The thesis of Rob Bell’s newest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, is simple:
God is with us.
God is for us.
God is ahead of us.
But there is more to Rob’s thinking than that. His views have nuance and texture that will doubtlessly influence many American Christians. That’s why I wanted to sit down with him and discuss his recent work. The following is part two of my interview:
JM: You say that a lot of people believe in a “tribal God.” What do you mean by that?
RB: I’m talking about that sense among lots of people that God is on our side and is for us, and is therefore against everybody else. There’s strong allegiance to the tribe at the expense of a God who loves everybody. I think a lot of people experienced this God in church. They visited a church, and it felt like the God of that church had a language and culture and customs and dress and insider terminology. And they felt that if there is a Creator of the universe—a singular, benevolent source of all this life that we all know to be life—that God must be bigger than this. I think a lot of people have had that experience.
JM: These dominant perceptions of God, you say in your book, aren’t just failing us. In many cases are causing us harm? How are they harmful?
RB: As a pastor, I’ve interacted with lots of people who knew something was true and knew it was good and knew it was helpful, but they’ve been given some sort of religious system of labels and categories. They were told that that this thing right in front of them is not “Christian.” So therefore, they are to keep it at arms length. Whether it’s science, literature, art, or we could go down the list. My experience has been that lots of people were handed a framework that simply doesn’t work.
I’ve met people, for example, who were told counseling is bad because they have the Bible. You don’t need anything more than the Bible. And they have issues in which they desperately need a trained, professional counselor to help them walk through their own history and struggle and pain. And literally rattling around in their head is this message that counseling is bad. And that is really, really destructive.
JM: Your critics claim that you sometimes try to adapt your perception of God based on how people are offended. Is there a point at which Rob Bell says, “This far and no farther?” That we’ve somehow arrived at right thinking?
RB: I’m a Christian and so the cross and the resurrection and this explosive and compelling Jesus movement that moved across the ages is where it’s at for me. So I’m interested in following this Jesus and seeing what he’s up to next and seeing all of the surprises that are just around the corner. So when someone talks about “this far, and no farther,” for me the center has always been Jesus.
When I was young, I had a series of powerful experiences with the resurrected Jesus that have continued to this day. This awareness that God loves us and that we’re going to be okay and we can trust that God really is like this. And the people that I meet are carrying all sorts of pain and brokenness from what the world is really like. And I’ve seen again and again what happens when people open themselves up and trust that this Jesus message really is true and can be trusted. So that’s what has always been interesting to me. And what a critic somewhere says has never been that interesting.