Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rob Bell Has Come Out...with a new book. O yea, and as affirming of gay marriage, too.

Rob Bell has come out...

...with a new book.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God is more or less a culmination of Rob Bell's progressive and evolving theological convictions that eventually led to his departure from Mars Hill Bible Church. While the Evangelical world tends to stop and quiver anytime Bell speaks, or writes, or releases yet another vignette with dramatic pauses and obscure metaphors (like Oldsmobiles), I found his latest publication everything but controversial, ground-breaking, or worth Tweeting statements like "Farewell, Rob Bell" or "R.I.P. Rob Bell."

Instead, per the usual, I consider his work a welcome resource within my library of What I Try to Talk About When I Try to Talk About God with those who may not be interested in pouring their life into dense theology, philosophy and cultural exegesis.

That is, I liked it. Not as much as some of his others, but I liked it. I will recommend it, with fair warning- he talks a lot about quantum physics. But hang in there.

Bell has a knack for communicating complexity with clarity, for which I am envious and grateful. The pastor/film maker/writer/innovator/preacher/practitioner cleverly draws readers into the good news of God's love, which wins every single time.

However, what many readers often miss is that Rob is not saying anything new. Instead, books like Love Wins and What We Talk About... are rephrasings and anthologies of Christian theology that have been reduced to the margins by Evangelicals, yet embraced by mainliners and progressives for centuries. Just read his endnotes :) And if you are looking for more well-versed theology, read the primary sources instead.


Paul Tillich.

Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Richard Rohr.

And my favorite, Karl Barth.

That's right, while some claim that Rob Bell is spitting out reverberations of Process Theology, which he certainly may, I find his work also reflective of the greatest theologian of the twentieth century- Karl Barth.

The thrust of his book hinges on God being forever for us in the person of Jesus. Better said, Jesus is God's universal YES to humanity and NO to anything that distorts God's intentions for all that God made as good and beautiful. See Barth.

Bell also reiterates much of his rhetoric from his speaking tour, The God's Aren't Angry, by underscoring God as "pulling us forward." That is, God continually propels us into God's new creation work and reconciliation of all things. God is not situated in the past. God is on the move and in the process of changing the world; a process that culminated in the resurrection of Christ. Barth says it this way:

“As such and with independent truth and power calling is man’s forward direction to God as his future, his new creation as a being which not only derives from the sentence of God in faith and is placed under his present direction in love but beyond that receives and embraces His promise in hope, looking forward therefore and moving forward to Him” (Church Dogmatics, IV. 4 p. 109).

Yet the most telling affirmation of Bell and Barth as (should be) "dance partners," to borrow yet another of his favorite images, is his insistence that God cannot be fully possessed or contained. The moment we think we have fully understood or possessed God, we have actually missed God altogether. We will have turned God into another idol, maybe the worst kind- absolute theological and dogmatic certainty.

Ah, Barth would be proud, "Theology must describe the dynamic interrelationships which make this procession comparable to a bird in flight, in contrast to a caged bird" (Evangelical Theology 10).

God is free and uncontainable, neither by Barth nor Bell. Not by this blogger or any Evangelical critic.

Still more, while Rob Bell may be trying to give a nod to his good friend, Peter Rollins by citing him:

"When it comes to talking about God, that which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop talking" (96).

Again, that's Barth, not Rollins or Bell:

"As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give glory to God” (The Word of God and the Word of Man, 186).

I say all this not because I am disappointed, rather thankful. I am not frustrated, simply bewildered. What others talk about when they talk about the rejection of Bell and his theology is actually nothing new. I also don't think it's honest.

What others are really talking about is the rejection of what has already been said before.

I also think what many are talking about is envy and fear. Critics are envious of his ability to speak with authenticity and clarity what many of us, maybe most of us, are actually thinking. They envy his ability to communicate the gospel in a way that actually draws cynics and skeptics into the community of faith others have been trying to preserve and defend for so long. Many envy his creativity and reputation with artists, poets, film makers, the Dalai Lama, and Desmund Tutu, who are working for the transformation of creation. Many may envy that God is actually at work in the other, the different, the liberal, and those who do not fit within labeled theological boxes.

Many may also fear he may actually be on to something that challenges how we go about our work, our witness, and our approach to Christian theology and mission.

O yea, and Rob Bell also came out... affirming of gay marriage. (listen to the excellent interview here)

Many fear that, too.

But I am grateful, because what he talks about when he talks about God is extremely helpful for furthering the conversation about faith, gospel, and life lived as a disciple of Jesus within an ever-changing world that still longs for good news.

That's what I want to talk about. What about you?

"The beautiful thing would be if evangelical came to mean buoyant, joyful, honest announcement about all of us receiving the grace of God and then together giving back to make the world the kind of place God always dreamed it could be."

---Rob Bell

Related Posts:

An Invitation to Rob Bell by Greg Carey (Huffington Post)

Rob Bell Comes Out for Marriage Equality by Greg Carey (Huffington Post)

Why Rob Bell Still Matters to Me by Tim Ghali

Why Rob Bell Still Matters by Tony Jones

Karl Barth and the Doctrine of the Word of God: The Beginning and End of Missional Proclamation


  1. Here is my two cents, and my two cents ain't worth much. All debates surrounding Bell have nothing to do with 'Hell'or 'Homosexuality' or 'Whatever.' They instead pertain to how Christians approach the scriptures. Those in the traditional Evangelical camp typically still hold to the idea that the Bible is inerrant. While this is preposterous to believe when one actually reads the Bible, it does still hold a certain internal logic, e.g. Bible says gayness is wrong so gayness must be wrong. Other's don't believe the Bible is inerrant, for obvious reasons, so they can be more 'liberal' with their believes and instead base those beliefs on an underlying theme rather than a few misplaced verses. Bell is simply mastered the art of posing as an Evangelical while thinking like... well, everyone else who's not an Evangelical. Kudos to him. But, opinions on these issue will not change until Evangelicals change their views on the Bible thus making them no longer Evangelicals? The greater problem is that the Evangelical church has done such a disservice to, well, everyone that the church as a whole has lost its voice in America. In short, outside the Evangelical church, no one cares what Rob Bell thinks, which means he probably needs the Evangelical church to stick around if he want to keep selling books ;)

    1. As always, or at least often, you are right on. Bell is brilliant and accessible, something few have mastered. We need to return to an ancient Hebrew understanding of the role of Scripture, which was to provoke dialogue and self-critique, as in even of the scriptures themselves. Read any of the Jewish commentary and you will see few agreements and mostly give Anne take debate and push. The Scriptures carved a way for being in the world versus an ascent to absolute certainty via Cartesian influence. It's about time we shed off the need to arrive an instead move towards a new openness. But now I sound like a good PCUSA pastor :) see foundations of Presbyterian polity... keep commenting. I miss our conversations when u lived in PA.

      P.S. don't say inerrancy, makes me shutter...

  2. Hi Greg--just now came across your blog as a result of reading Tony Jones' comments on Rob Bell. I love your comments above. Totally agree that Bell is a brilliant communicator on issues that most evangelicals have not honestly considered. They are almost certain never to have read Barth, or any theologian outside the evangelical circle. And as Braden comments, the attachment to the "inerrancy" notion of scripture is a barrier to much questioning at all. I love the Jewish notion of scripture's purpose being to stimulate dialogue and self critique. We certainly could use more of that in Christian churches today.

    1. I joked today that they demonize Bell because they finally understand some of those sources often labeled heretical by other prominent evangelicals. I think many who write Bell off do so because they are told to by their "superiors" and pastors. Yet, if they were left to their own accord, would possibly give it a chance and consider alternative and willingness to be open. I pray for them because I can empathize with where they are...

    2. What is interesting to me is that statics now show that over 80% of voters under the age of 30 support gay marriage. The statistic itself isn't interesting, as I'd assume such... instead, what it interesting is that this suggests that the voting public under the age of 30 derived their conclusions and opinions on this issue completely separate from, or outside of, the church's opinion or position. As a result, those under 30 are less likely to be influenced or impressed with Bell's position and are instead more likely to think "it's about f*** time."