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Interview with Rob Bell

This dad, celebrity pastor and inspirational author talks about God, religion and other things that usually get him into trouble.

RALPH PALUMBO

Whether you agree with pastor and bestselling author Rob Bell’s message or not, one thing is certain: You will listen. Because if Bell is nothing else, he is provocative, interesting, and often controversial. And while those qualities have made him one of the most talked about pastors in the country, at times they’ve also landed him in the hot seat.

For instance, in 2011, Bell was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, partially due to his position as founder and pastor of mega-church Mars Hill Bible Church and his 2011 bestseller Love Wins. In that book, Bell challenged the existence of hell, suggesting that God saves all people, not just Christians. That didn’t go over so well with many of his fellow Christian pastors, some of whom went so far as to call him a heretic.

But that didn’t slow down this Laguna Beach surfer and dad. In fact, in his recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell again challenges many traditional views of God, which he says paint the Almighty as a rather aloof, otherworldly being quite worried about ritual and at war with science. In fact, Bell writes that God often comes across as “small, narrow, irrelevant, mean and sometimes just not that intelligent.”

Instead, Bell argues that God is not that “outdated Oldsmobile” we often see him as, but is instead present and relevant in even the smallest moments of our lives. Bell takes head-on the notions that women can’t be priests, or gays are going to hell, and of Creationism. And while his views have made him a pariah to many, they have also brought him an army of loyal followers.

So we thought we’d sit down with Bell to talk about everything from his new book to why God might just be an environmentalist with science as his dance partner.

Did your parents encourage your spirituality?
My parents were really serious about exploration and discovery, so through them I learned that faith had to be intellectually solid. It had to have integrity. I grew up in a setting where faith was something that was alive and vibrant and there was a sense of wonder and awe about the world.

You volunteered to teach counselors when you were a water ski instructor at a camp. How did that come about?
 I volunteered to give a sermon because friends were organizing a chapel service. And I immediately thought, “Wait, what did I just volunteer to do?” But I got up there and I thought, “This is it, this is what I’m supposed to do with my life: help people find God.” It was like being born again, again. And after that first sermon experience I was laser-focused.

You were in a pretty successful band also. Did performing in front of people help you in your preaching?
Yes. If you go see a band and the band sucks, you just leave. You go outside and have a smoke and wait for the next band to come on. So when I was in a band the goal was to win over the crowd. You wanted everybody to be singing your songs. By the end of the night you wanted to be drenched in sweat, and you wanted the whole crowd to be drenched in sweat. You wanted to have an experience. So that’s sort of the sensibility that I came into seminary school with.

Some people would argue that entertainment should not be a part of preaching. I think the word “entertainment” gets a bad rap. To entertain means to hold someone’s attention. And if you want people to hear your message you need to hold their attention. If you have a message that you’re passionate about, then you want to engage people and hold people’s attention. Muse means to ponder or reflect, so amuse means not to ponder or reflect. And so when people bash entertaining, I think what they’re really bashing is amusing, which is, “I’m going to create a diversion from you actually reflecting and thinking about the things that matter most.”
 
So what is the core of your Christian message?
The Christian story is about the guy who walks among us to join us in our pain and struggle, to help us. So I begin with the central story of the Bible, which is the restoration and renewal of this world. So cleaning up our beaches, cleaning up our oceans, caring for the environment, helping the poor and the 800 million people who don’t have access to clean water in our world, these are the kinds of things Jesus said would characterize his followers. The Bible is a story about the renewal and the redemption and the restoration and reconciliation of this world. That’s a message I believe we need. For many people that’s a new message. But I would argue it’s an old one; it just got lost.

Your new book argues that despite what many feel, God is still relevant in our lives today. Why?
Because of those times we experience something we don’t have language for. Your kid is born, for instance. Or even just a great meal or surf. When someone comes along and says you’re just a random collection of neurons and atoms and [that feeling] is nothing more than that, and when you die it’s over? My experience as a pastor is that for many people across the religious spectrum that doesn’t work. That explanation leaves us cold, tired and uninspired. So I think God is more relevant than ever because God is the word we use for the “more.” The reverence within us. That this is all headed somewhere and things do matter. God is the word we use for that.

Despite that, you argue that science is not in conflict with Christianity. Can you explain?
That’s one of the loud, jump-up-and-down points of the book: science and faith are like long-lost dance partners. And any Christian who is resistant to truth or the evidence we have right in front of us, you do your faith a great disservice. Instead, you embrace truth wherever you find it, from the lab to a pub to everywhere in between. This is really important for our day: God is not shrinking in the corner because there’s a new [scientific] discovery. I think that to be a person of honesty, integrity, and faith, you embrace science. Besides, how many times when you hear great scientists talk, do you sense a sort of childlike wonder and awe? Because you have this sense that we know more than ever, but there’s more mystery than ever too.

What about people who argue that both science and Genesis can’t be true?
The power of Genesis 1, the opening scripture of the Bible, is that it’s a poem. It had a particular meaning of power when it first arose, because the dominant story at that time was a poem that said the world came out of the carnage and wreckage of a great battle between the gods. But the Genesis 1 poem is this lyrical joyful one where God is just going off, filled with explosive, powerful joy. That’s a really powerful story. So do you believe we’re here because of violence and destruction or do you believe we’re here because there’s a love behind it all? When that poem gets turned by religious people into a scientific treatise, I would argue that they’re actually robbing it of its original power. So I would start there.

And specifically, what about the theory of evolution versus creationism?
At one point in my book I say that evolution does a wonderful job of explaining why we don’t have tails, but it doesn’t do such a great job of explaining why we find that interesting. So however we came to be here, whatever mechanisms are at work to keep us here and adapting, there’s this thing called spirit, there is this more, there is this reverence. And whatever we’re learning about the mechanisms and biology of it, we’re also trying to raise kids, deal with cancer, going through divorce… we need help and guidance to find healing and peace in the midst of all this. So I’m up for the exploration of science and what it’s telling us, but we also are desperate for guidance with things of the spirit.

You also address another big question: If God is so loving, why does he allow suffering?
First off, I always begin by saying there are no answers for a lot of the pain we encounter. And I’m really skeptical of religious people who charge into painful, bloody tragedy and start quoting Bible verses. There is a basic human respect needed for certain kinds of pain and struggle. Secondly, the world is free to actually be a world. Tides and trees and rocks and volcanoes are free to be tides and trees and rocks and volcanoes. And that means we live with the consequences of that freedom. What I have seen, from cancer to divorce, to funerals, is that in the midst of such horrible suffering, unbelievable acts of compassion and beauty and love and solidarity are born.

So there may be a point to the suffering?
Think about how many people, when you ask them to tell you about particular moments that have shaped their lives, moments that made them a better person, how often they say something like, “I lost my job and had to rethink everything.” One man told me how his best friend O.D.ed on heroin and it absolutely changed his life. He is now dedicated to helping people and making the world a better place. It’s interesting how rarely people answer me by saying, “I got a new apartment,” or “I got a new pickup truck and we all went out and partied.” It’s amazing how all this pain and suffering produced something in us that made us better people.

You speak a lot about tolerance and inclusion. Why?
For a lot of people religion is about joining something that defines them in terms of “us against them.” But how I understand faith is that your faith is measured more as how you interact with people who are most not like you. So for me, a really vibrant faith is how it changed you in response to people who would traditionally be your enemies. When Jesus says love your enemy, this is absolutely revolutionary. This is a whole new mode of being. So the only really compelling measure for me is “How does this shape the way that you interact with the people who are the hardest to love?”

Does the fact that we’re constantly reminded that there are religious radicals out there trying to destroy us make your mission harder?
Yes. In times of great stress people often revert to earlier versions of growth and consciousness. So anytime there is a disruption, whether it’s political, social, or economic, these are invitations either to grow and move to an even greater place of freedom, peace and love, or to regress. So an example would be: Apparently, there are some people in the world who don’t like America. Do you respond by raising the flag even higher and singing even louder and brand anybody as un-American, including Americans, who question America? Or do you ask why do some of these people not like America and how have we been in the world and do we need to have a long hard look at ourselves? And this isn’t in anyway disloyal or un-American; this is actually great loyalty. In fact, the Bible is full of self-critique. It has tremendous critique for global powers and military might. It holds people who have power to the highest standards. I think one of the compelling questions for America is “We’ve been given so much, so how are we using this to help those who have the least?” That’s one of the central questions of the Bible.

You also believe religion can be found in everyday life, on this earth. Can you elaborate?
For many people religion is about what you need to believe so you don’t get your ass kicked in the eternal realm. But Jesus speaks of the holiness and the sacred nature of everyday life. So one of the things I’m trying to point out in this book is that you can be very religious, and you can quote all the right verses and follow all the right rituals, and yet not see the holiness and the sacred nature in the most everyday and mundane tasks. And that’s I think the real challenge of the modern world. If we’re not careful, we feel like cogs in a machine. Spirituality can actually help awaken us to the beauty of every day. Everything from walking to work, to taking your kids to school to getting a surf in at lunch time. At the end of the day it’s about finding God in all those little actions and moments and interactions. That’s where it’s at.

what are you working on now?
Carlton Cuse [producer of the TV hit “Lost”] and I are developing a show. In our culture the two subjects everybody talks about are religion and politics. In politics we have everything from “Fox News” to “Rachel Maddow” and everything in between. In spirituality, we have nothing funny, subversive, interesting, intelligent, inspiring. And so we’re working on a show that will hopefully break new ground in that area.


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