I’m aware that Rob Bell means a lot of things to a lot of Christians. Some Christians see him as a breath of fresh air; some think he’s the sign of the times, that he’s watering down Christianity until religion is just one more thing in the room. I’m definitely sad to note that both of those groups include people who have never read a thing that Bell has written, and only acknowledge someone else’s opinion when referencing Bell.
So, here’s one more opinion about Bell: his writing makes me think.
In his latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell breaks down a study of God in seven words: hum, open, both, with, for, ahead, and so. I’m not going to bore you by going through each chapter and discussing each word, because you should read the book! But I will make these observations about the writings of the theologian known as Rob Bell.
1. Bell attacks being close-minded. He writes “there are other ways of knowing than only those of the intellect” after spending quite a few pages expressing wonder at the way that science has explained much of what we see and experience in the universe (69). A few pages later, he writes that “to be close-minded to anything that does not fit within predetermined and agreed-upon categories is to deny our very real experiences of the world… In our world today, we often hear people talk about being open-minded and about how religion can be stifling because of how close-minded it can be. Now it’s true that religion can lead people to be incredibly close-minded, but the terms open-minded and close-minded aren’t usually applied accurately. To believe that this is all there is and we are simply collections of neurons and atoms–that’s being closed to anything beyond the particular size and scope of reality” (80).
So, Bell is an equal opportunity offender: you can be religious and close-minded, or non-religious and close-minded. But either way, you’re neither tolerant, using all of your senses, or appreciating everything the world has to offer if you can’t acknowledge that not everything in the world fits into “predetermined and agreed-upon categories.” Classic Bell.
2. Bell highlights that God is both with us and for us. I understand this and accept it completely because Jesus was Immanuel, “God with us,” and Jesus was also the one who accepted the burdens of our sins on the cross, dying on our behalf. But Bell’s presentation is necessary in a world that is often told that God is against this or that, that God doesn’t love people if they do or are this or that. That is an extraordinary pronouncement made over and over in the Bible, but one which we can never hear too many times.
2b. “Gospel is the shocking, provocative, revolutionary, subversive, counterintuitive good news that in your moments of despair, failure, sin, weakness, losing, failing, frustration, inability, helplessness, wandering, and falling short, God meets you there– right there– right exactly there–in that place, and announces, I am on your side” (135-6). Enough said, eh?
3. So, we’ve got a) be open-minded, b) recognize that God is for you, and c) that God meets you right here, wherever that is! But Bell is more than willing to clarify where that here is: “Now here’s the twist, the mystery, the unexpected truth about admitting that takes us back to the counterintuitive power of the gospel: when you come to the end of yourself, you are at the exact moment in the kind of place where you can fully experience the God who is for you” (139). So, you’re saying that I have to be broken, out of chances, unable to make it on my own, and willing to submit to a power greater than myself (yes, Bell also calls Alcoholics Anonymous a “no BS zone”) to be able to “get” the gospel? Why, yes, yes I am.
4. And again, as the Bell apologist I am turning into, I will highlight a clearly Christological element of What We Talk About When We Talk About God. “When I talk about God, I’m talking about the Jesus who invites us to embrace our weakness and doubt and anger and whatever other pain and helplessness we’re carrying around, offering it up in all of its mystery, strangeness, pain, and unresolved tension to God, trusting that in the same way that Jesus’ offering of his body and blood brings us new life, this present pain and brokenness can also be turned into something new” (146). So, yes, the Jesus Rob Bell writes about, that I believe in, did something both wonderful and tragic, mysterious and holy, when he died on the cross for my sins. Without it, I’m “stuck” in my sins, condemned to die; with it, I’m saved for an eternal relationship with God.
5. Which leads to an interesting thought about “church.” “You have to construct a temple to teach the idea of holy and sacred, but in doing that you risk that people will incorrectly divide the world up into two realms and distinctions that don’t actually exist. This is why the Jesus story is so massive, progressive, and forward-looking in human history. Jesus comes among us as God in a body, the divine and the human existing in the same place, in his death bringing an end to the idea that God is confined to a temple because the whole world is a temple, the whole earth is holy, holy, holy, as the prophet Isaiah said” (181-2). In this, Bell deconstructs our mythological line between the sacred and the secular, arguing instead that we must recognize that God creates, owns, moves through, and lifts up everything, even the things we don’t like very much.
6. And finally, Bell says that our understanding of this God, our recognition of Jesus, and the way we view church leads us to a place where we have to figure out not just how we view God but how we think we should behave. “So when Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, this is more than just a command or an unethical statement or a rule of life; it’s truth about the very nature of reality. We are deeply connected with everybody around us, and our intentions and words and thoughts and inclinations toward them matter more than we can begin to comprehend” (202). Bell just broke down theological process into steps we could follow, and then he said we needed to love our neighbors if we actually expected to follow Jesus.
Wait, that’s what Jesus said we had to do if we were going to follow Jesus. Maybe this guy is actually onto something.