WHEN I was 20, I drove an Oldsmobile. It was a four-door Delta
88, and it was silver, and it had a bench seat across the front
with an armrest that folded down, and it ﬁtted seven or eight
people easily; and, in a feat of engineering genius, the rear
licence-plate was on a hinge that you pulled down in order to ﬁll
up the gas tank, and the trunk was so huge you could put ﬁve
snowboards in at the same time - or a drum set, several guitar
amps, and a body, if you needed to. My friends called it "the
It was a magniﬁcent automobile, the Sled, and it served me well
for those years. But they don't make Oldsmobiles any more.
Oldsmobile couldn't keep up with the times, and so it gradually
became part of the past, not the future. For them, not us. For
then, not now.
For many in our world today, God is like Oldsmobiles. My friend
Cathi recently told me about an event she attended, where an
inﬂuential Christian leader talked openly about how he didn't think
women should be allowed to teach and lead in the church. Cathi, who
has two Master's degrees, sat there, stunned.
I got an email from my friend Gary last year, saying that he'd
decided to visit a church with his family on Easter Sunday. They'd
heard a sermon about how resurrection means everybody who is gay is
going to hell.
And then my friend Michael recently told me about hearing the
leader of a large Christian denomination say that if you deny that
God made the world in a literal six days, you are denying the rest
of the Bible as well, because it doesn't matter what science
AND then there are the two pastors I know who each told me,
within days of the other, how their wives don't want anything to do
with God. Both wives were raised and educated in very religious
environ-ments that placed a great deal of importance on the belief
that God is good, and the point of life is to have a personal
relationship with this good God.
But both wives have suffered great pain in their young lives,
and the clean and neat categories of faith that they were handed in
their youth haven't been capable of helping them navigate the
complexity of their experiences. And so, like jilted lovers, they
have turned away. God, for them, is an awkward, alien, strange
notion. Like someone they used to know.
And then there's the party I attended in New York, where I met a
well-known journalist who, when he was told that I'm a pastor,
wanted to know if all of you pastors use big charts with timelines
and graphics to show people when the world is going to end, and how
Christians are going to escape, while those who are left behind
endure untold suffering.
Whether it's science or art, or education, or medicine, or
personal rights, or basic intellectual integrity, or simply dealing
with suffering in all of its complexity, for many in our world -
and this includes Christians, and a growing number of pastors -
believing or trusting in that God, the one they've heard other
Christians talk about, feels like a step backward to an earlier,
less informed and enlightened time, one that we've thankfully left
There's a question that lurks in these stories - a question that
an ever-increasing number of people, across a broad range of
backgrounds and perspectives, are asking about God: can God keep up
with the modern world?
THINGS have changed; we have changed. We have more informa-tion
technology than ever. We're interacting with a far more diverse
range of people than we used to. And the tribal God, the one that
is the only one that many have been exposed to - the one who's
always right (which means everybody else is wrong) - is
increasingly perceived to be small, narrow, irrelevant, mean, and
sometimes just not that intelligent. Is God going to be left
behind? Like Oldsmobiles?
For others, it isn't that God is behind, or unable to deal with
the complexity of life; for them, God never existed in the ﬁrst
place. In recent years, we've heard a number of very intelligent
and articulate scientists, professors, and writers argue
passionately and conﬁdently that there is no God.
This denial isn't anything new, but it's gained a head of steam
in recent years, this resurgence seemingly in reaction to the
God-like Oldsmobile, who more and more people are becoming
convinced is not only behind, but downright
All of which brings me to Jane Fonda. (You didn't see that
coming, did you?) Several years ago, in an interview she gave to
Rolling Stone magazine, the interviewer said this: "Your
most recent - and perhaps most dramatic - transformation is your
becoming a Christian. Even with your ﬂair for controversy, that's
It's a telling statement, isn't it? You can sense so much there,
as if there's a question behind the question that isn't really a
question - that hidden question being what the interviewer really
wants to ask her: "Why would anybody become a Christian?"
That's a question a number of people have - educated,
reasonable, modern people, who ﬁnd becoming a Christian an
"explosive", not to mention an inconceivable, thing to do.
In her response, Fonda spoke of being drawn to faith because "I
could feel reverence humming in me." I love that phrase. It speaks
to the experiences we've all had - moments and tastes and glimpses
when we've found ourselves deeply aware of the something more of
life, the something else, the sense that all of this might just
mean something, that it may not be an accident, that it has
profound resonance, and that it matters in ways that are very real
and very hard to explain.
For a massive number of people, to deny this reverence humming
in us, to insist that we're simply random collections of atoms, and
that all there is is all there is, leaves them cold, bored, and
It doesn't ring true to our very real experiences of life. But
when people turn to many of the conventional, traditional religious
explanations for this reverence, they're often led to the God who
is like Oldsmobiles, the one who's back there, behind, unable to
ALL of this raises the questions: are there other ways to talk
about the reverence humming in us? Are there other ways to talk
about the sense we have that there's way more going on here? Are
there other ways to talk about God? My answer is yes. I believe
But I need to ﬁrst tell you why this book comes bursting out of
my heart like it does. One Sunday morning, a number of years ago, I
found myself face to face with the possibility that there is no God
and we really are on our own and this may be all there is.
I realise that a large number of people have questions and
convictions and doubts along those lines - that's nothing new. But,
in my case, it was an Easter Sunday morning, and I was a pastor. I
was driving to the church services where I'd be giving a sermon
about how there is a God, and that that God came to earth to do
something miraculous and rise from the dead so that all of us could
live for ever.
And it was expected that I would do this passionately and
conﬁdently and persuasively, with great hope and joy and lots of
exclamation points. That's how the Easter sermon goes, right?
Imagine if I'd stood up there and said: "Well, I've been thinking
about this for a while, and I gotta be honest with you: I think
we're kinda screwed." Doesn't work, does it?
That Easter Sunday was fairly traumatic, to say the least,
because I realised that, without some serious reﬂection and study
and wise counsel, I couldn't keep going without losing something
vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge head ﬁrst
into my doubts, and swim all the way to the bottom, and ﬁnd out
just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk
away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I'd have my
MUCH of what I've written in the book comes directly out of my
own doubt, scepticism, and dark nights of the soul. There is a cold
shudder that runs down the spine when you ﬁnd yourself face-to-face
with the un-varnished possibility that we may, in the end, be
alone. To trust that there is a divine being who cares and loves
and guides can feel like taking a leap - across the ocean.
So, when I talk about God and faith and belief and all that,
it's not from a triumphant, impatient posture of "Come on, people -
get with the programme." I come to this topic limping, with some
bruises, acutely aware of how maddening, confusing, frustrating,
infuriating, and even traumatic it can be to talk about God.
What I experienced, over a long period of time, was a gradual
awakening to new perspectives on God - speciﬁcally, the God that
Jesus talked about. I came to see that there were depths and
dimensions to the ancient Hebrew tradition, and to the Christian
tradition that grew out of that, which spoke directly to my
questions and struggles in coming to terms with how to conceive of
who God is, and what God is, and why that even matters, and what
that has to do with life in this world, here and now.
THROUGH that process, which is of course still going on, the
doubts didn't suddenly go away. Something much more profound
happened: something extraordinarily freeing and inspiring and
invigorating, and really, really helpful - something thrilling.
Which leads me to two brief truths. First, I'm a Christian, and
so Jesus is how I understand God. I realise that, for some people,
hearing talk about Jesus shrinks and narrows the discussion about
God, but my experience has been the exact opposite. My experiences
of Jesus have opened my mind and my heart to a bigger, wider, more
expansive and mysterious and loving God, who I believe is actually
up to something in the world.
Second, what I've experienced, time and time again, is that
people want to talk about God. Whether it's what inspires them, or
what repulses them, or what gives them hope, or what ﬁlls them with
despair, I've found people to be extremely keen to talk about their
beliefs, and lack of beliefs, in God.
What I've observed is that, while we want more of a connection
with the reverence humming within us, we often don't know where to
begin, or what steps to take, or what that process even looks
My 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 electricity that lights up the whole
house; the transcendent presence in our tastes, sights, and
sensations of the depth and dimension and fullness of life, from
joy to agony to everything else.
This is an edited extract from
What We Talk About When We Talk About God: Finding a new faith for
the 21st century by Rob Bell, published by Collins at
£14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £11.99 - Use
code CT344 ); 978-000-742733-8.
Reprinted by kind permission.
Rob Bell is in the UK next week, speaking at: Union Chapel,
London (15 April); !Audacious Church, Manchester (16 April);
Central Church, Edinburgh (17 April). For details and tickets,