I always liked Rob Bell’s call narrative. He says that when he was young, he felt like God told him, “Just teach this book.” Forever after, that was to be his call. Now he has the chance to do it on a wider scale than ever before. His latest book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” was the best chance yet, because the controversy surrounding his last book, “Love Wins,” made him virtually a household name.
What Bell Could Have Done
Bell is now poised in exactly the place every evangelist should want to be: hated by religious teachers, loved by the masses, and enjoying a wide (and lucrative) voice in the public sphere, from which he can preach the gospel without hindrance. And he honestly starts to do that. He talks about a God who loves us, a God who took on flesh as Jesus, a God who gives us hope. He acts like he might intend to entice a modern Millennial audience to follow the God whom they’ve always heretofore been told is an oppressor.
What Bell Did
He starts to but doesn’t follow through. Because when it comes to an obligation to respond to God, he can’t say anything more that lots of people are kind of spiritual (chapter 1). When it comes to miracles, he can’t say anything more specific than that everything is wonderfully miraculous (chapter 2). When it comes to God revealing himself, he can’t say anything more than that the biblical writers were coming up with flawed analogies (chapter 3). When it comes to the Holy Spirit, he here wanders around quite a bit (chapter 4), establishing little more than that life is mysterious and “we” have a sense that history is progressing somewhere. He finally comes to Jesus, whom he dives into without any explanation of why I should be interested in Jesus more than Buddha or Muhammed, and why I should believe the Bible is at all reliable (chapter 5). Chapter 6 doesn’t fall within the realm of traditional Christian theological doctrines. The chapter simply asserts that God is “progressive.” Finally, in the last chapter, Bell is supposed to tell us what to do with this progressive, hope-inspiring God who never does anything to make us unhappy, but instead is in the business of blowing our minds. This final, punchline chapter just doesn’t hold together. He tells the story of the sheep and the goats, but strangely leaves out the goats. Then he tells the story of a comedic friend who pretends to be a priest and take confession, which shows how much we need to confess. Then he tells a story about a yoga class in which women weep because they are integrating their bodies with their “being.” Then he talks about how our brains react when we watch each other. Then he talks about communion, the purpose of which is to open our eyes to the fact that God is everywhere bringing everything together.
This isn’t even liberalism. This is pantheistic mush. This is Spinoza and Hegel reheated and dumbed down.
The enemy throughout the book is a group of wildly construed straw men. They are Christians who protest against peace and hate questions and are out of date and oppose progress. Who are these people? Well, they’re not Rob Bell, that’s for sure. He’s way too cool for them.
What Bell Didn’t Do
What Bell doesn’t do is tell us why on earth anyone should trust the biblical revelation of Jesus once the cultural ship sails towards secularism. Bell thinks he’s an evolutionary step above the biblical writers. He credits the explicit self-revelation of God to the writers’ personal impressions. When they make moral judgments on issues like homosexuality, Bell knows they’re wrong and that God’s revelation has progressed. Yet it’s not clear why the gospel writers’ impressions of Jesus aren’t also projections. After all, miracles may just be their antiquated means of describing what they saw. Bell’s use of Scripture generally is not deferential. He riffs off of it but doesn’t submit to it. He’s moved from exegesis to allusion.
Let me use a surfing metaphor, since Bell’s new book is rife with images of water skiing, surfing, and sunbathing from the beaches of southern California, where he now spends most of his time. Let’s say someone drifts out on a surfboard to enjoy the sun. Then they keep drifting. Then they take a nap. When they wake up, still on the board, land is nowhere in sight. Now that person is still alive and still floating, but prospects aren’t all that good.
Bell has cut himself loose from a local church, from the accountability of community, from the necessity of responding to critics, and from the canon of Scripture. Now he’s drifting. His still alive. Hey, maybe he’s enjoying the sun. But he’s getting further away. And prospects aren’t good. And sadly, he has a little fleet of floating followers.
In Bell’s mind, all of this is progress. He’s moved from the hard work of pastoring in the harsh climate of Grand Rapids to the relaxing life of writing books in Laguna Beach. In fact, Bell is now charging 50 people at a time $500 to spend 2 days with him, which includes casual conversation and a few hours of surfing. He’s about to do this for the fourth time. That, ladies and gentlemen, is $100,000 in 8 days to be covered in the dust of your rabbi. To which land is he anchored? Not to his original call narrative.
Rather than joining the Bell critics who use the clicheic promise not to drink his Kool-Aid, I’d recommend a metaphor a bit more in keeping with the substance of Bell’s theological work. Don’t eat the cotton candy.
16 thoughts on “Oh Well, Rob Bell”
Larry DIxon here. Do you mind if I quote some of your Bell review in a updated version of my small booklet “Farewell, Rob Bell”? I’ll gladly send you a free copy! Blessings. Larry
Hi Dr. Dixon,
Of course you may. Thanks for checking in. Blessings on your work.
Bear in mind I don’t intend to be mean and I’m sorry if it comes across that way. You seem to be a critical thinker, which is something I wish more Christians would be, so I appreciate the critical thoughts.
However, James, you didn’t really engage the post I had written discussing a passage from Bell’s book; you treated it like it was a review (which it absolutely was not) and posted a link to your review. So instead of engaging in any sort of dialogue, you simply seem to be promoting your own opinion without discussing anything. If you’re going to criticize Bell and say he’s drifted from accountability (something that, unless you’re his best friend, you could never possibly know), then expect to be criticized as well.
All that I really see in this review isn’t a failure on Rob Bell’s part; it wasn’t his greatest book, no, but I don’t think he promoted any “pantheistic mush.” Instead, all I see is your own expectations of Bell not being met, which points to the question, who says he has to meet your expectations? Or my expectations? Or anyone’s expectations?
Also, I think you mean “illusion,” instead of “allusion” when you say “He’s moved from exegesis to allusion.” One means a “misrepresentation of reality” while the other (“allusion”) means, “a passing or casual reference.” Just pointing it out.
Thanks for responding, Jeremy. I actually do mean “allusion,” because he is alluding to Scripture rather than exegeting it. And I do know something about Bell’s accountability, because I asked him about it personally, as I described in an earlier post. And as opposed to expecting Bell to meet my expectations, I’m evaluating whether or not he’s in line with orthodox Christianity, which is what reviewers of Christian books often do.
So I don’t think your post is mean, just misguided. But thanks for the discussion anyway.
My mistake then. You’re right though, Christians ought to evaluate books as to whether or not they promote a healthy view of God. But what I have often found is that the reviews only promulgate one’s own personal beliefs as “right” and criticize the book as wrong or not quite right. Not saying that is what’s happening here; simply saying it is what I have often found.
One more thing; if you’ve spoken with him about accountability, wouldn’t it have been better if you shared your thoughts about his book with him (assuming you have a close enough personal relationship) rather than writing this review? Again, not sure of how close you are to him, but if you are close, personal conversation might have been better.
I agree. It is sad to see someone with so much promise lose their their anchor and run adrift.
I don’t know, James – not my view of the book, but each to their own. I struggle with your tone, to be honest, so that didn’t help me.
Thank you for taking the time to read the book and write this review. I promised myself I would not read this book, so I appreciate your notes.
I think the most telling phrase in your article is “Bell has cut himself loose from a local church, from the accountability of community…”
This is absolutely critical to realize because now we understand why his progressive and universalistic ideas are really taking shape. There is nothing to hold him back anymore. His gay marriage stance finally came to fruition as he is spiraling further into heresy.
He needs to come to the cross and make Jesus his Lord.
Love it. Thanks 🙂
Thank you for bringing your review to my attention on our blog. I have responded and hope we can continue the conversation. The only thing I will say here is shouldn’t people be encouraged to make their own opinions on a subject matter? While I think that Rob Bell, and the rest of us for that matter, often fall prey to the allure of treasures in this life, does that mean that every thing he says is invalid. Peter betrayed Jesus, does that mean that the one holy catholic and apostolic church never should have been formed? I think any review of something should give an opinion but also invite people to form their own opinion. When anyone reads a review and counts it as the whole truth and nothing but the truth then I think we have a done a great disservice to that reader and to progress in general.
I also have not read this book but I will to decide for myself what is the truth in Rob Bell’s teachings. I could find, like you, that there is nothing to glean from his writing but I am pretty sure I will find some truth in what he says and I will use it to further my understanding of God. Even if I disagree wholeheartedly with everything he says. Just as I will find some truth in what you have said and in what I hope you will say in our other conversation whether we agree or not. I just thought that your readers might like some encouragement to read the book and decide for themselves if it is nonsense and trash. Fortunately, there is a 50% chance it is and a 50% chance it isn’t. 🙂
That’s what money does to people.
James, thanks for the comment on my blog at While readers should take note that I found the book to be inspirational, I think your review, while honest, is not fair to the content of the book.
Bell is an interesting author in the sense that he is not a scholar. He does not write like an academic and that, at times can be annoying (note no endnotes in ‘love wins’ for instance). So as far as his writing style, he is more interested in asking questions and bringing up stories to let the reader think and critically engage what he is writing.
There really isn’t an enemy in the book? Rob is not writing a manifesto of good guys verse bad guys? The example he used is interesting… What do you think about Christians protesting a peace conference?
What specific content do you not agree with or find disdain with? I mean, isn’t God everywhere? Is God not omnipresent? Bell is not advocating for pantheism, that the trees are God, but that the trees, the creation of the world, contain the image of God?
Your subsection under “what bell didn’t do” is highly irrelevant to the the book. I find his use of Scripture to be rather fair as he engages analytic exegesis of the first century. You mention that he has cut himself off from accountability to what ideas
His retreat in which members paid $500 for (can we get some linkage?) is irrelevant to the book and you’re putting an unnecessary negative on something that his target audience and people who paid for that experience might of put a positive on. Have there been reviews of the experience? Here’s an interesting take on it
I think your disdain towards Bell shined through and didn’t allow you to look at the text objectively and in turned reflected on a negative review into which you already had a negative mindset when engaging.
I’m by no means a Bell junkie. I didn’t like Sex God, I read one chapter of Jesus wants to Save Christians, and find him to be highly repetitive of the same themes throughout all he writes. This book, I happened to enjoy. It reminded me of a more Brother Lawrence practicing the presence type book.
Like I said, thanks for your comment and I as mentioned in my blog, nobody will probably really care about this book in 30 years.
Wonderful review Pastor James. I’ve not read the book and I’m certain i won’t. You’ve told me everything I need to know about it. Praise God for your discernment.
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Oh Well, Rob Bell
A great review of “What We Talk About When We Talk About God”
That’s really quite sad. I always thought he was a very good communicator, but now it seems he has lost substance, and in fact, a grasp on some very important Biblical realities. Thanks for the review.