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The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage
The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage
Rob Bell
HarperOne, 2014
160 pp., $24.99

Buy Now

Jason Hood


The Zimzum of Love

"Energy flows in this space."

The following is an edited transcript from the Summer 2011 editorial meeting of the Shadow Government of Religious Publishing, known in the industry as ShGoRP. The acronym rhymes with "corp." as in "corporation," which is probably just an accident.

Executive 1: "We're in a crisis. Numbers are down. Bart Ehrman isn't going to make back his advance. Dan Brown-style conspiracy has run its course."

Executive 2: "What about Americanized Eastern religion? We can always go back to that well. Wayne Dyer, peace be upon him, is still on PBS."

Executive 3: "Okay, but we need a fresh angle."

Exec 2: "We need to make it practical. I've always felt like we aren't connected enough to real life. Diet books and couples yoga books, that's all we've really had. And if we hit something practical, like marriage … don't forget, rich people who buy books are usually married."

Exec 1: "Good point. Let's work that marriage angle. Do we have anything in the pipeline?"

Exec 2: "I had a proposal last month from an assistant prof at UCSD, a feminist who is fighting porn culture. She pitched a self-help marriage book that uses the Four Noble Truths to teach resistance to desire, even in marriage. She was inspired by Gandhi's celibate marriage and the way in which he used to lie with naked young girls trying to exercise self-control by not getting aroused. She has her husband ogle her nude body and resist arousal. They also commit to total silence every other month in an effort to resist the desire to communicate."

Executive 3: "Interesting, but it won't sell. We need something pro-sex and pro-communication. And we need the veneer of Eastern religion but not the substance. Something that sounds Eastern, but isn't."

Executive 2: "And it's got to be practical. The polls are telling us we are perceived as too esoteric and too out of touch, not practical enough."

Minion tentatively takes a stab: "Evangelicals. They love practical. They love sex."

Executive 3: "Not our market, and I highly doubt they 'love sex'. I know you're just an intern, but you should've had a trigger-warning inserted into the pre-meeting memo before you mentioned evangelicals. God, the fact you brought them up is not just naïve, it's microaggression."

Executive 1, gently: "It's not her fault we bought their publishing houses. And those people do buy books. And their sex books really ship."

Minion takes the lifeline from Exec 1 and puts all her chips on the table: "Sure. And look at what they buy." Pulls up charts on iPad. "Apart from the sex manuals and a shocking number of Greek grammars and Bible dictionaries, these people buy touchy-feely. They read Amish romances by the buggy-load. They love experiential, emotional material, straight from Jesus, if they can get it, like Sarah Young. They love practical. Just look at Osteen."

Exec 2: "I feel like Osteen's positivity, his practicality, and his emphasis on karma is basically right, but he's just so … baptisty. Not at all exotic or mysterious. We can't market that, not until he has a nervous breakdown, converts to Judaism, or has a mid-life branding crisis."

Exec 1: "Anybody got another name?"

Minion: "I think I know just the guy. [Name redacted from transcript.] I call him an 'evogelical.' He's evolving away from being evangelical, but still kinda sounds like one.

Exec 2: "You know, that might work. A friend of mine went on a surf retreat he led. You get some Bible but it comes as practical, inspirational ideas rather than commands. There's some spirituality there that we can label "theology" in promotional literature to max distribution. He kinda looks evangelical, but he's cool with gay marriage."

Minion: "Right! When he talks about 'truth and grace,' he's not talking about the truth of God's holiness or commands or anything. For [name redacted], truth is the truth about you and the grace you need to be yourself. He takes a few good, helpful bits out of the Bible so that you don't have to read it or meditate on it yourself. He'll cite James 4:6, 'God gives grace to the humble,' but he keeps it 'horizontal'—you don't have to be humble 'vertically' before God in prayer or repentance or submission, and you won't have to reject Satan or sin. You don't have to worry about how your 'horizontal' problems with people might be connected to a 'vertical' problem with God."

Exec 2: "Just a guess, but an educated one: his discussion questions section won't ask you to pray or read the Bible for yourself, but they will help you get in touch with your needs and feelings and they will help you put the relationship first above everything else."

Exec 3: "Also, he won't talk about the cross, or sin, or the idea that marriage represents Jesus and his bride or God and Israel. So he's not a Bible Christian, but really a Christian, then. Our new kind of Christian. Our evogelical."

Exec 2: "Exactly. I've been thinking for years he should write an autobiography titled, 'Finally Christian.' But no chance we get him. He's busy selling those surf retreats."

Exec 1: "Don't worry, we've got influence." Jots down a note: "Call Oprah."

Audio from conference call including Acquisitions Editor, Marketing Executive, Junior Publisher, and the Author (RB). Underlined phrases and sentences are ideas found in The Zimzum of Love or its promotional material.

Junior Publisher: "Our team is surprised it took you a year to come up with a first draft for something this short, but I'm glad we're underway."

Acquisitions Editor: "I love the way you start the book with one individual—at first, it's just you—and then another individual, each their own center of gravity. You're making a subtle, profound statement—we don't have to start with God, or community. There's no external center of gravity. Just inviolable, independent individuals, two independent atoms who start to revolve around the relationship in a new center of gravity, just the two of them. Before, it was just you. Now, there are two."

Marketing Editor: "When I was an intern we had someone try to start a marriage book with God's design and plan for the world—you know, Genesis, male-female complementarity, that sort of thing. We talked him off that ledge. Other religious people were talking about what we owe God and how we revolve around him, not ourselves. We tried to get world religions involved but they kept talking about community and marriage. We couldn't market any of that."

AE: "Anyway, you're doing well. But we need a gimmick, a hook that jumps off the bookstore rack. Something Eastern-sounding. Remember, you're touring with Deepak now."

RB: "Okay. Let me dig through some esoterica and get back with you." RB scribbles a note to himself: "A word that sounds Eastern?"

Months later, another conference call, same participants:

JP: "Rob, I've been worried. Normally these books take six weeks to write—a few lovely stories, basic relationship principles, etc."

RB: "I've got stories. But now I've got something else, that magic gimmick-hook thing. Tsimtsum."

ME: "Dimsum?"

JP: "Sounds like a stretch, Rob."

RB: "No, Tsimtsum."

ME: "I hear it now. Eastern religion. Ancient flavoring. I love it. Tell me more."

RB: "It's Jewish, in fact, and only a few hundred years old, not ancient. When God wanted to create the world, God had to contract. God pulls away from the world to create room for something other than God to exist and thrive."

ME: "Um, before we get specific let's firm up the brand. The ancient Hebrew concept of Tsimtsum.' Sounds trustworthy. Has an ad fontes sheen. Sells much better than 'post-medieval' or 'early modern.'"

RB: "Okay. We can freshen it up as 'Zimzum.' And you can use it as a verb."

ME: "'An ancient new way of understanding marriage.' That's the subtitle."

JP: "But let's slow down, because I'm getting stuck here. What does zimzum have to do with marriage?"

RE: "Well, we create space. Like God."

AE: "Like deism? You pull away from the person to save the relationship? Brilliant. Codependency seems like a limited audience, but maybe there's hidden gold there. I know I always need some space from my partner. That's why I volunteered to edit the collected works of Jacob Neusner."

RB: "No, it's not deism … see, there's this space between you and your partner, and energy flows in this space. It's like creation: God zimzums, creating and making space in love for something Other. 'Tsimtsum' means to "unleash energy and create space for someone to thrive while they're doing the same for you, unleashing energy and generating the flow that is the lifeblood of marriage."

ME: "I'm confused. Are you making space and contracting, or are you moving forward with energy?

AE: "And is zimzum a place or an abstract concept? Or is it a verb? Or is this just a metaphor?"

RB: "Actually, it's Kabbalah."

ME: "Don't tell people that. Madonna cornered Kabbalah. And she's lame. Please continue."

RB: "As you intentionally create space for this person in your life and they create space in their life for you, this movement creates space between you—space that has an energetic flow to it … like an energy field or an electric current. We zimzum this Space that is responsive, sacred, dynamic, and it contains a flow of energy where we become quantumly entangled with one another. The energy field is at the heart of marriage. You can learn about, label, and impact this flow of energy. Marriage is awesome because the upside is infinite."

JP: "Rob, we'll read over the full draft and call you back in 30 minutes."

24 minutes later, the call resumes.

AE: "Rob, you know I love you, and I think our relationship is strong enough to withstand a negative energy flow. I don't understand what marriage has to do with the theory that God created the world by moving away from it."

RB: "Maybe you should read it again."

JP: "Rob, I love deism. I love Eastern religion. But I feel like we're trying to do too much here. We're mixing Eastern all-encompassing energy forces with deism, where God is off the clock and we don't live and move and have our being in him."

RB: "Look, we loved this word zimzum. Maybe we are bending and stretching this word, making it our own. But Oprah, Brian McLaren, and Deepak have all signed off on it, so we've got the top of the industry on board. Nadia Bolz-Weber is going to video herself getting a tattoo that says Zimzum, so we're grassroots, too. Zimzum is unstoppable. I suggest you join in. Zimzum! Unleash energy and create space that didn't exist before, generating the lifeblood of marriage and creativity, or in this case, publishing and creativity."

ME: "Okay, sounds good."

AE: "We'll go with zimzum. The upside is infinite. And I like the way it can be used for any relationship, not just marriage."

RB: "Anything else?"

AE: "Of course. I just want to affirm you're going the right direction. I see great stories even a critic will appreciate. You have helpful advice about expectations and communication you'd get in any decent book on marriage. You've freshened up the old, tired "love bank" idea by making it about Energy and Flow and Zimzum. I see your usual great pacing, even if it sometimes sounds like you're grasping for coffee-cup sleeve slogans."

ME: "I'm seeing subtle but big successes in every chapter. You tell stories about your marriage that are amazing exercises in self-marketing—you seem to be talking about conflict but you never let yourself look nasty. And your wife never comes close to looking bad, which is so important on the Oprah Winfrey Network and Oprah's tours. On every page I see great branding, great re-packaging. 'Relationship' is such a boring, overused word. You've done away with relationship and started talking instead about this Energy, this Zimzum, this Space that only the two of you share."

JP: "Also there's nothing about holiness—you use 'sacred,' which is so much fresher than "holy." And you use it in a fresh way. It's not a person or a body or marriage as an institution that's sacred. Instead, it's the zimzum energy field between us—sex itself, for instance—that's sacred."

AE: "You bring Christian ideas like 'leave and cleave' or sacrifice as part of love without any embarrassing theology to give those concepts definition. Honestly, our other marriage experts cannot say what you said about sex, because you have these awesome Christian ideas from which to draw. But at the same time, you leave out vows and covenants and divine design, in favor of autonomy. I like the flexibility here."

ME: "Yes, it's flexible. It's about marriage, but it's not about marriage, and you talk about how Zimzum is always a risk and Zimzuming may not work for everybody. It was even a risk for God. We don't know how anything is going to turn out. I hear you. You get married, work in publishing for a decade, and you think maybe Nietzsche was right. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that this book is going to work for everybody, Rob."

RB: "I appreciate the editorial energy flow Zimzuming to me right now."

AE: "Let's keep that flowing. Remember, the flow goes both directions: we need revisions by June."

RB: "Gotcha. We'll talk soon."

JP: "Farewell, Rob Bell."

Jason Hood is the author of Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (InterVarsity Academic). With his wife, Emily, and their four children, he lives in Moshi, Tanzania, where he pastors St. Margaret's Anglican Church, an English-speaking international congregation, and serves as a theological resource for the Kilimanjaro Diocese.

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