Rob Bell, Visionary or Heretic?

(Edit, September 21, 2018. I wrote this review some five years ago. While I would no longer defend Rob Bell, I am proud of this review so I’m leaving it up. If you’d like to discuss why I see Rob Bell’s theological framework as dangerous, feel free to contact me in the comments below.)

This post originally appeared April 11, 2013.

Well, as promised, here is my review of Rob Bell’s newest book What We Talk About When We Talk About God.

This review is broken up into three sections:  In the first section I will give a brief synopsis–an overview of the book’s movements and main points.  The second section will be my space for comments and personal insight, and the final section will be where I will suggest some possible applications and moving points that the book could create.

I. What’s going on?

The big question that Rob is wanting to answer can be summed up as follows: Is God like an Oldsmobile?

Or, in other worlds, is God old fashion? Has humanity outgrown our need for God? Was God relevant to life at one point but now no longer needed because we have things like science and government?

Rob’s answer is no, but, for this to be shown, he thinks that we need to rework the way that we think about and talk about God.

Rob shows this by splitting the book into 4 sections:

  1. Intro: Chapter 1 (Hum)
  2. Set:  Chapters 2 & 3 (Open, Both)
  3. Backbone:  Chapters 4-6 (With, For, Ahead)
  4. Now what?: Chapter 7 (So)

To keep this section as short as possible (and to prevent me from giving too much away) I will briefly comment on each section.

1. Intro

There is little that needs to be said here.   Typical intro and set up work going on in the first chapter.  And, as usual, Rob’s writing is captivating–I always find myself wondering how anyone can write with such eloquence.

2. Set

This section is where things really start to take off.  I titled it “set” because the two points that Rob wants to make here is the God is open (chapter 2) and God is both (chapter 3), and these points form the base for what Rob calls the “backbone” of the book (section 3).

God is open meaning, God isn’t this closed reality we think he is.  If you are one for quantum mechanics and theoretical physics then this chapter is for you.  Also, this chapter should (and hopefully will) blow your mind (unless you are a theoretical physicist of course).

God is both–close and near.  In this section Rob explores the paradoxical nature of God.  Sometimes we feel like we know God but yet he also seems too far away and mystical–all at the same time!  We can talk about him in words, and yet he seems to transcend all words.  Here Rob also talks about how we even describe our own feelings and experiences.

What Rob is trying to show is that God is open and moving and that he (and life) are both physical and spiritual.  All of this to move to what he really wants to say…

3. Backbone

Here is the real meat of the book.  The main points that Rob is wanting to communicate are the following:

God is with us.  He isn’t some sort of being that is floating in space, but rather he is close and intimately involved in our very existence.

God is for us.  God being with us is because he is for us.

God is ahead.  Not only is God with us and acting for us, but he is also ahead of us guiding our way and bring humanity closer to himself.

4. Now what?

So… what do we do now?  That is exactly what Rob does in this section, and he says it better than I can, so I’m going to leave that up to him.

II.  Thoughts?

This section is less important, so if you want to stop reading here, feel free. However, I would appreciate comments so I can know how to improve my reviewing skills in the future.

What is my opinion?  This book was needed.  It does several important things for Christianity.  (1) It challenges Christians to think about God in relation to some of the cutting edge research in science.  (2) It shows that God may work differently than many of us think.  This includes both Christians and non-Christians alike.  (3) It shows God’s transcendence yet reminds us of his immanence.  What does this mean?  God is above all and beyond all, however, he is also intimately involved in life and sustaining his creation.

If I had to rate this book among other books in pop-Christian culture, I would place it at the top of the field.  Not only does Rob write beautifully, but he also communicates a deeply needed message within American, evangelical Christianity.

This is also possibly Rob’s best book.  I can’t say this with complete confidence because it has been a while since I have read his earlier ones.  It rates up there with Love Wins–maybe not as controversial–but just as needed.

III.  Real Life?

This section may be the most important…or maybe not.

What do we do with this book?  What do we do with Rob Bell?

Well…Rob has been deemed a heretic by much of the evangelical world.  He effectively set himself apart from most of the church with Love Wins.  However, is Rob really a heretic?  I don’t think so.  Without going too far into this issue, I think we need to remember that God isn’t as “black and white” as we think.  Also, the Bible isn’t as black and white either.  This is where Rob comes in.  He is really good at reminding us of this, and in such a beautiful, poetic way!

So…this book.  I think we should share it.  If you like how this book sounds, share my review with your friends.  Even better…buy the book and then share it.  If you don’t want to share your copy, recommend it to a friend.

Rob’s books may not be the best books out there, but they point to something bigger.  A movement…  Not just any movement, but the movement of the body of Christ, his holy, catholic church.  The Western Church must move or we will die.  I know I’m not going to miss the bus, will you?

Hope this has been helpful.  I want to write more of these, so if you enjoyed it let me know.  It will encourage me to read and write more.  Also, please feel free to comment.  I love conversation and would love to talk about these ideas more, especially after you read the book.