas and narrowed down views of truth and God that are too often promoted, with no questions or nuanced allowed, and this is not good or helpful, and Mr. Bell is not wrong to say so.  Not everyone with orthodox views is such a reductionist and it would be silly to suggest that traditional faith always leads to dry, dead black/white constructions. Bell draws on the classic Promise of Paradox by Parker Palmer here, if that gives you a sense of where he’s coming from.  Yet, as Trevin Wax at the Gospel Coalition has noted, traditional, robust, historic orthodox faith holds many paradoxes, perhaps more profoundly, than the somewhat one-sided “God is for you” view of Bell’s book.

This both/and approach is important to Bell, though, and he makes his point talking about a very honest, forthright, but kind counselor he had once.  Of him, Bell says,

He was kind and humble and open, and yet firm and rock solid and unshakable.
All at the same time.
He was a  man of faith,
deeply grounded in his convictions,
and yet those firm convictions didn’t close him down or harden him or make him brittle and close minded; they had the exact opposite effect. They seemed to make him more flexible and limber and engaging.
Like a tree,
planted near the water,
with deep  roots.
A  storm comes and the tree doesn’t break because it’s ground enough to… bend.

He continues,

I believe this is one of the most urgent questions people are asking at this time about the very nature of faith: can convictions and humility coexist as the dance partners we need them  to be?

I say yes, they can. I have seen it up close, and it’s possible. It requires that we pay as much attention to how we are talking as to what we are talking about, and it requires us to leave the paradox as it is, the tension unresolved, holding our convictions with humility.


You are going to have to read the book yourself to get to the heart of his teaching, and grapple with the implications, but it is found most clearly in three central chapters.  His one word starters are “With” (as in God is with us) “For” (God is for us) and “Ahead” (God is calling us into a future of God’s own making, a restoring/healing/hope that is already on the move.)

The first half of What We Talk About… is not at all inconsequential – these questions with which he starts are vital, and I am glad to have allowed Bell to remind me of them, for my own sake, and to give me more tools and insights as I speak with others.

I am glad to be called to attend to the hum in and around all things, to be reminded of the inadequacy of scientistic ideologies that are closed to wonder and mystery, even in spite of  the direction the greatest scientific discoveries are pointing us, and for the invitation to a both/and, wholistic vision of the meaning of life that is more than brittle formulas.  An early review noted that these sorts of questions seem themselves to have a Hebraic stamp on them.  I hope this is not “foolishness to the Greeks” but it may be.  On the other hand, in this new postmodern era, these reflections themselves offer wise hints towards bearing witness in fruitful ways. Scientism has its limits and despite the upswing of the “new atheists” it seems that many people know, deeply, that there is more to life than meets the eye.  Geesh, just watch TV for one night and look at the best-seller list of highbrow novels.

But it is the second half of What We Talk About When We Talk About God that will be most interesting to some. It explores how the Bible teaches that God is with us, upholding every bit of life in this material world; God is known in Jesus Christ, Immanuel, which makes evident that God is truly for us, which draws us into God’s rescue work in a world made new.  His discussions of the cross are fine, and the role of the Spirit is interesting and obviously informed by the magisterial work of Jurgen Multmann. (Bell cites as “incredible” Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life in his endnotes. Do I need to mention that we stock a number of the famous German’s books?  Yes, we do.)

You should grapple with this yourself, but I was frustrated that Bell seems disinterested in the sovereign  transcendence of God.  That is, he is so intent on telling us about God’s nearness, that he avoids talk of holiness, Otherness, and such.  And, in this “advance” bit, he seems to suggest that everyone, everywhere, is caught up in this good news, an implication of the position developed in his last book, a view that leaves some Biblical teaching out, or so it seems to me. You will hopefully talk about this kind of thing with others as you are provoked to deeper thoughts by reading this for yourself.  I am glad Bell offers good news and seems so full of hope, but I also hope it isn’t mere wishful thinking, a one-sided account of the end for which the world was made. 

Bell’s helpful teaching about the way in which God is so very near all things, and how God’s own Word upholds all things is good. Again, as I said last night, this is not pantheism, a wrong-headed view he directly renounces. (Some may call it panentheism and that will be debated and criticized, I predict.) Call it what you will, but it is, I think, just what the Bible teaches. You should see Barbara Brown Taylor’s lovely Altar in This World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne; $14.99) for a wonderful set of meditations on this; we have a whole shelf  of these “finding God in the ordinary” sorts of ruminations, by the way, and Bell suggests a few in his own endnotes, too.
< br />Bell’s view of the immanence of God, and God’s upholding Word of power, over ground that can now be called “holy” is something close to what Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd taught, I think, and leads more conventional theologians to the doctrine of creational ordinances, the discovery of which can happen through common grace.  That Bell sees God’s hand in all manner of things and sees the flourishing of the planet as part of God’s merciful desires in a world Christ loves, shouldn’t be shocking, although some may find it somehow irreligious.
I hope you know Richard Mouw’s fine book on this notion of common grace called He Shines In All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans; $14.00.)  If Bell’s exotic vision sounds controversial, perhaps critics should read the exquisitely careful Mouw — who draws on that fine line from the famous hymn “This Is Our Father’s Word” — and then go back and re-read Bell.  Or maybe serious readers should struggle with the huge argument made in the weighty Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Stephen Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh (Eerdmans; $27.00) who make a powerful, intriguing, complex case for why we feel so ill at ease, nearly displaced for our earthly homes (and for some, literally so), and how bad theology is partially to blame. It opens up remarkably just how such displacement from place leads to a less than sustainable economy, carelessness about the environment, and our needy brothers and sisters. In great and prophetic detail, this is the sort of stuff that Bell’s argument about God’s nearness to all creation, God’s saving work for us, and God’s restoring work around us naturally leads us to.
Which leads to the last chapter of What We Talk About When We Talk About God called “So.”  I  have my tongue in my cheek a little when I say there ought to be a publishing world law: every book should have to have a chapter like this at the end, asking “So what?”

For Mr. Bell, this isn’t a tacked-on quick ending, an epilogue, but a substantial and vital rumination on how all this matters. This is the part where he lists a handful of peculiar illustrations, and a few people who had heard about this right away mocked him for saying he was going to talk about monkeys eating peanuts, for instance. Well, hey, the monkey/peanut eating research is pretty darn amazing, and it works well as an illustration.  Bell uses some other equally fabulously interesting illustrations to get to his point about what N.T. Wright might call “realized eschatology.” In Bell’s rubric, it is how we are pulled into the future of God, by God, into a way of life that is Christ-like and perceives the presence of God in all things.

Here, in this last strong chapter, Bell offers some very helpful suggestions about seeing God behind our common sayings (getting something off our chest; being struck in such ways that we go “over the moon” etc.) and how we might confess our sins to one another, being in touch more with our shadow sides (which, too, disclose God’s activity in our lives and can become holy ground.) He alludes to some neuroscience research, invites us to consider ways to be more integrated as whole people, becoming more Christ-like in the process. Not surprisingly, he mentions architecture and aesthetics, reminding us (has he been reading Jamie Smith?) that embodied practices and habits learned in concrete communities matter profoundly.   I like this call to (counter-cultural) reverential practices that might help us re-enchant our daily lives and help create the sort of renewal in the world we long for.  Be the change you want to see, you know…  Again, this is helpful, good stuff, but not terribly controversial.  It is fresh and fascinating and funny and I enjoyed it a lot.  You just might, too.  And I bet you know somebody who would.
Bell puts it eloquently in the second to last page (before a less than satisfying closing) when he describes Paul writing in Philippians 1:6

Paul does something really, really clever here in this letter that many of his contemporary Jewish writers often did: he uses particular words in a particular order so that he can say multiple things at the same time.  Paul uses the words begin and good work and complete very deliberately; those are loaded words, because they’re used in that same order in the Genesis creation poem that begins the Bible… So when Paul, a man thoroughly versed in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, uses those particular words in that particular order in his letter to his friends, he’s connecting their story to the creation of the universe.

His point is that the same creative bang that formed the universe is unleashed in us through our trust in what God is doing in the world through Jesus. His insistence is that this extraordinary energy in all its diverse and expansive forms is deeply personal and readily available and on our side.

I believe this is true.

Here are a handful of books that I thought of when I read through What We Talk About When… This is not to say that any of these were influential to Bell or that these authors would appreciate being connected to Bell’s project. I like the head-bone’s-connected-to-the-neck-bone approach where one thing sort of leads to another.  Check these out.

Yearning for More: What Our Longs Tell Us About God and Ourselves  Barry Morrow (IVP) $15.00  If you liked his opening chapter “the hum” this will be amazingly helpful, really interesting, and I am sure you’ll order more to share with others.  Kenneth Boa writes the foreword where he affirms the author for “a penchant for leveraging culture to illuminate timeless spiritual issues.” This is one of the best books of the year, and  I very highly recommend it.
Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism  Ian Hutchinson (Lulu) $18.95  I wrote about this above, and, again, suggest it as a great example of one of the largest philosophical matters of our time.  Lewis approached this in The Abolition of Man and it is the topic of the amazing recent Oxford University Press book Where the Conflict Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga. Even more philosophical, the atheist philosopher of science Thomas Nagel recently released, to much publicity in journals of opinion, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press.)  Hutchinson’s is new and interesting and accessible, and a fine one with which to start.

Rationality and the Calvinian Tradition edited by Henk Hart, Johan Van Der Hoeven & Nicholas Wolterstorff (Wipf & Stock) $58.00  This rare book used to be on waiting lists at used bookstores everywhere, and is finally been quietly re-issued.  These were the papers from a hugely important and much-talked about conference in the early 1980s co-sponsored by the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, asking this major question of what is the best way to explain the legitimate role of reason (while rejecting Rationalism) within Reformed thinking.  If Rob Bell has helped us expose the secularizing assumptions of Enlightenment modernity and its idol of reductionist rationalism – he does this astutely, by showing how it effects ordinary people and their search for meaning – then what is the proper use of reason?  Who has most helped us see this, and what theological traditions have wrongly wedded our rhetoric and ideas to Enlightenment rationalism? From Al Wolters to John Frame, Danie Strauss to Charles Partee, Alvin Plantinga and many others, this is a truly amazing band of world-c
lass scholars!  As Wolterstorff himself put it in his small but powerful treatise, we must seek Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans.)  This is a perennial matter and this heavy, complex, and radical rethinking of it all is essential for serious philosophers. I’ve been wanting to tell our scholarly readers about this and waiting for the right moment. Here it is utterly germane. The last section of it, by the way, is about the problem of our language about God.  Rob Bell, call your office.  This is amazing stuff.

Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can’t Control  Mark Buchanan (Multnomah) $15.99  I love this writer (Eugene Peterson wrote the foreword, by the way) and commend him for those who want fine writing that isn’t odd or deep.  He is more substantive, I think, than Max Lucado, but he’s warm like that.  But a bit wilder, as the book title suggests.  Listen to what the conventional Reformed heavy weight J.I. Packer says of it: “Within a framework of biblical orthodoxy, Mark Buchanan’s  jabbing insights minister a salutary pastoral shake-up, drawing and driving us sluggards to come closer to our God.”  Ha.  Sluggards. I dare ya to read this, you sluggards.  I admit, this isn’t exactly how Rob Bell puts it, but if you like Bell, you don’t mind being jabbed a bit.  This is a great book.

Finding the Lost Images of God: Uncover the Ancient Culture, Discover Hidden Meanings  Timothy S. Laniak (Zondervan) $12.99 This full color, handsome handbook series (“Ancient Context, Ancient Faith”) includes several lovely books, each drawing on key insights from the original languages and cultures of the Biblical lands.  Informed by good scholarship from middle eastern cultures – informed by writers like the brilliant Kenneth Bailey, for instance – this series allows us to realize fabulous insights embedded in the Bible that we might not otherwise see.  In this case, these are nice cultural studies about buildings, warfare, fields, flocks, and the like.  What divine images are used to tell us about God? How can our own creativity relate to God’s?  Bell does some of this sort of stuff, opening up basic insights about the culture from which the Bible was written, and helps us learn more.  This is a very nice book, clear and helpful for anyone.

The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst Michael P. Knowles (IVP Academic) $22.00  I noted that Bell’s book was not strong on using the Bible as the key document for knowing about the nature of God.  He uses the Bible a lot, often creatively, but this is the sort of book that as you work slowly through it, will pay off in loads of wisdom and insight.  John Goldingay says “How marvelous it would be if Christians started believing that God is as Scripture portrays him and as Dr. Knowles expounds its portrayal with such a wideness of vision and breadth of insight.” This is about God’s own self-disclosure in Exodus 34, and Walter Brueggemann says of this close textual study, that it “teems with fresh insight and will reward a careful reading.”

Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History From the Puritans to The Passion of Christ Stephen J. Nichols (IVP Academic) $20.00  One of the big beefs that drives Bell, as well it should, is how God has been domesticated and how those who claim to follow Jesus often seem to have a culturally-created image of the Master. (Who was it that said you know you’ve made God in your own image when God tends to have the same enemies that you have.) Well, this is the best — and surely most fascinating — historical study of the uniquely American usage of Jesus.  Nichols is good at  pop culture, and he is a conservative Reformed thinker (from nearby Lancaster Bible College.) I doubt if he’d see himself similar to Bell, but they share this in common — they are interested in deconstructing how God (and in this case, the second Person of the Trinity) is misconstrued and abused by what we might call cultural captivity.  With rave reviews from historians like Mark Noll and D.G. Hart and Doug Sweeney, this is a masterful bit of legitimate scholarship, and a huge wake-up call, warning us against distorted images that creep in to the popular vocabulary and mindset.  No wonder Bell has to shake us up with this nonsense in the air.  A very interesting and very important book.

The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction  Peter Rollins (Howard) $14.99  Rollins is a hot young theologian, storyteller, mystic, who is deep and not just a little eccentric. Bell likes him, as do those who tend to identify with the emergent conversations. Some serious thinkers esteem him and I’m told he is a captivating speaker.  I enjoy and have read many of the authors who like him, but, to be honest, I just don’t quite get him or his several books. I get that he affirms questioning and doubt. Fine.  I like the title of his first book (even if the book was boring to me) How (Not) to Talk About God (Paraclete.)  Bell draws on him from time to time, it seems. One of the major points of his project and most of his books is both sensible and yet profoundly unsettling: when we talk to confidently about God we’ve already transgressed, making some sort of idol, reducing God to the words we’ve said about God. We confuse the image and the Reality.  Ancient Jews knew this – even Abraham Heschel, for instance, gets at this, another vital author Bell cites. This new book of Rollins’ (which the back cover calls “incendiary”) invites us to embrace our brokenness and our unknowing.  This is some funky stuff. 


what we talk about cover.jpgWhat We Talk About When We Talk About God
Rob Bell
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