There’s a new book out that you shouldn’t read. Normally I wouldn’t waste my time advising not to read a book, but this particular author has had significant influence. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world back in 2011. Rob Bell has become infamous within many Christian circles, yet his books have maintained a steady popularity. He stepped down from pastoring his church after writing the controversial Love Wins and is currently working on his own television show. I haven’t read his latest book, and I likely won’t. While I’m all for reading books with which I disagree, Bell’s works are made up of emotionally manipulative assertions without reason to defend them, and there are too many better books to contend with to waste time with his works. Here’s why you shouldn’t either:
Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.
-The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, By C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis’ depiction of Jesus through the character of Aslan is one of my favorites in literature (perhaps rivaled only by Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot), but he is so unlike how we often try to describe God. Too often we think of God as either unknowable and terrible, or soft and yielding. I had never put too much thought into these flawed depictions of God until I was forced to hold them up against the reality of a suffering world. At the time, Rob Bell was a particularly popular pastor and writer; he was a sort new sensation in theology, well-known and loved by my peers in college.
When I was first introduced to Rob Bell I was sitting on my fellow intern’s bunk in Malawi, Africa. We had been working together for a Christian organization that provided sponsorship for children and families, and care for widows and orphans. I had just come out of an ice cold shower that ended before I had rinsed all the soap off because the power had tripped. I quickly dressed while a gecko eyed me from the far corner of the bathroom and obliged watching one of Bell’s Nooma videos that my friend had stored on her laptop.
I watched as Bell wove a story with a caressing voice, looking at the camera as if we were having an intimate conversation. He threw around some Hebrew and made some nebulous statement about God and breathing and an idea of holiness being everywhere. It was a 20 minute video that felt emotionally manipulative and told me nothing about God: who he is, nor what he demands and what he offers. I offered some sort of polite “thanks for sharing” and walked outside through the canvas curtain that was our door. I was irritated with Bell’s trite and empty statements after what I had seen in villages and orphanages.
I stood under this huge sky with stars that were so numerous they looked more like water flowing across the landscape. Expansive and inexhaustible, every time I looked up I felt so small. The idea of some kind of inherent holiness or goodness in my own heart–or any human heart–didn’t seem possible now that I was paying attention, and the enormous sky before me only amplified that truth.
I thought back on our morning, back in the small village we walked to every day. The place where I had listened to a mother share her anxiety over what she will feed her children each day. She fidgeted with her large, work-worn hands asking, will it be enough? Or will she watch her children succumb to starvation or disease as many other mothers in her village had?
If all we had to offer these people was some vague notion of a god that indwells anyone who tries hard enough (by some ambiguous standard) as Bell would have me believe, what was I doing in Africa? What could I possibly have to offer these people if God was uncertain and unknowable?
If all we had was this abstract concept to offer people, what could I possibly tell the mothers who had held their dying children? What could we say to the 13-year-old girls who are forced to be child brides, or worse?
If God could only be vaguely understood, and he requires nothing in return for our betrayal of one another as humans–and ultimately our betrayal of his goodness–then who was he to me as I raged against the injustice of an entire village abandoned to the abusive will of drunkard?
If that was God, I wanted nothing to do with him.
But thankfully, Bell’s version of God (and his mingling of eastern mysticism) was not my only influence in the “warm heart of Africa”. I had many conversations with Malawians who knew what it was to suffer while trusting in the God they know well enough to be certain that he is good. I spent many mornings rising early and wrestling with ontological questions in the quiet compound kitchen, occasionally discussing passages with the kitchen staff who asked hard questions and looked for answers there. I walked alongside other women asking the same questions, forming our own small study in the cold hours of the morning. I scoured the Bible to learn who God really is, to see what he says about himself, and ultimately what he gave us in Jesus. I met this perfect God in his Word, not just in the Bible, but in the Word made flesh. I let his scarred hands cover my own scarred heart, and I heard him command we care for the orphans and widows, for the needy for the hurting and suffering, because he cares for them. I came to know him as something solid and sure precisely because he was there with me as I entered into the lives of suffering people. God wasn’t some kind of smoke and mirror parlor trick with word games and uncertainties, he was solid–like a knife that cuts deeply.
Ultimately Bell’s description of God was too small for the huge suffering world that expanded before me.
And Bell isn’t alone in making the Creator of the universe into something tiny that we can stick in our back pocket to pull out when we feel we need a little boost to our self-made lives.
We like to try and domesticate God. To fit him into our lives, to make a religion that feeds our own egos. We like to pretend that somehow our goodness is “good” enough. But when we have such small views of him (and such high views of ourselves) they tend to crumble in the face of the reality that swells before us like a tidal wave.
But God isn’t tame. He is the One that commands the wind and the seas, and they obey because they recognize him as their Creator. He is the God that left his place as the ruler of the universe to hang lifeless on a cross to justify our betrayal. And he is the God that death could not hold.
God is not tame. But he is good.
He is so good, even as he cuts our hearts open and reveals to us the idols there.
The thing is, Bell’s concept of God would have sounded kind of nice to me prior to my time in Malawi. Because his concept of God didn’t require anything of me, I could hold on to my favorite sins, I could consider myself “okay” and go on with my life as my life.
But that god falls hard when faced with reality, because when you stand in the face of men who want to kill you, when you hold the hand of a child no one wants, and when you wrestle with hatred and death and disease, you realize quickly that the gods of our making aren’t good enough to stand against reality.
But Jesus is. And as he stands, solid as a rock in the face of a world that feels like it may pull us under, he demands that we be stripped of our idols, our self-reliance, and our self-centered ideas, so that we can cling to him as he pulls us up into life. He demands that we recognize him as the center of the universe, and he does this by bleeding for us.
God doesn’t let us go on living the lie that our life belongs to us; he breaks down all our false notions and pride and forces us to reckon with him, the Creator, and we quickly realize the audacity of our believing that he ought to bend to our wills, and instead he shows us the great joy of bending to his.
This makes God decidedly unsafe. It makes following him risky and all-consuming. And that is precisely the point.
Because God is not safe, but he is good. He is the King.