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What We Talk About When We Talk About God Is Often Ourselves

Last week, I read Rob Bell’s latest book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. It was, I don’t know, underwhelming? It wasn’t bad or heretical or even really very controversial, much as his promoters and publishers may have tried to ratchet the excitement level up by bringing up his views about homosexuality right before/around the book’s release. But it was kinda ho-hum. The book was pretty much exactly what we’ve come to expect from Rob Bell by now. A handful of interesting ideas, some good questions, an approach to God and faith that starts with human experience and then moves on to consider what, if anything, this or that human longing might point to, a bit of semi-vacuous, poetic language that dances around controversial issues, and a lot…

of weird formatting and spacing…

to make his words seem…

really dramatic….

and fill up a book.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist that part :).)

Anyway, as I said, nothing terribly new. This is Rob Bell’s thing and he does it reasonably well.

As I was running some errands today, I happened to listen to an interview with Rob Bell on a British radio program called “Unbelievable,” hosted by Justin Brierley. The host and another guy (Andrew Wilson) were trying to pin Bell down on what, exactly, he thought about topics like the existence of hell, homosexuality, etc., and Rob was at his evasive best. It was like listening to a really, really nice verbal sparring match which consisted of a lot of dancing around but not a lot of punches thrown.

Of course, the conversation inevitably turned to Bell’s views about homosexuality. As far as I can understand Bell’s argument for a more inclusive position on gay marriage and/or church participation, it seems to go something like this: “There are gay Christians out there, culture has moved on, therefore the church ought to change.” People who have traditional understandings of God and faith are like “Oldsmobiles”—vehicles that were once good and useful, but have outlived their purpose. It’s time to move on with culture. Maybe our views of God should be like Fiats or Hyundais. I don’t know. Just not an Oldsmobile.

Now, whatever your views on homosexuality might be, surely it must be admitted that this is a truly awful argument. The fact that there are Christians out there who believe or practice x does not thereby constitute a valid argument for affirming or rejecting x. It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just an observation. There are Christians out there who are greedy and corrupt and materialistic, there are Christians who are sexually repressive and puritanical and obsessed with personal holiness. There are all kinds of Christians doing and believing all kinds of things. But this does not in and of itself constitute an argument for or against any of these things.

Yes, culture moves on. Of course it does. Human culture is always moving, shifting, changing. Sometimes culture moves on in good ways, sometimes in bad ways. Sometimes it’s good to leave the Oldsmobile behind. Sometimes we realize that things were actually made a lot better back then than they are now. It requires patient, committed discernment to figure out when it is the former and when it is the latter. But the fact that culture moves does not make its movements right. Or wrong. It just is.

The whole, “God seems outdated and we’ve moved on so let’s try to present a more relevant and palatable God” is actually a very old, tired project. The theological liberalism of the late modern period is the most obvious example, but there have been others as well. Whatever the benefits of such an approach might be (and surely the desire to present God in terms that are understandable and attractive at all times and places is a laudable one!), the terminus of this starting point always seems to be the same. We end up with a God who likes what we like, disapproves of what we disapprove of, and basically reflects us back to ourselves. A God who “moves on” with culture—any culture—invariably loses the ability to challenge that culture, to call it to a higher, truer standard than the one it currently embraces. A God who always and invariably “moves on” with culture can only become a legitimator of culture, not a Lord.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    This is a really Good post…(i think ??) 🙂 anyway,I love the boxing analogy concerning the interview. Bell would make a great politician in Washington.
    I understand and agree with most of what you are saying about how we/humankind repeatedly change our minds/theology over time,often for the worse,due to whatever prevailing Cultural pressures dictate. But on the other hand, are we not In essence continually remaking God into our own image,so to speak, as we individually evolve emotionally and spiritually anyway?, regardless of culture. I know i do.

    April 22, 2013
    • The danger for theology to become nothing more than biography is always lurking, I think… Probably in ways that we aren’t even aware.

      I don’t know what to say beyond what I mentioned in response to David below. We do the best we can with the tools we have to remain open to the God who confronts, disorients, and reorients. If we aren’t at least open to hearing something we don’t like or don’t really understand, then I think we are closing ourselves off to the possibility of change and, more importantly, to the God who changes.

      April 22, 2013
  2. I started messing around a little in the early church fathers (and it can of course be read in the NT already) and was amazed by how they attempted to accommodate Greek/Roman thought. The danger with charging someone of cultural accommodation is of course begging the question of what you are comparing that to (not to say it is not a fair question). Then questions of ‘pure origins’ start popping up and tend to lead in unhealthy directions.
    I am almost finished my ‘sermon-on-homosexuality’ (b/c one should cover it, right). In it I outline my own way of processing such questions.

    April 22, 2013
    • Yeah, there’s unquestionably a traceable effort to accommodate/incorporate cultural norms and practices throughout church history. I would say that alongside of that, there have been examples where the church challenged cultural practices and assumptions. No culture is pure evil just like no culture can be baptized as a whole. It makes sense to me that there should be a bit of both accommodating and a bit of resisting.

      I get uneasy when I hear someone like Bell saying (or implying) that the fact that culture changes is in and of itself a reason for the church to change its position on x or y. Changing cultural norms can play a role in reconsidering something, but I don’t think they are sufficient on their own to justify change.

      I agree, it’s easy to posit a kind of illusory ideal cultural context (usually in the distant past.. and which has of course never really existed). I guess I have a kind of default Wesleyan quadrilateral approach in mind and operating most of the time. We read Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, we negotiate our interpretations of these with others, and we do the best job of discerning that we can. We probably misunderstand a lot of things about the nature of the kingdom of God, but whatever it is, for the Christian I think it has to be able to stand over the kingdoms of human beings.

      April 22, 2013
      • mike #

        …sometimes Ryan, you exhibit as sharp an intellect as I’ve ever encountered.It’s actually very impressive

        April 22, 2013
      • Well, thank you, Mike. Very kind…

        April 23, 2013
  3. Sorry, I meant to add that I will probably post that sermon, for what its worth.

    April 22, 2013
    • Looking forward to reading this, David. Let me know when you post it.

      April 22, 2013
  4. I have read some interesting points of view . . . “Opinions are like armpits – everyone has two of them and they stink most of the time!” That was a weak attempt at a little humour. 🙂 Though I do consider this a very serious topic. Two quotes come to mind that are food for thought:
    “Because Jesus said that the world would hate him, we can be quite sure that if it loves him it is because they have made him into something He is not”(Erwin Lutzer, “Christ among other gods”). Lutzer quote is from memory, so may not be verbatim. Jesus also said if the world hated him – it would hate us also. I believe it was Martin Luther that stated, “If our gospel were received in peace – it wouldn’t be the true gospel”
    And Walter Rausenbauch once stated, “The world must either condemn the world and seek to change it, or accept the world and conform to it. In the latter case it surrenders it’s holiness and its mission.”
    For those who are pastors reading this, I hope you can say with Paul, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.”(Acts 20:26-27)
    I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.”(2 Tim. 4:1-4)


    “A horrible and shocking thing
    has happened in the land:
    The prophets prophesy lies,
    the priests rule by their own authority,
    and my people love it this way.
    But what will you do in the end?”

    April 23, 2013
    • Somehow we have to balance two apparently contradictory ideas. On the one hand, the message of the cross is an “offense.” On the other hand, coming to Jesus is, we believe, the fulfillment of the deepest longing of the human heart and the way to discover what a human being was made to be and to do. I think we get into trouble when we emphasize only one and not the other.

      April 24, 2013
      • Yes – much of Scripture is paradox, even as much of life is paradox! Balance is so key, it is something I need to constantly work at. A pertinent passage in Matthew 23:23 comes to mind: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
        “Balance!” 🙂

        April 24, 2013
    • mike #

      @Calvin, My old pentecostal pastor used to quote the same exact scriptures,seemingly to effectively squelch any questioning of his (Denominations) theology.He even went a step further and told how he had once locked himself into a room for 3 days with only a bible until God revealed the REAL gospel truth to him, it still makes me smile when i think about it. ..Anyway, It’s curious to me that the question and ensuing Decision of whether Jesus of Nazareth was/is actually the fortold Messiah of God is not asked of new converts to ponder today. In fact, I would venture to say that most christians don’t know even what the word Messiah or Christ means or implies, Thats a rather significant ommission of essential information ,dont you think.

      April 24, 2013
  5. Perception is tainted by association!
    Wished I had more time to respond . . . I’ve got to run!
    Have a “Blessed day!”

    April 24, 2013
  6. EDH #

    Ever since the New Yorker published Bell’s mini-biography, I’ve become less interested in what teaching of Christ he is going to exploit next. And yet, I can’t look away.

    Rob Bell goes way too far – God doesn’t change, neither does the faith: “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

    How am I supposed to believe this changes? Oldsmobiles.

    Ok, I’m sure this could be applicable in matters of indifference. I wouldn’t deny there will be variance and change in religious ceremonies, orders or personal piety (things indifferent: distinctions of meat, holy days etc), as we are free to regard these things as our own service to God without passing judgment on others. Such things are inescapable – yet they are neither commanded or forbidden by God. The Father’s are clear on this. Such diversity does not destroy the harmony of the faith. But what Rob Bell is saying is that the explicit commands of God do change by virtue of the times. I am sure there is some nuance he introduces by saying that God is the one in front leading us — but at the end, it’s still at variance with the foundation of the Apostles and sinking on the grounds of passing the buck and self-justification. This teaching is dangerous and as shifty as the wind. It is contrary to how the Apostle’s teach us Christ.

    All that to say. Thanks for the review Ryan, you have saved me…. some …. time



    between the lines.

    April 24, 2013
    • mike #

      @EDH: “Rob Bell goes way too far – God doesn’t change, neither does the faith”……”But what Rob Bell is saying is that the explicit commands of God do change by virtue of the times.”
      I dont know,man. It depends on what you mean by “the faith”. I think we would all agree that the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount can never change. But look how Christianity itself has changed and evolved after the second century, Martin Luther was Catholic, even after his protest, yet today Protestantism looks nothing whatsoever like Catholicism… stuff changes…except maybe Orthodoxy and it’s “Holy Traditions”, but not many of us today want to sacrifice our lifestyles and move the Russia and live in a peasant village.

      April 24, 2013
    • @EDH… I laughed out loud at the end of your comment…

      I don’t have much time to engage these last two comments — I’m out of town all week attending a conference. That’s not to say there isn’t much that is good and important to discuss in what you both raise. The issues of what is unchanging, what is cultural, what is timeless, what can be adapted and how we tell the difference are huge and important ones. Perhaps another time :).

      My own problem with Rob Bell’s book isn’t so much that he comes to some conclusions that I might not agree with, it’s that he doesn’t seem to offer anything by way of argument besides, “times are changing.” I think he owes his readers far, far better.

      April 24, 2013

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