Rob Bell – What we talk about when we talk about God – exclusive review

After the controversy of Love Wins Rob Bell is back with a new book What we talk about when we talk about God, released next week, two years after the internet went crazy over what Love Wins said about heaven and hell. There has been less hype this time around, with the trailer video only being released a week before the book comes out. But rather than wait til March 12th (March 14th in the UK) to find out what he has to say this time, why not read our review?

Yes, that’s right, I’ve already read it, and here on All4God you can read one of the first reviews in the world – The Gospel Coalition haven’t even had a chance to send out any more “Farewell Rob Bell” tweets yet, but I got my hands on an advance copy to see what it’s all about, and to see if there is likely to be as much controversy over this book.

So first – what does the book cover? In What we talk about when we talk about God Bell addresses the issue of how we engage in conversation about faith with a world that sees religion as out-dated, old-fashioned and irrelevant in a world of science.

He starts by noting how the word ‘God’ means many things to different people, and how we need to establish a common understanding when talking to people about God, because a lot of people reject the idea of God based on a poor understanding of what God is really like.

Rob then looks at how people need to be open to the idea of God in today’s world, and uses the example of science to illustrate this point, showing how there are many scientific concepts that break the rules of logic and reason, yet still get accepted. Likewise, he argues, people shouldn’t reject God because he operates outside our idea of logic. There is even some Louie Giglio-esque discussion about how big the universe is.

When people object to the idea of God, to the idea that there is more beyond our tangible, provable-with-hard-evidence observation and experiences of the world, they aren’t taking the entire world into account”.

Rob uses examples such as the fact that people accept we have a personality despite it not being directly observable to argue that it isn’t such a huge leap to accept a God who isn’t directly observable, and points out that all people have faith of some sort. He suggests that faith and science do not need to be opposed to each other, but rather can be seen as “dance-partners” with science being the how and faith the why. He reminds us to acknowledge God as the source of all truth, not just truth found in the Bible.

In What we talk about when we talk about God Bell has 3 key words that he focuses on – WITH, FOR and AHEAD – he looks at how God is with us in the here and now and how we need to become more aware of His divine presence, and how everything matters when God is with us, as it is all headed somewhere. Then He looks at how God is for us and wants the best for us, saying that “no matter what you believe or do God is for you” (not sure how that matches up with Romans 8:28 which states God causes things to work together for the good of those ‘who love God and are called according to his purpose’…). There is a great section on grace where he points out “God doesn’t wait for us to get ourselves polished, shined, proper and without blemish – God comes to us and meets us and blesses us while we are still in the midst of the mess we created.” Finally Rob looks at how God is ahead of us, pulling us forward and uses examples of Old Testament passages such as “an eye for an eye” to show how God is actually ahead of the cultural norms of the time and the point of that verse wasn’t to encourage revenge, but to limit it.

Now the analysis – is What we talk about when we talk about God any good?

What we talk about when we talk about God seems to be aimed at non-Christians, especially in the early chapters when considerable time is given to making arguments in defence of faith. And I can certainly see this being a book that those who wouldn’t pick up a deep theology book being more comfortable with. There is the usual conversational Rob Bell style. There are lots of modern-culture references – amongst others The Office, Talladega Knights and Banksy. There isn’t so much Bible though – very few direct quotes are made, and in typical Rob Bell style verse references are only given in the endnotes. There is also, sadly, a massive gap in the book. Given that it is so clearly aimed at persuading people God has a place in the 21st century it would have been good to devote some time to themes such as repentance, the wrath of God being satisfied by Jesus on the cross, and the need for us to respond by putting our trust in Jesus. From reading What we talk about when we talk about God you wouldn’t get the impression that we need to respond to what God has done for us. The idea of confessing sins is touched on, but more in the context of confessing sins to each other so we don’t have to carry guilt around rather than the fact that they are an offense against a holy God. While there is nothing to match the controversy of Love Wins this omission is pretty major and won’t go down well with Christian readers. On a smaller controversy note, there is one use of a word that you wouldn’t expect to hear from the pulpit (Bulls***). Disappointingly for fans of his previous books there is less Hebrew this time around.

But

still

the

insistence

on

constantly

taking

a

new

line

after

just

one

word.

I feel What we talk about when we talk about God will be a good conversation starter. It is the sort of book liberal thinkers and non-believers will feel more comfortable reading, but given the big gap I have pointed out above, it is a book that needs discussion and follow-up to explain the full Gospel to people reading it who don’t have good Biblical knowledge. For people who are believers there isn’t a lot of radical new thinking for you here, but there  is a lot in What we talk about when we talk about God that is helpful to learn from to engage with non-believers in conversation. It is a quick read and while it isn’t very Biblically saturated there are truths in it that we can accept and embrace. Yes there are Biblical truths left out, and no doubt some will dismiss it because of that, but rather than completely rejecting it we should seek to engage with it, as doubtless many people will read it and be open to conversation afterwards.

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Disclaimer: HarperCollins sent me a free copy in order to do an advance review. I requested the copy as I wanted to read the book, and my opinions as stated above are my own honest reflections on the book.

Learn more the author of this post:

Pete McM
The original founder of All4God, Pete is 26, lives in Northern Ireland, is a junior doctor, Ulster fan and is passionate about Jesus
  • Matt

    How much space in the book is devoted to the cross?

    • http://www.all4God.co.uk Peter McM

      There is one short section where the cross is mentioned and another couple of places where he mentions that Jesus died and rose, but doesnt go into details, doesn’t quote any verses about it and doesn’t unpack the significance of it. The way he talks about it Christian readers will know what he means but it isnt detailed enough to explain it to nonbelievers, who the book seems more aimed at

      • Matt

        My big problem with Rob Bell is he doesn’t appear to actually like the cross. When God sent his Son to die on the cross God perfectly revealed his character for all to see- he showed himself to be completely just in punishing sin and infinitely loving by becoming sin and being punished in our place. I honestly think any discussion about God that does not centre around the cross is fruitless. However in saying this it does not surprise me that Rob doesn’t talk about it… I really hope that he repents and turns back to the cross, for his sake and for the glory of Christ.

        • Matt

          Quick caveat, definitely don’t mean there is nothing useful here in this book just lamenting Rob’s new theology in general

  • Matt

    How much space in the book is devoted to the cross?

    • http://www.all4God.co.uk Peter McM

      There is one short section where the cross is mentioned and another couple of places where he mentions that Jesus died and rose, but doesnt go into details, doesn’t quote any verses about it and doesn’t unpack the significance of it. The way he talks about it Christian readers will know what he means but it isnt detailed enough to explain it to nonbelievers, who the book seems more aimed at

      • Matt

        My big problem with Rob Bell is he doesn’t appear to actually like the cross. When God sent his Son to die on the cross God perfectly revealed his character for all to see- he showed himself to be completely just in punishing sin and infinitely loving by becoming sin and being punished in our place. I honestly think any discussion about God that does not centre around the cross is fruitless. However in saying this it does not surprise me that Rob doesn’t talk about it… I really hope that he repents and turns back to the cross, for his sake and for the glory of Christ.

        • Matt

          Quick caveat, definitely don’t mean there is nothing useful here in this book just lamenting Rob’s new theology in general

  • http://twitter.com/Xaiquiri Xaq Matthews

    In Love Wins, Rob Bell tried to redefine the way we think about heaven and hell, and he tried to use the Bible to do so. He used Greek and Hebrew words to try to make his case seem more credible, but anyone who knows anything at all about Greek and Hebrew saw him completely blowing smoke around the issue. He wrongly interpreted words and completely invented a new version of Ancient Near Eastern history for Gehenna right in front of our eyes. So for him to not use much Hebrew this time around is just fine with me. Perhaps Love Wins created more controversy than this book, but I think this book has far more to be fired-up about. Leading people astray on the doctrine of hell is one thing; leading people to believe that God is for them, exactly the way that they are, is another. Rob Bell is furtively lifting up the idea that God celebrates the things about us that the Bible clearly calls us to repent from. In doing so, Rob Bell may ultimately prevent people from hearing the call of Luke 13:3-5 to repent, and he is going to lead people down a wide path to an eternal hell that he doesn’t even believe in. I pray that this book falls on deaf ears and that Rob Bell’s eyes are opened to the hypocrisy of his beliefs and the wrath of God that is coming upon him if he does not repent.

  • http://twitter.com/Xaiquiri Xaq Matthews

    In Love Wins, Rob Bell tried to redefine the way we think about heaven and hell, and he tried to use the Bible to do so. Now he’s trying to do the same thing about God with this book. He used Greek and Hebrew words in Love Wins to try to make his case seem more credible, but anyone who knows anything at all about Greek and Hebrew saw him completely blowing smoke around the issue. He wrongly interpreted words and completely invented a new version of Ancient Near Eastern history for Gehenna right in front of our eyes. So for him to not use much Hebrew this time around is just fine with me. Perhaps Love Wins created more controversy than this book, but I think this book has far more to be fired-up about. Leading people astray on the doctrine of hell is one thing; leading people to believe that God is for them, exactly the way that they are, is another. Rob Bell is furtively lifting up the idea that God celebrates the things about us that the Bible clearly calls us to repent from. In doing so, Rob Bell may ultimately prevent people from hearing the call of Luke 13:3-5 to repent, and he is going to lead people down a wide path to an eternal hell that he doesn’t even believe in. I pray that this book falls on deaf ears and that Rob Bell’s eyes are opened to the hypocrisy of his beliefs and the wrath of God that is coming upon him if he does not repent.

  • disappointed-in-the-book

    To some one not yet persuaded that the universe is evidence that God exists, arguing any of the countless theories of soteriology or how the cross evidences a divine love would be inappropriate to the audience. Bell’s challenge here is to show that the reductionist view, which leads even thoughtful critics to ask, “Where is there objective, hard proof that God exists” is incomplete. Unfortunately, he handles the science– his exhibit A — by which he intends to show that Reality, when taken to include sub atomic or quantum mechanics, with little regard for the subtleties that actually distinguish it. He undermines his own credibility by glibly confusing his facts.

  • disappointed-in-the-book

    To some one not yet persuaded that the universe is evidence that God exists, arguing any of the countless theories of soteriology or how the cross evidences a divine love would be inappropriate to the audience. Bell’s challenge here is to show that the reductionist view, which leads even thoughtful critics to ask, “Where is there objective, hard proof that God exists” is incomplete. Unfortunately, he handles the science– his exhibit A — by which he intends to show that Reality, when taken to include sub atomic or quantum mechanics, with little regard for the subtleties that actually distinguish it. He undermines his own credibility by glibly confusing his facts.