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…
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.