Rob Bell is Youth Group Guy

I just got an advanced copy of Rob Bell’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk about God. Part of the gig is I’m supposed to write a review

Here it goes.

Note: this will not be a normal, linear review. Given that’s pretty much Bell’s writing style, I figured I’d go with that.

I want to offer two disclaimers. This is the first Rob Bell book in my library.  I’ve watched a few of his sermons and his Nouma videos. Here is what I’ve always thought about Rob Bell. He reminds me of the annoying guy I’ve seen in campus ministries or youth groups everywhere. You know the one I mean. He dances during worship, raises his hands up and points to the heavens like God is a hot rock star. Youth Group Guy is also the type of person who’ll come up to you and say, “Dude, God is awesome, man, He really is.” Nothing wrong with the sentiment. However, you can’t help hide your laughter at his over enthusiastic and somewhat superficial anthems.

At the same time, I don’t get the unrelenting hatred of Rob Bell spewed by John Piper, Mark Driscoll, etc. Is Rob Bell a heretic? I honestly don’t know. Do I think he deserves the level of spew he gets? Most likely not. I think people hate Rob Bell because of his “Youth Group Guy” style. His critics say they don’t like him for his theology. They must be smarter than I, because  I have no idea what the Gehenna {redacted for language as people didn’t seem to get the joke about Love Wins view of the, er, bad place} Rob’s theology might entail. Thus, I find the condemnation of it a bit premature.

My second disclaimer is that, I’m undergoing my own faith transformation. I’m asking a lot of questions and going back to the raw foundation of what I believe. In this process, I’ve found myself deeply questioning my identity as a fully formed, full blooded Reformed Presbyterian. What does that mean? I’m not prepare to speak on this just yet. I’m not becoming “emergent” or “liberal”, whatever those terms mean. I’m in sympathy with Bell’s approach to “strip it back” to the basics. However, in this process, I hold firm and fast to that beautiful statement of the Faith, The Nicene Creed.

Now, on to Bell’s book. What did I think?

I think Rob does a great job at asking real life questions many Christians avoid. For example, what do we mean when we say the word “God”? This seems like a really basic and childish question. Most people can’t describe what they mean by “God” If they try, “God” starts to look like themselves and that “God” starts agreeing with everything they might say.

I’m always amazed at our ability to create God in our image. The God of the Bible refuses those labels. When Moses asks God’s name in Exodus, do you know how God responds? The essential translation is close to: “I Will Be Who I Will Be”.  This means God will define Himself, thank you very much.

Rob raising the “Who is God” question is important, because a lot of shit has been attached to God’s name. A lot of the Skubulos {redacted for language  as people can’t seem to take the modern translation of this word} must be flushed because I’m tired of worshiping it. I’m tired of worshiping the idol skubulos {redacted for language, see above} god of my heart and the American Christian culture. I want the real “God Who is There”.

I’m also glad Rob uses science to discuss the weirdness of the universe. Things are weird. They get weirder the more we find out through science. I appreciate Rob’s discussions in this section of the book, even if he still comes off as Youth Group Guy with enough knowledge to be dangerous.

I also appreciate Rob’s insistence on seeing the world through a REAL Judeo-Christian view of the world. That is, everything is sacred and spiritual. The dualistic mindset of physical and spiritual is a purely Greek philosophical invention.  Bell presents a great challenge to American Pietistic Evangelicalism and dualistic view of the world we embrace.

Problems start coming for Rob in this book when he keeps the focus on “us” and what “we” think. I found it a bit nauseating and narcissistic. Hell, I started FEELING self centered because of all the times I had to read  “I” or “we”. In this, Bell contradicts the title of the book because its not really about God. Its about us. In this, Bell falls back into the trap of the American Pietistic Evangelicalism he is trying to spurn.

So, what about the answers Bell proposes about who God is?

His answers are a bunch of rambling, rumbling, shucking, jiving, beat poet, train wrecks that make very little sense. They’re “Youth Group Guy’s” answers. They’re well meaning, but mostly incoherent.  The answers might be fine for an open mike poetry night, but not as answers to the important questions Bell raises.

This is probably why he gets in so much trouble with people like Piper and Driscoll. Instead of saying, “Dude, Rob, your book kinda sucks because I have no idea what the Gehenna {redacted for language for above reasons} you’re saying”. Instead,  they’ll probably bring the rod of overreaction and bray like loud men whose opinion MUST be heard {redacted for language, as Asses in reference to donkeys seems to offend some].

For me,  I go back to Youth Group Kid. He says a lot of stuff that seems profound and good. In fact, some of what he says IS profound and good. Yet in the end, you keep wondering when the kid is going to make any sense. You wonder if he really knows what a jumbled mess he is making.

I’m sure there will be many blogs out there about Rob Bell being a heretic, etc and so on. I’m not going to cast him out of the Kingdom. I like his questions. I hope he keeps asking them.

Yet I would say to him “Youth Group guy, you’re scaring your brothers and sisters. They don’t get what you’re saying because you’re not making much sense.”

P.S. For those of you who claim Bell is an “artist”, I would say, so am I. And, if I turned in an incoherent mess of a book to my agent, she would skin me. Just saying.

 

 

photo by: matthewspiel

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About Jonathan Ryan

Jonathan Ryan is a novelist, blogger and columnist. His novel, 3 Gates of the Dead, published by Open Road Media, is in bookstores everywhere. The sequel, Dark Bride, will be out in April 2015


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