Rob Bell’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About God”

I think the book suffered a bit from not being as tightly focused as “Love Wins.” The earlier book could assume a fair bit of common ground, as it was tackling what is mainly an intra-Christian debate, but here Bell’s target audience seems to more explicitly be the skeptic, the seeker, and the “spiritual but not religious,” as well as the disaffected evangelical.

The results are mixed. We get an overstuffed yet not-fully-persuasive chapter on science and faith. At the same time, the chapter on religious language does little more than make the point that language about God is symbolic. (This is a bit ironic given the book’s title.)

On the other hand, the three central chapters on God “with,” “for,” and “ahead” of us were golden. Chapter 5 (“For”) in particular is pure gospel. Bell doesn’t wear his influences on his sleeve (or in his (largely nonexistent) footnotes), but it’s not hard to detect a little Tillich here, a dash of Moltmann there, and a dollop of process theology. But he’s really at his best in expounding the story of Jesus and his love–once again giving the lie to critics who’d like to brand him as some kind of heretic or post-Christian.

Throughout, Bell amply justifies his reputation as a first-class communicator. Reading this book brought home to me how much even the most “accessible” religious books tend to be steeped in theological jargon. It wasn’t a life-changing book for me by any means, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the first book I’d recommend on the topic. Many mainliners in particular, I imagine, would regard a lot of what Bell writes as old hat to some extent.

But Bell is doing something that hardly anyone else is doing: delivering (more-or-less) solid, progressive-leaning Christian theology in a way that (apparently) communicates far beyond the frontiers of the church. That seems like something mainline Protestants in particular could learn from these days.

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