Rob Bell’s new book just came out. In its title, borrowed from one of Raymond Carver’s short story collections, Bell promises to lay bare What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Carver’s quietly aching scenes of love, or perhaps more of the reality of failed and blocked and misconstrued gestures towards intimacy that pass for and fall short of love, lie at the intersection of reportage, elegy and hope. Love is hard, small, elusive, we learn.
The idea behind such a title is that talk is cheap: I don’t care what you say about God or love; I want to know God himself, to know true love. Worse, when we talk about God, we so often deceive. We deceive those who listen to us, those who trust us–not least because we have already deceived ourselves. “God told me…” Apparently, he tells people to do all sorts of things that run at cross-purposes to one another. He tells one person to marry another, while he tells the other person to run for the hills. Writes Bell: “Like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.”
Of course, this is nothing new. We’ve heard it for 200 hundred years from the likes of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and, in the locus classicus, Feuerbach, who suspected that at bottom all our theologizing is nothing more than anthropologizing, an abstracting of all that is good in us and projecting it into the heavens. This is a real problem, too. It invites an inquiry into the human heart, with its fantastically subtle and diverse forms of manipulation and self-protection. Nor need this threaten the Christian faith. In fact, it’s a fitting posture for this time of year; consider Merold Westphal’s description of self-suspicion as the ‘hermeneutics of Lent’.
In the trailer for the book, Bell conveys this holy suspicion as a call to a better future with better ways of talking about and therefore knowing God.
“And as a pastor over the last twenty years, what I’ve seen again and again is people with a growing sense that their spirituality is in some vital and yet mysterious way central to who they are as a person–and yet the dominant perceptions and conceptions and understandings of God they’ve encountered along the way aren’t just failing them but in many cases are causing harm. Is God going to be left behind–like Oldsmobiles? I don’t think so. Because I believe there are other ways, better ways, of talking about God and understanding God. Because I believe God is with us and for us. And I believe God is actually ahead of us, calling us and drawing us, and inviting and pulling us all–every one of us–into a better future than we could ever imagine.”