What We Talk About When We Talk About God (WWTAG) is the first book Rob Bell has written since Love Wins blew up the internet. Since then, Rob has stepped down from his position as Lead pastor at Mars Hill, the church he founded, and moved to the Los Angeles area.
Writing book reviews is always tricky. But when Rob Bell writes a book, that review is even harder because you almost have to write a review about Rob himself before you can talk about the book. Well, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stick to the book itself. If you like Rob, you’ll probably like this book. If you don’t like Rob, I doubt you’ll like it. This review is for people who are more interested in God than Rob Bell.
WWTAG launches conversations about God into the twenty-first century.
Rob opens by acknowledging a problem many in the Church are afraid to face: for many outside the Church (and a growing number inside, too) the way we talk about God feels at best stale and outdated and at worst dangerous and primitive. Rob asks if God can keep up with the modern world.
The question is rhetorical. Rob immediately confesses that the God he finds in the Old and New Testament Scriptures, the God revealed in Jesus, isn’t behind us somewhere, trying to keep up. Rather, God is ahead of us, calling us into a better future.
Rob uses the story of Jacob dreaming of a ladder to Heaven. When Jacob wakes, he confesses that God was there even though he didn’t know it. The story reminds us that
God hasn’t changed; it’s Jacob who wakes up to a whole new awareness of who – and where – God is.
How do we talk about God in the wake of Modernity?
Rob offers three concepts: God is with us, for us and ahead of us. Contrary to the distant god of Modernist Deism, God is working around us, near us, accessible to us. But Rob is clear that this is not pantheism. God is not everything. We are not God. God is with us.
Contrary to the moralistic god of Modernist Humanism, God invites us to discover the persons we were created to be. God came among us as Jesus not to give us a list of rules, to legislate us into persons God could tolerate, but to show us the way back to life. But Rob is clear that this is not Prosperity Gospel. Jesus’ good news is radical, counterintuitive.
Contrary to the primitive, tribalistic god who can’t keep up with Modernity, a god of the gaps whose realm constantly loses ground to the onslaught of Science, God is ahead of us, calling humanity forward to be a better people. Every day is a chance to move another “click” forward as a people.
The primary criticism that’ll be leveled against WWTAG will be its Progressivist bent.
Rob tackles the very difficult Scriptures of the Old Testament – like the genocides in Joshua and “eye for an eye” in Exodus by claiming that God meets human cultures where they are and then calls them forward. So what might be progressive in one culture (“Eye for an eye” in the nomadic, post-Exodus Israelite culture) can become regressive by Jesus’ day.
Rob argues that the whole of Scripture is God calling humanity forward, and that in our interpretation we should always be looking forward too (since that’s where God is – ahead of us). Here Rob leans most clearly towards classical liberalism. But even still, he’s grounded squarely within Orthodoxy.
If you accept any sort of progressive revelation, it’s hard to see how you can avoid Rob’s conclusions.
Rob believes that God is taking the world somewhere, that God is calling us all to participate in that, and that we have the responsibility to be the people we were created to be.
At the same time, Rob never denies the reality of Sin, the hopelessness of humanity left to our own devices and he never denies that human nature hasn’t gotten any better.
And for Rob, the answer to this dilemma is nothing but Jesus himself. Jesus is the sword that cuts through the Gordian knot of our sinfulness and opens the way into God’s better future.
So why do we need to read this book?
WWTAG sounds exactly like the conversations I have over and over with people who genuinely want to know God but can’t comprehend the god presented to them by the Church. Rob offers the Church new ways to talk about God that are still wholly faithful to the Church’s historic witness to Jesus.
And we need new ways to talk about God. Not because God has changed. But because we have.
If you don’t like Rob, you probably won’t like WWTAG. If you’re in the Church and you don’t see any problem with the way the Church has always talked about God, this book will probably just make you mad.
But if you have ever wondered how the Old Testament God fits with what you know about Jesus, give it a try. If you have ever cringed at the battle between faith and science and wondered if there’s a better way, read it. If you have a hard time ditching the idea that God is a distant judge waiting to condemn you, read WWTAG.
And we all know people who have these same questions. So get two copies of this book, and read it with a friend. Enjoy the new conversations about God this book will spark.
Bottom Line: What We Talk About When We Talk About God offers a compelling post-modern incarnation of biblical theology. Read it with a friend, because you’ll want to talk about it.
YOUR TURN: Will you read WWTAG? What image of God do you find most compelling?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free for review purposes from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”