What I read about when I read Rob Bell

Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God
Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God

Any book of theology that starts with a epigraph by Tom Waits is arguably worth looking at. Such is Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God.

Since the 2011 publication of Love Wins, Bell’s name has doubled as a lighting rod, the controversy having merely cooled, not diminished. I have no interest in revisiting that here. Nor do I have any interest in writing a negative review of his newest, aspects of which certainly could use the discerning squint of a jeweler’s eye.

Here I want rather to highlight three praiseworthy facets I encounter when I read What We Talk About When We Talk About God.

1. I read about transcendence

I’ve written here before about the materialist, naturalist reduction by which our world today is widely understood. I should say widely misunderstood. But Bell, writing for the benefit of both religious and irreligious skeptics, reminds us that naturalism can only take us so far.

“Science does an excellent job of telling me why I don’t have a tail,” he says, “but it can’t explain why I find that interesting” (75). Delving into quantum mechanics and more, he offers a picture of the world in which mystery and majesty possess more sway than we might otherwise realize at first glance. If only we would look longer.

“[W]hen people object to the idea of God, to the idea that there is more beyond our tangible, provable-with-hard-evidence observations and experiences of the world, they aren’t taking the entire world into account,” he writes (49). When you do that, faith becomes not only reasonable; it becomes natural.

But faith in what?

2. I read about God’s love

Bell doesn’t draw lines as clear as a creed. He offers at least one reason for this: “Whatever we say about God always rests within the larger reality of what we can’t say. . . ” (90). While some might fault him here, the apophatic approach has at least one virtue. It does not overspeak; it does not say more than can be said.

What Bell does say positively is that God stands with us an for us. He points us to the incarnation to get the fuller picture:

The Christmas story . . . is a deeply subversive account, coming in just under the radar, giving us a picture of a God who is not distant or detached or indifferent to our pain or uninterested in our condition or uninvolved in our very real struggles in this world, but instead is present among us in Jesus to teach us and help us and suffer with us and give us hope because this God is for us.

So when we talk about Jesus being divine and human, what we’re saying is that Jesus in a unique, singular, and historic way, shows us what God is like. (131-132)

He continues:

Gospel is the shocking, provocative, revolutionary, subversive, counterintuitive good news that in your moments of greatest despair, failure, sin, weakness, losing, failing, frustration, inability, helplessness, wandering, and falling short, God meets you there — right there — right exactly there — in that place, and announces, I am on your side. (135-136)

We can trust this is so because God in Christ emptied himself and took our humanity down to the last jot of DNA and suffered alongside us (Phil 2:5-8, Heb 2.14-18). This willingness to humiliate himself and join himself to our suffering is evidence of God’s love for us. You know how it goes: “For God so loved the world. . . .”

3. I read about life’s sacramentality

Another thing I read about when I read Rob Bell is how God fills this world he loves with his energies, with his presence.

If all things consist in God (Col 1.16-17), then God is in all things. The Orthodox say of the Holy Spirit that he is “everywhere present and fills all things” (Prayer to the Holy Spirit). All of creation contains within it the possibility of communion with God, of connection, of conveying his grace. Bread, as Bell says, is never just bread, nor wine merely wine.

So, he says, “When we talk about God, we’re talking about the Jesus who comes to reunite and reconnect us with the sacred depth, holiness, significance, and meaning of every day” (185).

This awareness of life’s sacramentality offers a way forward for Bell and anyone who appreciates his approach in What We Talk About When We Talk About God. When discussing the eucharist, Bell mentions in his notes Ephraim the Syrian, as well as the book by Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman, Everywhere Present. Further exploration into the Orthodox understanding of the sacraments — perhaps starting with (or rereading?) Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World — could provide helpful direction on the journey.

Bell has a useful discussion, for instance, about how our “secrets, sins, doubts, regrets, and crippling fears” can divide our hearts and rend our spirits and how the Holy Spirit brings us to wholeness again (187-192). It could only be improved by elaborating on the sacrament of confession.

While I do have reservations about and criticisms of the book, I think these three facets alone make it worthy of serious consideration.

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  • Let’s definitely promote Rob Bell. He’s the best hope for people actually receiving the Gospel and living as if it were true.

    You know: if he believed that sort of thing.

    • Joel J. Miller

      “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4.8).

      • What Bell writes is neither true, nor honorable, nor just, nor pure and it certainly isn’t lovely or gracious. It is the type of writing that leads people away from the true Triune God to a god of their own making because it fits better into the current cultural context. That isn’t worthy of praise and is only worthy of condemnation, is it leads others to condemnation because it isn’t the truth of the scriptures.

      • Joel — first, kudos for engaging. It’s kind of you to respond to criticisms of your point.

        Your response is actually a fantastic response — it’s the basis for having a civil discussion about whatever it is we’re talking about. That is: there must be something there which the publisher, and the flock of fans Bell has mustered over the years, and the people who endorse this sort of thing, find compelling about the product delivered (and probably about the man himself).

        But the counterpoint is also a statement from Scripture: “And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (2 Cor 11:12-15)

        That is: sometimes things which seem to be a good thing are in fact the worst thing of all — and patting men on the back who have used whatever is good and lovely to disguise themselves and their message is in fact the wrong thing to do.

        Extolling Rob Bell because he can make the reader feel good is like endorsing cigarettes because there’s nothing like a nicotine high. Is it really enough to say, “I may have some reservations about 30 or 40 years of smoking, but there’s nothing like a filterless Camel to make you feel like a million bucks?”

        • Joel J. Miller


          Thanks for the discussion.

          At both the outset and at the conclusion of the piece I expressed reservation about the book (“aspects of which certainly could use the discerning squint of a jeweler’s eye” and “While I do have reservations about and criticisms of the book. . . “). I chose not to discuss those explicitly in the piece, but I also think that stressing Rob Bell is a mixed bag is unnecessary. Anyone who has had the public career he has had will have a wide spectrum of receptions; I chose to note it and then get to what I think is praiseworthy in the book. If, in fact, Bell is a wolf among sheep, then that will prove itself out in time. But I’m not positioned to say that now, and so I turned to what was edifying in his work. I found those points above to be so.

          I also spoke to what I think would be of great help to Bell and his readers. As there are several themes or impulses in his work that resonates with Orthodox theology (the tradition from which I write), I think grounding his understanding in the theological grid that Orthodoxy provides could prove very beneficial. There are indications in the book that he’s open to that. I agree with Derek below that there are elements in the book that are murky, as there are in any book. I pointed the reader to a lens that can clarify and — to my mind — correct those things.

          Lastly, I think it’s noteworthy that Phil 4.8 and 2 Cor 11.12-15 were written by the same Paul who read and readily quoted pagan poets. If Paul can so employ pagan writers, then surely Rob Bell is not off limits. Orthodox Christians profitably read and quote authors like Tertulian and Origen though they were condemned by the Orthodox church. They do so because if there is anything good or true or beautiful in them, then they warrant contemplation.

          I hope that clarifies things a bit for you.

          • Thanks again Joel — I think that arguing about Paul with you won’t get us anywhere.

            I hope you are right and I am wrong about this — because in your world, the wrong are not in any danger. That’s a very pleasant thought.

            Do you have a light?

            • Joel J. Miller

              I wouldn’t say that the wrong are not in any danger. I think hell’s a reality, and not a pleasant one. See my response to Eric Beagles below.

  • Roy

    Rob Bell is a joke.

  • I had a slightly different take on Bell’s book. I saw a lot of helpful things in, but his “transcendence” was of a murkier sort, love was rather squishy and squirmy when it came to anything approaching God’s loving justice, and his sacramentality seemed to come at the loss of the gritty, concrete particulars of God’s redemptive history. Communion is no longer the covenant meal, but the general cipher for the rejection of the sacred/secular divide. While I don’t deny that it teaches that truth, it is not the primary truth of it. Beyond that, there was the generally romantic/Hegelian eschatology, etc. Well, I won’t blather here, you can read it over at another Patheos blog here:


    Still, kinda surprised at this piece from you.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Derek, see my second response above to Frank. That explains a bit more about where I’m coming from. Thanks for hearing me out. I appreciated the review you posted. I actually tweeted it a few days back.

      • Totally. Thanks for the response to Frank, that was very helpful. I’m probably caught somewhere between the two of you. I’ll highlight the good, but I’ll probably also be sure to note the bad, especially to someone who maybe doesn’t know about the controversy surrounding Bell’s theology. I guess that’s where my pastoral instinct kicks in to guard the flock. I agree with you about Paul’s quoting the pagans. At the same time, I have to admit, there are times when I feel safer quoting Nietzsche to my kids than a Christian teacher whom I find suspect because with the one, I’m quite sure they know what they’re dealing with, while the other, not so much.

        Just some thoughts.

  • True Story: I came over here because Eric Metaxas retweeted Joel’s original tweet that read as follows: “Transcendence, love, and sacrament: 3 things I read about when I read Rob Bell.”

    I was honestly expecting an analysis of Bell’s newly announced position on gay marriage, and I’m still reeling in the irony that if Bell properly understood these three–transcendence, love, and sacrament–he would have a very different take on marriage.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Though some would disagree with me, including perhaps Bell himself, I agree that more attention to the sacraments would yield different results.

  • Wow, if only the Apostle Paul could have refined his message down to Transcendence, God’s Love, and Life’s Sacramentality – think of all the trouble he could have avoided!

    Just once I would like to see Rob Bell, while he is assaulting the sacred cows of orthodoxy, say something that assaults some of the sacred cows of the liberal establishment. Maybe something like “Without Jesus, you are lost for all eternity – period.”

    The man has discovered an incredible formula for selling books to people who want to reconcile their Christian self-identity with currently-popular ideas that will find approval by the world, I’ll hand that to him. He is kind of a Deepak Chopra of the Christianoid world, it seems!

    • Joel J. Miller

      How about point number one above? Bell’s book clearly stands opposite the materialistic reductionism rampant in our culture. You can’t stand with him on that?

      • Yeah, I could – except that he presents himself as a definer of Christian belief, not just non-materialist belief (and many gullible Christians accept him as a definer of Christian belief).

        Speaking of beliefs: I believe that makes a difference.

  • I am utterly shocked and amazed that genuine, mature Christians still talk about Rob Bell as if he is a Christian, let alone someone who has something to teach us.
    Seriously, he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth, hell, or what is sin.
    Anyone who keeps putting this guy and his teachings in front of Christians needs to read what Jesus told the church of Pergamum about tolerating heretics and their heresies.
    I hope after the initial anger you just felt that you will.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I have no idea what the state of Bell’s belief ultimately is and — unless you’re privy to special revelation — neither do you. Bell’s statements on the virgin birth in Velvet Elvis are obviously problematic, but I believe there that he still said he holds to it. I think he is likewise wrong about hell, though not for the same reasons that some do (see these three essays on the Orthodox view of hell, here, here, and here).

      So what do we make of it, that we write him off? That’s not our place. How about we instead engage thoughtfully with his work and respond accordingly? The church at Pergamum would have excommunicated heretics (barred them from the eucharist); that’s different than avoiding a book.

      Besides, there are good points made in Bell’s book. I think he would be served by more theological direction (as I stated above), but the book he published is the book he published and it has some valuable things to say.

      • Regarding Pergamum – The entire church faced Christ’s judgement: the heretics for practicing sin, and the rest of the church for tolerating it.
        I didn’t reference it to suggest how to deal with Bell. I was pointing out what Christ says He will do about those who don’t repent of tolerating folks such as Bell.

        I don’t remember reading Paul, Peter, Jude, James, or John saying anything about giving the false teachers more theological direction. If Bell was a new-born Christian being blown about by every wind of doctrine, I might agree with you. But he has been around awhile and he is making up his own religion.

        I’m privy to the same revelation that is available to you, the Bible, which tells us in numerous places how to tell genuine from not, and warns us about false teachers.

        • Joel J. Miller

          What’s the standard for measuring how far afield Bell has gone?

          • The Bible is the only standard.
            True teachers speak God’s word, following apostolic doctrine.
            Demonically inspired teachers either reject the teaching of God’s Word or add elements to it.
            (see 1 John 4:1-6)

            I’ve already pointed out why I think he fails the test; and you’ve said you’re not sure, so it seems we are at an impasse.
            I appreciate your replies. Not all bloggers respond to comments.

      • Bell says he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth, but you think either he’s lying about that, or that somehow what he contributes otherwise is so valuable that this error doesn’t matter? And of course there’s his famous statement about the Bible being a man-made book, documented in the Chicago Tribune. Maybe he was also lying about that, or misunderstood even though he’s said many things like it since then. One could go on and on about his many problematic statements.
        So why does this man have such a lock-hold on you that you feel the need to stretch so far to justify him no matter what he says? That to me would be the really interesting question to explore.

        • Joel J. Miller

          He doesn’t have a lock hold. I found some worthwhile things in his book.

          • I don’t know of any field of endeavor where a person can get the foundational issues dead wrong, but still be a celebrity because of how he nuances them. That seems to be Bell’s schtick, and it beats the living daylights out of me why Christians regard him highly while seemingly recognizing that he has many of the most foundational issues of Christian belief, wrong.
            He is misleading many people about the foundational beliefs of Christianity, and to the extent Christians give him airtime and endorse his writings, they are helping him to do so.

        • Bell has never said he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth. He even says the opposite right here:

  • Joel,

    Though I do not agree with Rob Bell on many things. I do appreciate what you are attempting to do here. Reminds me of a favorite Lewis quote of mine out of ‘An Experiment in Criticism’: “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”

    Lewis believed it is far easier to find the issues in a work than anything good. So do I.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks for that, Thom.