Like so much of Rob Bell’s work, What We Talk About When We Talk About God is really a sort of sermon: accessible, full of anecdotes, and with a clear persuasive thrust. The content, too, is what we might have expected. When We Talk About God shows Bell drawing on his whole back catalogue of tours, films, and books, now synthesising it more explicitly for a post-Christian audience. Bell has spent most of his career dismantling dualism and ‘escapology’ in Christian circles, and he now goes to work on its equivalent in wider Western culture.
A tract for the post-Christian times
Instead of addressing Christians, When We Talk About God seeks to present a credible faith in a post-Christian world, with Bell acting as herald, apologist, and evangelist. Bell asks whether God is like an Oldsmobile: you can still find people driving them today, but no one builds them any more. Can God keep up with the world today? It’s a question from the perspective of the de-churched and unchurched, immediately situating this book in an America that is shifting away from a culturally assumed Christianity.
So then, let me register my frustration with the Christian reviewers of Rob Bell who exhibit half-hearted or completely nonexistent attempts to understand who Bell is actually writing for. (Exhibit A, Exhibit B.) When We Talk About God is not written for Christians in general, and it is not written against particular Christians. Unless we recognise this, we’re automatically catapulted into a discussion of what he left out, how his balance was off, and where he was just flat out wrong — all of which might make sense if he were writing for us.
Even a considerate review which makes a point of acknowledging Bell’s intent, like this one at Christ and Pop Culture, revolves around the demand that the only God worth presenting is the properly balanced, fully nuanced God who completely covers the depth and breadth of all Christian thought! Of course, in ultimate, abstract terms, who could disagree with that? Yet it’s an unrealistic demand, because we do not really inhabit a world of ultimate, abstract terms.
The thing is, when you walk a distance to meet someone different, you find yourself conversing in a middle place, a place not entirely your own. The challenge is to bring enough truth to retain integrity but not so much as to lose your audience. Bell is not communicating Doctrine As We Know It but doctrine that can be received by outsiders. This is not to say that When We Talk About God is without holes and shortcomings, but to recognise it for what it is. It’s more evangelistic tract that systematic theology!
The question is, what do we actually expect evangelism to look like? How many years does it take? What conversations does it involve? What concessions must we make; what challenges must we present? What does it actually mean for a person to take just one step closer to Christ from where they are now? This book is driven by that question.
A sense of awe
In Western culture, the idea of awe has recently been harnessed by people of all religious persuasions (and none) as an avenue into discussing the wonder of the cosmos. Our scientists are also storytellers, setting human lives in the context of the history of the whole Universe. Bell aims to connect this sense of awe with God, showing that faith actually actually opens up the Universe rather than narrowing our horizons.
In the chapter ‘Open’, Bell launches his own version of Big History, providing a thrilling ride through modern science and a Universe far stranger, more bendy, and more wonderfully united than we had ever expected. Paul appealed to the poets of Athens, and Bell appeals to some of our own poets — cosmology, particle physics, quantum mathematics — in order to unravel one of the big ideas of our time, the idea that ‘all there is is all there is’, the idea of wholesale, no-holds-barred materialism. When We Talk About God is a call for Western culture to leave the narrowness that came along with the Enlightenment, in which one avenue of knowledge trumps all others. It’s a call aimed at anyone unconvinced that Richard Dawkins can offer what we’re looking for.
Where is God today, then? (I won’t recount the rest of the chapters here — for that, see the review I mentioned previously.) God is the One around whom our wide-open Universe revolves. While we have excelled at dividing things, God is integrating all things. We create dualisms, God creates wholes. And this includes us: God wants to restore us, to undo our brokenness, to make us more truly human.
Here lies the book’s invitation. It’s not to do with signing up to something, making a decision, or praying a prayer. It’s also not explicitly to do with the lordship of Jesus, or with forgiveness of sins, or what we might deem the necessary ingredients of ‘conversion’. It’s simpler than that: an invitation to recognise God as our Creator, who is ‘over all and through all and in all’, who is revealed in Jesus.
And while Bell’s persuasive powers are perhaps at their height when connecting God with our experiences of awe, his end-point is more surprising: the great expression of divine integration is the Lord’s Supper, in which we supremely recognise and remember God’s renewal of all things. Here is Bell’s trademark emphasis on truth as something embodied: the word is flesh, and the way of Jesus is something lived and practiced.
What is the next step?
When encountering the Christ, we discover that our search, our sense of awe, was never ours to lay claim to as mere individuals. Let me return to that question: What does it actually mean for a person to take just one step closer to Christ from where they are now? In my last post about Rob Bell, I raised the question of church: how do we move from a vague theism or deism, or even from a ‘personal faith in Jesus’, to the Christ who is known in the community of faith?
When We Talk About God does indeed make a call to community; how could the Lord’s Supper be anything else? But it’s a very subtle invitation, and you can sense how fragile it is. It reflects the struggle of communicating a Christ who is, at some level, impossible to separate from Christianity (even American Christianity!).
The book emphasises our brokenness as humans, although not really in terms of wrongdoing — and this is a problem when it comes to church, because church is made up of people who not only struggle with addiction and vulnerability and darkness, but who also hurt one another. As Bell says, the shadows are inside us rather than ‘out there’, but this means we must somehow do the impossible: put others first, bear with others, forgive others. Sharing a sense of awe is the easy part!
And so the skeleton in the closet, or the elephant in the room, is church. I don’t think Bell is unaware of this; his emphasis on the Lord’s Supper should not be made light of. But dealing with the church means dealing with the church as it is now, with all its wonkiness and wackiness. It means, unfortunately, dealing with other Christians, not at arm’s length, but up close and all-too-personal.
In the end, I reckon this question is beyond the scope of the book, and I refuse to ask something of a book that it does not offer. But I think ‘church’ is the next question, and it is a difficult one.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.