Rev. Dr. Jim Waters, PhD Chancellor   [email protected]

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

ob Bell’s latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (Collins, 2013), can be read on a number of levels.

First – there is the level of pure enjoyment, which even some of his critics are willing to concede.

Whether or not you like his message, Rob Bell is simply a good writer.In this, What We Talk About When We Talk About God does not disappoint, showing Bell’s considerable storytelling skills and ability to mix prose and poetic writing.

(Readers can get a sample of Bell’s writing themselves in this excerpt of the first chapter, or in Bell’s video “trailer” for the book, which compares our conventional idea of God to Oldsmobiles: outdated, and in danger of being “left behind”, p. 8.

Is God Really Like an Oldsmobile?
You can also spend “An Evening with Rob Bell” tonight at !Audacious Church in Manchester and Wednesday at Central Church in Edinburgh. Both talks cost £10 and start at 7 pm, with tickets available at the door.)Second – there is the level of critical engagement, which means weighing the ideas behind Bell’s fluid writing.

Here, the assessment of Bell will fall along the usual lines: most neo-Calvinist and evangelical readers will despair of Bell’s musings on God; while those who locate themselves in the emerging/emergent “conversation” or within liberal Christianity will find their heads nodding in agreement.

Third – in line with sociologist James Wellman’s observation that Bell’s later writings (such as the controversial Love Wins) are a “turn towards personal transformation and self discovery,” there is the level at which readers can join Bell on this journey of transformation.

As Bell admits (p. 13):

“This book … is deeply personal for me. Much of what I’ve written here comes directly out of my own doubt, scepticism, and dark nights of the soul when I found myself questioning – to be honest – everything. There is a cold shudder that runs down the spine when you find yourself face-to-face with the unvarnished possibility that we may in the end be alone. To trust that there is a divine being who cares and loves and guides can feel like taking a leap – across the ocean. So when I talk about God and faith and belief and all that, it’s not from a triumphant, impatient posture of “Come on, people – get with the program!” I come to this topic limping, with some bruises, acutely aware of how maddening, confusing, frustrating, infuriating, and even traumatic it can be talk about God.”

The second level – that of critical engagement – is relevant to the sociological work I am currently doing on the Emerging Church Movement (ECM).

In a forthcoming book with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church, we explain how evangelicals and neo-Calvinists do in fact differ from Emerging Christians on key ideas – one of which is “the nature of God.” It is important to distinguish between evangelicals, neo-Calvinists (there is some overlap between evangelicals and neo-Calvinists) and Emerging Christians, because the ECM has often been assumed to be composed of “hip” evangelicals, differing only in style, not substance. What We Talk About When We Talk About God will help readers see that there is theological substance to their differences.

But the third level – as a guidebook for personal transformation – is where What We Talk About When We Talk About God is most effective.

Indeed, I think this is what Bell intends. When I took off my sociologist’s lenses and thought about the book at that level, I found that it prompted me to look at the world in a renewed way – and I think that this can happen even for readers who don’t agree with all Bell has to say.

And what does Bell have to say?

The book is organised around seven “words,” with a chapter devoted to each: Hum, Open, Both, With, For, Ahead, and So.

Citing a Rolling Stone interview in which Jane Fonda says she became a Christian because “I could feel reverence humming in me,” Hum sets the stage for the rest of the book and explains the logic behind Bell’s choice of words (p. 9-10).

Open asks us to be open to what science tells us about the universe, mystery, and ultimately God. Both asks us to admit that language both “helps us and fails us in our attempts to understand and describe the paradoxical nature of the God who is beyond words” (p. 17).

I particularly enjoyed Open, which included a dizzying romp through recent scientific discoveries about matter, sub atomic particles, energy, quantum physics and so on. I am not sure what a trained scientist would make of it. After all, most of the chapter consists of Bell stringing together mind-bending scientific discoveries to make these wider points: most of the universe is unknown, what we discover turns out to be weirder than we’d ever suspect, what appears solid to us actually is not, and all of this is in some way “miraculous” (p. 79). As he puts it on page 45:

“What we’re learning from science,

however, is that that distinction [between the physical world and the spiritual world] isn’t so clear after all.”

With, For and Ahead are the three main attributes that Bell associates with God. Of course almost all Christians would agree that God is “with us” and “for us,” but Bell contends that the way we have understood that is faulty, as he writes (p. 18):

“In talking about the forness of God, I want you to see how many of the dominant theological systems of thought that insist God is angry and hateful and just waiting to judge us unless we do or say or perform or believe the right things actually make people miserable and plague them with all kinds of new stresses and anxieties, never more so than when they actually start believing that God is really like that.”

Bell’s claim that God is Ahead and “pulling us forward,” may prove to be the most controversial – or comforting – depending on your point of view.

This is where Bell gets to work exploring why God is not like an Oldsmobile, despite the yearnings of some of his followers to go back to the days of the Oldsmobile.

So the Ahead chapter includes reflections on a number of “violent Old Testament passages, the kind that are generally used as evidence for God being behind” (p. 156). Here, Bell concedes that God’s perspective in these passages looks primitive to us in the 21st century. But for those times, Bell claims that God was actually ahead of the culture in areas like appropriate punishments and the treatment of women.

As such, Ahead resonates with Brian McLaren’s view of God in A New Kind of Christianity.McLaren’s more conservative critics dismissed his conception of God as evolutionary and therefore at odds with the commonly held belief that “God doesn’t change.”

Bell pushes further, arguing that it is possible for the church to be behind the culture, trying to pull God back, while “the movement of God … is continuing forward in the culture around them” (p. 169). Readers may be aware that Bell has recently spoken publicly about his approval of same sex marriage, linking this to God pulling us Ahead. Bell also has been critical of the militarization of American culture and the churches’ support for this. As he puts it (p. 170-171):

“The United States has around 6 percent of the world’s population and possesses a little less than half of the world’s weapons. If there were a group of one hundred people, and six of them had half the guns – well, we would have a serious problem.

We need help.”

Finally, So aims to answer the perennial “so what?” question. Or as Bell puts it (p.175):

God with us,

for us,

ahead of us –

that all sounds great,

but what does it look like?

What follows is a chapter that ranges from meditations on temples, Eucharist, the tearing of the curtain at Jesus’ death, to (p. 176):


Comedy clubs,



Dark matter,



And furniture.

If that list doesn’t tickle your imagination, you aren’t paying attention.

Readers looking for a list of what they should “do,” then, will be disappointed. Bell wants toshow us rather than tell us what God’s work in the universe looks like. He wants to encourage us to cultivate an awareness of God as present and at work in everything - not in a cosmic vending machine kind of way, which we can manipulate; but at work in the ordinary routines as well as the joyous and tragic events in our lives.

(* splagchnon is a Greek word for “where our desires reside” (p. 196); it is often translated as “bowels” or “guts.”)

Jay Bakker – Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Book Review and Interview in Belfast Tues 23 April

What is God like? Is doubt harmful to faith? Who do Christians marginalise? Those are just some of the questions explored in a new book by Jay Bakker, Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Walking with the Unknown God (Jericho Books, 2013). Bakker, who will forever be known as the son of scandal-ridden American [...]

Jay Bakker – Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed

What is God like? Is doubt harmful to faith? Who do Christians marginalise? Those are just some of the questions explored in a new book by Jay Bakker, Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Walking with the Unknown God (Jericho Books, 2013).

Bakker, who will forever be known as the son of scandal-ridden American televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, is among the more recognizable leaders in the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). He has been a co-pastor at Revolution Church in NYC, but this month moved to Minneapolis to start another “church in a pub.”His Revolution Church in Minneapolis will meet in Bryant Lake Bowl & Theater from 12 May.

(You can access the event in two ways: purchasing a ticket for the full four-day event at £250, or purchasing a bargain £20 ‘”Fringe” pass that includes the Bakker interview, pub movie night, a lecture by Katherine Sarah Moody, and a gig by Duke Special.)

Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed is written in a similar style to Bakker’s previous book, Fall to Grace – part confessional, part meditation on scripture, and full of passion and humour.

(If you don’t want to miss all of his sly jokes, make sure you read the footnotes.)

Through a series of short vignettes, Bakker shares personal stories, explains why we should read the bible differently, and tells us some of our traditional images such as the God of “wrath,” or the God of “justice,” cannot be accepted as told to us by our (primarily evangelical) churches.

These are themes that are frequently taken up within the ECM, and for those familiar with its “conversation,” there are few surprises in what Bakker has to say. For example, Bakker’s God is not the one who answers the prayers of rich white Americans looking for parking spaces and ignores genocide in Darfur, to have this all explained away as “mystery” or “God’s will.”

Bakker also observes that our Gods tend to hate what we hate, and love what we love (p. 8).

He wants to get beyond that, and for Bakker this happens through “grace” and “love.” Bakker focuses on the “unconditional” aspects of God’s love, pointing out along the way how our churches have placed conditions on love through insisting we sign up to certain beliefs, creating elaborate disciplinary processes when people sin, and ultimately excluding people from our churches.

Critics have already claimed that Bakker’s conception of God neglects “the full gospel of Jesus Christ.” As Aaron Gaglia writes, “We cannot reject the idea of wrath and judgment because it does not mesh with our idea of love.” Conversely, it could be argued that Bakker’s presentation of love is not his alone, but the one presented by Jesus. Indeed this seems to me to be what Bakker is saying. Bakker may interpret the bible very differently than his critics, but it is significant that he still appeals to the bible.

“Doubt” has been a long-standing topic of conversation within the ECM, but Bakker brings fresh perspectives based on his wrenching personal experiences, his friendship and dialogue with Peter Rollins, and Paul Tillich’s theology.

Bakker also produces one of the best one-liners on the relationship between faith and doubt that I’ve come across (p. 185):

“I am no longer concerned with eliminating doubt – my faith has become the life partner of my doubt, and I love how cute they are together.”

For Bakker, embracing doubt means that no questions are off-limits, and it means rejecting the certainty that has been masquerading as “faith.” He writes (p. 174):

“Certainty isn’t faith. … If you’re certain about something, you don’t need faith. … When you have faith in something, you’re open to the idea that you might be wrong. Many in the church have lost their faith and traded it for certainty. In the process, they have lost God.”

Bakker says that the churches’ addiction to certainty means that they are not open to new perspectives and suggestions that they may be wrong on a number of issues, including what is for him one of the most important: Including LGBTQ people fully in the life of the church – without insisting they change their sexual orientation.

In the biographical vignette inside the book, Bakker chooses to describe himself as “a gay rights activist,” so it is clear that this is one of his most pressing concerns. Of all the public figures associated with the ECM, he was among the first to be openly affirming in his congregation and to speak out publicly for LGBTQ inclusion.

For Bakker, this isn’t simply adopting a liberal political agenda; he sees it as following the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus. In Fall To Grace, he supported this position with reflections on scripture and as he does here, argues that Christians’ use of scripture to condemn and exclude LGBTQ people is just like what they did with slaves and women. He writes (p. 107):

“Our rejection of those who don’t fit without our clear-cut worldview is destroying people. Jesus said we would be known by our love, but when it comes to the LGBTQ community, we are known by our uncomfortable silence, our fight against their civil right to marry, our moral outrage, our discrimination, and our stereotyping.”

Further, Bakker challenges Christians who agree with him to ask people to ask their pastors and leaders: “Are we able to welcome and affirm LGBTQ people in our church?” (p. 107). He recounts how pastors and leaders have told him they cannot be affirming, not out of personal conviction, but because they might lose their jobs, other staff might lose their jobs, financial donations would cease, or people would leave their church.

Comparing how Christians used the bible to prohibit interracial dating to the question of LGBTQ inclusion (p. 110-111), Bakker says Christians have no excuse for remaining silent. He recognises that some will lose their jobs, financial security, be kicked out of their churches, and so on. Bakker has himself experienced these things, which makes his call to action more credible. (You can watch him speak about this in the video below.)

As he says, “I don’t want to be the person who says nothing. And so I’m going to keep talking” (p. 112).

Bakker’s point about what Christians have to lose by affirming LGBTQ people, or by espousing the “radical” ideas about God, doubt and the bible that are developing within the ECM, hit home for me when reading the “Writer’s Note” at the end of the book by Andy Meisenheimer. He worked with Bakker in writing the book.

Meisenheimer says that:

“one of the very first things Jay ever told me on the phone was that I was going to need a pseudonym to write with him. … Jay was just worried that my career in Christian publishing would tank after I became associated with him” (p. 188).

Meisenheimer  proclaims that he wants his name to be associated with these ideas, and the action that Bakker advocates. What about us?