Saturday, October 6, 2007

"Sex God" by Rob Bell

If you have seen any of the Nooma series of films, you will know something of Rob Bell’s quirky, understandable and very insightful style of teaching. This book oozes that same tone, and often while reading it I could almost hear his voice speaking the words. As I was expecting, Sex God proved to be a very entertaining and relatively light read.

The book is written about the connections between sexuality and spirituality, however I found the definition of sexuality to be somewhat dubious:

“Our sexuality, then, has two dimensions. First, our sexuality is our awareness of how profoundly we’re severed and cut off and disconnected. Second, our sexuality is all of the ways we go about trying to reconnect.”

Nothing about males and females and nothing related to what is commonly thought of as sex. This definition is based on the fact that “scholars believe that the word sex is related to the Latin word secare,” the root for other words like sect, section, dissect and bisect. This may well be true, but it still seems a counter-intuitive definition, and thus I expected a lot more explanation in its defence. He does point his readers to other books dealing more specifically with the definition of sexuality for those who are interested, however for such a central theme to the book I found it an excessively brief analysis.

A result of this broad definition of sexuality is that it leaves the book with a far wider scope than that implied by the title. Readers looking for a book looking purely at sex and God may well be disappointed by this. In my own opinion, this is a minor point, and detracted little from the overall message of the book.

That overall message I find hard to define, not because it is poorly written, but rather because it is simply an extended metaphor between spiritual truths and sexuality. As such there are a number of important but otherwise unrelated points drawn from it, and these are well organised into the various chapters (which the titles don’t do justice to). These range from the inherent value of humans, being in the image of God, to considering the strength required for commitment. From the importance of recognising both our spiritual and sexual nature, to the risk God takes in extending his love towards us.

Rob Bell’s style, while making ideas readily understandable, is prone to over-simplification. However this is really only a consideration for his secondary points (an interesting example being his description of humans as spiritual beings, where he says “a divine spark resides in every single human being.” This is almost the exact wording my Early Christianity tutor used to describe Gnostic thought), his main ideas seem well explained and his terms defined. But still, those wanting an in depth and thorough investigation of the issues, this book will probably fall short of expectations.

There are a couple of cases where I question the validity of the theology of the book. As already mentioned, Bell proposes that God takes a risk in demonstrating his love for us on the cross insofar as we can choose or reject him.

“People God [has] made have freedom. Freedom to love anybody they want. And freedom not to love anybody they want. God takes this giant risk in creating and loving people, and in the process God’s heart is broken.”

This seems a tricky stance in light of verses that say “we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.

Another controversial idea is that “…God has left the world unfinished. And with every action, we’re continuing the ongoing creation of the world.” According to Bell, the story of creation is a process of moving chaos and disorder toward order and harmony, and so our actions ultimately effect the creation of the world. Perhaps this is just a foreign way (to me) of explaining an otherwise legitimate truth, however something about it seems fishy. This isn’t the forum to fully debate all the theological points made in the book, it will suffice to say readers should be aware of these things.

I liked how Bell often expressed biblical truths in light of their historical context. Anyone familiar with the Nooma videos will probably understand this. Bell frequently refers to otherwise obscure passages and fleshes them out with their significance to the original audience, and hence discerning their importance for us today. Through this I learnt a number of valuable things about ancient Israelite society, which will no doubt prove to be of worth in the future. This also provides a good example of reliable exegesis to a readership that often wouldn’t touch many commentaries.

Issues of sexuality, commitment and relationships are touchy, and Rob Bell does an admirable job at remaining sensitive to these. The book is helpful and relevant to singles, couples and those with more turbulent backgrounds. While still upholding values such as the importance of commitment, it does so in a manner that is not condescending towards those who have a marred record. Instead it seeks to bring change more by inspiration than by command, and in this I think it has been immensely successful.

I very much enjoyed reading this book. Rob Bell has a way of putting things that makes sense and is entertaining. Though the basic ideas were things I already kind of knew, I still learnt a lot from his fresh perspective on life. His writing clearly seeks to uphold a biblical perspective on the issues, while being a refreshingly different way of presenting them. Readers need to be wary of a tendency to over-simplify concepts, and instances where it stands on shaky theological grounds. For the most part, however, I think this book will constructively teach, inspire and enthuse any reader.


Paul said...

Cheers for the all the reviews. Where do you get these books from?

I don't find the idea that we are involved in the ongoing creation of the world controversial. Perhaps Rob Bell just didn't talk like these were only secondary causes enough ;)

Marcus said...

Thanks. I borrowed this book off a friend at my hall, but I've seen big stacks of them at Manna.

The context of that creation stuff was saying that we shouldn't be acting like angels or animals, by denying our sexuality or being driven by it respectively. Angels and animals were created before humans, therefore by acting like them we are moving creation back into chaos and disorder (from memory so I hope I did it justice). It's that reasoning that I find sketchy