What We Talk About When We Talk About God

I have been a fan of Rob Bell since Velvet Elvis. I devoured Sex God and Jesus Came to Save Christians. I read through Drops Like Stars hours before seeing the speaking tour. I followed all the controversy, heard him respond in New York City, and wrote a literary rhetorical analysis on Love Wins. To say I am familiar with Bell’s writings and thinking would be an understatement. As a communicator, stylistically and substantially, he has been the single most influential voice in my life—to a point. I do not agree with everything he says, believes, or even questions. But, I have a profound respect and appreciation of his approach, style, and voice.

When I heard another book was in the works, I was genuinely excited for what was coming out next—especially in the wake of Love Wins. I knew it would be influenced by his relocation to California, but there was something within me that wanted to give him another shot.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God is very much like Bell’s other books yet, in the same breath, very different. There is his classic use of dianoeasplitting up








and packaging it all in stories from his “friends” that no matter who picks up the book, you will find yourself nodding along saying, “Yeah, I’ve been there too.”

Much like his other books, there is a larger path Bell is leading the reader on. Each chapter builds on what has been said previously. Therefore, the book is broken down into two larger movements that are then broken down into smaller segments.

The first movement talks about how we actually talk about God. Bell emphasizes that we drag a lot of baggage to the discussion, and, in order to have an honest discussion, we have to have a starting point where everyone is on the same page. So the first chapter, titled “Open,” tries its best to show the gravitas of this universe we live in, from the largest pieces to the smallest pieces, and how science and faith are fundamentally answering different questions. It lays the groundwork by saying “There are just some things in this world, if we are honest and open-minded enough to admit, just do not make rational sense.” Which leads into the second chapter, titled “Both,” in which Bell suggests the tension of choosing this or that, when it comes to faith, does not automatically make them mutually exclusive. In fact, he suggests, a faith that wrestles with doubt is actually stronger than one that blindly believes either extreme. Therefore, “both” can and should exist in a faith belief.

The second movement addresses what we are actually talking about when we talk about God: God. Bell argues that there are three distinct words that help frame our understanding of who God is: with, for, and ahead. In the chapter titled “With,” Bell explores how he believes we are all actually experiencing the presence of God in so many ways each and every day. His argument is attempting to deconstruct the belief that God is off “somewhere else” or God created the world then left it to its own devices (Theistic Deism), but rather God is here and now. Next, in the chapter titled “For,” Bell argues that God is for everyone, regardless of beliefs, actions, failures, opinion, mistakes, sins, etc. God is not vengeful and hateful just waiting to punish you if you slip up. Rather, God wants each person to flourish, thrive, and be everything we could possibly be. Lastly, Bell tackles the idea of God being “Ahead.” Combatting the notion many believe that the concept of there being a supreme being is outdated and primitive, Bell explores the God of the Bible and how many of the laws God put in place were radically progressive for their time and place, and God is not stuck back there but calling and pulling humanity forward one step at a time.

If you are familiar with Bell’s writing, you might be surprised. It is written like Bell, crafted like Bell, and presented like Bell. But it does not sound like any previous Bell book. That is because the audience has shifted. No longer is Bell courting the next generation of evangelical Christians (those started falling off at Jesus Came to Save Christians and completely deserted after Love Wins). He is writing to the “spiritual sensitive” types. Those who are searching and seeking but are not quite sure what to make of everything or are open to many different things. This was plainly seen when Bell sat down to do an interview with Oprah. She loved the book (and him) and people who follow the same spiritual path as Oprah, will find this book very accepting. On the other hand, many conservative Christians will argue he is too soft on his theology echoing the cries of heretic heard before. The reality is What We Talk About When We Talk About God is not a theological treatise; it is a starting place to begin a conversation about who God is for people who are still trying to figure it all out. That is the audience, that is who the book is written for, and that is exactly what it accomplishes.

So Bell ends with a “So, what is next?” While he finishes with a neat bow and a very poetic understanding that God is bringing all of our parts (read: body, mind, soul, spirit) together, what is next from the mind of Rob Bell will remain to be seen. Until then, people sure will have a lot to talk about when they do talk about God.

1 comment
  1. H said:

    Garrison, I may never choose to embrace Bell, but I certainly do appreciate your review! Praying you have a great 2014 my friend and brother. H

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