Rob Bell’s new book came out this week: What We Talk About When We Talk About God. In line with his previous offerings, it’s a conversational, thought-provoking monologue designed to raise questions and stimulate discussion.
It’s been two years since the release of Love Wins, a book that challenged traditional evangelical conceptions of hell and eternity. Bell has since left the pastorate and embraced a new role as a post-evangelical spiritual advisor of sorts. He is positioning himself more as an artist than theologian, more poet than preacher.
That said, his poetry preaches. So what’s the sermon?
The gist of Bell’s new book is that the world is humming with spirituality. Far from being distant and removed, God is present in our lives. We need to be reawakened to Him; we need the eyes to see Him at work. Dogmas and doctrines just get in the way of truly experiencing God. What once helped us now harms us and holds us back. But God is ahead of us, beckoning us forward to the new world that is coming.
Before challenging Bell on a few points, I think it’s good to mention some things that church leaders (especially traditional evangelicals) can take away from his book.
Ability to Create Memorable Pictures
The first has to do with communication skills. Bell is compelling because of the vivid way he describes things.
For example, take a look at this scene where Bell recounts a conversation with a friend going through a divorce:
He told me about their history together and how it got them to this point and what it’s doing to her and what it’s doing to him and what it’s like for him to go grocery shopping and then go back to his new apartment, all alone.
Somewhere in our conversation the full force of what he was saying hit me — divorce, the effect on their kids, the image of both of them at some point taking off their wedding rings.
Note the poetic way Bell puts together the first run-on sentence, letting us feel the misery of an unraveling marriage without pause or breath. Then look at the imagery of the divorce, the picture of two people taking their rings off.
This is just one example of how Bell utilizes language to create mental pictures. I could fill the rest of this review with similar illustrations. And while Bell’s artistic sensibilities aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (I grow weary from watching him weigh down verbs with multiple adverbs), there’s no question he can make a point in a memorable way.
Tapping Into Spiritual Yearnings
A second takeaway is Bell’s ability to capture the sense that spirituality is breaking through the scientific, closed world that undergirds secularism.
There’s a memorable picture from N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian that imagines secularism as a dictatorship that puts down concrete as pavement over “dangerous” springs of water. All goes well, for a time, but the hidden springs eventually bubble up and erupt through the pavement.
In a similar way, Bell is tapping into the spiritual yearning of many people in our post-Christian culture. According to Bell, everyone is a “person of faith,” even the most ardent skeptic. The question is not if we have beliefs, but what those beliefs are.