What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

Well, there certainly is a lot less controversy about What We Talk About When We Talk About God than there was, and is, about Rob Bell’s last book. I read Love Wins, but never posted a review here, and followed that controversy quite a bit.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God

How God is described today strikes many as mean, primitive, backward, illogical, tribal, and at odds with the frontiers of science. At the same time, many intuitively feel a sense of reverence and awe in the world. Can we find a new way to talk about God?

Pastor and New York Times bestselling author Rob Bell does here for God what he did for heaven and hell in Love Wins: he shows how traditional ideas have grown stale and dysfunctional and reveals a new path for how to return vitality and vibrancy to how we understand God. Bell reveals how we got stuck, why culture resists certain ways of talking about God, and how we can reconnect with the God who is with usfor us, and ahead of us, pulling us forward into a better future—and ready to help us live life to the fullest.

I am not sure the lack of controversy exactly explains why I found this one less captivating and engaging. Instead, I think part of it is subject matter, I am more interested in eschatology than belief/unbelief, and part audience. This feels very much like a book written to an audience that has rejected God secure in their science and rationalism as the only intelligent options but maybe with a hint of doubt lingering underneath or sense that this choice leaves something out. That is not really me so I read the book outside the target audience to a greater degree than with Love Wins.

But with that audience in mind, there is a lot to like about What We Talk About. Bell has an accessible, conversational tone with a sense of humor and good will but also a contagious sense of awe and purpose. Instead of trying to overpower the hyper-rationalist scientism of our day with cold hard facts and data driven logical arguments he tries to use the joy of discovery and the complexity of life on this planet to undermine this brittle world view too often described as “science.” He playfully but persistently points out that not only is there no necessary conflict between faith and science but that what we think when we think “science” is  out-of-step and out-of-date with the bigness, wildness and weirdness of actual science. Current science is more inline with God than we might have imagined.

I like the way JR Forasteros laid out Bell’s ideas in his review:

Rob offers three concepts: God is with us, for us and ahead of us. Contrary to the distant god of Modernist Deism, God is working around us, near us, accessible to us. But Rob is clear that this is not pantheism. God is not everything. We are not God. God is with us.

Contrary to the moralistic god of Modernist Humanism, God invites us to discover the persons we were created to be. God came among us as Jesus not to give us a list of rules, to legislate us into persons God could tolerate, but to show us the way back to life. But Rob is clear that this is not Prosperity Gospel. Jesus’ good news is radical, counterintuitive.

Contrary to the primitive, tribalistic god who can’t keep up with Modernity, a god of the gaps whose realm constantly loses ground to the onslaught of Science, God is ahead of us, calling humanity forward to be a better people. Every day is a chance to move another “click” forward as a people.

As noted here, Bell does a good job of attempting to explain how culture and world views change over time and thus so must approaches to God and the implications of His call on our lives. Bell very much views history as having meaning and direction. God acts like yeast in the dough of history, expanding our understandings and bringing meaning and purpose to life. God is pulling us forward to deeper and deeper meaning and towards humanity as He intended it to be.

Truth is not relative in the sense of different for each person but it is something that requires stages of growth and understanding. Each generation must wrestle with truth and apply it to their worlds even as they seek to know truth more deeply and more fully.

The danger lurking underneath this story is that it is easy to align our own “progressive” understanding of politics, culture and history and claim that God himself is behind these ideas and movements. This is the temptation that says that new and threatening views are always mocked at first and so any “progressive” view that is questioned, or any slipper slope that is pointed out, is simply “reactionary” and “on the wrong side of history.” If hardened into ideology it also falls into presentism and assumes that in every area we are moving forward and thus more knowledgable than our predecessors.

I don’t think Bell is actually the caricature of a liberal that many think him to be but I do believe that the current cultural pressure flows in that direction and it is a significant temptation to those who are, like Bell, trying to open up new lines of thinking and reach new audiences in order to break up stereotypes and assumptions about God, belief and the Christian life.

I should also note that if you are looking for a traditional or straightforward presentation of the gospel or a broad systemic theology you won’t find it. Bell is not making the case for Christianity in that way but rather trying to get those who feel in their guts that there is more to life than what we can see, hear or feel-what we can test in a lab-to open their hearts and minds to a bigger understanding of God. Many I am sure will see it as more happy-go-lucky liberalism without the necessary elements of sin and the cross. But I think this misunderstands the message and the audience. And Bell clearly discusses the tragic implications and repercussions of sin and offers Jesus as the only solution but The Roman Road it is not (and that’s the point to some degree).

For those open to it, I think Bell offers some fresh ways of talking about the way we see the world and what we think we know. And about how the way we see God in history impacts our actions and perspective. I would think it would be a great conversation starter for those who are not open to more conventional approaches to God and church. And that is no small thing.

Let me quote from JR again:

WWTAG sounds exactly like the conversations I have over and over with people who genuinely want to know God but can’t comprehend the god presented to them by the Church. Rob offers the Church new ways to talk about God that are still wholly faithful to the Church’s historic witness to Jesus.

And we need new ways to talk about God. Not because God has changed. But because we have.

Some may find this uncomfortable but it is important and true in my opinion.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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