Reading Bell, I feel almost guilty. His work is not the sort of intellectually stimulating piece that I try to usually read (with varying degrees of success and failure). To be honest, this is in fact the first book by Bell that I have ever read. I have used his Nooma videos. I have used his "The Gods Aren't Angry" video. I have even seen him in person on his Smashing Ice tour (my thoughts about that here). I bought Love Wins at a closing Border's store over a year ago, but have never read it. And I own Jesus Wants to Save Christians, but this book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, is the truly first of his that I have read from beginning to end. His conversational tone pulled me in and made it hard for me to put the book down, which is something because the most common time for me to be reading this book was as I laid in bed. This book was not something that I had to ponder and wrestle with, but engaged me.
Part of my engagement was how similar his message was to how I understand what Lutherans have been saying for quite some time now. I felt like the choir member calling out the "AMEN!", although I had to do so quietly since my wife was often asleep beside me. Part of my engagement, though, to be honest, was annoyance. I wanted to say "That's what we've been saying all along!" When I finished the book, I tweeted:
Just finished What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Great quick read. Spoke grace that made me think he might be Lutheran.
— Brian Bennett (@brian_o_bennett) March 21, 2013
His core message is rooted in God's character, since what we talk about when we talk about God, is to make claims about who God is and what God is up to. In his rather simplistic style, Bell used three words to unpack what Christianity says about God, and devoted a chapter to each word. Bell used With, For, and Ahead. Bell wants to put God's withness, his word, out in the forefront, because too often we believe is elsewhere, doing other God things, and only showing up now and again for us. Bell sees God completely wrapped up in our lives and ubiquitous in our existence. Then Bell enters into the radical nature of God's forness. While some might talk about a God who is angry unless we do the right thing or say the right prayer or just waiting to smite us if we do something displeasing, Bell wants to be clear about a God who stands with us, even in lives that are a complete mess, which he believes is the heart of the proclamation Jesus brings with his life, death and resurrection. Finally Bell says God is ahead of us, not behind us, dragging us back into archaic, anti-scientific thinking, but ahead of us, urging us, not necessarily into a temporally future-oriented existence, but an eschatological future where our lives and creation finds its full meaning. God is, for Bell, always pulling humanity into greater peace, justice, love, compassion and joy.
Bell also warmed readers up using Open, and Both, and then closed with a so. The warm-ups are about getting people ready to read something that might be foreign to them. Bell wants them to lay aside there pre-conceived notions and assumptions that they might already have and prepare them for thinking about things in a new way. And both tries to express the blessing and challenge that language presents in trying to describe a God who cannot fit in any neat box. So moves people to ponder what a God who is radically with, for and ahead of us might for us in our lives.
Bell is at heart a storyteller. He weaves some great stories into his material with a mastery that makes it clear these stories are part of God's great story. Bell tells stories from science, from his life, and even from his experience as a pastor to help clarify and shed light on these concepts and God's story.
I also find this book to be the perfect opening salvo to ready many of his tribe, American Evangelicals, for his backing of same-sex marriage. I was not surprised to read this and then hear that he believes marriage should be extended to same-sex couples. His chapter dealing with Ahead, while it never mentioned same-sex marriage, led perfectly into his public support of same-sex marriage.
What We Talk About When We Talk About God is an incredibly accessible account of the good news of who God is and what God is up to in Jesus. Bell isn't really saying anything new or groundbreaking, but he is helping correct some abuses of the way God has been talked about over the recent past, the move to make God more opponent than defender, more judge than adovcate, more concerned with you behaving right before stepping than being with you all the time.
In the end, Bell's book might help spur some thoughtful reflection and conversation from Christians and non-Christians alike. Certainly Christians could use a look at a discussion of God that encompasses a grace-filled space that is open to a God who exists beyond the image made in people's own ones... even us Lutherans who think we already own what Bell is saying.
And as to my feelings of guilt with Bell not being so intellectually heavy and dense... I am reminded of the old hymn "I Love to Tell the Story." And the last verse is the one that always gets me, because I hear me in that verse... a lifelong Christian who longs to hear the story told to me.
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
As Bell weaves stories into God's story, he wraps up my story in there as well, because I know that I haven't gotten everything together. That I am often not with it. That I do not live up to the calling that God has given me. That life is not always smooth sailing. It is good to know that God is with, for and ahead of me.