Rob Bell, author of Love Wins, has recently published a new book entitled, What We Talk about When We Talk about God. Those who are regular readers of my blog will recall that when Bell published Love Wins I wrote a four part blog series exploring what I liked about Bell’s book and, mostly, where I felt the book contained serious errors. In his earlier book, for example, Bell misunderstands the Biblical teaching regarding God’s love. Bell exchanged the biblical teaching of God’s covenant love with a highly sentimentalized view which played heavily to popular cultural views regarding love which are then imposed on God. Further, Bell has an inadequate view of sin and has, it seemed, abandoned in both books any vestige of the doctrine of the Sin nature. Several other key doctrines are ignored to the peril of his argument. Finally, Bell misunderstands the biblical teaching regarding the kingdom of God, rejecting a kingdom which has been inaugurated but still awaits final consummation. I rehearse his earlier difficulties only because several of those difficulties still seem to plague Bell. I don’t want to be uncharitable to Rob Bell, but since he is a best selling author and has been hailed by the New York Times as “one of the most influential pastors in America” he deserves both our prayers and our rigorous scrutiny. Nevertheless, I devoted several blogs which also commended Bell for much of his analysis. In the end, I wished he had the courage and theological depth to write a book entitled, Holy-Love Wins – that might have gotten us all closer to the mark. Bell seems to offer little to no resistance to the worst errors of tired old Protestant liberalism. Indeed, the adage by Richard Neibuhr about liberal Christianity is certainly true of Rob Bell’s writings: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” But that was then and this is now, so let’s move on to Bell’s latest work which will likely also become another best seller.
I am just one reader and therefore I hope this is just one of many thoughtful responses from across the church. I’m sure that many will laud his book as providing the very direction we need to go. To his credit, Bell has his pulse on the modern consciousness as much as anyone. He understands that many people, including Christians, are experiencing a faith crisis and he, in good faith, is seeking to provide a new way of approaching God which he hopes will bring hope and the rebirth of faith to many. Nevertheless, this book continues the errors of his previous book and, in fact, extends them in new ways. It is not as easy to respond to What We Think about when We Think about God because it is not as carefully reasoned or argued as Love Wins. Instead, Bell shares a steady stream of personal experiences and stories which are used to frame the general argument of the book. Bell uses these stories to demonstrate that quite a few people have the perception that the Christian faith is outdated and that God, in particular, appears malevolent, primitive, and stuck somewhere in the past. Bell argues that God is like a four door Delta 88 Oldsmobile. It may have been an awesome, cutting edge car in the day, but now seems hopelessly stuck in the past (p. 5, 6).
Bell honestly shares how this realization precipitated his own faith crisis. He was preparing to preach on Easter Sunday knowing full well that his congregation expected him to proclaim with confidence that Jesus Christ is Risen. But, instead, he found himself plagued with doubts. He doesn’t tell us what he actually preached that Easter, but Bell does tell us what he wanted to say. Bell says he felt like standing up and saying, “Well, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I got to be honest with you. I think we’re kind of screwed” (p. 12). Bell entered a period where he says he was “full of really, really serious doubts about the entire ball of God wax (p. 12). Through counseling and reflection Bell has emerged from his struggles with a sort of reconstructed faith which he is now sharing with us in What we Talk about when we Talk about God. This newly constructed religious structure of Bell no longer resembles New Testament Christianity, but it does generously borrow the language of Christianity to give this re-presentation the ballast it needs to get off the ground.
One must commend Bell for his personal honesty and having the integrity to allow himself to struggle. Furthermore, one cannot help but applaud Bell’s genuine desire to help thousands who must be feeling much like he felt. My difficulty with Bell is not with his description, but with his prescription. What is his “answer” to this dilemma? Bell’s solution is to reflect on all the religions of the world, all the popular spiritualities which have arisen, and the general consciousness about the transcendent to see if he can discover some deeper unifying common denominator. He is, of course, not the first to attempt this, but he is certainly one of the more prominent contemporary advocates of this approach. Bell is particularly struck by a phrase he heard from Jane Fonda who described her spiritual path as “feeling reverence humming in me” (p. 10). Bell uses this phrase at key points in the book. He longs for a new kind of spirituality which is more affirming, more inclusive, and more progressive. However, there are several areas in which Bell’s book, in my view, fails to provide a satisfactory solution.
First, Bell fails to clearly embrace the singularity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is, of course, the central proclamation of the Christian faith. Without the Resurrection, St. Paul declares, we are still in our sins, and our faith is useless and futile (I Cor. 15:12-21). 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. Bell is surely right when he says that doubt can sometimes be a sign that our faith has a pulse (p. 92), but it is important to remember that faith and doubt really are different – not just two equal “dance partners” (p. 92). Christians can, of course, be plagued with doubts as much as anyone. But, when it comes to the Resurrection, there is a time when we must “stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27).
Second, Bell has a distorted understanding of “progress.”
A major portion of the book (pp. 21-73) surveys the breathtaking advances in science, particularly in the area of quantum physics. Bell uses these amazing advances in our understanding of the universe as the backdrop to his real thesis which is that we are all advancing and moving forward and the church is being left behind. Bell explores the idea of progressive revelation and points out how certain texts in the Old Testament reveal that people are at “F and God calls them to G” and now that we are at “L” we look back and God may seem primitive and barbaric. Meanwhile God is calling us to “M” (p. 165). However, it is crucial to Bell’s deeper thesis to make the assumption that just as science is progressing and moving forward in undeniable ways, so culture and family systems and philosophy and every other arena of thought must, likewise, be progressing forward. So, the church with all of its “dead theological systems” must play catch up. One of Bell’s crucial themes is the idea that God is always moving ahead of us and bringing us forward. OK. But Bell never seems to even consider the tension that might be felt in a culture when a step backwards occurs. He never seems to entertain the idea that sometimes societies do not progress, but regress. This inevitably increases the tension between biblical revelation and popular conceptions about God. Where is the prophetic role of the church which resists sinking lower and lower to find a common denominator of spirituality which will be affirmed by most everyone as opposed to calling men and women to the deeper realities of biblical revelation which is never outdated or outmoded, but always fresh with power and relevance? The gospel does not need our help in being made “relevant.” The gospel is always relevant for every time and culture. Bell has given us a reshaped and highly domesticated gospel which tries to make the gospel relevant to contemporary sensibilities.
Third, Bell does not call us to carefully study and submit to God’s revelation in Scripture.
Bell gives many examples of Christians who have only a superficial understanding of the actual teaching of Scripture so they can be caught saying foolish things like “all gay people are going to hell” (p. 6). But these superficial caricatures are not used to call us to a deeper study of God’s Word. Rather, they are used to call us to listen better to ourselves. Bell tells the story of a time when he purchased some snorkeling gear and in his haste to get it out of its packaging a little tube fell out unnoticed. It wasn’t until later that he realized that this tube was essential for keeping your goggles unfogged in the water and, because he had lost the little tube, his underwater vision was blurred and fuzzy. Bell goes on to apply this saying that for twenty years as a pastor he had been trying to get people to see clearly and to help them find that “little tube” (p. 99, 100). But, what, symbolically speaking, is this “little tube”? This was an opportunity for Bell to tell us clearly that the “little tube” (without which all of life is fuzzy and blurred) is the Word of God. Instead, Bells tells us that the “little tube” is to listen within to a “certain stillness” in our hearts (p. 103). He says that it might come to us while we are eating a meal or having a conversation (p. 102, 103). He never suggests that it might come through the Word of God. Bell seems to equate the “ruach (spirit or breath) of God” and “cosmic electricity” (p. 106). But, there is a very important Christian difference between God’s self-disclosure and our self-discovery.
Bell’s book left me with the impression that the musings of an unbelieving man talking about God while he stands in his backyard barbecuing is just as valid as the utterances of the Hebrew prophets or the Apostle Paul. Bell’s ability to listen to the stories of people and discern their spiritual journey is exemplary – and I commend him for it. But, I also long to hear his confidence in the objective revelation of the Bible as God’s Word which just might tell the man barbecuing his chicken that his ideas about God are just plain wrong. For Bell, all such musings must be validated because, in the end, why should we validate a biblical prophet over the man barbecuing? The answer is that, for Bell, theology (our words about God) is a subset of anthropology. This is because, for Bell, any words – even if found in the Bible – cannot ever describe with confidence the ultimate reality that is “fundamentally beyond words and phrases and forms” (p. 87). That is an innocent looking phrase in Bell, but, read in context, it manages to put the Bible, the church and all theological propositions in the tentative and provisional category. Of course, to say that God is beyond words and phrases is an axiomatic truth, but that should not be used as leverage against the proclamation of God’s revelation about himself in words, phrases and forms.
Fourth, Bell offers us a less nuanced, more simplistic, more pluralistic expression of Christianity.
Bell tells the readers he wants to avoid “long and scholarly and technical and complicated words” (p. 15). Instead he wants to use the words “open” “both” “with” “for” and “ahead” (which is used as the structure of the entire book). However, in the end we are left with something short, naiive, populistic and way too simplistic. We are left with a “light weight” tentative world view which makes Christianity just one of many possible ways of “doing” your spirituality. Bell finally answers the question which his book title raises when he says, “so when we talk about God, we’re talking about our brushes with the spirit, our awareness of the reverence humming within us…” (p. 91). This could just as easily be said by a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Sufi Muslim. What makes Bell’s answer a distinctively Christian statement? Is Christianity just one of many options on a global religious smorgasbord, or has something uniquely occurred in Jesus Christ? For the Christian, truth doesn’t just rise up within us, it is revealed to us by God in his Word and, supremely, in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Resurrected One who suffered on the cross for us and is now the living, ascended Lord. Bell seems to be willing to trade the priceless pearl of the gospel for a mess of pluralist porridge. He is clearly uncomfortable with the exclusivity of the Christian claims. Bell has chosen to find his spirituality in a Jesus of his own imagination. Indeed, Bell would not insist on any particular outward forms or divine conceptions as long as one gets in touch with their own “humming spirituality.”
As we face a culture increasingly abandoning the Christian faith we have much to learn from Bell’s missional heart and his willingness to listen deeply to the angst of popular culture. But, the solution is not to further domesticate the gospel. Rather, the church must rediscover a more robust gospel; the good news proclaimed in the New Testament. We must, in fresh and compelling ways, “contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Time magazine has hailed Bell for being “at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America.” But have any of us really been given the authority to “re-think” Christianity? My prayer is that Christians all across the world will realize that the “new and improved” Christianity which Bell offers us is not an improvement of the faith and proclamation of the Apostles who were the eye and ear witnesses of the good news of Jesus Christ. In the end, what Rob Bell seems to be saying is that we don’t really talk about God when we talk about God. Instead, we are talking about ourselves. For Bell, this is a progressive development. For me, it is an irreverent humming of deception. More importantly, for the church throughout the ages, this is just another of a myriad of failed attempts to use Christian language, but deny the power of the gospel.