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We need to talk about . . . God

12 April 2013

In this extract from his new book, the pastor and Sunday Times best-selling author Rob Bell explains why he felt compelled to turn his attention to the nature of God


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 Sled".

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 says.

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 behind.

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 destructive.

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 pretty explosive."

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 uninspired.

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 keep up.

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 there are.

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 integrity.

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 like.

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, visit www.facebook.com/whenwetalkaboutgod.

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