What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

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I’ve recently finished reading Rob Bell’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” which, in my mind, is not only a brilliant title for a book, but a brilliant book as well. In it Rob uses three words to describe God:

WITH

FOR

and AHEAD.

Using just these three words, and in typical Rob Bell style, he manages to communicate deep theological issues and profound spiritual truths in a way that is relevant, clear, and compelling.

But this blog is not about the content of the book – rather the author himself. What I find fascinating is that very little Rob says is breathtakingly new, neither is it completely wacky or fundamentalist. And yet, at least in Christian circles, it seems you either hate him or you love him. And you must choose one or the other. I even know of a church where the pastor told the congregation they are not allowed to read any of Bell’s books for fear of being “led astray”. What the what?! That sounds more like Nazi Germany to me. Certainly not the Church – a place where faith and doubt can be wrestled with, and where it is safe to ask questions.

And that’s really what I love most about Rob Bell: his willingness to ask big questions, and to be OK with not having all the answers.

Now that’s not to say I necessarily agree with everything he says, but that’s the beauty of it – you don’t have to. In general I find him incredibly humble in offering his insights, and he’s often the first to admit he could be wrong or have totally missed the point. I think Rob also has an uncanny ability to cut through the bullsh*t that surrounds so much of religion these days, and get to the real heart of the matter. The thing behind the thing.

So why then do so many hate/fear/criticise Rob Bell?

Perhaps it’s because we like to have black and white answers. Answers we can control and that fit nicely into our predefined theology or ideas about God. Perhaps it’s because Rob has a wonderful ability to rub up against and irritate religious people far more than irreligious people (kind of like Jesus!). Perhaps its because he challenges the status quo. Perhaps it’s simply because we’re afraid of questions we don’t have all the answers for.

So what do you think about Rob Bell? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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8 Comments on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

  1. Hi Tom

    Interesting post as usual.

    I like you point about the church being “a place where faith and doubt can be wrestled with, and where it is safe to ask questions.” Tim Keller holds a similar view: the enemy of faith is both Atheism AND blind faith (not childlike faith, which is good, but rather faith that does not wrestle with difficult questions in order to find suitable conclusions). Therefore a church that either denies or discourages doubts, fears and tough questions is not building strong faith; its breaking it down.

    I agree that Bell is definitely a polarizing figure in the church. Though by the looks of his most recent thoughts regarding homosexuality, he is definitely not doing himself a favor.
    The way people (mostly pastors) often treat him and publicly degrade him is totally uncalled for.
    I really appreciate the fact that he is willing to ask the questions no one else probably wants to, I would just want to add two important things:

    1. Who are you directing your questions to?
    Maxwell’s “Fathers, Friends, and Followers” gives us a nice framework within which we can think about leadership. I would say that as a leader (which Bell is), we have a responsibility to take our deepest fears, questions, and doubts to our Fathers in the Faith, or our close peers (friends), but to throw out raw, unprocessed thoughts and doubts to those around you who are still finding their spiritual feet; to me is irresponsible. If I have genuine doubts and nagging questions (which I do many times) I know where to take it.

    2. What is the point of the questions?
    Again, as a leader we have a responsibility to be intentional with our questions. If we are asking a difficult question in order to help people see a greater truth or challenge some old mindsets in order to help them discover an encouraging reality, that’s great!
    But Bell sometimes has a tendency to “open up the conversation”, or throw out big questions without the intention of attempting to answer them, or even lead people somewhere. It’s just asking for the sake of asking. This has its place, but someone in his position should definitely think long and hard before launching a philosophical nuke at the world, if the aftermath is not going to be facilitated.

    Two thoughts I just had.
    What do you think?

    Blessings dude!

    Keep up the awesome work.

    • Hey Jo

      Thanks for reading and for your insightful comments. I think you make some great points.

      I like Maxwell’s “Fathers, Friends and Followers”, and agree that certainly as leaders we need to be sensitive and wise in how much of our own personal struggles we share, and with whom we share them. But I would argue that the tendency of a leader, at least for me, is generally to hide our doubts more than to show them. I believe the Church at large would benefit greatly from more leaders who are not afraid to publicly admit they don’t have all the answers and too struggle with questions of faith and life. If Jesus could cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” on the cross, surely we too are permitted to doubt?

      In terms of asking questions for questions sake, I believe the same could be said for “giving answers for answers sake”. Both can be destructive if coming from the wrong heart. I think too often we want to jump to easy answers to avoid the “grey” areas and help people feel secure. But sometimes “opening up the conversation” is exactly what we need. If we only ask the questions we know the answers for, I believe we will become stagnant. Similarly, to claim we have “cornered the market on all truth” is to claim we are God. The church thought they had the whole truth on slavery and apartheid, and a whole host of other injustices in the past, but of course we had missed the heart of God.

      Now, I’m not saying by any means that Rob Bell, or I, get that right. But I do believe that there is a way for the Church to learn how to ask questions in a way that becomes WORSHIP. These are what David Clark calls “sacred questions”. Questions that lead to LIFE and TRANSFORMATION, and ultimately the person of JESUS.

      • Hey Tom

        Wow, there’s a lot of wisdom in what you’re saying here.
        Thank you for taking the time to reply in such an insightful way.

        I completely agree with your statement that the church actually needs more of a grace culture which embraces fears and doubts. Not the museum of self-righteousness that it sometimes becomes. This definitely sends out the wrong message to people about God’s heart and His way of dealing with us (David Kinnaman’s Unchristian gives a good perspective on how the church’s attitude of hiding behind soft answers has driven many people away).
        I definitely feel challenged to embrace this openness more.

        Also true, I am very guilty of trying to Theology-it-all-away, in trying to have answers for everything. I also see all the legends of the faith becoming less and less judgmental and critical as they aged; not bothering to act as if they “had it all figured out”: This should probably tell me something 😉
        As you say, sometimes it even helps the whole faith community to re-look certain things objectively, without tradition and culture clouding its judgement. Feels like that was the case with “Love Wins” where some people missed the whole point and simply tore into Bell, whereas others like Francis Chan for instance was prompted to re-look the doctrines of hell again, and eventually came to some very interesting and encouraging conclusions.
        Sometimes someone just needs to rock the boat a bit.

        Thanks for the insight man, really appreciate it!

        Blessings

        Jo

      • Hey Jo

        Thanks for your gracious response. It looks like you and I are reading the same stuff (Chan, Kinnaman etc). We should swop notes more often. 😉 I really appreciated Chan’s response to Love Wins, and my hope is that all Christian leaders can follow this example of disagreeing IN LOVE, and still seeking UNITY despite differing opinions.

        I think the point you make about the “legends” of faith getting “bigger” – more gracious, more generous, more loving – is so profound, and something I pray I can learn from!

        Look forward to more stimulating discussion!

        Tom

  2. I am mindful of the controversy aurrounding Rob Bell. His style appeals to me and I always feel challenged in my faith. I have learnt lots from him and love how you wrote this blog. Thank you.

  3. i remember a special wedding 7 or so years ago where Rob Bells Nooma Love video was shown- many lives were touched through that as they saw a whole new perspective for the first time:) xx

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  5. oh my word – preach it brother !! 😉 i agree with every single word you said. i also went to a church where we were told not to read his books. indeed “what the what”.

    so funny how people react when you say you read books by rob bell and/or donald miller …

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