An honest, though unfavorable, review of Rob Bell’s new book What We Talk About When We Talk About God

Alright, let’s get one thing straight. If you want to read a positive review of Rob Bell’s new book What We Talk About When We Talk About God, you need to go visit one of the twenty-something Jesus blogs who love him. But it’s 2013, and mega-millionaire Rob Bell has another book out. Let’s get honest with ourselves about Bell and his books.

First, I have no experience with Rob Bell or his books, so you’ll be seeing my opinion of him from the view of a first-timer, though I must say, I’m a former reverend who doesn’t take too kindly to the trend of pastor-playing-teacher or know-it-all or scientist. Oh and pastors who get rich pushing their ideologies? Totally unethical in my opinion.

In an effort to better understand who I was dealing with after Cindy at HarperOne Publishers sent me a press release asking me if I wanted a review copy of the book, I looked at their link to his website and tumblr and came across this gem of a “short sermon”:

short sermon

(Screen shot, read the rest here)

So, first let me just say that I’m already bummed. This man, who the New York Times calls “one of the country’s most influential pastors” just did the “I’m a dumb pastor” thing where he picks two random words that are unrelated to the sermon and tries to justify his opinion of what God is saying in the Bible based on his thoughts. As an English major, I’ve got to tell you: rule number one in writing an analysis of any text is to back up your claims with proof from the text. Nowhere does God say “No, man, it’s bad to be an analyst  Stop that shit.”

It’s total horseshit, again, like the many progressive sermons of the day. If he is one of the country’s most influential pastors, then what is WRONG WITH THE PEOPLE IN OUR COUNTRY? He is influencing your thought? For real? This is sad.

Rob’s right in his definition of analysis in  his short sermon above:

“analysis pulls things apart, looks for cracks in logic, points out the inconsistencies.

analysis needs things to make sense.”

Uh…yes, Rob, we need things to make sense. We analyze the world around us because it does make sense and should make sense. Do philosophical questions always make sense? No, definitely not, but some things DO make sense and require analysis and to deny that and suggest that we should just float through life is just nonsense.

Rob says if we stick with analysis we will always be cynical: “but if we stay there, in that mode and that mode only, we can easily find ourselves stepping back with arms folded, pointing out all that’s wrong with this day and all the ways it falls short and all of the evidence for why this particular day doesn’t appear to be the kind of day that God would make-all while this day passes us by.” He also doesn’t capitalize his sentences. Is he aware of that?

Let me just say that my day job is to analyze data in scientific trials, so while he’s cute in saying that analysis will cause us to be cynical, he’s entirely incorrect. Analysis is what proves and disproves things, what gathers evidence and observes, and sometimes allows major medical breakthroughs to happens. We study genomes, and we can’t just sit around and be “aware” of them. We have to gather data and without that, we got nothing, dude. So go ahead, and stop analyzing but I’ll keep doing so because it’s useful.


Back to the book, sorry.

First, let’s talk about the title and the cover design. My designer friend Abby said the cover design is awful. I mean, I get what they’re trying to do: Let’s play like we know what’s up with math, guys, and then we’ll be authoritative when we drop the term “science” because they’re like, related. But the title should probably be, What Does Rob Bell Talk About When He Releases a Book Trailer? because judging from people’s responses, no one actually knows what the hell he’s saying. Someone even asked if Bell was off his meds. rob bell book

In his book trailer (h/t to the Jesus Needs New PR guy for the link), he starts talking about the “None’s”–you and I, those of us who don’t have a religion or a belief in God. This is all there is, we think. (At least, that’s what I think, and if you’re a reader, you likely agree or maybe you think there’s a paradise but certainly not the Christian one anymore.) We None’s are pretty popular with the pseudo-progressive Christian crowd. They want to get us, they want to reach us, THEY WANT TO SAVE US, so they’re trying to use the abstract, or science or math to reach us because they know we sure as hell don’t want that same bullshit line we once heard in a sermon. We are smart, they know it. So they’re trying to pretend to be smart to get us saved. But it’s the same game, the same proselytizing with a new design.

See the None’s, those of us who would fill in “none” under Religion in a census, were once religious, and then were once spiritual. We journeyed into church, some of us into ministry, and we came out with not just a really bad taste in our mouth but convinced that the idea of God is a myth. God is a “mean, primitive, backward, illogical, tribal” being, in our minds because that is how we understood him based on his authoritative text, the Bible and by Christians, Christ followers. Many of us tried, and are still trying, to fight with our idea of God (the mean God) and the problems with God being mean, sexist and racist. We’re not caught up in dogma anymore, we can let go of God without feeling the guilt of “What if?” Or, even if we haven’t let go of the idea of God completely, we know that something isn’t right with the homophobia and hatred we see prevalent in Christian circles, so we’re honestly assessing our old religion and beliefs. Where will we end up? No one knows, and the good news is, we don’t  need anyone to tell us. We’re perfectly capable of finding answers or a new spirituality or nothing at all on our own, in our own due time.

Bell’s message is clear: he’s trying to save the None’s. He doesn’t know that the None’s don’t  need saving, and we resent the idea that we need saving. We don’t need saving–not from sin or Hell, and not from ourselves either. In the words of the great Pink Floyd, “We don’t need no thought control…Teachers Preachers leave those kids alone. All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.”

See, we (who are outside the old thought-control factory) actually believe we are fearfully and wonderfully made kick ass, unlike most Christians who live in guilt. So Bell’s abstractions and chapter called “Open” fall flat. He begins the chapter “Open” by saying, “One time I was asked to speak to a group of atheists and I went and I had a blast. Afterward they invited me out for drinks, and we were laughing and telling stories and having all sorts of interesting conversation…” Okay, we already know a few things about Bell: he’s not atheist but he thinks mentioning that he had fun with them and had drinks with them and laughed with them makes him a cool dude. No, man. That doesn’t give you some kind of “credibility” with the atheists or the None’s. That’s like when I say, “I had a black friend once.” That doesn’t make me instant bff’s with Barack and all other black people. It sounds weird.

On page 39 he’s discussing “light…the only constant, unchanging reality…”, which he goes on to say, “If you ask light a wave question, it responds as a wave. Ask light a particle question, and it reveals itself to be particles.”

I’m confused. How can you “ask” light a question, let alone a “wave question”? What is a wave question? You don’t ask light or waves or particles questions, you observe them.

He’s trying, on page 42, to bring this all back to God (after he’s giving you Physics 101 for a few pages) and leaves the reader with this:

What does any of this have to do with what we talk about when we talk about God? 

Excellent question.

Three responses, then,

beginning with


and then moving to


and then a bit about





[Note: All formatting Rob’s. As a writer, I need to explain to you that he’s using poetic enjambment incorrectly, breaking his lines in a kid-poet fashion to try to produce a forced effect. Rob, we may note, is not a good poet.]

In this same chapter, he starts to lose me again. Again, the preacher speak: the preacher who uses everyday examples that he pulls from his ass on some book or article he read during his “study time” to look for examples of how to talk about spirituality and stay RELEVANT. You want to be relevant? Stop taking pastor/family photos of all of you in white button up shirts laughing, wearing fauxhawks.

Look, I used to write sermons for well-known pastors. I know the tricks and Rob Bell’s chapter “Open” is pulling all the stops I used when I wrote a sermon for someone. I wanted to make the Bible relateable, modern, trendy even, so I would use some kind of inspiration from something “worldly” or “secular” or even from pop culture. Rob is using atoms and science and energy and his superficial knowledge of them to try to suggest that his thoughts about God being “energy, involvement, surprise” are credible because he’s linking them to science. See this passage as a case in point:

“I talk about all of this red shifting and dark matter and uncertainty and particle movement because most of us were taught in science class that ours is a hard, stable, tangible world that we can study and analyze because it’s there, right in front of us, and we can prove it in a lab.

Which is true.

But often another perspective came along as well, [Lisa’s note: From where? What perspective is this? Whose perspective? This line intends to make the reader believe that it’s a credible, scientific assumption, when it’s not. This is Rob talking out his ass here.] the one that declared there is a clear distinction between the material world and the immaterial world, between the physical world and the spiritual world. What we’re learning from science, however, is that that distinction isn’t so clear after all.” (pages 44, 45)

No. What? Huh? LOL

Good lord, this book is driving me insane.

What Rob is saying here is untrue. We aren’t “learning from science, however, that the distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world isn’t so clear after all.” I get it, he’s trying to play Mr. Beaker: “I got me a Science book, mom, and I studied real hard and I learned me what an atom was.” But the point is, he’s trying to make a false connection between the physical world (a chair, as his example) and the immaterial world (atoms and particles and waves and light), by extending his metaphor from science (something we know and trust) into spirituality (or a belief in God, something many of us have given up on or at the very least are questioning the traditions). This falls flat for the discerning reader.

Without having finished the book, I think I’ve done enough critiquing for the night. I’d be very interested in hearing from some of my other blogger friends, especially the atheist ones, about what you think. I might even pass the book around to have you read it and have a “book club” discussion on our blogs about it. If TIME magazine named Rob Bell one of 2011’s hundred most influential people in the world, I think this book deserves some critiques from people who can actually call him on his bullshit. I don’t expect many Christian bloggers to review this book honestly, as most of them are a bit awestruck by Rob’s fame and money. And when you have a Christian image to uphold, you often risk your own thoughts to preserve your image. Ain’t nobody got time for that. The world doesn’t need another bestselling author preacher who sells pseudo-science and pretend-new spirituality to people. The world needs more academics talking about culture and history around the stories of the Bible, and whether there was an actual Jesus. I think it’s important to distinguish between a Rob Bell, who pretends to be an academic and quotes high school science textbooks, and actual experts, scientists, and the like.

Lisa’s Assessment of What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell 

My overall rating of Rob’s book: 0 on a scale of 1-10

Recommended reading? Not unless you want a good laugh.

Is he doing more harm than good? Hmm, I don’t see the book as particularly harmful, just very elementary and misleading.

The title? Ranks as one of the most annoying titles I have ever had to type out in my life. It should be What Rob Tries to Talk About When He Pretends to Know About Science.

A note about my use of Christians. I usually generalize, but when I’m speaking about Christians who use pseudo-science, or who preach bullshit, I’m talking about a select majority of American Christians who play progressive but really aren’t. They’re typically fundamentalist, or extremely evangelical. I know and respect many Catholics and Anglicans and Presbyterians, though we disagree on religion, I think they are smart people who are thoughtful about their faith. I wish some of their books would get more press and praise, than books like this.

Rob Bell’s book has arrived


Just got a package in the mail…

rob bell harper collins


Turns out it’s Rob Bell’s new book, a review copy sent to me for free by the publisher (mandatory blogger disclaimer). I’ve never read a Rob Bell book but he sure is fucking popular among the pseudo-progressive crowd. “Is God like an Oldsmobile?” is one of the first questions the press release contains. Apparently, they’re trying to get readers to rethink that God might not be an old thing whose best days are gone.

rob bell book