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on 2 February 2016
What We Talk About When We Talk About God is a book that I am really glad exists. When I was a pastor I had many conversations around the themes of this book and many of the scenarios that Rob speaks about are ones that I can relate to; my own questions and the questions I have heard hundreds of people speak over the years.

Rob has a real gift to get to the nub of the issues quickly and he uses fun stories, inspiring stories and relevant examples to explore the themes.

Rob has a very definite style, which might irk some, but I find it fun. He clearly loves language and to play with its form on the page. I guess he lives with the moto, why use one word when you can put every derivative of that word on the page spaced only with commas and 'and'?.

He covers a lot of ground in this book and all the themes weave themselves into a satisfying whole. It is a fairly quick read and would be a nice book to explore in a reading group or small group.

It is a book that I wish I could have pointed people too over the years, but I am glad that I can recommend it to people now. If we all read this book, not only would Rob be extremely wealthy, but it might help provide some common ground so that groups that too often misunderstand one another could get on and make progress together - learning from the other, loving the other.
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on 7 October 2013
I am writing this many months after reading the book. It is telling that, although specific details don't remain in my 60-year-old brain, a basic mindset does, and that mindset is helpful to my ever-questioning, sometimes perishingly frail faith.

On the one hand, I don't want to be a spoiler and detail this basic orientation I drew from the book -- I want to encourage people to read it for themselves. Bell is an engaging writer. He draws examples and knowledge very broadly -- from the whole contemporary world around him (from personal and family incidents to stuff right out of People magazine). And he draws very deeply -- from his impressive (at least to me--I don't read Greek or Aramaic and haven't gone to theological college) biblical scholarship. He is funny (in a sort of Seinfeldesque way). And he eschews a lot of religion-speak/ jargon that makes assumptions that an increasing number of people don't buy into.

Thus my spoiler alert: Stop reading this review now and get the book yourself to see the delightful way Bell weaves disparate bits of contemporary life and biblical scholarship into the basic elements that I found spiritually sustaining.

The most important thing I keep coming back to from the book is its contention that by looking at the grand overarching picture conveyed by the Bible, you can see a larger truth than is contained within its individual parts; namely that there is a directionality in the way God has been revealing truth to (and through) humans over time. God's truth has interacted with human history and evolution in a great arc toward love and good.

So, for example, there was a reason that in the Old Testament justice was considered to be "an eye for an eye." This was a big improvement on the harsh system of retribution that existed at that time. The new law Jesus gave invited us to go further -- to love our enemies, to love our neighbor as ourselves. You can see a direction between those two points (three, counting pre-Old Testament history) of God-given truth, Bell says. Use those points, follow that arc outward... and you will see where God may be leading us now.

This gives me confidence that, as the Desiderata claimed, "the universe is unfolding as it should." It invites me to see differences and contradictions in the Bible not as reasons to write the whole thing off, but to use those points to track how humankind is progressing and how we might follow that arc and see where God is leading us into the future.

Another key theme for Bell -- and one that nobody seems to care much about -- is that science and belief in God / faith can be "dance partners" -- not incompatibilities. I am guessing people don't make much of this bit because the atheist/agnostic science-oriented folks have already written off faith/religion and wouldn't bother with this book. The faithful have already come to some accommodation (e.g. "science is wrong"; or "it's too difficult for me to bother with", etc). And people like me, who linger in a state of equipoise, would say, "yeah, of course, Rob, tell me something new"-- I did skim through the sciencey chapters. That being said, Bell does write about mind-blowing conclusions from astronomy and particle physics as accessibly for the non-scientific as he writes about faith for the non-religious. Yes, the experts in those areas may quibble with the details and Bell's documentation and sourcing... but he does present difficult ideas in a very engaging, non-jargony way.

If, like me, you are a long-term Bell fan, this book won't disappoint. Like God's great arc, moving us in the direction of Love, Bell is moving likewise and I appreciated the opportunity to continue journeying with him. If you haven't read any of his previous books, this is a good place to start.
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on 18 July 2017
Rob bell's books are so so readable and informative and thought provoking Thank you
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on 26 June 2017
Excellent!
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on 17 July 2013
A must for those seeking a Christian faith that meets the demands of contemporary culture. Unashamedly up to date. Essential reading
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on 7 May 2013
Another fresh and thoughtprovoking book by Rob. Lots of sense in Rob's very readable style. I loved all the physics...from the subatomic to the galaxies...a breathtaking tour of the wonder of creation-rhat left me more than ever full of awe. And that was just the first chapter! A book about religious language for anyone involved in communicating what christians believe ...or for anyone wanting to understand (how modern scientific people who believe in the God and Father of Jesus actually perceive both God and the created world.
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on 31 May 2015
Rob Bell's analogies give substance to theories that are difficult to grasp. The whole book satisfied my need for a deeper understanding of God.
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on 11 March 2013
I've just finished reading this latest offering from Rob Bell, an American Pastor who, if you've not heard of him, was one of TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people 2011. And it's his best work yet, by far...

Rob Bell's marketing machine like to portray him as a controversial figure and describes this book as an 'explosive follow-up to Love Wins', his previous book in which he challenged traditional Christian ideas about heaven and hell. But that's all just piffle. It's not explosive at all. But it is brilliant.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God is a book from the deep heart and sharp mind of a Pastor who has spent 20 years deeply involved in the lives of real people. It's a book about what life is really like - scientifically, emotionally, physically, philosophically - and how our words about God either make sense of, or undermine, that life.

It has all the trademarks of Bell's awesome communication prowess: the witty anecdotes, the clever metaphors, the ancient words that get under your skin. And the tempo that speeds you up and slows you.

Right. Down.

But all this is in service of something that you feel is bursting out of his body. A belief that God is so, so good, and full of life and love and freedom that the whole world simply cannot contain it.

And that we experience that life and love - that God - every single day. But our words - our freighted, weary words about God - lock us into a language about God which keeps God away; like a watch-maker pouring over the springs and cogs in front of him, unaware of the many ways in which time shapes his life.

This is a book written primarily for the Western majority; the non-believing masses who are increasingly turning away from any form of organised Christianity. And I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who was interested in exploring Christian faith but finds most of what they hear from churches hard to swallow.

But it is also an important book for the wider church community - where controversy now accompanies Bell at every turn. I don't believe Rob can be fairly criticised on the grounds of what he does say - it will be what he does not include that will be the issue for many in his evangelical family.

And just like Love Wins was wrongly treated as a full-throttled treatise on heaven and hell and therefore, understandably, found wanting, so this book could be mistakenly dissected as a comprehensive discussion of God and salvation. It will not stand up to that scrutiny. Because that is not why it was written.

However, if those of us in the theologically fraught evangelical community can embrace this as an important discussion-starter then it will bring great value - deep and wide - to our conversations and imaginations.

Because God is with us. And for us. And ahead of us, calling us on.
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VINE VOICEon 29 August 2013
Rob Bell is a good communicator - his NOOMA videos are usually worth watching with thought-provoking themes. His book Love Wins challenged conservative Christians to see salvation in the Bible as much more open ended and varied than the usual insistence on the "sinners prayer" and being "born again" as the only way to be "saved", suggesting that many texts in the Bible imply that ultimately everyone gets "saved".

In this new book Rob Bell begins by describing how one Easter morning he found himself full of doubt about if God was real, rather than ignoring the doubt he took time off to follow it through - he wanted to be true to himself, and either face up to a lack of faith in God or discover some way of dealing with the doubts that he had that renewed his faith. This book is his journey into a new understanding of God.

There is a promising beginning that Bell is going to present a profoundly new and different way of thinking about God. After his opening admission of doubts he goes into a detailed description of how science has changed our view of the world. Before science, religion was regularly used to explain how the world worked - if we were ill, our cure was really in the hands of God. If we wanted good weather for our crops, we had to offer the right sacrifices to God. Science has changed everything about how we make sense of the world - Evolution, the Big Bang, sub-atomic physics, Quantum theory - so much that used to have "God" as an explanation now has scientific, non-supernatural explanations, and the stuff we still don't understand we now expect has natural not supernatural reasons.

The idea that God explains anything was criticised by the notion of "the God of the gaps" - if we just use God as the explanation that what we can't explain by science can be explained by God, then our idea of "God" just becomes smaller and smaller the more we understand through science. In fact God as an explanatory principle actually makes no sense anyway - it is just another way of saying "we don't know". It isn't as if there are some phenomena that are satisfactorily explained by God and other phenomena that are explained by science. To give "God" as an explanation is just to say "we don't have an explanation".

So science really generates a crisis of what we mean by "God" - how does Bell address this?

Unfortunately, poorly.

For most of the book he wants to say God is a part of our subjective experience. God is "for" us, not against us, God is "with" us, not apart from us, God is "ahead" of us, pulling us forward into being better people, not back into the past into superstition and prejudice.

That's fine, that's a good God that morally most people will not have a problem with. For Bell God becomes a personification of a set of principles that make us better, happier, more caring, more relaxed, more socially and environmentally responsible people. God helps us to enhance and enrich our lives, he helps us to flourish, see the big picture, do the right thing, be patient, be kind, be loving.

But there are two big problems here. First Bell - seemingly unconsciously - wants to situate this God in the Christian tradition. We never have any discussion about how this relates to other religions, let alone whether it impacts Christian orthodoxy - what's with this "He" God anyway? He justifies the resurrection and miracles on the basis that if an electron can jump within an atom why can't other "weird stuff" happen? Maybe he also wants to leave open the possibility that Osiris, Rabbi Judah, Kabir, Sabbatai Sevi, Lahiri Mahasaya and Sri Yukteswar were also resurrected, and that the various miracle stories in other religions are also true?

If so he needs to address this question in a lot more detail that this one line remark. In particular Hume's point that a natural explanation is always more likely that a supernatural one.

He presents the Christian God as always pulling people forward to the next stage, and argues that any regressive ideas in Christianity are always due to people being unable to move on from earlier stages. I specify "Christian God" as I'm not sure if Bell believes the "God" of all religions operates in this way - and if not why not?

He makes a similar argument to Calvin that God spoke to people in the language they could understand at the time - but he needs to address why we still need the Bible, since clearly these are instructions that are at least 2,000 years old. Shouldn't he be a Quaker and believe we need to continually hear what God is saying to us today? He isn't at all clear on why we need the Bible if God is pulling us forward and not back.

The second big issue, and this is really why the question in the title never gets a good answer in the book, is what is this God beyond the personification of a set of good ways to live? Is he a God of judgement, a God who answers prayers, a God who makes things happen? Towards the end of the book he has some rather vague ideas of God being a type of energy we can plug into, to connect up with everyone and everything. Bell should be the sort of guy who can deal with these questions of how we can re-picture God, but he doesn't really address any of the hard questions that books like "Honest to God" try to deal with.

I guess this book finds Bell discovering a new conception of God, but still trying to deal with his evangelical Christian roots.It may be a good thing that he journeys quite slowly as it may be the pace at which his (post-)evangelical followers need to travel, but for a different audience he is leaving a lot of questions unanswered.
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on 19 March 2013
This is probably Bell's best piece of written work and ranks for me alongside his 2010 DVD show "Everything is Spiritual", which had a theme which in many ways set the scene for this book.

One of the big criticisms of Rob's previous book (by those who actually read it, not those who just assumed it carried a theology that differed to their own, and was therefore heretical), was that it carried too many open and unresolved questions. Personally I think that style was quite right for Love Wins, as with matters of eschatology all you can do is ask questions. For this work those readers will be pleased that Bell does nail his colours to the mast. He proposes a way of thinking about God (mostly a blend of Tillich and Process theology for those who like their theology pre-labelled) that is more deeply grounded in the Biblical witness than those modern propositional assertions that his opponents are so fond of.

The real power of this book is that it does theology for people who don't do theology. He leads the reader through a mixture of stories, questions and thought experiments that take us into a deeper awareness of what we think about God, without resorting to teaching people the language of technical theological jargon to do so. In this he is supremely talented as a communicator and wonderfully acts as a humble guide on a route through this terrain to the novice. He does this in such a way as to sugggest "I have been thsi way a few times and the view from around that corner is amazing, but I'm not so proficient that I don't need to be careful of my own footwork and bearins from time to time." The perfect guide for such mountain-work.

Others have noted that it is a pretty short book with few words on each page. You'll read it in a few hours, and then a few days later be itching to have another journey through its pages.
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