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What We Talk About When We Talk About GodHarperOne, New York March 12, 2013
Bell is “a bestselling author and international teacher and speaker” (dust jacket). His latest book is “about seeing, about becoming more alive and more aware, orienting ourselves around the God who I believe is the ground of our being, the electricity that lights up the whole house, the transcendent presence in our tastes, sights, and sensations of the depth and dimension and fullness of life, from joy to agony to everything else” (p. 15). He identifies his starting point this way: “First, I’m a Christian, and so Jesus is how I understand God. I realize that for some people, hearing talk about Jesus shrinks and narrows the discussion about God, but my experience has been the exact opposite. My experiences of Jesus have opened my mind and my heart to a bigger, wider, more expansive and mysterious and loving God who I believe is actually up to something in the world” (p. 14).
His intended audience is also clearly identified. As a pastor, Bell had many conversations with people about God and faith. “What I’ve experienced time and time again is that people want to talk about God. Whether it’s what they were taught growing up or not taught, or what inspires them or what repulses them, or what gives them hope or what fills them with despair, I’ve found people to be extremely keen to talk about their beliefs and lack of beliefs in God. What I’ve observed is that while we want more of a connection with the reverence humming within us, we often don’t know where to begin or what steps to take or what that process even looks like” (pp. 14–15). And this is true, he believes, for many Christians as well as non-Christians.
The book is written in typical Bell style, with a conversational tone. It is divided into chapters with one-word titles: God is “with us,” “for every single one of us,” and “ahead of people, tribes, and culture” (pp. 18–19). Two introductory chapters argue that we should be “open” to God and recognize 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” (pp. 16–17).
In “Open,” Bell discusses the bigness and the smallness of the universe. From black holes, neutron stars, and Einstein’s theory of relativity to Higgs Boson, gluons, and the Heisenberg principle, he opens the reader’s eyes to the complexity and diversity of the universe and thus to the wonder of her Creator. His point is that “when we talk about God, then, we’re talking about something very real and yet beyond our conventional means of analysis and description” (p. 63, emphasis removed).
In “Both,” Bell illustrates some of the challenges of theological language. He summarizes the task this way: “So when we talk about God we’re using language, language that employs a vast array of words and phrases and forms to describe a reality that is fundamentally beyond words and phrases and forms” (p. 87, emphasis removed). His treatment of the relationship between faith and doubt is particularly helpful: “Faith and doubt aren’t opposites. Doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that it’s alive and well and exploring and searching” (p. 92). John Calvin wrote something similar: “When we say that faith must be certain and secure, we certainly speak not of an assurance which is never affected by doubt, nor a security which anxiety never assails; we rather maintain that believers have a perpetual struggle with their own distrust, and are thus far from thinking that their consciences possess a placid quiet, uninterrupted by perturbation” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960], 3.2.17).
In “With,” Bell affirms the omnipresence of God. God does not merely “show up” in unusual and unexpected ways, since he is always present with us. Bell’s view of God’s presence in the world is not pantheism, as he makes clear (p. 109). Of course, God is also transcendent, which Bell could have made more explicit.
In God is “For” us, Bell defends the incarnation as evidence that God loves us. Jesus is, he writes, “the divine and the human existing in the same place. In the same body” (p. 131, emphasis removed). He continues, “In Jesus, we see the God who bears the full brunt of our freedom, entering into the human story, carrying our pain and sorrow and sin and despair and denials of God, and then, as the story goes, being resurrected three days later. For the first Christians, that was the compelling part, the unexpected twist on Jesus’s life, the ending that’s really a beginning. They saw in Jesus’s resurrection a new era in human consciousness, a new way to see the world being birthed, a way in which death does not have the last word” (p. 145).
That God is “Ahead” of us means that God is “pulling us forward” (p. 153). Bell argues that God works within human culture to draw people “forward, into greater and greater shalom and respect and rights and peace and dignity and equality. It’s as if human history were progressing along a trajectory, an arc, a continuum; and sacred history is the capturing and recording of those moments when people become aware that they were being called and drawn and pulled forward by the divine force and power and energy that gives life to everything” (pp. 164–65). In short, Bell argues that God is at work redemptively in His world and that He is leading history toward a new creation.
In a final chapter, “So,” Bell argues that humans are the presence of God in this world. From the temple, to Jesus, to the indwelling Spirit, God has been present and active in His world in the midst of His people. He writes, “A temple is meaningful and useful and helpful because it gives humans a way of conceiving of the idea of the holy and sacred. . . . You have to construct a temple to teach the idea of holy and sacred, but in doing that you risk that people will incorrectly divide the world up into two realms and distinctions that don’t actually exist” (p. 181). Jesus’ death brought “an end to the idea that God is confined to a temple because the whole world is a temple, the whole earth is holy, holy, holy, as the prophet Isaiah said” (pp. 181–82). Of course, this is a bit overstated, since Solomon expressed a similar idea about the temple not containing God in 1 Kings 8:27–30. Bell goes on to argue that “we are the temple. There is a new place where God dwells, and it’s us” (p. 182). Bell could have made it clearer that by “us” he means the church, not just all humanity (cf. Eph. 2:22).
Bell writes for an audience on the fringes of Christianity. He generally avoids using “insider” language, and he writes conversationally. This is his great strength and also a significant weakness. He raises good questions, reflects what people are thinking, and often leaves a great deal of mystery in his answers. Readers will often wish for more, and that’s perhaps the point. This is prolegomena to Theology Proper, not a theological tome.
There is much to commend in this book. Bell is correct that many people are interested in talking about God, some of what people believe about God is not worthy of Him, and some of what people have been taught needs to be corrected. Bell helps his readers expand their view of the God who is beyond our ability to understand completely. Bell’s assertions that God is with us, for us, and ahead of us are helpful. Paul says something very similar in his sermon at the Areopagus. It is, thus, a bit surprising to look through a long list of scriptural references and not see Acts 17 cited.
Yet several cautions are necessary. What is not clear in this book is that God’s relationship with believers is different from His relationship with nonbelievers. Somewhere in the book there could have been a clearer explanation of the need to come to know this God through faith in His Son Jesus. Granted that all humans have a great deal in common when talking about God, there is a significant difference between “us” (all humanity) and “us” (redeemed humanity). Bell does not make this clear.
Bell is right to emphasize that “at the heart of Jesus’ message is to be the kind of person who is for everybody. Especially people who aren’t Christians. This is why Jesus talked so much about loving our enemies. To love God is to love those whom God loves, and God blesses and loves and gives and is generous with everybody” (p. 150). Of course, this is correct. Yet, it is also true that God’s treatment of believers is different from His treatment of unbelievers. Since Bell’s Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011) seems to imply the possibility of universalism, readers can likely assume a similar view here. And Bell does nothing to clarify his position on that issue.
Still, this book is less provocative than some of Bell’s earlier works. It is an easy and entertaining read. The presentation is engaging. It expands the reader’s appreciation of the greatness of the Godhead. It should be read carefully and charitably. But it is also, perhaps, not fair to criticize this one for what he did not say in it. Also, Bell has recently endorsed same sex marriage. Disagreeing with him about this does not require the rejection of everything he says, but it is a reminder that he must be read carefully and critically.
Fans of Bell will likely resonate with this book. His critics will likely suspect that there is a great deal he is not saying and will be more skeptical. Perhaps fans and critics should read the book together and discuss its strengths and weaknesses. The book is helpful for people on the fringes of Christianity, but even church and ministry leaders might find their view of God enlarged.