While I am very familiar with Rob Bell, “The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage,” was the first full book of his I have read. It was an interesting experience. The book was co-written with his wife Kristen, and it often includes random interjections of dialogue between her and Rob. Sometimes it is commentary on the book, other times it is reflections back to stories in their relationship. On an objective level, the book was a quick and easy read (160 pages) but the real issue is the content of the matter.
When it comes to critiquing substance, things get difficult. I don’t know what to do with Bell. In a recent article Bell was asked if he considered himself an evangelical Christian. To which he responded, “If we mean Jesus’ message of God’s revolutionary love for every person, and we can surrender and give our life to acts, to loving kindness, then man, sign me up.” In the book the Bell’s often talk about Rob’s fascination with making up words. Clearly his idea of Christianity is equally as fluid. The Bell’s distance themselves from any sort of objective position in their book. People are encouraged to talk to “spiritual counselors,” not pastors, a word almost synonymous with Evangelical Christianity. Additionally any and all references to the Bible is shrouded in ambiguity. The Bible contains “poems,” “Hebrew tradition,” the “ancient wisdom of the Christian tradition,” and the “Christian story about Jesus.” While all of these components are true, the Bell’s are attempting to distance themselves from any sort of truth claim regarding the Christian scriptures. God is discussed at some length, and Jesus even less (and never in a wholly Biblical manner). Instead the greater emphasis is on the horizontal aspects of love, with a large topping of some undefined “divine love.” I don’t think the Bell’s are writing this book desiring to provide “Christian” view on marriage.
As stated earlier, this book is kind of difficult to review because of Rob Bell’s unique position. So what I want to do is provide a brief overview of the book, interact with a couple quotes and main thoughts in light of the gospel, and close with the lasting impact of “Zimzum.”
“Zimzum” is the Bell’s new way of viewing love. Rob gives a little background on the history of the word in the book, but basically Zimzum is the “space between you.” As we share our lives with someone, we create space for them: “This zimzuming unleashes energy and creates space that didn’t exist before, generating the flow that is the lifeblood of marriage.”
To speak a little more directly, zimzum is the relationship: the intangible forces between two people. The first chapter of the book explains in Bell-esque ways the beauty of zimzum and the subsequent chapters discuss the nature of it. Zimzum is responsive (your zimzuming reacts to their zimzuming, and the result is zimzum…), dynamic (our zimzum zimzums as life goes on, in hard times, and in good times), exclusive (your zimzum is between you and your fellow zimzummer, don’t let other people into your zimzum), and sacred (good zimzums connect us with the zimzum love which sustains the world).
“Marriage—gay and straight—is a gift to the world because the world needs more—not less—love, fidelity, commitment, devotion, and sacrifice.”
And there it was. Not that I was surprised by it, but we didn’t even make it out of chapter one before a Biblical view of marriage was ruled unattainable through this book. A compromise on marriage is a compromise on scripture. This statement is a confirmation of what we already knew: Rob Bell is not one of us.
“By first committing to just each other, you naturally create something that is bigger than you both. This is why marriage is good for the world. Love that overflows makes the world a better place. It’s a gift—a beautiful, divine, sacred gift to the world.”
Much of what the Bell’s talk about on the corporate nature of marriage is good, but it misses so badly on why it is good. Bell often talks about how marriage is good for the world. But marriage isn’t good for the world because the world needs love, marriage is good for the world because the world needs Jesus. And only a Biblical marriage between a man and a woman is representative of Christ and his church. The portrait of this in Ephesians 5 is amazingly absent from this book. In fact most of Bell’s usage of scripture is not to illuminate our idea of marriage, but to illustrate it. For instance the Trinity is not proposed as a theological fact, it is simply a reference to a unique co-existent relationship which we can replicate in certain ways.
“Grace is when you aren’t striving or controlling or trying to change or manipulate or make something happen. Grace is when you find yourself carried along, when all that’s left to do is receive. Grace is when you know you’re loved, exactly as you are. Grace is an entirely different way of experiencing life.”
The Bell’s know the right words. Love, forgiveness, grace, compassion: all of these are used in this book. But they have been robbed of their substance. While this above definition of grace sounds pretty, it is far short of a gospel view of grace. A Biblical view of grace is a messy view: drenched in blood, made necessary by sin. Grace isn’t that you are loved “exactly as you are,” it’s that you are loved exactly as Christ is. His sacrifice is the foundation of our grace. When the theological picture of this as provided in Philippians 2 is lost, we lose sustainability and longevity when it comes to loving others. Grace isn’t something discovered on a horizontal level. It is something mercifully provided to us vertically through Christ. Christ is the substance of marriage and Christ is the substance of our relationships.
- What to do With Zimzum?
The interesting thing about this book is that I found very little I actually disagreed with. I disagree with Bell’s caving to the affirmation of homosexual marriage, I disagree with Kristen’s subtle jabs at complementarianism, and I disagree with some of individualistic language used in chapter 4 (regarding the church and marriage counseling). But in a weird way I say yes to much of what is being said…
They bring up good points about marriage being good for the world, throwing away the mental “scorecard” in marriage, taking good care of yourself, finding ways to allow your spouse to thrive, and being selfless. But at its best this book is a guide to “No-duh” relationships with a side of cultural and philosophical clichés.
At its worst it’s a sounding board for the new wave of neo-pagan spirituality, having a form of godliness but denying its power. I don’t fear this book like we feared the arrival of “Love Wins.” Bell has left orthodoxy, and it doesn’t appear he wants to come back. I don’t see this book sneaking into the hands of young couples in our churches, but I see it as a window into the minds of a secular spirituality. The answer to Zimzum isn’t to burn the books, or even to mock Rob and Kristen. The answer is to proclaim what this book is lacking: the gospel in our marriage. Rob Bell has actually given us Christians a platform. He is wrong in a lot of places, but he is not vindictive, and he is not full of hate. He has graciously opened a door for spiritually framed dialogue on the issue of marriage, love and contentment. We should not squander this opportunity to speak the love of Christ through our marriages and through our words.
The shadowy corners where the church once stood on the issue of marriage are crumbling. We will have to answer for our beliefs. And by the grace of God we can provide the Christ-centered, truth-drenched, love-filled answer to Bell’s book. For God’s glory and our joy.