Yesterday I posted some general and positive thoughts on Rob Bell’s new book Sex God. Today I want to register my critique. I usually don’t do this, but I’ve been asked by so many to set out my views so I am doing so.
What I say today does not change my mind from what I said yesterday. I have no hesitations in giving this book to those who are pondering marriage and want to discuss relationships — especially college students, those considering marriage, and young marrieds. Overall, I like the book. I think that was clear in my post yesterday; today I wish to register some criticisms and I do to open up discussion and to hope we can improve our thoughts together. My criticisms do not impact the substance of this book — which, as I’ve said, I like.
I have three problems, and one piddly set of problems. By the way, I’m not fond of the title and some of the chp titles. What some will see as clever communication, others will see as irreverent. Furthermore, the book is quite conservative and doesn’t dwell on any topic at length. It’s short; it says simple and good things; and moves on.
A glaring omission I found in the book is a lack of Trinitarian thought: Rob is big on the term echad, the Hebrew word for “one.” And he sees God’s oneness as an intimation of what our marriage and connections are about. True, the “one” of Genesis 1 is the same “one” of Deut 6. But, has he gone far enough toward a Christian understanding of God and marriage? This word, echad, in Deut 6 means “one God, and only one God, and that God’s name is YHWH.” For a Christian the “one” God means “one God, who happens to be Three-in-One” — and this perichoresis of mutual indwelling and interpenetration forms a far better basis for comprehending marriage as “one” than a simple use of the Hebrew echad. The Oneness of John 10:38 or John 17 is the Christian, Trinitarian development that gives more substance to the “oneness” theme of Eph 5 in Paul’s theology of marriage. I think the book needs a chapter that explores sexuality and Trinity — and it would make the book better.
Use of rabbis. Some of you might not care about this; I do. Rob has an annoying habit in sermons and in books. He equates rabbinic writings, which are sources from the 3d to 9th Century AD, with Judaism of both the 1st Century (Jesus’ and Paul’s worlds) and the Judaism of the day of Moses. And he reinterprets things in the Bible through those rabbinic sources. At times in his uses of the rabbis it just happens that the rabbinic information is something found also for the 1st Century or ancient Israel (but rarely). He tells us fun things, scintillating and titillating things that average folks don’t know, and they go “aha, so that’s what’s going on, the covenant formula is actually about sitting under the chuppah of a Jewish bride and groom. How neat to know this.” His 7th chp is about “under the chuppah” and explains Israel’s relationship to God as what takes place under the chuppah — the prayer shawl stood up with four poles and under which the couple formed their union. Problem is, no, it isn’t accurate; that prayer shawl and chuppah stuff is later and had nothing to do with Exodus and Deuteronomy and the covenant formula of YHWH’s relationship to Israel. (Unless there is evidence for a couple wedding under a chuppah back then that I’ve not seen.) We are dealing in Exodus/Deut with a treaty formula from the Ancient Near East, not with the later specifics of a rabbinic marriage custom or with the sexual union that occurred under the chuppah. The whole chp for me is misconstrued through that rabbinic lens.
Here’s the general rule: as we don’t use contemporary conditions (globalization, etc) to explain what the framers of the Constitution meant at that time, so we don’t use the rabbis to explain Jesus and the Bible. To use the rabbis to elucidate the New Testament we need evidence from the 1st Century that confirms what we find in the rabbis.
Along this line of using ancient sources, I don’t like that Rob chose to say that there is a “spark” of the divine in each of us. Why? That’s from the Gnostics and it means something quite different to me because of its use by them. In other words, for me “this” (the spark) is not “that” (God’s image). That language is from a different world altogether than “image of God” in Genesis 1.
I wish Rob would be more judicious in using etymologies to explain the meanings of words. “Sincere” doesn’t mean “without wax” just as “cupboard” doesn’t mean “board on which cups sit” — and these are my own examples of others using etymologies to explain a word. The origin of a word may or may not have anything to do with the usage of a term. And Rob gets one badly wrong: “epithumia”, a Greek word normally translated “lust” or “desire,” does not mean “in mind” (Bell’s claim) but “in passionate fury” or something that has to do with rage and overwhelming passion. It could be translated “in heat.” The meaning of a word is determined by its usage, not by its etymology.
Piddly points: this book should have been either twice as long or bundled up in a book half as long. As it is, it frustrates: there is more to be said about everything. (Particularly singles — you can’t give singles one page in a book this long about connections.) And I’m not keen on the cover or the production — too much space between paragraphs; too many blank pages. And I think his footnotes are too playful — readers don’t go to footnotes to find fun. Footnotes by definition are business. Some of the pink or peach pages were hard for me to read. I suspect many will like the production of this book. I admit these are piddly; but they are mine. Do these points matter? Nope, or at least not much. It’s preference. Who cares? I do. Some don’t. I respect that.
By the way, I’ve not read Ben Witherington’s post on this. I scanned it to see what he was doing and he did a long post both summarizing and interjecting observations. I’ll take a look at his, but won’t let that get into play on this response of mine.