The Common Good

Top 3 Reasons Rob Bell Matters: Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 8

(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About GodRaven Foundation Education Director, Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)

Rob Bell at Powerhouse Arena. By Paul Williams, Via Flickr.
Rob Bell at Powerhouse Arena. By Paul Williams, Via Flickr.

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Sadly, this is our last post on Rob’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. As Tripp Hudgins stated, my previous post was a lengthy missive, and yet I feel like we have just scratched the surface of this book. I promise to make this concluding post shorter, but I’m tempted to inflict upon you the longest post ever! because there is so much in these final 30 pages.

I noticed that we haven’t made a list yet, and every blogalogue needs a list! So, to keep this from becoming the longest post ever!, I offer you the top 3 reason that Rob Bell matters.

1.     Anthropology of Desire Matters. 
Every good theology needs a good anthropology and Rob gives us the beginnings of a good understanding of what it means to be human. He does this with a recent scientific discovery of the human brain. Well, actually he talks about Italian monkey brains, but it turns out the human brain has a lot in common with monkey brains!

According to Rob, “When a monkey ate a peanut, a certain motor neuron in the monkey’s brain would light up” and “when the monkey watched one of the researchers eat a peanut, those same motor neurons lit up again” (200). The motor neuron snapped as if the monkey were actually eating the peanut. Humans have the same motor neurons, which are called mirror neurons. Rob brings up two examples.

Have you ever noticed that when you see someone else yawn that you yawn, too? Well, you non-consciously imitate that yawn because your mirror neurons are snapping like crazy! What about when you’re at dinner and someone reaches for a glass of water? You unconsciously reach for a glass of water, too. The anthropologist René Girard discovered this in the 1950s (without the help of scientific research!). In his mimetic theory, he claims that humans have this natural propensity to imitate one another, which can lead to great bonds of friendship, but also rivalry, conflict, and violence. For, what happens when two people eating dinner reach for a glass of water, but there’s only one glass? What happens when two friends fall in love with the same person? Or when two co-workers seek the same promotion at work? Rene warns that these shared desires often lead to conflict, rivalry, and the potential for violence.

2.     Theology of Desire Matters.
We receive our desires from others and Rob knows that God is trying to structure our desires away from conflict, rivalry, and the potential for violence into more loving and peaceful patterns. For example, I love this quote from the book:

God gives us desires, heart, passion, and love—gives us desires for justice, compassion, organization, order, beauty, knowledge, wisdom—and when we become separated from these desires, we lose something vital to who we are. For many of us, we learn quickly how to adapt, what authority figures wanted from us, and how to play the game. This can be good, and profitable, and can earn us all sorts of attention and accolades, but this can also violate who we are. We can become enslaved to the expectation of others, losing our true self in the process. (196)

What God are we talking about here? Rob is talking about the God revealed in Jesus. This God invites us to live into God’s desire “for justice, compassion, organization, order, beauty, knowledge, wisdom,” and I would add a love that has nothing to do with violence, but everything to do with forgiveness. The problem is that God has a lot of competition! We often want to earn the approval of other authority figures, and, as Bell says, we quickly learn how to play that game. That game involves being on the side of our authority figures, which usually means being against whomever our authority figure is against. But here’s the thing, as Rob has taught us God is for everyone. God invites us into a pattern of desire that leads us to want what is best for the other, not on our terms, but on God’s terms, which are the terms of justice, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

3.     Church matters. 
I was surprised to find this in Rob’s book, because a lot of people are coming down hard on him for being anti-church, that he’s some kind of maverick. Tripp mentioned in his first post that many people are wondering to whom Rob is accountable now that he isn’t the pastor of a church? It’s the question of authority, but the question doesn’t concern me because Rob is not anti-church; he is pro-church. Part of what it means to be pro-church is to remind the church what it’s called to be. Because churches are made up of human beings, whose desires are constantly being pulled in different directions, churches can easily find themselves falling away from what God calls them to be. And so like God, I see Rob calling churches back to their earthly mission, to form people with desires, hearts, passions, and love that God wants for all of us. Rob puts it like this:

… church services and worship gatherings continue to have their place and power in our lives to the degree to which moms and businesspeople and groundskeepers and lawyers and plumbers and people who stock the shelves of the grocery store and teachers and toll-booth collectors and farmers and graphic designers and taco makers all gather around a table with bread and win on it to participate in Jesus’s ongoing life in the world as they’re reminded that all life matters, all work is holy, all moments sacred, all encounters with others are encounters with the divine. (183)

We’ve come to the end of this conversation. It has been a pleasure discussing Rob’s book with Tripp. I’ve also enjoyed reading the comments from others. Maybe what I appreciate most about this book is the sense of wonder it provides. The book and our conversations have reminded me that nothing simply “is what it is.” Indeed, if we have the hearts to see, everything points beyond itself to something more, and that “all encounters with others are encounters with the divine.” This conversation has allowed me to at least glimpse that “something more.” I know it’s done the same for you. And I pray it does the same for others.

Read Part 1: An Open Letter to Rob Bell
Read Part 2: The God Of Jesus: Beyond Religious Tribalism

Read Part 3: What Do You Mean, 'Open,' Rob?
Read Part 4: Faith and Doubt Dancing on Good Friday
Read Part 5: Awake My Soul
Read Part 6: God For Us and the Scandal of Being Good
Read Part 7: Getting Ahead of Ourselves

 

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Rob Bell at Powerhouse Arena. By Paul Williams, Via Flickr.

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