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.
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.
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.