What We Talk About When We Talk About God

Michael Kruger Articles
Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 240 pp., $16.00

"Detheologizing" Christianity

For those who have read Rob Bell's other books (such as Love Wins and Velvet Elvis), the tone, disposition, and content of this new book will sound all too familiar.  In What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell continues his campaign to reshape and repackage Christianity for this postmodern generation, and to rescue it from those he thinks are holding it back (traditional Christians). 

In this way, Bell positions himself as an apologist of sorts. Our world views the Christian God as irrelevant and outdated (like an Oldsmobile), and Bell's mission is to give Him an extreme makeover. Bell takes the God who seems like a grumpy, judgmental old man in a polyester suit who is pointing his finger at you while simultaneously thumping the Bible, and changes him into a hip, urban young guy with skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses who invites you to have a latte with him and ponder the mysteries of the universe.  

Bell's book, therefore, functions a lot like the Apple vs. Microsoft commercial that was popular a number of years ago. Microsoft was represented by an out of shape, poorly dressed geek, while Apple was represented by a thin, hip, well-dressed urbanite. In effect, Bell is arguing that God is not like Microsoft. He is more like Apple. God is relevant. He can keep up with the times. 
Unfortunately, being an apologist for the faith does not always lead one to uphold the faith.  Indeed, there is a long history of folks who have sought to defend Christianity from critical attacks by simply changing the problematic portions of the faith. In other words, apologetics is not always about defending what we believe, but is sometimes about modifying what we believe.  Apologetics is sometimes about giving Christianity an extreme makeover. 

In this regard, one thinks of scholars like Rudolph Bultmann. Despite the negative press Bultmann has received, it should be noted that Bultmann regarded himself as a committed Christian and a defender of the faith. Bultmann recognized that in this modern, enlightened age, people could no longer believe in supernatural events. So, in order to rescue Christianity from its imminent demise, Bultmann stripped all the supernatural elements out of the faith (see his book, New Testament and Mythology). In short, he "demythologized" the Bible. Bultmann wanted to convince people that God wasn't an Oldsmobile. God could keep up with the times. 

Of course, Bell's method of defending Christianity is not by stripping it of its supernatural elements (that was the issue in Bultmann's day). On the contrary, Bell is quite keen to remind the reader of the supernatural--God is everywhere, busy at work, in us and in our world.   Instead, Bell's makeover method is to change Christianity into a broad "spirituality."  His book downplays (and in some instances, simply ignores) many of the key doctrines that make Christianity distinctive. He simply turns Christianity into vague, general, theism. Whereas Bultmann demythologized the faith, Bell has detheologized the faith. 

Bell's makeover motif is evident from the very opening chapter, entitled "Hum." He complains that there are many "conventional categories" of belief that are harmful to the church. His examples include the belief that women shouldn't be pastors, the belief that "everybody that is gay is going to hell," and the belief that non-Christians will endure "untold suffering" after the second coming of Christ (p.6-7). These are the types of beliefs (though not all) that Christianity must rid itself of, if it is to avoid going the way of the Oldsmobile. 

In chapter two, entitled "Open," Bell offers modified form of the teleological argument. He goes into great detail about the order and the complexity of the universe in an effort to show the skeptic that you can't rule out the existence of God--the universe is too marvelous, too complex, to be sure there is no divine. I think this chapter will be effective with the non-Christian, and is probably the best (and most interesting ) chapter in the book. 

In chapter three, entitled "Both," Bell returns more directly to his makeover motif. The overall point of this chapter is that the language we use to describe God is inherently and unavoidably vague--God is beyond words. And if God is beyond our ability to explain, then we cannot really be certain in our beliefs about God. Bell laments those fundamentalist types who process God in either/or categories. "There are limits to our certainty because God, it's repeated again and again, is spirit.  And spirit has no shape or form" (p. 88).  

It is clear that Bell is using this chapter to set the stage for his makeover. If words about God are unclear, and we can never really be certain about anything, then we should not feel bound by certain limitations about God. This allows Bell to scold those "fundamentalist" types who are all too certain about their theology, and it allows him to suggest that we should think of God differently. In particular, Bell hones in on the issue of God's gender. He argues that masculine language in the Bible about God is just the product of primitive cultures that couldn't help but think of their "god" as male (p.88-89).   

In chapter four, entitled "With," Bell focuses on the immanence of God and how he is always near and present with us. This would be fine if Bell stuck to biblical categories about the way that God is present. But, instead he "detheologizes" the Christian view of God's immanence and makes it more like New Age, Gnostic spiritualism. God's presence is described in language like "creative energy," a "life force," and an "unending divine vitality" (p. 106). This divine energy creates a oneness to the universe: "When we talk about God, we're talking about the straightforward affirmation that everything has a singular, common source and is infinitely, endlessly, deeply connected" (p.118).  This sounds more like "the Force" from Star Wars, than the God of the Bible. 

In chapter five, entitled "For," Bell says that he wants to recover the "fundamental Christian message that God is for us" (128). That is certainly a commendable goal, but Bell once again "detheologizes" what this concept actually means according to Scripture. Entirely missing in this chapter--indeed entirely missing in the whole book--is any meaningful discussion of the cross and atonement. Absent is discussion about our sin, God's wrath on our sin, and how Christ's death on the cross paid that penalty. Absent is the clarification that without the cross, God is definitely not for us and that his wrath remains on us. Sure, Bell talks about Jesus and the incarnation. But, the mission of Jesus is reshaped so that its purpose is "giving us a picture of God who is not distant or detached or indifferent to our pain...but instead is present among us in Jesus to teach us and help us and suffer with us" (p. 131).  

In the final two chapters, Bell continues to talk about key Christian themes such as Jesus, repentance, confession, forgiveness, and so on. But, incredibly, he empties each of these terms of their biblical meaning and simply replaces them with a meaning that fits with postmodern spirituality. His "detheologizing" of Christianity is complete. 

In the end, my overall concern about this volume is a simple one: it is not Christian. Bell's makeover of Christianity has changed it into something entirely different. It is not Christianity at all, it is modern liberalism. It is the same liberalism that Machen fought in the 1920's and the same liberalism prevalent in far too many churches today. It is the liberalism that teaches that God exists and that Jesus is the source of our happiness and our fulfillment, but all of this comes apart from any real mention of sin, judgment, and the cross. It is the liberalism that says we can know nothing for sure, except of course, that those "fundamentalists" are wrong. It is the liberalism that appeals to the Bible from time to time, but then simply ignores large portions of it. 

Bell's book, therefore, is really just spiritualism with a Christian veneer. It's a book that would fit quite well on Oprah's list of favorite books. What is Rob Bell talking about when he is talking about God? Not the God of Christianity.  

Dr. Michael Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. You can read more of Dr. Kruger's writings here.