In this review of Rob Bell’s new book “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” I hope to sketch out a little outline of what I feel Bell is getting at, in a (brief!) chapter by chapter summary, beginning today with Chapters 1 & 2. I’m sure I’ll miss or at least obscure the point, at times, but nevertheless, it may peak your interest.
Here it is… enjoy…
Chapter 1 “Hum” (pg. 1-20)
“Hum” comes from a quote from Jane Fonda, during an interview by Rolling Stone she was asked why she would become a Christian. Her response, “I could feel reverence humming in me.” (pg. 10) Bell wants to contrast this awareness of “something more to life, the something else…” with the “cold, bored, and uninspired” vision of life, he later attributes to (in part) Enlightenment philosophy and science that could only take us so far in our understanding of the world.
“The truth is, we have a problem with God.” (pg. 2) (People) “…can’t find meaning in the dominant conceptions, perceptions, and understandings of God…” (pg. 3) Bell goes on to describe some conceptions of God as outdated like Oldsmobiles who couldn’t keep up with the times, but he insists later, that this book isn’t about us ‘getting with the times’ as if “this modern world” has the answers that Christianity is looking for, but instead about a God that is pulling us forward into a better future, and inviting us into what he is doing through redemptive history. More on that later.
Bell lets us in on his ‘crisis of faith’ in an autobiographical turn (pg. 11-15) where he emerges from this to a “gradual awakening to new perspectives on God – specifically the God Jesus talked about.” Of course, by “new” perspectives on God, he must mean “new to him” because the rest of the book is basically a treatment of the transcendence of God (with some subtle turns) …who is “with us” “for us” and “ahead of us” and isn’t anything “new” at all, and can be found in the writing of Christians throughout the centuries. The thing that Bell does well, is to give his audience a high-school reading-level access to some of these concepts on God and the world.
Bell lays his goal for this book out clearly with, “This book is about seeing, about becoming more and more alive and aware, orienting ourselves around the God who I believe is the ground of our being… the transcendent presence…” This becomes a reoccurring theme throughout and could probably be noted as the primary theme. Bell hopes that an awareness of the transcendence of God will also mean for us a different experience of God.
Chapter 2 “Open” (pg. 21-80)
In this, the lengthiest chapter of the book, Bell gives you a cursory overview of the some of the advancements in science over the last few centuries, all leading us to the conclusion that the universe is extremely large, complex, and, at times, in significant ways, unpredictable and incomprehensible. Bell takes a jab at ‘hard’ scientific understandings of the world that bubble up from Enlightenment philosophies as not “taking the entire world into account.” He makes an interesting but typical move from the inexplicable to ‘spirit’ and is critical of a version of science that thinks it’s only a matter of time before we figure everything out.
But here is what Bell really seems to want to talk about, which ties in with the theme of transcendence – “holism.” (pg. 58-63) “Holism is the reality that emerges when all the parts are put together but can’t be individually located, labeled, or identified at a smaller, component, parts level.” (pg. 59) and “Holism is the truth that your consciousness and personality and awareness cannot be located in your physicality…” (pg. 60) You can’t hold “soul” in your hand. Bell wants us to see that there is something to the whole that is meaningful beyond the parts, and he wants to make this very distinction toward the world. That there is a holism about creation – that everything is somehow connected, and even suffused with God’s presence. (But not pantheism! We’ll get to that…)
In the last section of Chapter 2, Bell really hones in on reductionistic explanations of the world given to us by the “Age of Certainty” where the world can be reduced to things we analysis ‘in a lab’ and predict. It has taken us so far, with the advances in a variety of disciplines – the sciences, medicine, technologies, etc. but it can’t really answer some of the most important questions. Bell doesn’t want to pit science against religion. Instead, he wants to see them as “dancing partners” and he feels the most recent discoveries in the sciences (theoretical physics in particular) opens up space for a dialog about the divine. I’m making this sound pretty “heady” when it’s really not when you read Bell, because it’s always inundated with illustrative stories to give the concepts ‘legs.’
So, being “open”
“…to believe that there’s more going on here, that there may be reality beyond what we can comprehend…” (pg. 80)
(Sorry, i couldn’t resist!)
Chapters 3. “Both” 4. “With” 5.: PART 2
Upcoming… “For” 6. “Ahead” and 7. “So”
“Grace and Peace” – Kurt