The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage by Rob and Kristen Bell


I’ve become a pretty big Rob Bell fan as of late. Back when he was still in the good graces of American Evangelicals, I was introduced to his Nooma video series and fell in love with them. I remember bells, whistles, and lights going off in my spirit when I watched those videos. They breathed a bit of new life into my spirituality.

Of course when Love Wins came out I dropped Rob faster than Taylor Swift pens a hit break-up song. Church leaders were telling me that he had written a book that denied hell. They said that he suggested that God loves everybody. I never read it, but whatever they said it said, seemed pretty kooky and definitely not ‘Christian.’ I even had to reconsider my position on those Nooma videos I loved so much. Sure, they had been church approved then, but in light of this new information they must be chocked full of heresy.

Fast forward to my religious deconstruction already in progress. I started actually reading about Jesus in the Bible and what I found did not jive with my image of God. Jesus wasn’t an angry guy with a hairpin trigger. Nothing about Him seemed like he would tortured people forever, let alone get joy from it. Jesus’ definition of “glory” looked more like loving the unloved than feeding some divine ego. And the kicker: he was supposed the exact image of God!

It suddenly seemed like maybe I’d been given some serious misinformation. Worse yet, it felt like certain parts of the bible were intentionally covered up or ignored. Over time I decided to break rank and check out what Rob had to say in his book Love Wins. That led to reading What We Talk About When We Talk About God, which led to reading his blog series What is the Bible, which led to The ZimZum of love.

Needless to say I was pretty excited to be in the Rob Bell camp for a new book release. I went to my public library and requested Zimzum before it even came out. I must have been the only other person, because on the day the book was released I got an email telling me it was ready for me to come pick up. I was pretty excited, but my own hype didn’t meet my expectations

The book is written by Rob and his wife, Kristen, and all throughout the book they have a dialog. It seemed like a fresh way to have two voices in the book rather than the standard practice of having a husband white a chapter about ‘manly’ issues and the wife one about ‘feminine’ issues. Unfortunately much of it seemed scripted and stiff. Maybe that sort of thing would have played better on a video than a book, but either way it didn’t work for me.

Rob’s books are usually pretty short, but at 120 pages Zimzum is exceptionally short. I noticed right away that it took a cue from What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Like his previous book, this one chose simple, thematic words as the main points of each chapter. Obviously the standout word for the book is Zimzum, which I thought was Buddhist, but is fact, Hebrew. (The Hebrew spelling is Tzimtzim.)

I was the most intrigued and most let down by the books development of it’s name sake key word. In Jewish Mysticism, Zimzum is used to talk about the creation of the world. The concept of Zimzum is that before anything existed there was only God. So, for something other than God to exist, God had to create space that wasn’t God. Zimzum encapsulates the idea of the the contraction of God to allow for the existence of something else.

I thought the idea had the makings of good teaching foil for a marriage book. The contraction of the self for the creation of a new relationship seems pretty ripe. In end, I just felt like it was poorly developed. There is lots of talk about energy flow, give-and-take, and selflessness, but none of it tied concretely back to the concept of zimzum.

Much of the book is classic marriage advice, but presented with that unique Bell twist that makes them sparkle anew. Every marriage book offers advice against keeping score, protecting relationship exclusivity, or being healthy, but where others present those things as scary “danger zones” Zimzum paints them as personal, emotional, and psychological improvement issues.

For example, marriage books often advise against “keeping score.” However this advice is often presented in  with a huge dose of cognitive dissonance. It’s often stated: Don’t keep score because things will balance out in the long-term. That statement may be well-intentioned and true, but the suggestion that things need balancing out is inherently a score keeping statement. Kristen and Rob discourage score-keeping all together because of the effect it has on our brains.

The primitive part of our brains is what has kept us alive as a species and is the area responsible for the fight or flight response. This part of the brain is not rational, it’s fueled by fear. By giving into the scorecard mentality we build up fear; fear that we aren’t valued, fear that we aren’t appreciated, and fear that things won’t get better.

When we feed that part of our brain we become reactive, angry, and irrational. Consequently, the thinking/reasoning part of the brain becomes atrophied. The danger of this is that the same part of our brain responsible rational/reasoning is also responsible for love and empathy. Keeping score actually weakens our ability to have love and empathy for our spouse. Think about it. Have you ever had a “scorecard” fight that was marked by it’s rationality, reason, empathy, or love?

Some other old-advice-with-a-new-spin was Rob and Kristen’s discussions about the body. This is a topic where most marriage books, particularly ones from the American Evangelical scene, shame women for their bodies and excuse men for being shallow. Anybody whose read those books can attest to statements instructing wives make sure not to neglect their physical appearance because men are visual (and your husband is a man). I’ve even heard teachers in church imply that if a wife isn’t keeping up her appearance and being sexually available then she bears some responsibility in any infidelity. Blech! That’s just bullshit.

But bodies are important and they are a component of every marriage, and not just for sex. What I like about how Kristen and Rob tackle this issue is that it’s holistic. The body is the physical aspect, but also the mind, the emotions, etc.. They discuss it through the lens of quantum entanglement which is defined as:

a physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently—instead, a quantum state may be given for the system as a whole.

There is no body issue that doesn’t effect your spouse, whether it’s “addictions, struggles, emotional scars, wounds from past relationships, regrets, destructive habits, unhealthy patterns of reaction or avoidance, etc..” Whatever unhealthiness plagues you, will also plague your spouse. As they Rob and Kristen say, the space is too responsive.

They also encourage partners to be intentional about their own health (physical, emotional, mental, etc..) because a “marriage is only as healthy as the least healthy one of you.” I think the message of taking care of your health, not out of fear that your spouse will shame or reject you, but because your own health is best thing for your marriage and your spouse, is far more helpful and healthy.

The section that encouraged partners to never stop getting to know each other was probably the most unusual and helpful. It’s not something I’ve seen in any marriage book before. In fact, most seem to imply that over time you’ll know your partner well enough to complete their sentences and thoughts. That may be true to a certain extent, but the idea that people are static can be damaging, especially in marriage.

Rob and Kristen tackle the subject head on and in an honest way. They say that people are always in a state of change and marriage is the adventure and commitment of always getting to know your partner — and the safety and confidence that there’s always someone seeking to know you. Unfortunately many couples believe that the person they marry will never change and then become disillusioned when they do. They may become disappointed that their spouse is not the person they married. On the other hand they may assume that they know exactly how their spouse thinks, feels, and acts and close off to them emotionally. Both of these attitudes hinder communication and understanding. Zimzum encourages couples to never stop getting to know each other and suggests that marriage is a wonderful commitment to the excitement getting to know each other continually.

Overall The Zimzum of Love was a good book, but I’m glad I didn’t buy it. There were sections that caused me to look at old assumptions and habits in a new way. There were also many sections that weren’t helpful to me or felt too “fluffy” for reality. I also was not able to relate to Rob and Kristen’s in a lot of ways. Some of their stories made me feel that our lifestyles, jobs, and economic status put us in different places and I just wasn’t able to connect very strongly with them. Usually Rob’s stories pull me in, but this book’s stories ultimately left me feeling alienated.

The truth is that if you’ve been married for a good amount of time you will probably not be dazzled by this book. Much of its content you will have learned in trenches of daily life and the flowery prose may not paint a realistic picture. For those people, I’d recommend Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas. That said, I do think this book would be a wonderful tool for newlyweds and young couples. It’s honest, modern approach to selflessness and healthy relationships will give good perspective for future marriage growth.

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