It was two years ago that I wrote pages and pages and pages (and pages and more pages) in several long posts (and a short video podcast of me preaching about it a bit.) The first few were merely preface to my eventual ruminations on the controversial Rob Bell book Love Wins (now out in paperback, HarperOne; $14.99.) After a column or two about civility and not complaining about books one hasn’t read, I eventually told what I appreciated and what I found troublesome about Rob’s book. I listed some others, too, that would be helpful if one were studying the question of hell — some that went further in the direction he was apparently heading, and some that were quite critical, early volumes written in response to Love Wins. Anyway, it was interesting to see the diversity of customers we have, some who felt like I was too wordy, some that said my rambling reflections themselves should have been published as an ebook, claiming it was the best thing they read about what somebody called Bellapalloza. I think I ended up writing more words about the dust-up and book than were actually in the book.
I am not going to do that again, although I’ve still got my concerns about the civility matter.
I wanted to slyly call this part “What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About God.” Funny, huh? Okay, maybe not. But you read it here first, though, since somebody surely is going to pull that one.
I do have a few preliminary things to say but first I am glad to announce that we’ve got the new Rob Bell book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne; regularly $25.99) offered at an introductory sale price of $20.00. You can order it by clicking on the order from link, below.
This new book (which I have read cover to cover) is really, really interesting and explores a lot of material, although — given his poetic style and sentences that are set apart like separate paragraphs — it can be read nearly in one sitting. We are happy to sell it. It isn’t a perfect book, and there are a few things about which I really wished he would have been just a tad clearer. There were a couple of pages that bored me (but will surely thrill a science geek.) One or two phrases, I think, were off-base, or at least could be misconstrued. But a whole lot was fantastic — much of it really good, quite helpful, very interesting, and Biblically solid in the things that he is actually teaching about. One early reviewer said it was incoherent, that he couldn’t figure out what Bell was saying, and I have no idea why he said that, as the book is mostly quite clear, or so it seemed to me. So, it is indeed a good book, if at times allusive, even mysterious, and even if it leaves some matters unresolved. (It is about GOD, after all — what do you expect? Put Him in a box? I think that’s been tried, and, in fact, Bell has a few pages on the whole Temple era, the curtain being torn, Jesus saying “I am the temple” and the like No, it will not do to reduce God to a formula, a list of attributes, flatten out the Mystery; no serious theologian or lover of God wants that.) But before I tell you a bit more about why I commend it and invite you to consider reading it for yourself, a few introductory remarks.
NO BOOK IS PERFECT
No book is perfect. No matter what theological camp you are in, you have your favorite writers who explain things well, or advocate for certain ways of thinking and who offer a contribution to your perspective. But, of course, none of them, humans that they are, get it fully right, and no author is infallible. So why denounce with such venom those you don’t like, as if they have to be impeccable? Every book is flawed. So what? We always recommend books presuming that you know that there are errors, gaps, lapses, and sometimes pretty stupid gaffes and that readers must learn to interact with the printed page with open-minded but critical thinking. Good, friendly discussion among trusted friends is great, and provocative books sometimes make the best conversation partners. I want books to be stimulating, fruitful, interesting, charming, beautiful, challenging, helpful, but don’t expect them to be perfect. You may want to critique Rob Bell — and the hollering about this new one has already begun in some quarters, again, based mostly on a promo video — but do recall that he doesn’t suggest that his are the final words. He is a bit edgy, sort of experimental, and should be read with the proverbial grain of salt. Some authors, by the way, on the left and right, do not come across so provisionally, and they almost suggest that if you don’t agree with them, you are seriously flawed. They want to you take their words as gospel. And they should get over themselves. While Bell perhaps isn’t the most humble man in publishing today, there is a playfulness to his work that suggests he is aware that he’s floating ideas and giving it his best shot at this point in his thought process, inviting you to investigate some notions and try them on for size. I like his passion and his earnest commitment to helping us think things through, even as he makes jokes — and some are really funny, if you’re paying attention — and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Bell does take his core readers seriously, interacting with questions he’s been asked, responding to heart-rending episodes he’s witnessed as a pastor, bearing witness to God’s presence in the midst of some pretty horrible stuff. So I respect his intentions, which counts for a lot; he isn’t in a safe enclave where everyone colors inside the lines, after all, and he works with those who are often questioning, intellectually energetic, and often alienated from conventional churches. He is trying to give an honest answer to those with honest questions. Having said that, take him up, read him generously, and realize that he doesn’t have to say everything in the world that needs said; he doesn’t even have to say everything that needs saying about this topic. Don’t judge him for the book he didn’t write or the things he neglects to say, but engage what he does say. I think you just might find it fascinating, helpful, important, and fun.
READ WIDELY, WITH DISCERNMENT
You know we believe in reading widely, with Biblically-informed discernment. There are insights from old Puritans and there are insights from modern process theologians; we read old books and new ones, traditionalists and oddballs, Christian writers and non-Christians, too. I trust that in recommending What We Talk About When We Talk About God to our readers you know that this is not the only theological book we recommend. We trust it is not the only theological book you will read. It is part of the puzzle, and may prove helpful in forming your ideas, but, obviously, you should read more, including those from other camps, with other styles. But do see this as a portal to more learning. Bell himself says this. He has a child-like curiosity and has spent a few years reading very widely to prepare for this book — he told me a bit about it when I was with him two years ago, with great glee about what he was learning, and I’ve been jazzed thinking about it since.
He has a fabulous set of endnotes exclaiming about stuff he recommends for further study — he loves this book, suggests that TED talk, reminds you of this author or that website, and suggests this chapter of that book! Man, he’s energetic as a teacher and thought-promoter — an evangelist of ideas — so he’d agree that any given book is only a doorway to other books. That doesn’t earn him a pass from criticism nor does it mean you needn’t critique bad books, but it does relativize things a bit — it is what it is, one piece of the puzzle. I spent a good chunk of my Love Wins posts reviewing what Bell had contributed in his previous body of work and why his earlier insights were important, so don’t forget that, either. There is some context to these things. (I still think, by the way, that his second book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians [HarperOne paperback; $14.99] is vastly under-appreciated and may still be his best work; his very short book on suffering and creativity, Drops Like Stars [HarperOne paperback; $12.99] is very evocative, and a beautiful essay. )
WORRIED? TWO THINGS
If you are worried that we are leading people astray, I suggest two things.
Firstly, read What We Talk About When We Talk About God for yourself before fretting or gossiping, because, really, this is fascinating stuff, even a bit radical, but nothing that is going to lead people away from Christ. Disregard any wild accusations saying that he is a pantheist (that is, one who believes that God is in all things, a heresy which he specifically repudiates.) Disregard those who are offering a literalistic reading of his Oldmobile metaphor in the promo video — he isn’t saying God is old-fashioned and needs to be gussied up for the 21st century. Some bloggers are just embarrassing themselves with false accusations of this sort. It is not as controversial as some may presume it will be — but if, after reading it, it is seen as provocative, so be it; I think he is on to some good insights here, even if I might have said it (wouldn’t we all?) a bit more prosaically. Anyway, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, we should value the critics of traditional expressions of faith if they are asking good questions, even if they don’t have all the answers, and there is no doubt that Bell is asking good questions.
Secondly, again, don’t overstate the detrimental role of one short book. It is rare that one book will ruin somebody, so lighten up a bit. There are other things people should read and this book can be supplemented with other books, other essays, other authors. Even if you don’t like Bell’s tone or conclusions, talking through it with a friend or in a small group could be very fruitful. Look up the Biblical texts he cites; get a Bible dictionary and study his occasional, but important, use of Hebrew and Greek. Come on, open your mind, grapple with his contributions, give him a chance. If you are that concerned about the dangers of being open-minded or don’t yet feel confident enough in your knowledge of orthodox faith to engage creatively proposed ideas about God, and consider yourself a “weaker brethren” well, then, don’t read it. We will graciously understand. But for heaven’s sake, don’t think ill of those who can handle reading interesting stuff that may be a bit new or think ill of us for suggesting that many readers of contemporary books will find this worthwhile, enjoyable and inspiring.
WHO IS THE AUDIENCE? WHEN YOU READ IT WHO COMES TO MIND?
I am not sure who this book is really written for, but I immediately thought of several friends as I read it. The stuff about science, the bits about God’s nearness, the good news of Christ being for us — certain folks came to mind who I think need this said for them in this fresh manner. I invite you to read it, prayerfully wondering if it would be the right resource for someone you know.
It seems to me that a good bit of it is offered to those who have given up on God, who are secular, rationalist, who, due to their interest in science, think that exploring faith is somehow lacking in intellectual credibility. I will tell you more later about what Bell covers, the moves he makes to address this narrowing of what really counts, but you might guess that he critiques Enlightenment rationalism and scientism. That is, there are other things going on out there and within us, that we are not be able to measure as scientific data, and our most astute scientists and observers of the cosmos know it. So, it is good for seekers, or those who need to have their faith in scientism shaken a bit.
I suspect it will appeal to anyone tired of fundamentalisms or who wants a more generous view of God and God’s presence in their daily lives then they hear from the religious right. Some people you know (maybe you, yourself) have been burned by toxic sorts of faith and this could be a real life-line for them, for you. Social sciences (and your own experience, if you have conversations with non-church folk) tells us that there are many people interested in spirituality and God, even if they recoil from what they think God is like, based on stuff they may have heard in churches or from ill-informed Christians. This book could help them.
Actually, if you think you have God and God’s involvement with the world all figured out (that is, if you are a fairly mature, traditional Christian, confident and impatient with those who are asking big questions about what we can know about the nature of God) read Bell — he’ll shake you up in a good way. If you aren’t sure that the idea of God can fit with our modern times and are vexed, read Bell — he’ll shake you up in a good way, too. If you are a person who just wonders about the appeal of this hipster surfer dude with an artsy bohemian sensibility, by all means, read Bell. In many ways he is a master communicator, taking remarkably complex things (in this case everything from astronomy and astrophysics to eucharistic theology and the divine nature of Jesus) and making them interesting, understandable, and relevant. And what a storyteller! No wonder he has such a following — he’s fun to listen to and captivating to read, if you enjoy creative communicators with punchy illustrations. I wish more preachers would study him, if only to learn how to communicate with certain sorts of young adult thinkers these days.
By the way, the cover is incredibly retro, isn’t it? I’m not a fan, but I don’t like the comeback of mustaches and corny caps on the hipster men in indie bands these days, either. There is an aesthetic going on here, and it is chosen for a reason. It may not be your style, but that may be just the reason to have it on your desk, grandpa.
SPEAK THE TRUTH IN LOVE
As I wrote in the prolegomenon to my review of Love Wins, we are called to speak the truth in love. There is nothing wrong with being critical or disagreeing with how an author says something. In fact, if they are teaching nonsense, then somebody should call them out on it. But we must do this with great care, firstly making sure we properly understand what is at stake, and then never de
meaning or mocking another person made in God’s image. (There is a place for sarcasm in some settings, too, I think, but, again, we must be careful and honorable.) To speak in love means we are to give the benefit of the doubt, not presume the worst, read generously, and write kindly. I find it helpful to say what we like about a book before we say what we find disconcerting. That is, we are to be civil in our debates and not go for the jugular.
Similarly, by the way, those who like Bell and are irritated that some don’t appreciate him, should also be generous to his critics. Not everybody who takes issue with some of his approaches or conclusions are haters and we should be careful not to caricature those who rebuke him. It is fair to push back against critics, but, again, be civil and fair-minded, presuming the best about their intentions. (You know those who are beyond the pale of civil discourse and are not interested in the edifying give and take of healthy conversation and I have learned the hard way that they should be avoided.)
Look: some fans are not too discerning, and we might wish they were a bit more critical. Some critics are mean-spirited and nasty and we might wish they’d just shut up. But most readers (certainly Hearts & Minds friends and customers) are not thoughtless loyalists or fundamentalist meanies. So — both sides! — if you find yourself using those kind of cheap stereotypes and speaking with needless hostility, take it elsewhere.
I’ll tell you more about why I like the book in my next BookNotes column, but don’t wait for me. It is an important book, it is interesting, and we’ve got it on sale, now. You might be called upon to enter the conversation, so why wait? Order it today.
AND join Rob at a live streaming book launch event, Tuesday evening, March 12th. You can tune into watch “Live from the powerHouse Arena” in Brooklyn, NY at 7PM EST. (That would be 4PM on the West Coast.)? Join the conversation via USTREAM at www.robbelllive.com.
What We Talk About When We Talk About God
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