On Wednesday I wrote about ten things I liked about Rob Bell’s latest book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. The purpose of today’s post is to see if Bell succeeds in not just having an open mind, but in clamping down on something theologically solid. As you might expect, this kind of clamping is not Bell’s forte. I want to raise five red flags where I think Bell misses the mark or doesn’t even bother to aim for the target.
1. Revelation. An overarching premise of this book is that everyone has an awareness of God. Everyone experiences this “hum.” So far so good, and this is nothing new. Romans 1 is pretty clear about this, and John Calvin calls it the sensus divinitatis. Other theologians like to talk about the idea of general revelation, or God revealing himself in a general way and to all people through creation.
Whereas Bell acknowledges general revelation, he is dismissive of special revelation. He specifically mentions revelation only one time in the book, and he reduces it to “God told us” so therefore we know it’s true. But before revelation is a telling, it is a doing. Revelation is the drama of God’s action (including speech) on the world stage. We know who God is because he enters into relationship with us and reveals himself to us. The Bible is part of this revelation as well, and it’s not merely a textbook telling us what’s true and what to do. The Bible is inspired by God as a transcript of a historical drama and a prescript for our own participation in that same drama.
Bell dismisses data-dump revelation, but so do I and almost every other Christian. Revelation–God communicating and demonstrating and giving himself to his creation–is precisely how God is with us, for us, and ahead of us.
2. Transcendence. Bell rightly emphasizes that God is everywhere. Sometimes we forget that and live as if we serve a God who is merely distant. But God is distant in a certain sense. God is close because he became human and his presence fills the earth, but there is still an infinite distance between us and God because God is God and we are not. In theological terms, God is immanent and he is transcendent. When God is immanent, he doesn’t lose his transcendence, and vice versa. As much as Bell loves paradox, he seems to avoid this one. But without this paradox, we lose the heart of Christianity: the God above is the God who is with us. The infinite God is the God who is for us. (Derek Rishmawy makes a similar point in his excellent review, appropriately calling this book Bell’s Areopagus speech.)
The history of theology is all about pendulum swings, the greatest one being the swing between the God who is near and the God who is far away. Yes, traditional theology has sometimes overemphasized the transcendence of God to the neglect of his immanence. Unfortunately, Bell commits the classic plunder of swinging that pendulum and overemphasizing immanence to the neglect of transcendence. There really is nothing new under the sun.
3. Reasonable Feeling. Reason and intellectual headiness does not fare well in Bell’s narrative. In fact, over-reliance on reason is largely responsible for misguided God-talk. Instead of relying on reason, Bell wants us to revel in paradox, to embrace our holistic experience of God, and not to reduce it to knowledge. At certain points, it is uncanny how much Bell sounds like Kierkegaard, especially since Kierkegaard never appears in the notes. The similarity is striking: both are critical of the established order, both emphasize paradox, both cling to faith instead of knowledge, and both have nice hair. (Just checking to see you’re still reading; but seriously, add some volume to Bell’s hair, and don’t you see the similarity?)
As I indicated in the “what I liked” post, I applaud Bell’s holistic perspective on faith as involving our bodies and emotions. But his skittishness of reason belies another false dichotomy between reason and experience, between doctrine and life. Given Bell’s love for paradox and opposites, I’m surprised he doesn’t see this one. Christian faith is experienced, but it is reasonably experienced. That is, we can’t explain everything, but everything does make sense. Doctrines help us see how Christian belief makes sense because they are based on a real, historical drama. I wouldn’t necessarily say, as Trevin Wax does, that Bell has no place for dogma. Bell does sketch out several doctrines, but mostly to try to explain the hum: our feelings of God. Hmmm … sounds quite a bit like Schleiermacher. (Less similarity in the hair, though.)
4. Gospel. At one point, Bell describes the Gospel as God meeting you in your darkest moment and being on your side. In other words, no matter how rubbish you feel, God is with you. This is certainly true, but before the Gospel is about God meeting me, it is about God in Jesus fulfilling a promise and enacting a historical drama. The Gospel is that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, God in the flesh, who came to bring the covenant drama to its climax by dying as the ultimate sacrifice and rising again as Lord of the universe. The Gospel is personal and experiential (God is for me and you!), but before that the Gospel is historical (God in Christ by the Spirit accomplished salvation and reigns as Lord). You can’t have the personal part of the good news without the historical part. I’m not saying that Bell denies these historical realities. In fact, there is some good stuff in the “For” chapter about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his victorious resurrection. But when Bell talk specifically about the Good News, he is referring primarily to what this news means for us rather than the events themselves. I may have misread this, but this is at least my impression.
5. God-talk. Finally, Bell may have saved himself and his readers some angst if he was able to recognize that we already words and stories that tell us how to talk about God. We have the Bible. Bell says some good stuff about how the Bible is not a backward book, but he does not affirm that the Bible is the very Word of God given to us so we know who God is and what he has done. For sure,the Bible is full of metaphors and different kinds of literature, so we can’t take everything literally, but we can be assured that everything the Bible communicates is trustworthy and true. The Bible doesn’t come close to communicating everything there is to know about God, but what it does communicate is sufficient for us to repent, believe, and enter into relationship with Jesus.
Matt Jenson is right that Bell is much better at raising questions than providing answers, and this proves the point. If we want to know what we are talking about when we talk about God, we need to read and digest Scripture. If we want to talk well about God, a good place to begin is to pray the Psalms, meditate on the Law, learn the History, follow the Wisdom, grasp the Gospels, and listen to the Prophets and every other portion of Scripture. It is through these stories, poems, proverbs, letters, and visions that we learn to talk about and relate to God who is with us, for us, and ahead of us. So…if we want to learn how to talk about God, we first need to shut our mouths and listen to God speak.