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What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

The best part of the book is Bell’s gentle, but firm, challenge to those who refuse to believe anything science can’t prove. For centuries, skeptics who challenged the dominant religious dogma related to miracles were seen as open-minded, willing to step into a further stage of enlightenment and challenge the prevailing religious consensus. Today, now that secularism is the consensus, Bell turns the tables and casts the scientific skeptic as the closed-minded logician who fails to leave room for the mysterious, the mystical and the soul. Science fails to deliver explanations that resonate with our experience, and Bell wisely exploits this failure of the materialist worldview.

Wonder and Awe at Existence

This challenge to secularism leads to the biggest surprise of the book — a lengthy chapter in which Bell delves into the physical cosmology of the universe. His goal is to wow readers with the wonder of existence. And, in large part, he succeeds. Even with the evolutionary anthropology he assumes, Bell shows the weirdness of the world and why we ought to be amazed at life.

No Place for Dogma

Unfortunately, the strengths of the book are outweighed by the vagueness of Bell’s way of talking about God. Nowhere is this more evident than his treatment of traditional Christian teaching.

For example, Bell chides religious people for their certainty. He believes certainty about God has limits. We have to leave the door open for mystery. Knowing always takes place in the middle of unknowing. People who talk with too much certainty about God are attractive because people want to be right, but we should resist the allure of the religious know-it-all.

It’s true that the Christian should have the humility to recognize that no one has exhaustive knowledge of God or truth. To point out our finiteness is not only humble; it’s really the way things are! There is no way to know everything we could know when we talk about God.

But Bell seems to make the jump from humility due to our inability to have exhaustive knowledge, to the newly defined “humility” that says we can’t have certainty about anything.

Certainty is suspect. Except, of course, when it comes to the certainty of the harm traditional theology can cause. On this, Bell leaves no room for ambiguity. Our view of God may be foggy, but our view of fundamentalists is clear.

He writes:

You can believe something with so much conviction that you’d die for that belief,

and yet in the same moment

you can also say, “I could be wrong … ”

This is because conviction and humility, like faith and doubt, are not opposites; they’re dance partners. It’s possible to hold your faith with open hands, living with great conviction and yet at the same time humbly admitting that your knowledge and perspective will always be limited.” (93)

First, it’s hard to imagine martyrs giving their lives when they think they might be wrong. Nothing would cause me to rethink and renege on my certainty than facing a lion in a coliseum.

Secondly, notice how Bell says we should have conviction and humility, as if these two things are opposites, like faith and doubt. He appears to see “humility” not as the gracious stance of someone who has tasted and seen the Lord is good, but as the willingness to hold doctrines loosely, as if certainty and humility can’t coincide.

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Trevin Wax is first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. Trevin currently serves the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. He has been a regular blogger since 2006 and regularly contributes articles to publications such as Christianity Today. He authored two books, "Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals" (2010) and "Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope" (2011).