Book Review: Rob Bell’s “What we talk about when we talk about God”


8582405387_0dc3084929_cRob Bell is a remarkably popular chap, so much so, that in 2011 TIME magazine named him as one of the most influential people on the planet for that year. Is this perhaps because he is a political mover and shaker, or a noteworthy scientist who has garnered an insight that will transform all our lives? No not at all, he is a Christian Pastor who founded one of the fastest growing churches in the US, Mars Hill Bible Church. However, this accolade is not being dispensed for bringing lots of people together every Sunday  but rather because he is imparting new ideas, a new understanding that is nothing less than a complete rethink of Christianity that is attempting to modify it so that it once again becomes enticing, dynamic and modern.

This of course is not new, each generation gives rise to a variation of belief that is in tune with the age. Belief might indeed claim to be timeless and consist of eternal truths, but it has always evolved, ditching older archaic bits, splintering, leaving some behind, but giving those unhappy with the prevailing consensus a newer more palatable form of belief to embrace. History is littered with examples such as the reformation, Martin Luther, Methodism, Quakers, Pentecostalism, and  the Charismatic movement. Many variations often rapidly fizzle out, so a process of natural selection ensures that only the truly successful variations that hit a note within the prevailing culture thrive and go viral. Mr Bell is popular because he knows how to hit that note.

I’ve been reviewing his latest book, “What we talk about when we talk about God“, and find it interesting not just because it gives an insight into what makes him tick, but also because it opens a window for us to see how Christian belief in the US may adapt and evolve so that it can not only survive, but thrive in the 21st century.

The book itself is a reflection of his thinking and is clearly the outcome of a very personal crises that he has faced. It’s potential success comes from the fact that many other Christians are also going through a similar crises, and so it offers them a way forward. He emerged from his crises with a modified modern belief, and now here is some new thinking, a variation of belief that enables him to embrace both the 21st century along with a revised form of Christianity – even though it is not actually true, this alignment will ensure that it will be popular.

So, let’s dive in now and see what is on offer.

Hum

Like all good communicators, he has structured the book in a manner that makes it very accessible. It consists of just seven chapters, each leading you gently in and deeper down the rabbit hole into wonderland. The first called “Hum” lays the foundation and is clearly designed to hook the disillusioned believer in. He presents some of the bat-shit crazy things that take place in the name of “Christian Belief”, for example the chap who insists that modern science is bullshit because the world was made in just six days, the assertion that if you are gay then you are going to hell, or the lady with two masters degrees being stunned when told that woman should not teach or preach. He also talks about his own personal crises of disbelief and how it motivated him to completely rethink everything. He makes it clear that he has now emerged into a newer, better, and clearer understanding, but is still into Jesus, he simply has a new way to connect with it all. The final bit of the first chapter is a quick summary, a teaser/trailer for of the rest of the book; read on folks, because all these exciting new insights are coming up. (If he is looking for an alternative career, he should consider writing TV scripts, he would be quite good at it).

Open

This next chapter is mostly a quick gallop through lots of sciency sounding stuff, which on the whole is mostly correct, but does have odd moments of lunacy, (no 96% of the universe does not consist of black holes, just dark matter and dark energy, no the big bang was not an explosion, nor was it even the start of the universe, it is simply a term that describes the early expansion of the universe). The fact that Mr Bell is not a Physicist nor a Cosmologist perhaps makes such bloopers forgivable, and I also suspect if you pointed them out, he would probably agree and apply the appropriate corrections. However, when he started in on the weirdness of quantum mechanics, I did wonder if he was about to go “Deepak Chopra” on us, and sadly I was right, because this is more or less where this little journey take us … “the primary essence of reality is energy flow” … sigh.

The point at which it all suddenly takes a rapid left-hand turn into utter kookiness comes about half way through the chapter where he writes …

the line between

matter

and

spirit

may not be a line at all

What utter bollocks, “matter” is the stuff we can actually measure and observe, it is real. In stark contrast, “spirit” is a religious term and does not describe anything real or measurable. He also deploys terms such as “soul” as if it was something real, it is not, and he proceeds to argue that God is beyond our means to analyze and beyond our ability to reason.

The rather gaping problem with all this is that the belief system he embraces claims that this god he asserts is real will manifest and intervene in our reality, yet the fact is that there is no confirmation of that, not one single verified observation of anything supernatural at all … ever. “Ah”, he argues, “God is beyond all that, over the boundary of what our rationality is capable of grasping”. He is in fact correct to observe that there are things beyond rationality, we have a specific term to describe all that – we refer to it as the irrational, and he demonstrates that by the bucket load here, for you can use the exact same argument to claim or assert any fantasy you like … faeries, Zeus, Thor, magic pink invisible unicorns, whatever you wish, it is all just over the horizon and very conveniently de-coupled from out ability to detect.

This chapter is advocating an embrace of modern science, (that’s a good thing), and has also been coupled with belief housekeeping.  He is pushing for believers to jettison all the insane anti-science stuff and instead embrace all that science tells us about our origins and the universe around us, but at the same time retain the irrational beliefs by claiming that all those supernatural bits reside over the horizon of our understanding.  Since god is beyond reason and rationality, no evidence is required, all very neat, tidy and utterly batty.

Both

Having argued against reason in the previous chapter, Mr Bell now moves on to apply this lesson within this short little chapter. He starts off by talking about language and then hits his stride by suggesting that faith and doubt are dance partners. It is perhaps true that many who embrace a faith will also have periods of doubt (when reason starts to kick in), but he suggests taking this further into an almost Orwellian form of doublethink where you cling to your faith with certainty, and simultaneously admit that you also have a very limited perspective. Either you have a high degree of confidence that something is true for various reasons, or you don’t – claiming both concurrently is simply daft (or perhaps a better word might be “religious”).

With

There are two huge issues with this chapter. The first is that much of his argument rests on an appeal to mysticism. He starts babbling on about supposedly meaningful Hebrew words, and expands upon several at great length. There are perfectly fine English words that can be utilized to describe the same, for example “ruach” which can be easily rendered as “spirit”. The attempt to imbue such concepts with a degree of mysticism by utilizing Hebrew adds nothing except to cloak the fact that such terms, regardless the the language deployed, are completely meaningless and do not describe anything that is actually measurable or for that matter real.

That point, while a bit annoying, is all a bit of a side show, because the main message here is his claim that rather common and well-explained human emotional experiences and feelings are really God being with us. When humans detect external agents that are not actually there, what is in fact really going on says a great deal about the inner working of the human mind and nothing at all about the reality of any supernatural entities. Dr Michael Shermer explains it all quite well within his book “The Believing Brain“. Dr Shermer’s thesis is straightforward: We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; and after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.

Dr. Shermer also provides the neuroscience behind our beliefs. The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning.

We are faced here with a choice, are human perceptions of something out there really a mystical mysterious all invasive supernatural agent at work, or  is a far better explanation the recognition that evolution has naturally selected humans to be prone to a belief in external agents because it gives them a distinct survival advantage. Imagine our primitive ancestors out on the savannah in the far distant past … there is a rustling in the grass. If the assumption is that it is the wind and it is in fact a lion, they get eaten. If however the assumption is that it is an external agent, a lion, they will then flee and survive, even if it was a false positive and was in fact just the wind.

What we now have here within this “With” chapter of Mr Bell’s book is a classical example of “belief” in things that are not actually there and an attempt to then explain such feelings and imbue a completely fictitious meaning to it all. Such claimed meaning is an extraordinary claim and so it demands that extraordinary proof should be presented before it can be accepted, but none is forthcoming, so it is rejected by skeptics such as myself and many others.

For

In the previous chapter we watched and gasped in amazement as Mr Bell constructed an entire sandcastle floating up in the air without any support at all. Having now completed the construction of this edifice of a complete flight of fancy, it should come as no surprise to watch as he has the sheer audacity to take the next bold step. Here now in “For”, he packs all his bags and moves in to take up residence. He proceeds to gush with the warm assurance that “God” is very much a loving supernatural entity and as he proceeds to dispense layer after layer of this sugar saturated warm and fuzzy description, one can distinctly hear the dance of the faeries and wood sprites whirling in the sheer delight of it all.

Whats that you say … oh yes, that is correct, I just made that last bit up, faeries and wood sprites are indeed completely fictitious and not real. Yet if we apply the standard of verifiability demonstrated within this chapter, or for that matter, this entire font of belief, and simply make bold assertions with nothing at all to back them up, then if you believe Mr Bell is correct, should you not also believe me? He does provide references, but his source is a religious text, a book full of contradictions that simply reflects the religious thinking of its time. The bible itself is a claim, and cannot be used as a reference to verify yet another similar but perhaps more refined claim. You also need to remember that the poetical vagueness that is pervasive within the bible is sufficiently fuzzy to enable humans to successfully mine it for almost any flavour of “truth” required.

Here in this chapter is a degree of certainty and warm assurance that this forness is indeed true, yet rather oddly, this decisive claim comes from the same Mr Bell, who admitted that in his moments of doubts he would have, if he had been honest, explained to those that had come to listen to him, “Well, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I gotta be honest with you: I think we’re kinda screwed“. (p12). What is clear is that rather than being honest about the things that are actually true, he has instead retreated deeper into a more refined form of belief; an  enticing place that beckons perhaps due to the thick tempting layers of saccharin, yet is simply a delusion, a complete fabrication.

Ahead

God is a really nice guy and is always pulling us ahead to the next step, to be better, more loving, more peaceful, etc…“, claims Mr Bell (I’m paraphrasing his argument here, those are not his exact words). To justify this stance, he correctly anticipates that the words of the old testament will be wheeled out and pointed at to counter this argument.  “Ah“, Mr Bell argues, “That was simply God taking them to the next step“, he the proceeds to argue that “An eye for an eye” was actually progress because if somebody killed your cow, you could only claim one of his cows, not two, and so this prevents things escalating. True indeed, in the context of the time, “an eye for and eye” was better than letting things escalate.

There is a slight flaw here, the claim that god imparted this knowledge is complete bollocks, the concept pre-dates the old-testament and was already being practised for quite some time before being written down in the bible. The principle is found within Babylonian Law (see Code of Hammurabi) (1780 BCE), where humans had used reason to work it out – no gods needed. His claim that it was a revelation from “god” as the next step forward is not a factual claim.

Stepping back a bit, the claim that god is drawing us to the next step is indeed easily refuted by reading the bible. This supposedly all loving, and peaceful deity gave direct instructions to his select tribe like this …

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt.

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. I Samuel 15 v2-3

These are the words spoken by god — he is ordering genocide — this is not a peaceful and loving entity pulling them gently to take the next step, but rather the babbling of an utterly immoral genocidal shit. Luckily, this entity does not actually exist, because if we were in fact under the “care” of something that is that emotionally unstable and vengeful,  humanity would be up a well-known creek without a paddle in sight.

OK, lets step back from all that, Mr Bell’s argument is not credible, it is not “god” that draws the believers to the next step at all, but rather it is the beliefs that evolve and change to reflect the prevailing culture, that is how they have always survived. Christianity is indeed being left behind right now, those who cling to the more traditional views are now being revealed to be embracing beliefs that modern culture is increasingly identifying as immoral. If belief is to thrive in the years to come, then it will need to ditch a few things and modify itself so that it can then catch up … this perhaps is what this chapter is really all about, in fact is is what this entire book is all about, because here Mr Bell is laying a foundation of a belief that will enable its believers to make such a leap.

God is drawing us ahead, he always has” he claims. Actually no, it is belief that has always been behind the curve and needs to again and again play catchup. So what comes next? That is in the next chapter.

So … or perhaps “So what”

Alas yes indeed, not a surprise, but it is indeed a “So what”. Mr Bell has donned his shiny new improved Jesus glasses and now he sees Jesus everywhere and in everything.  As I read, it reminds me in many ways of a lot of what could be best termed New Age thinking; an all inclusive holistic blend of the nice bits of mystical thinking drawn from many traditions, but in this instance, a variation that has a distinctly Christian flavour. We read lines such as … “there are dimensions to reality that are unseen” (p179) … cue twilight zone music, and also “96 percent of the universe is dark matter – a vibrant, pulsating source of energy for the universe”. (Insert face-palm moment here). What utter bollocks, not only is it factually wrong by many orders of magnitude, but is also complete and utter nonsense. 68.3% of the total mass–energy of the universe is dark energy, dark matter is not 96%, it only accounts for 23% of the mass-energy content of the observable universe. In both instances the prefix “dark” is applied because right now we have no idea what it actually is, so identifying it with “god” is a truly weird claim to make.

We also get to read about Tim who pretends to be a priest, and by doing so had a real impact in some peoples lives … err yes, but .. to use Mr Bell’s literary style that he deploys for emphasis (and to also perhaps lengthen the book) …

Tim

was

pretending

he faked it all.

At the heart of the claim being presented in this book we can observe what could be best termed paleolithic thinking; here is all the stuff we know to be true, but beyond lies the unknown, all the stuff that is still a mystery, well that’s the god bit. I call this paleolithic thinking because this is exactly what our ancestors did, they took exactly the same approach when faced with the unknown; thunder, weather, the sun, the moon, were all deemed to be the product of gods. Over the ages, as our knowledge has advanced we have discovered again and again that “Its God” has not been the right answer, this latest incarnation of belief will be no different.

What it will of course do is successfully offer a more modern variation of belief, more compassionate, less judgemental, more embracing and inclusive, in tune with modern science and ethics, but like all its precursors, is doomed to failure, not just because it will also be left behind as we outgrow it, but because it is not actually true.

For Christians in the midst of a crises of doubt, faced with the intolerance, misogyny and homophobia that is endemic within their ranks these days, it will be of considerable interest because it offers a viable way forward, a means to become more inclusive, open, tolerant and ethical, yet at the same time retain the core belief more or less intact.

Like every other variation of belief it will tap into and leverage human emotions and feelings and so enable those that opt to embrace it to lean upon that as “proof”, when it does in reality do no such thing at all, except successfully fool those that want it to be true.

Finally …

How would I rank this on Amazon? I’m permitted anything between one and five stars. I happily acknowledge that Mr Bell can indeed write, engage and drum up a following, but in the end I feel obliged to be true to what is factually real. If he was writing fiction, then it deserves five stars. I also suspect most shades of believer would bestow something in the four or five star range, even if they don’t completely agree with his views. However, I’m opting for the lowest ranking – just one star — on the sole basis that what he is claiming is not actually true, and also because many will be fooled by it all into believing complete nonsense.

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