I (Michael) read a book this past year called You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney, which talked about the cognitive biases that lead us to make decisions less rationally then we’d like to admit. One of these biases is connected to the fact that we often consume information that supports what we already believe. The books we purchase, for example, show that we often read within a certain line of thought. This is why websites like Amazon and Google make so much money advertising to us – they know if they can figure out what we think, they can target us with ads for books that contain corresponding content. With this in mind, this year I have been trying to read books by authors I know I might disagree with. I am not as conservative in my ideology as some of the institutions I am associated with, but I much more enjoy being one of the more left-leaning people in the room, as opposed to feeling like I am the most right-leaning.
I say all this because some might be surprised I would spend my time both reading and reviewing a book by the often controversial writer Rob Bell. For many, Bell removed himself from their reading lists with his take on heaven and hell in his last book, Love Wins. Now I’ll admit I was not a fan of that book. Part of the reason for this was because of the more vague and universalistic stance Bell presented around people’s eternal destiny. An even bigger reason for my lack of appreciation for this book, however, was that Bell was often vague and even contradictory in what he was communicating. Much of what he had to say about the language and imagery we use for heaven and hell being outdated and even unbiblical I actually have to agree with. As someone who looks at topics like heaven and hell through the lens of those who originally wrote and read the Bible, I see that some of what I have heard in church culture over my lifetime is inaccurate at best. However I may feel about what Bell wrote in Love Wins, I know he has the ear of this generation’s young Christians; to comment on his work without having read it may result in my losing any voice I might have in the lives of young people who come to our campus.
The cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About God reminded me how much Christian culture is as affected by the cult of celebrity as secular culture. When you look at the cover, the first thing you see is “Rob Bell,” then in much smaller and almost hard to read font, is the title. I saw this recently with a Timothy Keller book as well, so it is not about one side of the spectrum or the other. It does go to show that it is not the content of these books that sell them as much as it is who is writing them. Just tell the reader that so- and-so has a new book out, and they eat it up. I’m guilty of this, but it is still a strange thing to see so clearly in the graphic design of the book.
The other thing I quickly realized about this book is that Bell does not necessarily have me in mind as his audience. I say that in the sense of my being a Protestant Evangelical that accepts the belief in God most clearly expressed in Jesus through the Bible, and longs to communicate that idea to others. Instead, Bell’s audience seems to be those who struggle with the tension between an internal sense of spiritual influence in the world, and the way in which God is often represented in Western Christian culture. He even goes so far as to say, “As a pastor I have constantly seen people who have a compelling sense that their spirituality is in some vital and yet mysterious way central to who they are – but the dominant conceptions, perceptions and understanding of God they’ve encountered aren’t just failing them but are actually causing harm.” In many ways, I think what might cause some Christians I know to reject this book is because they don’t share this conviction.
Though I won’t say that all the ways we talk about God in Western Christianity are harmful, I have seen in my own studies that there are quite a few that are. As such, much of what Bell writes does resonate with me. I can see that the questions he is asking of how we go about talking about God are coming from people who find themselves outside the mainstream Christian culture, and how he responds to these questions is in a way that is attempting to be free of Christian “buzz words” or jargon. That said, I did at times find myself disagreeing with what was said or at the very least, nervous about how things about God would be understood by what Bell was avoiding saying.
In the end, the strongest part of this book was in the three ideas Bell focused on when he got to talking about God in the book. He focused on three words: “with,” “for,” and “ahead.” To summarize, Bell suggested when we talk about God, we are referring to one who is with us, for us, and ahead of us; “with” us in that God is not absent from human history or creation; “for” us in the expression of the life and work of Jesus that demonstrated that God is for our freedom from the burden of a broken world; “ahead” of us in the sense that the Bible, when studied properly, shows principles that do not anchor us in the past, but draw humanity forward into that which God has planned for us. In these three areas I have a hard time disagreeing with Bell. I may have used different language to speak of it, but the ends would be the same. In this way I think that a discerning reader could benefit from reading this book.
I certainly did not agree with all that Bell wrote or how he said it, but I do leave my time reading this book challenged and encouraged. I would recommend reading it, if for any other reason, than as a way to round out your perspective. If you want to be heard by those who may be influenced by Bell’s writings, I encourage you to come from a place of having read the book and being able to respond to what he actually wrote.