Everything is Spiritual Tour
The Fillmore Silver Spring
8656 Colesville Rd.
Silver Spring, Md.
Wednesday, July 22
Once one of the darlings of white evangelical America, Rob Bell drew strong condemnation when he veered off script with his 2011 book “Love Wins,” a New York Times bestseller in which he dared to suggest hell isn’t the literal fire-and-brimstone torture chamber fundamentalist Christians have long claimed.
He left Mars Hill Bible Church, the Grandville, Mich., church he started at age 28 in 1999, in 2012 and has pursued several ventures since from a book with his wife Kristen (“The Zimzum of Love”), a tour with Oprah Winfrey (the 2014 “Life You Want Tour”) and more. Named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2011, Bell’s own “Everything is Spiritual Tour” comes to Silver Spring, Md., next week. Bell is an LGBT ally and spoke with us by phone this week from New Orleans to talk about trends in contemporary U.S. Christianity, how he feels the Scriptures have been abused on all kinds of topics and what message he feels God has for LGBT people. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: You write a lot in your book “Velvet Elvis” about the work of binding and loosing and wrestling with scriptural texts. What kind of binding and loosing work are you doing on your tour?
ROB BELL: I’m trying to give people a new story, a story that helps them see that science and spirituality are long-lost dance partners and because of what we know about the universe and the fact that it’s an expanding universe, along with what we know about how our hearts work, I feel there are endless connections between the two. So that’s what I’m doing — asking some questions about what is this thing that keeps unfolding and moving forward … and what does it look like to have an integrated view of your life in the world so that it’s not just random fragments, but you have a sense that the whole thing is going somewhere and you’re going somewhere with it.
BLADE: How’s it going?
BELL: Oh my word, it’s so much fun. I just love this. … It’s kind of somewhere between a one-man show and a tent talk and a recovery meeting and hopefully an inspiring sermon in there too. It’s like a mishmash of art forms and I just love doing it.
BLADE: As you’ve veered away from traditional evangelical Christianity, who is your audience now? Are you finding acceptance among mainline Protestants?
BELL: I always thought the word evangelical meant good news, so I always thought it meant a joyous announcement that we are all loved and are all brothers and sisters and all in this together and let’s all work to deal with the suffering and the real problems in the world. So the idea of a subculture that liked to claim that word sort of always seemed ridiculous to me. … I didn’t grow up with any denominational affiliation, so I was dealing with this stuff kind of all across the spectrum whether it be Eastern Orthodox to Catholic to Christian to whatever, I was really talking about what it means to be human.
BLADE: Yes, but when we talk about voting trends and demographics and so on, evangelicals are counted separately from mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. Do you not think in terms of these spheres?
BELL: No. I just never knew what they were talking about really. I mean I was always pro science. When they’d talk about these different groups, I’d be like, “Well, I’m not in that group, they’re saying crazy things.” But I did notice definitely from early on that I endlessly found myself discovering people who were on the same journey from all across the spectrum and to be honest with you, early on I found that all those labels just meant nothing. I’d end up in some setting and I’d be like, “Wait, these people are having the same discussion over here.” Mennonites are having a non-violence discussion, Catholics are talking about the importance of creativity in art, the Eastern Orthodox are talking about the centrality of mystery in faith … There was a through-line through the whole discussion so that even when we were pastoring (Mars Hill), we never saw it as putting together a religion. … When I hear people talk about these people vote this way or those people vote that way, I’m sure there’s some truth in those things on a general level, but they were never very interesting to me.
BLADE: So are you averse to “we-they” thinking in general?
BELL: Yeah. It just never seemed like a very interesting discussion.
BLADE: You took a lot of heat for daring to suggest a different view of hell in “Love Wins.” How much of that did you anticipate?
BELL: I did a series of sermons on women’s equality probably in 2002, so I had experienced this kind of unique venom that religious people spew when they believe they’re defending God. I had done a series of sermons questioning the war in Iraq, my first book had apparently made some people upset so while “Love Wins” was louder, the knobs were turned up, it was really a natural ongoing progression of what I’d been experiencing for over decade. … It’s interesting to see how many people aren’t familiar with the fact that nothing I’m saying in that book is really new. These ideas have been present in the Christian tradition for a number of years.
BLADE: Did you fear getting pigeonholed as “Rob Bell, the guy who says there’s no hell”?
BELL: (laughs) It’s not something I even think about. You can’t take people where they don’t want to go. Some people when they talk about faith, what they’re really talking about is fear. They’re not interested in expanding or growing … so I don’t use much energy thinking about it.
BLADE: Your critics seem to have pegged you as somebody who wants to have his cake and eat it too. What’s the biggest misconception about you?
BELL: What does that even mean?
BLADE: Well, broadly speaking, the criticism seems to come down to an opinion that you want to enjoy the kind, loving God but just skip over the unpleasant parts like the hell, fire and brimstone. It’s a recurring theme among your critics.
BELL: It’s just funny to hear that. It’s a weird critique number one and number two, these people who claim to be sharing the good news, oh wait, it’s actually bad news. If you’re literally operating from a world view that says billions and billions and billions are going to be tormented forever in some sort of conscious hell because they didn’t believe in somebody they never heard about … that’s a horror story. That is such a psychologically devastating portrait of the universe we’re living in, who could ever bear that? So if they’re like, “He won’t include that,” that’s correct, I don’t find that even remotely compelling … Fear is wonderful for behavior modification to a certain degree, but I think probably in your life and mine, what actually transforms your life is when you are given a new vision of who you might be in the world. You can scare people a little to get them to behave right or be moral or vote a particular way or raise money for your thing, but in my experience as a pastor, people are transformed when they hear a fresh new word of imagination about who they are and who they can become. So when people say, “He doesn’t want to bring that stuff up,” well, I’m in line with millions of people of faith who are more interested in making the world a better place. I’m laughing because sometimes the critiques are like, “Are you kidding me?”
BLADE: So those Bible verses you never see on coffee mugs like “depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” that Christ supposedly says to the damned, what do you feel those verses mean?
BELL: Well I think first and foremost, everything Jesus was doing was in the context of first century Jewish culture … a people that had been oppressed by one global military super power, the Romans, that was just another oppressive super power in a long line of them from the Persians to the Greeks to the Babylonians and more. These were people who had been conquered again and again and again and they believed at some point that their God would vindicate them. Often people have so divorced the reading of the text from what was happening at the time which here, I think Jesus is giving these really pointed parables and I think giving them these images of do you want to participate in a new kind of world? Do you want to join me with God in helping the poor and bringing about a new heaven and earth right now? They were part of an entire religious establishment that was part of the problem, exploiting the poor, dehumanizing people and I think he’s using very strong, very pointed hyperbolic language to say to them, “Turn your thinking around. Turn your actions around or you’re going to miss this fresh new thing that God is doing.” … So when people extract lines out of this and say people everywhere are going to burn forever, they have so warped the message, taken it out of context and distorted the story. … You can take things out of context and make them say anything.
BLADE: You’re very open and affirming to gays. Did your views on LGBT issues evolve?
BELL: I always felt my gay friends should of course be part of the church and serve and lead there so any interactions I ever had were, “Yes, of course I embrace you and affirm you. I’m thrilled you are here.” But it seems like a lot of people, I didn’t understand how painful it is for people to be in an environment where they aren’t openly affirmed and embraced. I just assumed it was a matter of, “Just join us, let’s go and let’s do this.” It took me awhile to understand and now I have several friends who’ve said the same thing. So it became, “Oh wait, this is all our issue, we all need to speak up about this and become very strong in our affirming and embracing.” So it was a long, slow road of me coming to that understanding. … I’m thrilled with the progress that’s being made. I’m so happy about it.
BLADE: Do you feel God has a message for LGBT believers?
BELL: Yes. First off, so many who were raised in a religious environment where they were told there was something wrong with them, they had to do a lot of interior work to get over those messages and it took extraordinary courage. I’m constantly astounded by the incredible depth of character and maturity I see in the LGBT community because they have struggled. That fire produces such maturity and I’m just in awe of it. So I just say keep going and on behalf of everybody who ever told you a destructive message about who you are, I’m so sorry. You are loved and affirmed exactly as you are.
BLADE: Why do you feel God would make someone transgender?
BELL: I actually don’t find it helpful to think in terms of why would God make someone a particular way. I don’t have that view of God. I begin with the world the way it is. We all have different struggles and why is someone born feeling they’re not comfortable in their own skin, I’m not interested in blaming some divine being on a cloud somewhere with a long beard and that sort of thing. This is how this person has experienced life and what we need to do is support them in being true to who they feel they are. There’s no way to answer those questions other than to start with where we are today and what does it mean to move forward in health and wholeness and joy?
BLADE: There are lots of scriptures advising wariness to false teaching and not to let ourselves get “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” Some say you’re a false teacher leading people astray. How does one discern anointed teaching vs. false teaching?
BELL: The ancient Hebrews had this word shalom, which sometimes gets translated as the word peace, but peace in a Western context usually means people are not fighting, the absence of war. But shalom is really about health and wholeness and there’s multiple dimensions of shalom — peace with each other, peace with the earth, taking good care of the earth, being comfortable in our own skin, being at peace with ourselves. So I would simply ask, “Does this, whatever this idea is, a new movement or new interpretation, does this help us move forward into a greater and greater depth of shalom or not?” To me, that’s a good place to start. If it does not, then we should be a bit suspicious.
BLADE: Is the needle shifting away from fundamentalism?
BELL: Absolutely and here’s why. You would not believe the number of big-shot Christian leaders who come meet with me and … say, “Thank you for your books, thanks for what you’re doing. I can’t say that in my setting because I would get fired.” They basically say they’re pro-same-sex marriage and they’re evolving and growing and realizing the importance of science in understanding the world, they’re reading the Bible in new ways, but they basically say, “I get a paycheck from propping up this whole old world view that’s not working anymore.” You would not believe it. So yes, I think extraordinary strides are being made.
BLADE: But then how does this “Duck Dynasty”-kind of mindset keep popping up in culture?
BELL: If you’re part of a subculture that’s dying, it’s terrifying. You used to have your hand on the wheel and you’re used to seeing yourselves as the dominant voice in culture and now that you’re not, your subculture is increasingly out of step and for some people, that’s not just a neutral thing, but a negative effect in the world. It’s terrifying and when someone who has a microphone or a TV show can say, “There’s no need to move forward, they’re the ones who are crazy, just dig in your heels with me on this, we’re the ones who are right,” and dig their stake into the ground, that’s incredibly comforting to them. It’s electric. No wonder people have incredible heat around this sort of thing. It’s a last desperate attempt to sort of put on blinders and pretend everything is always going to be how it is. The great French paleontologist de Chardin said the soul of the universe goes forward. Fundamentalism on an energetic level, is rooted in a desire to go back, to some sort of imagined pure state of perfection of how things used to be. The fact that the universe can only go forward is why fundamentalism always turns on itself and collapses in the end.
BLADE: You must have had situations where the evangelical gatekeepers started closing the gates to you. Did (religious publisher) Zondervan (Bells’ publisher for several early books) reject “Love Wins”?
BELL: I never thought of those types as people I had to have on my team. But oh yeah, probably even 14 or 15 years ago, I would hear of people telling people not to have anything to do with me. That started to become a regular occurrence, but I never saw that as the goal anyway. It wasn’t compelling to me to be in with any gatekeeper. I was just always on to the next thing. I joke that I felt like the drummer in “Spinal Tap.” I felt like I would spontaneously combust if I didn’t get the next book or the next tour done. People who aren’t on board, they’re not really on my radar.
BLADE: If you had stayed at Mars Hill, would you have felt like you were increasingly preaching to the choir?
BELL: What does that mean?
BLADE: Well, you know, did you feel a calling to take the message beyond just church folks?
BELL: Yes. It was time to take the next leap. … There were a lot of unknowns and a lot of risks but that’s how you stay fully alive. And yeah, it was a really extraordinary season where it was like the clouds moved and I knew it was time to go. So here we are, let’s do this. That was really amazing.
BLADE: If the needle is shifting, why does it seem like the mainline Protestant churches have done such a dismal job at harnessing any of that energy into their tradition? Why is all the growth and excitement in the evangelical churches?
BELL: If your world view is that billions of people are going to burn forever, that’s a pretty good motivator to get off your ass and do something so you see a lot of this endless entrepreneurial innovation and energy being funneled into these places with very rigid, regressive theology and world view. Then over here you have these progressive, open-minded churches that are great on peace and justice and reconciliation and they’re literally arguing about what the choir selections are or the color of the carpet. I’m like, “Wait, you guys have such great ideas, how have you made mountains out of these molehills?” That said, I do see extraordinary things happening like the Garden in Long Beach, Calif., or Oasis in central London where people are trying new things and it feels like the best fusion. It’s fresh and the best of all across the spectrum and it really feels to me like people in their garages coming up with the next lap top.
BLADE: What’s Oprah been like?
BELL: Oh my word, she is as amazing as you imagine she is. … She has profound wisdom and a mountain of spiritual riches to share. … She is growing and learning and stretching and asking, “What do I do with what I’ve been given?”
BLADE: You’re so knowledgeable about the scriptures and their historical context. What do you make of that passage in John where it references “many other signs and wonders” in the life of Christ that have not been included. I suppose most pastors would say we have all we need, but does that verse pique your curiosity?
BELL: Oh yeah, I’m totally with you on that. It’s like the writer is saying, “I just want you to know, I had tons of material to work with. I just want you to know that I edited this sucker down to these few chapters, but oh my, could I have included some other stuff.” Which I think is awesome. What a human book. … It’s so awesome and so weird and to me, makes it all the more interesting.