On 16th April 2013, Rob Bell visited Manchester on tour with his latest book release – ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About God’. My friend and I crept into the back of !Audacious Church (having been stuck in traffic on the M602) to check in on everyone’s favourite controversial American Christian.
The view from the back at !Audacious Church
taken by James Warwood
Having never been to a book tour before, I didn’t know what to expect. So I decided not to raise my expectations too high; which was lucky, seeing as all authors seem to do is regurgitate the contents of their latest book, answer some questions and sign books. The biggest surprise turned out to be seeing a smartly dressed speaker standing on the stage, complete with a stylish suit, a purple tie but without his trademark glasses.
Since stepping down from Mars Hill Church, Rob’s moved to California; which explains his sun-kissed complexion. And, after the vicious media coverage and Evangelical reaction to his previous book – Love Wins, I’m guessing he wants to prove he still has credibility; which explains the suit.
I made the effort to read the book before coming to the event; which meant, of course, I was scratching my head for the next 45 minutes trying to decide whether I agreed with what he had to say.
So... What Do We Talk About When We Talk About God?
As usual, Rob draws no real conclusions, truths, or solidity in his message. The overall vibe for me was: ‘it’s all about your spiritual experience’ (postmodernity at its best/worst).
Rob makes it very, very clear who he is pitching his message to: an emerging generation who would describe themselves as spiritual but see Christianity as outdated, irrelevant and a dying religion. They recognise, perhaps even believe in, a higher being but don’t agree/don’t understand/don’t relate to what the church says about God and how they are saying it.
1. An Evolving Metanarrative
When I was reading the book, I found Rob introducing a term he calls a ‘click’.
“...let’s call this movement across history we see in passages like the ones we just looked at from Exodus and Deuteronomy ‘clicks’. What we see is God meeting people at the click they’re at, and drawing them forward. When they’re at F, God calls them to G. When we’re at L, God calls us to M.” (pg 165)
It was a strange concept. And instead of rereading the same pages all night, I decided to leave it as a loose end. So when he explained it on stage the concept clicked.
In a nutshell, the Bible was revolutionary in its day. The Ten Commandments were a radical way to live as a society. ‘An eye for an eye’ was a ground-breaking new concept. Love the poor, the widows and the marginalised was a social upheaval. Yet now people read them and think they are archaic, primitive and old-hat.
But God has been moving us forward the whole time, one ‘click’ at a time. The Reformation – one click. Abolishing the Slave Trade – one click. Gay Rights – another click (very much a ‘Christ Transforming Culture’, R. Nieber’s ‘Christ and Culture’).
This understanding of the Bible, as “a library of radically books” about human interactions with the divine being pulling them forward, gives clear context and links us this God-clicked metanarritive. An ever-changing, transforming, evolving metanarrative is much more palatable. I don’t think Rob wants to rewrite the Bible or devalue the Gospel message, he’s just rethinking the way in which we talk about God for the postmodern human.
2. Living Within a Confused Society
Again and again he continually refers to living within a paradox.
“...conviction and humility, like faith and doubt, are not opposites; they’re dance partners. It’s possible to hold your faith with open hands, living with great conviction and yet at the same time humbly admitting that your knowledge and perspective will always be limited.” (pg 93)
The subversive nature of the cross, the dance between faith and doubt, the quest for knowledge and the great chasm of our unknowable universe. Rob tells stories, gives examples and constantly points to these inconsistencies of our existence. By openly talking, and at times admitting, to the paradox he effectively breaks down the capital ‘T’ for ultimate truth barrier that stops postmodern thinkers from entering into a discussion with Christianity.
Those who disagree will see Rob opening the back door to let postmodernism slip into Christian thinking. Those who agree will see Rob offering postmodernist's a pair of glasses to see God and Christianity as an evolving movement rather than an aging institution.
Conclusion: the book will definitely resonate with frustrated evangelical Christians. What I enjoyed was Rob's humility, respectfulness for the Bible and for other people's experiences. I’m finding myself drawn to read it for a second time; which must mean he’s still a credible and influential voice in today’s Christian landscape.
A 20 minute queue formed after the event
taken by James Warwood
What’s Up Rob’s Sleeve?
There’s no denying Rob’s a talented author and a gifted speaker, so a natural progression fro him would be to try script writing and hosting a TV show!
Rob explained that, after someone asked what he was currently working on, through a friend he'd got to pitch a film idea to JJ Abrams (producer of ‘Lost’ & the new ‘Star Trek’ films).
One thing led to another and now Rob is currently sitting in with a bunch of big-time Hollywood/TV producers and writers on the writing and planning of his own TV show.
You could feel the excitement in his voice as he explained the meetings, the ideas and the potential for reaching a big, religiously curious audience. Someone in the audience asked him to interview Matt Bellamy, lead singer of Muse, seeing as Rob is a huge fan, to which he chuckled and said that he’d love the opportunity.
Someone else asked why Jesus hardly had a mention in his book. He explained that he didn’t want to overcomplicate his message, referring back to the clear purpose in writing this book, and admitted that we could see ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Jesus’ as his next offering.
The blows he took from ‘Love Wins’ certainly haven’t knocked him off his bike. So while we wait for him to whiten his teeth ready for primetime TV, you can read ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About God’, catch up on any of his books you missed in the Rob Bell Department, read Peter Harrison's reaction to the book on the Eden Blog - Revelation or Heresy? Rob Bell's 'Love Wins' - and join the growing conversation.
May 4th, 2013 - Posted & Written by James Warwood