I’m going to quickly point out some problems, a few serious, from Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. If you’re curious as to why I feel the need (and I do) to do this publicly, you can read it longer-form here or shorter form in the following paragraph:
Rob Bell is publicly teaching people about, and attempting to persuade people to, a belief system about Jesus Christ (though I’m not entirely sure he would still call that belief “Christianity”). Very publicly. In fact the back of What We Talk About quotes the New York Times calling him one of America’s most influential pastors. And I am honestly really, really troubled by how many souls are believing (or at least consuming) what he says about Jesus and His Word, because I am convinced he is distorting the Biblical, Jesus-revealed picture of God by being very selective about what Scriptures he quotes and by deceptively using Christian-sounding words and phrases in non-Christian ways. If he had sold 10 books, I wouldn’t feel the need to warn people about him. But he’s sold millions. And he seeks to teach in stage tours and in his blog and in his books about Jesus. You will see warnings about deceitful or treacherous teachers of Jesus in 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation, and the Gospels. You’ll see them because false teachings about Jesus can lead people to Hell, and God loves people. And so in that spirit I (hopefully humbly and accurately) write this.
All right, so here are a few of the thoughts (edited and expanded, of course) that I typed into my IPhone while reading the book. They are in order of where they appeared in the book itself, not in order of their importance. Keep in mind that this is not a review of the book. These are quick-hit thoughts and concerns, and they are meant to steer people to the Jesus who is real and who you can meet in the New Testament, and to steer them away from the misrepresentations of Him and of God in this book.
-He says there is an “increasing number of people” unable to “find meaning in the dominant conceptions, perceptions, and understandings of God they’ve encountered.” (p. 2-3) That a “growing sense” of being at the end of one era and the start of another is being experienced by a “growing number of people.” Maybe, but where is the data to support this statement of fact? He doesn’t speculate it, he states it. This sort of thing is frequent in the book: A claim that people are a certain way or want a certain thing is made, but without any supportive evidence.
-Darwinian evolution clearly influences his thoughts on humanity (p. 70-71).
-He implies the only reason God is described as male/father is an ancient misconception and then (inconsistently) implies that there are an equal number of passages describing God in feminine and masculine terms (p. 88-89).
-Conviction and humility are not a counterpart pair to faith and doubt (p. 92-93), as he says they are. They are not all four eternally admirable, desirable, good things. Jesus forgave Thomas’ doubt; He did not laud it as faith’s “dance partner.” We should always strive for conviction, humility, and faith. We should not always strive for doubt.
-He refers to the writer of Genesis as “the poet” (p. 108) and the beginning of Genesis as the “creation poem” (Epilogue) authoritatively. He does not say he thinks it is a poem and the author (presumably he does not agree with historic Christianity and Jesus that it is Moses) a poet. He says that it is a poem. This is horribly misleading to the book’s readers. He presents himself as a pastor and then says that the creation text in Genesis is a poem. There is no Christian consensus on that, and there isn’t even a secular one. The reader should be informed that Rob Bell’s opinion is that the text three millennia of believers have studied is a poem. But he is not informed of that. If you trusted Bell as a pastor faithfully relating Biblical Christianity, you would walk away from the book thinking Genesis 1-2 was a poem (and obviously that you should read it and interpret it as such). You would not know that that is simply Bell’s opinion, and is not the historic Christian teaching or the majority opinion of Biblical teachers and scholars.
-He believes the point of the Bible and of history is greater and greater shalom (p. 160-161), as opposed to the glory of God in Jesus Christ (i.e., Colossians 1:16).
-He claims that the Promise began to be less and less “tribal” beginning with Abraham (p. 167). I’m making an educated guess that this is to support his teaching that the Bible and history outside of it are a large progressive story, one in which we can leave behind much of what is in the Bible’s pages since we are at the next point in the story. But the reality is that God gave the Promise of the Gospel as early as Genesis 3:15, and that He also made a pretty, big, non-“tribal” covenant with Noah in Genesis 8, long before Abraham. The Old Testament is not simply filled with faulty descriptions of God from people giving their best but ancient understandings. It is a God-breathed Word that is profitable to us for Godliness (2 Timothy 3:16).
-He uses “not yet” language New Testament Christians could agree with, but not in reference to Jesus’ return or the new Heaven and Earth, but instead referencing his vaguely defined ever-increasing shalom (p. 169).
-He wants to move past the teachings of the New Testament, and He is subtly claiming God wants us to move past them (p. 165-173) as well.
-Not all temples were built because of religious evolution, as he implies (p. 177). At least one was built because the God of the Heavens and the earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, said it should be (2 Samuel 7).
-The point of the “story” of the temple curtain being ripped is not that our understanding of God was confined by a building (180-181). It was that we were confined by the Law because of our sin and are now free (if we have believed) through faith in Christ Jesus.
-The Jesus story is not “a radical new stage” or “click in our understanding of God” (p. 181). In truth Jesus is the revelation of the Father, and all things were created for and through Him. He is the point of all creation.
-He implies that Paul said that everyone is the temple (p. 182). In reality, Paul told the Corinthian Christians that those in the body and church of Christ, in whom the Spirit dwells, are the temple of God.
-The point of the bread and wine at the Last Supper was not that all things are holy (p. 182); the point was to be a signal of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
-Moses does not take his sandals off because “the ground has been holy the whole time” (182-183). Exodus tells us he takes his sandals off because God has told him to, because His presence is there.
-Rob makes no mention I could find of us being sinners who need to be forgiven. In the place of that central Scriptural teaching is the claim that we as humans simply have “shadow” parts we need to acknowledge and that “we are going to be just fine” (p. 193).
-Honestly, there is some truly mystical, new-agey stuff in this book: “Remember, 96% of the universe is dark matter – a vibrant, pulsating source of energy for the universe. We don’t transform our shadow side by denial but by entering into it, embracing it, facing it, and naming it because we believe God is with us and for us” (p. 195), “The more we are attuned to our own depths and shadows and desires, the more God is all in all in our lives, and the more we realize the depth of interaction between us and others in every gesture, conversation, and interaction” (p. 200).
My point in writing these thoughts and concerns publicly is, again, pretty simple: Do not accept the teachings of this book as Biblical Christianity, as the faithful message of Jesus Christ. The beautiful truth is that Jesus the Savior is calling us to repentance and faith in Him that we might be saved from judgment and worship Him forever, and all to the glory of the God who is Father, Spirit, and Son.
And that is what we talk about when we talk about the God who is really God.