“Somebody claiming that I’m somehow dangerous, or I’ve wandered off the path, is just absurd…When you get through the pain of being misunderstood, your wounds begin to heal and then in some way you become dangerous. Because our worst fear that somebody wouldn’t like us, that we would be misinterpreted — all that has happened.”
R ob Bell is squirming.
Or so the YouTube video’s title proclaims: “MSNBC Host Makes Rob Bell Squirm”. It’s 2011 and Rob Bell, then a megachurch pastor at Mars Hill in Michigan, is being interviewed by British journalist Martin Bashir. Bell had just lobbed a holy hand grenade into the evangelical world: a book called “Love Wins”, which explored the biblical concepts of heaven and hell and dared to ask the question, “Do billions of people really go to hell for not choosing Christianity?” Bell suggested one conclusion: maybe not. Many Christians suggested an entirely different conclusion: you’re dead to us.
So there he was on TV with a host whose one mission was to present a righteous rebuttal to this book. Bashir, a Christian himself, had a personal beef with the thesis of the book. It was clear from the tone of his voice and the aggressive line of questioning.
BASHIR: “In a sense you’re creating a message that’s warm, kind and popular for contemporary culture. But it’s frankly, according to this critic, unbiblical and historically unreliable. That’s true isn’t it?”
BELL: “No. That’s not true.”
BASHIR: “What you’ve done is you’re amending the gospel, the Christian message, so that it’s palatable for contemporary people, who find for example the idea of hell and heaven very difficult to stomach. So here comes Rob Bell, he’s made a Christian gospel for you and it’s perfectly palatable. It’s much easier to swallow. That’s what you’ve done haven’t you?”
BELL: “No, I haven’t and there’s actually an entire chapter in the book on hell…”
That snapshot is indicative of many conversations that circled around Rob Bell’s book and in many ways continue to circle around his legacy in contemporary Christianity. Was Bell a shapeshifter now aiming to push people away from Christ? Many mainstream theologians concurred and rallied around to crucify him. “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweeted John Piper. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, went on Fox News to call him a heretic. And twelve — yes, twelve — books were written to counter Bell’s book (One title was: “Truth Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Dangerous Theology of Rob Bell”). Bell had his supporters of course, but the chorus of condemnation was heavy. Shortly after the book’s release, Bell stepped down as the pastor of Mars Hill. According to Bell, which is the only voice worth listening to, it was time to leave and it was not due to an internal church backlash. From the outside, however, it looked different.
Prior to Love Wins, Bell was riding a wave of incredible success. He was the poster boy of contemporary “cool” Christianity. In 2011, TIME magazine named him one of the top 100 influential people. He was hailed as the “rock star” of the evangelical movement. For years, Bell had steadily built his reputation. First as a pastor, when he launched his own church called Mars Hill, which grew at a phenomenal rate, reaching 10,000 members at its peak. And second as an author and public speaker. His first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, was a bestseller that established Bell as a fresh voice on the scene. This book, along with a slew of others that came after (like Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality) were all writings that challenged orthodox religious dogma. They were about enjoying the here and now and attempted to tap into what Jesus was really all about. So the premise of Love Wins should not have come as a surprise to followers of Bell’s work. But perhaps in tackling the sacred heaven and hell debate, he went a step too far for some.
I first heard about Rob Bell through his NOOMA videos. They were short videos interlaced with emotional music and imagery that unpacked big theological ideas. They were innovative, captivating and spread like wildfire across churches. Finally a bridge was created between young and old. Mothers championed the videos and kids actually paid attention. Here’s an example below:
But Rob Bell is so much more than one book and his ideas are not necessarily suited for 7-minute TV segments. It may make for great television, but it’s an unfair and unproductive way to absorb Bell’s line of thinking. He wrestles with the big metaphysical questions and tries to articulate them to new generations of weary Christians and unbelievers. It’s a noble cause and I have tremendous respect for what he does and for his relentless passion and energy to carry on.
The Rob Bell story is certainly far from over and should definitely not be viewed as a rise and fall from grace. He maintains a wide audience and in fact has expanded his influence by touring around with Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and other spiritual leaders. He continues to write books, develop TV shows and host creativity seminars. And by his own admission, he’s happier today than he’s ever been.
There is much I WANNA KNOW from one of America’s most daring and passionate spiritual thinkers.
From ignoring critics, to the imperfect perfection of the Bible, to Islam, to the pressures of leading a mega-church, to the best Radiohead albums. We cover it all.
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What do you think people talk about when they talk about Rob Bell?
I couldn’t care less. I started out giving sermons in my early 20s. I was always compelled by Jesus and I always had this sense that there’s more going on here. Are we really just dust and bone? You’re here for a few years, you buy a house, go to Starbucks, maybe a few vacations, put your 50 hours in and then you die? Or is there something larger going on here? Which is the question that all seekers, all mystics, all great traditions have asked. So I’m having more fun than ever. I’m writing books and I’m doing tours, making podcasts. I’m having a blast.
I love doing the work and if the work actually helps somebody, somewhere, that blows my mind. Are you kidding me? It’s like frosting on the cake. I know I get these extraordinary interactions with people who are really grateful and they just want to go farther, they want to be stretched, they want their lives to be used for the good of the world. So beyond that it doesn’t even cross my mind to be honest with you. I don’t Google my name. I don’t search the internet. It’s not something in my head. I don’t think about it. Your question is not a part of my
I’ve noticed in other interviews you don’t like to engage with the critics. But why do you think people want to attack you and smear your name?
Honestly, I don’t think about it. It’s not interesting to me. The things that I have heard, there’s so much fear. Publicly smearing somebody I’ve never met isn’t something I would find interesting to do. And we have serious problems in the world. Like water, food, education, war. We have serious problems. If somebody wakes up in the morning and the best thing they can think of to do with these few precious sacred God-given energies they have is to shred somebody else who’s just trying to do something about that, that’s just sad.
Love Wins in particular was heavily scrutinized. Almost every line was picked apart. Do you encourage the intellectual criticism of your work?
I live in the centre of L.A. There’s homeless people on the sidewalk a couple blocks that way, so that’s the world I live in. First off, there’s nothing in Love Wins that isn’t firmly in the historical Christian tradition. So if you have a problem with that book, you have a problem with the Christian tradition. You have a problem with the church fathers. You have a problem with the New Testament. You have a problem with the Old Testament. You have a problem with C.S. Lewis.
So somebody claiming that I’m somehow dangerous, or I’ve wandered off the path, is just absurd. That’s why at some point when you get through the pain of being misunderstood your wounds begin to heal. And then in some way you become dangerous. Because our worst fear that somebody wouldn’t like us, that we would be misinterpreted — all that has happened. And at some point, whatever people could say about you, they’ve already said it and you’re still here. You know what I mean? So we might as well throw ourselves into it and actually have fun. (laughs)
Why do you think people don’t want to believe that maybe — just maybe — everyone will go to heaven? Some people must suffer. Why do you think many people, especially Christians, believe that?
Which to me, if you are a follower of Jesus, it seems you’d start there and work your way back to Hitler. Maybe some people just keep choosing. I don’t know. But whatever it is, if you’re talking about what happens when you die, you’re speculating. No one knows. We are simply speculating. So anytime you build a giant bulwark, or fortress of convictions, about what happens when we die, no one knows. So it seems like holding that loosely would be at the centre of your faith. So the certainty, it doesn’t help.
Think about it. If you actually believe that billions and billions of humans are going to burn forever and be tortured by an actual divine being. And then your job is to go around the world and proclaim that that divine being is love. What human psyche can bear that tension? It can’t be borne. Because you’re saying it’s good news, but what you’re preaching is a horror story. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have said to me thanks for that book, I struggled with suicidal thoughts until I stumbled upon those ideas. And what was interesting, when I asked follow up questions, they said when I was a kid I was told people are going to burn. Your conception of God is simply: what is the ground on which the whole thing walks? What is the deepest depths of being? If from an early age you’ve been taught that the universe is a place where billions are going to be tortured, you’ve been taught that the universe isn’t a safe place. And that leads people to want to kill themselves. So when someone says what I’m doing is dangerous, people killing themselves is dangerous.
I used to have a very unhealthy fear of hell. Did you ever have a fear of hell? An idea that one day you, or other people, could burn forever?
I didn’t really buy it. I remember being like, what? But I did notice from an early age that some people seemed to be miserable and they seemed to choose being miserable. For me hell was always like, I don’t have to look to the afterlife to find hell. When somebody wrongs you and you don’t forgive them and you get all tied up in bitterness, we create our own hells just fine. Or you think about how there’s enough food in the world it’s just distribution systems that are problems with famines. If at a young age you’d been taught, Ryan, you can have joy. And when you don’t forgive, when you’re greedy, when you manipulate people, you’re creating your own isolation and hell. And the thing is you don’t have to live like that. Now if they would have created that kind of urgency, now that would have been actually quite helpful. I don’t want to miss out on everything that’s right here, right now.
Everyone wants to label you, but how do you label yourself? Do you still identify as a Christian?
I don’t see Christian as a box. I see it as very freeing. I follow Jesus. I believe. But Jesus opens me up to the world. The Jesus path is about seeing the divine in every moment, in every interaction, of seeing the whole and sacred in every person. The path for me is liberating, it’s expansive, it opens things up. And it frees me to affirm all that should be affirmed in every background, every religion, every perspective. So I’ve never seen it as a box. I think there’s power in a path and in my experience a path that’s guiding you into greater courage, compassion, less worry, less anxiety, more fearlessness. That’s fantastic. That’s awesome.
I’m curious about your views on the Bible. You’ve said a lot of interesting things about it. A lot of conservative Christians think you no longer anchor yourself in the Bible. You did say recently, speaking about homosexuality, that the church will no longer be relevant if it continues to quote verses from a 2000 year old book. When you say things like that it pisses a lot of people off doesn’t it?
(laughs) That line has a paragraph before it and a paragraph after that. So, there’s a little context there. That’s funny because I’m talking about the Bible more than ever. So when they’re talking about the Bible they’re talking about the countless passages that tell people to care for the environment. They’re talking about all passages that say to know God is to care for the poor. They‘re talking about all the passages that warn you of making lists of who’s in and who’s out. Is that the Bible they’re talking about?
It’s just funny because anyone who listens to the podcast or reads my books or follows me knows I sort of never stop talking about the Bible. So it’s just completely absurd. I think it’s more fascinating than ever.
So, in your view, what is the Bible?
Well, it was written by people, so it’s really important to remember it was written by people. And other people decided to call it the Bible. So if you affirm the Bible you have to affirm the people who wrote it and you have to affirm that the people who wrote those things decided all those writings ought to be brought together. So it is first and foremost human. And whatever divine statement it wants to make will come through the human. You can’t escape the human. The people who wrote this book were writing in real places, at real times and they were real people. And they had an agenda, and they had biases, and they had perspective, and they felt things and they had histories, and they had longings and they were influenced by politics, and they were influenced by their tribes.
So, you could add, it’s a story about tribes. You can say it’s about people in exile coming home. So it’s all the ways you and I wander from home and the invitation to come back home. Spiritually, geographically, whatever. So that’s the power of this library of books. It hands you endless images and metaphors. And that’s the power of it. So yes, it guides you, it gives you answers, it gives you truth, it also gives you poems for your pain, it gives you prayers for your confusion. It hands you the totality of life. And that’s the power.
To draw the line a little bit you do believe it’s not literal and it’s not perfect. It’s not divinely inspired.
If you asked me if my marriage was winning, I’d be like, what? My marriage winning? Is your apartment nebulous? Those aren’t the right categories. So when people talk about the Bible and they talk about perfection, it’s a series of writings, it’s a library of writings, written by real people, in real places, at real times. So if you skip over what it actually is and treat it like it dropped out of the sky you’re actually degrading its power.
The book is a library of extraordinary inspired books. If you read it well, and take it seriously, it shows you what it looks like for human beings to grow in consciousness and awareness and understanding. If you skip the human element and you just say it fell out of the Sky, or God wrote it, in my experience the people who talk the most, and insist the most that’s it’s perfect, those aren’t the categories that it presents itself. And that’s the problem, the people who are the loudest about the Bible actually demean it in lots of ways.
So why does the church see it as perfect? You would acknowledge though that a lot of Christians see the Bible as perfect, right?
Yeah sure. It’s weird. Whenever people insist that it literally happened that way, that’s just modern, post-enlightenment, that’s a particular kind of thinking, that insists the only things that are true are things that literally factually happened exactly like the person said. It’s an incredibly narrow view of truth that has only taken massive predominance in the past 3 or 4 hundred years. So when someone reads the Bible that way, they’re actually totally enslaved to a particular modern epistemology, a way of understating how we know what we know. For example, the early Church fathers, if a passage didn’t make sense literally, they just assumed that it was a metaphor, you know what I mean? At other points in history people read the scriptures and assumed the writer is using those numbers, and using those details, to tell us something at a much deeper level. So the question is, what does it mean? And the story of Adam and Eve, it’s a poem first off. Adam’s name is “the human”. The poet is saying this is about all of humanity. The poet is not trying to tell you about a literal dude, because some truths literal language isn’t big enough for them.
Wait, Adam means “the human”?
Adam. It means the ground. Or the human. So he’s a stand in for all of us. What is this human and the source mother of living? What are they going to do with this extraordinary opportunity they have? They’ve been giving this gift of life, what are they going to do? The poet wants you and I to ask the question, what are we going to do?
You have stages of consciousness. When you’re young, magical mythical thinking is how you think about things. You go to Disneyland and you’re told you’re a prince or a princess. What happens when you grow is somethings you mature out of. And you begin to read the Bible with far more respect for the people who wrote it and you being to experience the divine in a whole new way. You begin to see, I think there is something going on here. I think there is something at work in these stories, moving the whole thing forward. We don’t practice slavery anymore. Some people used to. Why is that? What’s happening in human history is that we’ve left, with exceptions, slavery behind. Why are there things that people used to think are normal that we now think are barbaric? Why have we moved forward? What is moving us forward? Now that’s interesting.
I enjoy hearing your thoughts on this issue and it’s interesting to hear you talk about it, but this is the reason many Christians won’t take what you say seriously. Does it upset you to think that that thought alone is enough for people to say Rob Bell lost it?
(Laughs) Well it’s sad that they would denigrate the Bible.
They think you’re denigrating the Bible.
I would just say, why would you disrespect it by placing categories on it that it doesn’t place on itself? What it talks about is life. It talks about life, it talks about divine life. It talks about the kingdom of God, it talks about the joy and the peace that is yours right here right now. It talks about the divine call on each of us to help make a better world. So to just grab intellectual categories, why not let it be what it is? Why not give it serious attention because it teaches you something about what it means to be human and what it means to live in the world and what it means to suffer, what it means to win, what it means to overcome adversity?
So when it becomes do you think it’s this or this? When people have those categories, the problem with some questions is the question isn’t a good question and there’s no way to get a good answer out of a bad question.
We talk about bloggers, armchair cynics, bashing you. But it’s commendable you’re out there talking to all sorts of people, engaging with people who probably have really challenging questions for you.
I did my first show at Largo, a club here in Los Angeles. Adam Sandler was on two nights before me. You just never know who’s going to show up there. I did a whole thing on Psalm 3. Given a blank slate, in a club on Saturday in LA, that’s what I give. So when you ask repeated questions about critics, I’m like come with me and watch this book leap and watch the things happen. That’s why sometimes I laugh when someone like you mentions the critics. You’re saying people slam me for it. I’m actually out there actually talking about it. I’m out there actually saying these stories are so good, they can actually do something to you.
Do you believe you can learn about Christ and the meaning of life through ideas and people who are not Christians?
Yeah. Of course.
When people see you with someone like Deepak Chopra, I think it makes them think you’re going further and further away from Christianity. What do you think of that criticism?
Have you heard his stuff on the existence God? Have you heard him do his riffs? It’s so killer. He loves to debate atheists on the existence of God. There’s nobody who can hear him riff off the cuff on the existence of God and you are not moved. So, it’s awesome.
As a follower of Christ, is there a part of you who wants to see Deepak Chopra attribute what he’s saying to the Christian God?
He’s written three books about Jesus.
But he’s not a Christian.
Did Jesus use that word? Why not just celebrate that someone speaks that lovingly and affirming of Jesus? Awesome.
So you wouldn’t want to see Chopra one day say all of this can be attributed to Jesus, that’s what it was all about?
Jesus was what what was all about? Because Jesus said that he came to show us the kingdom of God. Jesus was very clear, he came to inaugurate, invite us into, announce, put on display, the realm, the rule, the reality of the divine. He came to show you what’s going on in the universe. So I don’t know if Jesus would say it’s all about him. When he was here, the teaching we have of him, he kept talking about a force, an expanding presence, a spirit, a love, an engine of the universe. Whatever language you want to use for it, he kept speaking about something that’s going down that we can all join in. So if somebody is talking about that, then they’re talking about what he was talking about. And he said if they’re not against me, they’re for me. So I would just celebrate that movement wherever I saw it.
Is there a line you draw somewhere though? Are there somethings that we can look at in the spiritual realm and say that’s wrong? For example, look at the Mormon church. They’ve created new ideas of Jesus, new ideas that pushes the Bible aside. Is that dangerous?
Well, I cannot be apart of something that oppresses women. So let’s just start there. I want nothing to do with something that says women are here to just serve men. That isn’t the realm of the divine. Secondly I don’t want to be part of anything where there’s an inner circle that has secret knowledge they can’t share with people. If there’s some closed door somewhere, no way, I’m out. So that kind of power and wealth concentrated into some secret something. And you don’t get to peek behind the curtain? I’m out. I can’t be apart of it.
So can we find truths that are unique to Mormonism? Should I go explore the Book of Mormon to learn something new about Jesus?
I don’t find it compelling.
What’s your take on the religion of Islam? Have you studied it?
Yeah, I had dinner a couple nights ago with a muslim scholar. She at one point leaned over and she said, “I travel all over the world trying to help bring peace.” She’s a specialist going into very tense situations, and conflict situations to be a peacemaker. She said I’m a peacemaker because I’m a muslim. My muslim faith is what drives me to work in situations for peace and justice and reconciliation. Who’s against that?
And I think the really pressing question with America, or for people who are Christians, is what does it look like to bless muslims? What does it look like to work together for a common good? And just this week I was talking to a guy in Iraq who’s doing this extraordinary work and he was just saying, I come from this deep Christian tradition. I keep finding these extraordinary muslims who we are working together to get surgeries for kids who are injured by drones. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Was there a time when you thought Islam was a false religion? That it was something heretical?
Yeah, they have their God, we have our God. And not that there aren’t very big differences in how you view ultimate reality, but the really compelling thing is we live on a planet with a whole bunch of people and we have all these different backgrounds and if we don’t work to find some common ground we might not be around. It’s that simple. So yeah, perhaps you could say you and I were raised in a culture where the primary energies were spent looking for differences. And there are differences and that can be legitimate. But maybe what’s happened in the modern world, with terrorism, with the exploiting of the hungry for militant causes – if we don’t start using our energies to find what we have in common, we’re in trouble. That might just be reflective of the era we’re in.
Do you think a book like the Qu’ran is worth reading to understand God? To understand more about life?
What’s fascinating with my Muslim friends is that they love Jesus. They’re like Jesus is awesome. So you probably could have long arguments. But where would they go?
Do you think sometimes we’re getting too caught up in the flow of culture? Are there times when we might compromise when we shouldn’t?
Oh my word, a friend of mine made a film called “True Cost” — his name is Andrew Morgan — about the clothing industry and there’s some stat in there like we have increased our spending on clothes four hundred percent. People are buying way, way, way more clothes that they don’t need and then throwing them away. What the clothing industry is doing in sweatshops and what it’s doing to the soil and all these clothes people are wearing a couple times and then throwing them away. Yes of course it’s easy to get sucked in.
Sometimes culture is way ahead of the spiritual community, the faith community. In human history, you have numerous instances where the dominant Christian culture was actually behind the larger culture. You have in America a whole genre of literature written to defend slavery from a biblical perspective. Serial novels. And publishing houses whose goal was to put in novel form for the masses a biblical defence for slavery. So when somebody says maybe you’ve gotten sucked up in the culture, sometimes the culture prophetically critiques the Christian community.
Think about in the Old Testament, King Cyrus, who issues this decree that allows the Jews to return home. What is the word that the prophet uses for Cyrus? He says, “God has said Cyrus,” who is a pagan king, “Cyrus is my messiah.” You go way back in the Hebrew scriptures, you have the prophets saying, you see that pagan king who’s done a good thing? The word for him is a messiah. So you have a long tradition of the divine using all kinds of people from all kinds of different perspectives to do all kinds of good work.
Do you believe in a literal Satan? Because I think that changes the conversation. We’re talking about God pushing the world forward, the beauty of science and life, but is there an evil at work?
Well I think evil is real. I think you are part of a long line of human beings who have named evil. So, the one danger is that you don’t take evil seriously and the other danger is that you take it too seriously. So Satan is the name for the personification of evil. One path is to deny there’s evil in the world, which if you’ve lived in the world there are forces at work when you’ve seen someone in the throes of serious addiction. You become aware then of the ways in which people can be worked on by a power and presence that’s beyond them. The other danger is that you make the whole thing about the devil, or give evil too much credit. Part of the power of the name Satan is it simply gives a personification of evil and that can be extremely helpful. It can also be extremely distracting, magical and mystical, and feel like complete nonsense.
Dylan Roof, the young man who killed nine people in a South Carolina church. Some might say the devil got a hold of him. It’s evil. But he could also be mentally ill. How do you draw the line between being mentally ill or evil?
Sure and when people talk about evil they talk about that which is opposed to good. That which actively resists goodness. So what would you call the forces at work in his brain? That’s actively resisting goodness.
I’ve heard too many stories to deny the presence of animated beings without physical bodies. And I’ve been in situations, where the thing that the person was wrestling with, went way beyond flesh and blood. You could say ego. You could say they were psychologically disrupted. Fine. But I have seen things that force me to create a category for that which is disembodied but real. So when the biblical writers talk about angels and demons, when you have all of these different depictions of these forces, I understand where that comes from.
How do we know though that the decisions are of his own volition? I’ve been thinking a lot about Uday Hussein recently – the son of Saddam Hussein. He was raised to be a killer and turned out quite evil. Can we blame him for his actions growing up in that environment? Does he deserve hell?
You’re asking one of the great questions. Why does the human heart respond to the conditions it finds itself in in the way that it does? Why does the son of a brutal dictator follow in his father’s footsteps? But then another son doesn’t and says I’m out of here, I’m not living like this, I’m going to London. Why does one person, one set of circumstances, respond with less than human behaviour? It’s almost like formally human. It’s almost like this divine spark that resides in each person, and then you see a person acting like that and it’s like the spark is getting smaller and smaller. You’re getting closer and closer to animal. And someone else in similar dark, tyrannical, oppressive situation somehow it lights within them a whole new kind of spark to be a whole new kind of person. It is one of the fundamental questions of human history.
Have you ever done a thought experiment, taken God out of the equation, and then looked at the universe. Do you find the idea of atheism compelling?
Yeah, but a lot of atheists are very moral, kind, loving people. So an atheist is someone who’s against theism and rejected a particular conception of God. But when you talk to my friends who are atheists they are all about mystery and love, justice and peacemaking. They have simply rejected a particular way of thinking about God. Most atheists, when we’re talking about the God they don’t believe in, I don’t believe in that God either. The real disturbing thing is when somebody can look at the trajectory of the universe and can look at the consciousness that arises in human beings in such complicated form 13 billion years in, and can see all the extraordinary discoveries in science, and the things that flawed, funky, weird human beings have been able to create – art, music , you name it – if you can look at all of that and say there is nothing going on here, we are just a collection of cells? There is no mystery? We used to have slaves and now we don’t do slavery. People used to practice child sacrifice and now we don’t. So there are lots of things we used to do that we now say, we used to do that but it’s wrong and we’ve moved past that. And there are a bunch of things we’re doing now that we all agree we need to move past that.
What is moving the universe forward? Why is progress built into the very fabric of the universe? And for somebody who says, yeah but we have a long way to go. That in itself is an admission that we still have a long way to go. It all affirms some idea that we all have that certain things were worse and we should leave them behind and certain things are better and we should pursue them. Call that what you want. Some people call that God. Love. The progress engine. Now that’s interesting.
I watch these debates with people like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins. I think they always destroy the Rabbi, or Pastor, or Imam, they debate. They say they love life as much as any religious person, but it’s the concept of God that humans have come up with that’s truly destructive. They say the further we get away from religion, the more we say no to racism, slavery, etc.
When you say that they love life. Well, yeah, of course, I don’t understand how that would be something other than God. Or moving past slavery, or evolving human consciousness, or enlightenment, or leaving being barbaric wars, I don’t understand why spirituality, or God, is something other than that. So those binaries in a debate like that, I don’t understand why somebody wouldn’t be on the side of life.
Do you ever watch those debates? Do you ever think the religious guy is getting their ass kicked?
Yeah, of course, in the situations that I have observed, the people who were defending religion were defending the wrong things. They were spending a lot of energy protecting and preserving things that aren’t I think the things that we ought to protect and preserve.
In those debates, there isn’t much room for deep thinking. It always comes back to the violent nature of God. How would you respond to that? How do you defend against that?
The Old testament was written by people. If somebody was arguing that my God kills people. That’s completely misreading the Bible. That’s completely slaughtering the Bible. No pun intended.
What you’re saying seems to be the answer to all the critics of the Bible. When you see debates with Dawkins, Harris, they turn to these passages in the the Old Testament which say slavery is permissible. You’re saying it doesn’t justify it at all.
Yeah, they have a childish, naive, incredibly immature view of the Bible. It’s called static appropriation. They just take a passage and say you believe God is like this. No. I don’t. I believe that human beings have been growing in their awareness, in their understanding, in their consciousness for a really long time and that passage is reflective of how people understood things then.
Do you think Christianity or Jesus needs better PR? Is there a dearth of intelligent people challenging false narratives?
Well, yeah, that’s one of the things I’m very passionate about is telling the Jesus story in ways people haven’t heard it. So yeah, at the base of my work, I want to earn Jesus a fresh hearing. I also know in the world I live in, people are smart, they’re not thinking that that person is somehow God’s representative. Like the universe, the life force, Jesus, the cosmic Christ, only has this person? It’s just a bigger thing going on than that.
When I first started doing interviews 15 years ago, most journalists were like, wait, wait, you don’t agree with that or that? You mean you’re OK with science? I love science. Science is amazing. You don’t see that science and faith are in conflict? Of course not, what are you talking about? That was a new idea and now it’s rare that I would do an interview with someone who wouldn’t understand there are multiple perspectives on the Jesus story. Just in 15 years, I have seen it swing so much. And when I first started people would be like, you all believe the earth is going to end and only people are going to go to heaven and the rest will be left behind? Like, what are you talking about? Now, as a whole, when I interact with people in the media they get that there’s other perspectives.
An artist I respect who wrestles with Christianity is David Bazan (formerly Pedro The Lion.) I interviewed him back in 2011. He shifted away from Christianity and writes about it a lot. One thing that really caught him up is the idea of original sin. He wrote a really great song about his objections called “Hard To Be”. Is there any part of you, as a Christian, that wants to see people like David Bazan realign with Christianity?
Words develop associations. So, for some people the word Jesus means anti-science, anti-gay, mean, nasty, close minded, insular, tribal. So everybody is trying to name their experiences. Everybody is trying to name the deeper realities of life. So when somebody has a number of assumptions, and understandings, tied up in a particular word, the much more interesting thing to ask is what do you mean when you use that word? When somebody can’t believe a story about forbidden fruit in a garden. Well that story was referencing the epic of Gilgamesh, which was another popular story at the time of Genesis. There’s a lot going on. And that was a very ancient story people told to make sense of how the world is. So when people thousands of years later, somehow have an odd relationship where they can only think about reality through this one particular story, they need to be freed from the narrow reading of the story they were given. You know what I mean?
Do we even need formal, institutionalized, Christianity? Is it dated?
What happened to me is when I was growing up I heard the Jesus stories and I found Jesus absolutely compelling. I thought he was awesome. I loved that whenever there was an in-group and they had pushed people to the edges, he always went to the edges. If there was somebody who had been kicked to the curb, he went to them. If there was somebody that no one would listen to he would listen to them. I loved that whenever somebody had a very strict set of rules of who was in and out he always challenged those categories of in and outness. So I believed. I find him utterly compelling in the mysterious resurrected Christ who appears time and time again to people. It’s just fantastic.
For me, it is the insistence that I’m loved. That there is a death and rebirth mystery hidden in the very fabric of creation. So you don’t hear me use the word Christianity, because I didn’t come in through some “which religion are you going to pick” door. I came in through a deep, heartfelt experience that resonated with what I knew about the world. And this path orients me, it grounds me, it fills me with more joy, it makes me more likely to do the right thing. You’ve just probably never heard me do something on Christianity because I just don’t know what that means. Like rules? Like a list of doctrines? What? I’m into what Jesus talked about was your very real fullness of experience of this world right here right now. And that’s what I find interesting.
You attracted a large group quickly at Mars Hill church. People like your books. Was there a moment when you realized you were resonating with people?
I loved it. I started working with high school students and they don’t care. They’re not impressed. But I was just trying. There were certain things they would listen to. If I worked really, really hard to get it honed, they would be right there. And, for me, where can you take people? What’s possible? Then my first job in a church I would get little pieces, like a little burst in the middle of a teaching, where I’d be like, “Oh, that worked”. But it was like playing basketball in oven mitts. Once in awhile you make a good shot, otherwise it just feels bulky but there’s something there. Just stay at it. Just stay at it. I’m more humbled than ever by the art form. Even when it’s firing, there’s always this joy mixed with where can we go next? What’s possible next? Right now, I have on my computer the things I’m working on. That thing right there is taunting me with what might be possible.
You managed to resign from Mars Hill without any major scandals. What is it though about leading a megachurch that seems to corrupt so many people? So many megachurch leaders end up embroiled in scandals.
What happened to me is at a very young age I had way too much. So much responsibility. It was like heat. To be a spiritual leader is a very dangerous thing. You don’t have years of muscles built up and fibre and spinal fortitude and wisdom. And it was such a crucible that I realized very quickly, very painfully, the only route forward was to journey deep into the depths of my own interiors. To do my work. Anger, fear, insecurity, anxiety, worry about how I’m being perceived. I started going to a therapist. I went deep into the only way this is going to work and not kill me is if I become a healthy person. I work through all my stuff. Otherwise, your stuff just goes public. You hand all of your brokenness to those around you. If you have a short temper. If you have a constant dialogue that tells you you’re not good. If you have unresolved issues from your family of origin. If you have addictions that are tripping you up. It’s going to be in the system. If it’s present in you, it’s going to be present in whatever you’re building.
So whole institutions can be large versions of inner brokenness. [My wife] and I just decided we’re going to pursue our own health. Emotional, physical, spiritual. With everything we have. And for that you have to go deep into your most vulnerable raw wounds. So that’s what we tried to do.
You saw a therapist? That sounds like a healthy approach. When did you realize that was important?
Once you start going there and you taste health then there’s always something new and interesting to process. It’s an ongoing search of discovering who you are and what your work is and how you figure it all out. It’s not like suddenly you’re fixed. Take for instance somebody who’s leading an organization and they never stop snapping at people. Angry outbursts. There are experts — this is so obvious —who you can go to who can help you figure that stuff out. Why do I get so angry with people? Why do I avoid confrontation? That was something I had. Why do I want so badly for people to like me? Why will I tell people what I know they want to hear and not tell them the whole truth? Why am I so driven to have people like me? And there are moments when I should be telling them the 100 percent truth and I tell them the 73 percent truth because I can’t go that last 27 percent? Those are all questions you can get answers to. Oh, that’s why I have that pattern, that’s why I default to that. Whether it’s in marriage, with kids. And once you shed some light on these things, it’s just a better way to live.
Is the megachurch a worthwhile thing? Will it always lead to tensions that pull people away from God?
Yeah, great question. It’s important to remember that whatever the size is, institutions always bend towards self preservation. Institutions are conglomerations of people and people have millions of years of human history of survival. There’s something within us that wants to live. Institutions want to survive. And so, that is why institutions will always develop a party line. An element of group think. Because people have paychecks involved. And when you have paychecks involved then you’re dealing with how people feed their families. When you mix that with religions, it can get a little awkward to say the least. And unhealthy.
Is it fair to assume you wouldn’t want to go back into the megachurch world?
There are so many people who could do that so much better than me. I have work to do and I love it. I’m having more fun than ever. I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing.
It seems like you’ve insulated yourself from church gossip. Are you reading stories about church scandals? What are you thinking when you hear these stories?
It’s always sad. And you’re always sad that somebody’s in that kind of pain. There’s a person in there. Often times, especially if someone is very charismatic, and has a lot of energy, and life force. Often times theirs is an institution that reflects their brokenness. So everybody’s running down those hallways scared. They’re on the payroll but they’re terrified. And that’s sad.
I read a small article about Oprah’s series “Believe”. It mentioned your participation and said “former evangelical pastor Rob Bell.” This idea of being evangelical and spreading the faith. Do you still think in those terms of convincing others to be Christians?
I try to witness to what’s true and what’s real. And I only speak about that which I’ve experienced. And what I’ve learned over time is my work is to put language to my experience and the experience of those around me. And what I’ve seen and what I believe is happening, what’s going on, what’s unfolding right here right now. If people find that compelling, awesome. And that’s between them. That’s their path. That’s their journey. Spirit has all sorts of mysterious, interesting, ways of speaking to each person where they’re at. I tell the story as I see it with everything I’ve got. And this person suddenly had this experience of love and this sense that Jesus is where the love is found and they’re OK and their past is forgiven. I affirm the movement wherever I see it.
I’m interested in your take on Israel. So many Christians, without any critical thought, support the nation state of Israel. What’s your take on that country?
The universal agreement seems to be that the wall is not helping. And that there are very real living situations in Palestine that are unjust. So, we support the rights of people to exist obviously. And we want everybody to be safe. But a unilateral, blind support, for allies who may in fact be guilty of serious oppression that’s not the biblical story. Do we support our brothers and sisters? Of course. Do we support oppression and injustice? No we don’t. So we call you out on it because we love you.
Everybody I know who goes and visits Israel and Palestine comes back and says, “That’s not right.” And any idea that there’s one side of the story is naive to say the least, and destructive actually. A previous generation had a very staunch, Republican maybe you could say, support of Israel no matter what. And I simply see a whole new generation rising up. And my Jewish friends who are like, that isn’t right. My Jewish friends who have family in Israel who are like we are shocked with what the government of Israel is doing. You’re already seeing a changing of the tide. I’m seeing it in so many people.
One interesting debate happening in some religious circles is transgenderism. What are your thoughts on changing your gender?
To me, it’s fighting gravity. This is the way our world is. Some people are gay, some people are straight. Somebody fighting this or refusing to bake a cake, or issue a license, you are moving against the flow of history. So it is just the last stand of a particular way of seeing things, but it’s just the last sputtering gasps, before we all move together. I haven’t thought much about the question because we’ve already moved on and a few people have not.
I was just at dinner with a transgender friend the other night. Our transgender friends, and neighbours and loved ones, their desire is to be whole and to authentically represent their true self. They are moving, often very courageously, to be true to who they understand they are. That is to me a movement that should be affirmed. When someone says to you that from a young age I knew I was a man, a woman, and I have felt not at home in my own skin. I have been in a living hell of feeling like I wasn’t authentically representing my true self. I don’t know why you wouldn’t cheer that person on and stand with them. And why people are born certain ways? There’s a lot of heartache and weirdness about the world.
My beloved friends just had a child born with some serious challenges. Why does that happen? They are looking at a lifetime of walking with this child through these physical and mental challenges. Why is the world the way it is? Why are we born the way we are? It seems like these are particular areas that are so deeply mysterious because they strike at the core of what it means to be a human being. If you are a person of faith, and you charge in with a narrow black and white precise template that everything and everyone, and every relationship has to fit over, it seems like some of these areas that take you deep into the central mystery of what it means to be a human being, it seems like you would move above all with grace. And we are facing challenges as human beings that we haven’t faced before. It seems like you could do a ton of damage going around saying to people there’s a divine being that’s going to send you to hell because you’re this or that. Whoa. We’re only beginning to tap, to scratch, the mysteries of the cosmos. Seventy-one percent of the earth is covered with water. The oceans are only five percent discovered. So who knows where we still have yet to go with what it means to be a human being. And to not have some grace and respect? It’s not right.
If you could ask Jesus one question, what would you ask him?
(laughs) Man, that’s a great question. What have you been upto?
That’s a good one.
The question has so many weird dimensions to it. I’d probably just say “what have you been upto?” and see where it goes.
What is it about the desert boot that you really like?
Camouflaged desert boots. And the Wallabee. Only a few shoes feel comfortable and those are one them. Good question.
What’s your favorite Radiohead album?
Oh, The Bends of course. And I love In Rainbows and I love that song “House of Cards”.
Lastly, I noticed you talk a lot about turning things up to 11, so I assume you’re a fan of Spinal Tap. . What are your closing words for those who are trying to turn their lives up to 11?
That the first number is always a one. You want to do big things, you want to do great things, you want to change the world, you want to be a revolutionary, great. There’s some first step and it’s probably right in front of you. If you get caught up in the 6th, or the 11th step, or you’re worried about earning enough money at step 9. All you have is the 1. What’s the next step? Is it a phone call? Is it enrolling in a class? Is it asking a question? When people have this, “I want to do this. I want my life to be this.” Hold on, somewhere in there will be one step. Just take it. That’s the only way it’s ever worked for me. All these big things I wanted to do, all this overwhelming I want my life to matter, what is the 1? Just find the one and then you do the one and the two will announce itself.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ROB BELL:
1) Visit his website: www.robbell.com
2) Follow him on Twitter: @realrobbell