268: Conversation With Rob Bell, a Different Kind of Evangelist

s our Jewish and Muslim neighbors are celebrating major holidays, it may seem strange to hear from a Christian writer — but I think that this Conversation With Rob Bell may be an important sign of hope for all people of faith. So, we’re going to introduce Rob Bell right here in the midst of our two-week-long series of holiday stories.
   Here’s why: Rob Bell is one of the hottest voices in American religion today. He’s a best-selling author. He’s a best-selling direct-to-DVD filmmaker. He has been profiled by Time Magazine.
   When he announced a worldwide pastors’ conference at his church near Grand Rapids — essentially by word of mouth — thousands showed up to spend several days learning from him. Then, at the end of the conference, he surprised the crowd by collecting all of the conference fees people had paid in advance — and giving every dollar to charities around the world. He did it simply to show them what a difference they could make in the world if they set aside differences and worked together to help the poor.

   He’s such a major influence in American religion that he doesn’t need to preach old-fashioned revivalist rallies. No, he’s a pioneer in bringing his traveling road show, each year, into sold-out theaters, comedy clubs, bars and, next year, he hopes to tour other parts of the world. People buy tickets simply to come hear him talk and sometimes sketch diagrams on a whiteboard. He gives his roadshow profits to charitable causes around the world.
   His passionate mission in life is to wake up the hundreds of millions of Christians in the United States to the reality that God is far larger than their limited view of religion. His new book is called, “Jesus Wants to Save Christians” — a deliberate poke in the eye to wake up American Christians.
   And, here’s where Rob crosses over to a larger-than-Christian audience. He preaches and teaches that God is far larger than the pages of the Christian New Testament. In his new book, Jesus doesn’t even show up until page 78 of a 180-page book. Bell is, indeed, Christian from the soles of his boots to his close-cropped hair — yet he teaches and preaches that God has been working with people in many parts of the world for thousands of years — calling all of us toward a compassionate view of a worldwide community.

   So, in the heart of this holiday period, I think there’s Good News in sharing this Conversation With Rob Bell — a new kind of American evangelist. If you’re Jewish or Muslim, you may find yourself taking heart that, no, this isn’t one more fist-waving, fire-breathing Christian evangelist you might glimpse with a shudder on cable TV. This is a new kind of evangelical preacher, a compassionate bridge builder.
   If you’re among our Christian readers, though, prepare to feel just a little uncomfortable today because Bell is calling Christians, particularly, toward a much larger view of God.


   DAVID: Rob, what I love about your books is that they’re always a surprise. You’re an evangelical writer and yet we’re 78 pages into this book before Jesus is born. As I read this book, you’re acknowledging a huge debt here to Judaism and the Hebrew scriptures — something that a lot of evangelicals don’t do in this way.
   ROB: It’s great you’re getting this about the book. To me, there’s a point in the book at Sinai where the truth is revealed that God needs a body and that’s incarnation. That’s not a new idea at the birth of the Christian church. God wants to be active in our world. I think reading this as an ongoing story makes it so much more accessible than the way it’s often preached in churches as a series of Christian statements without context that you’re either supposed to believe or not believe.
   DAVID: In the book, you write, “It is believed that this is the only faith tradition in human history that has as its central event a god speaking to a group of people all at one time.” Then you turn to the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary: “The idea of a conventional relationship between God and an entire people is unparalleled.”
   You turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel and you write that Heschel “put it as only he could, ‘We have never been the same since the day on which the voice of God overwhelmed us at Sinai.’”
   God isn’t only calling individuals. God is calling a People — a community we might say — into being. And, this is a significantly different voice than we’ve traditionally heard from evangelical preachers.
   ROB: It wasn’t until the early days of our church, Mars Hill, that I came in contact with resources and writers — people who began telling me: Hey, wait! Wait! When Jesus says X or Y, do you realize where he got that? Do you realize when he does this or that — he’s winking and nodding to a whole tradition? Do you understand those traditions?
   And I realized that for all my education, I had no clue what these people were talking about. Jesus came from a context?
   But he did, of course, and I had to go back and start learning about all of that. All those great debates Jesus took part in — in his day, he was facing the controversial questions of the time. He was taking sides with particular schools of thought out of his tradition.
   For a lot of Christians, Jesus kind of floats above the earth. His feet are like 2 inches above the ground — close enough to be human but he’s sort of a deified ghost. It takes all the blood and guts and sweat and joy and exhilaration out of his life. For a lot of people, he’s just not real.
   For Christians, teaching about Jesus like that — without the context from which Jesus came — is like my taking you to see just the very end of my favorite movie. I invite you into the theater in just the final moments and I’m sitting there laughing and crying. And you’re sitting there like: Uhhh, OK, I’m glad you’re having that experience, but I don’t have the whole hour and a half leading up to these scenes to appreciate them.
   Anything the Christian tradition has is coming out of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish story — and we need to appreciate that.

    DAVID: I find this refreshing and different for a preacher and writer who’s so popular in the evangelical movement to be talking like this. You’re inviting Christians to a whole new level of learning with Jews and Jewish teachers. You’ve been doing that learning yourself.
   ROB: Jesus does something radical within a real, living, breathing tradition. Jesus put new twists into the story, but he’s doing it within a particular story that goes back thousands of years.
   Your questions here really raise an important point. I think a lot of Christians were taught that our job is to out and evangelize and convert a whole lot of people without thinking much about it. So, our starting point in relating to other people has been the differences between us. But we know that doesn’t work in other spheres of relationships.
   I’m far more interested in learning what we have in common. Let’s start there. That makes for a better world.
   DAVID: I am hearing many different spiritual voices emerging right now and moving in this same direction: pointing out that there is timeless wisdom in our religious traditions that is very important in the turbulent world we’re trying to survive at the moment.
   ROB: The philosopher Dallas Willard writes that “familiarity breeds unfamiliarity.” Jesus essentially was killed by an industrial military complex, but we’re so familiar with Jesus’ story as Christians that we’re unfamiliar with that truth.
   Before him, the prophets said to rulers of their kingdoms that they were stockpiling weapons in such a way that the economy was actually falling apart. But there is a way to read the Bible and become familiar with stories in a way that inoculates you from hearing that important message.
   The prophets spoke out to people who had amassed great wealth and who had forgotten those living on the underside of the community. And the prophets, again and again, said: This is heading somewhere bad! Trust me! Rethink this whole thing! You’re losing your way!
   But people usually didn’t listen.
   For our world right now, there is unbelievable wisdom for the world in these ancient texts.

   DAVID: You’re talking about the context of God speaking to an entire community. God concerned about the world.
   ROB: This has always been about a group of people. That doesn’t ignore the individual. We are each important as individuals. But all those “you” words in the New Testament are plural — to “you” as a people. The Ten Commandments were given to a group of people to learn how to live together. God is speaking to a group of people embodying something the whole world wants and needs.
   When we read about working out your salvation in fear and trembling — the “your” there is plural.
   DAVID: A few weeks ago, we published a Conversation With Dr. David Myers, the psychologist who is interested in building bridges between people of faith and people who take a secular view of life. And Myers, kind of like you’re doing in your book, criticizes people of faith for sometimes trying to turn God into a kind of personal granter of wishes. Myers says that if you think a prayer to God is going to help you find a good parking place, then you’re on a different page of the book of faith than he is.
   I read you as going even a step further than Myers. You write, “This is not an abstract God who floats above the blood and dirt and pain of the world. This is a God who is fundamentally defined by action on behalf of the oppressed.”
   ROB: I have two thoughts about that. Myers is making a great observation that it’s so easy for faith to slip into the magical and mythical, which is really just superstition. He’s really talking about the superstitious impulse when he’s making that point, I think.
   You know what happens. You wake up in the morning and the sky is blue and you’re just so sure that it’s a good day. And you pull into the perfect parking place and you see someone you know — and you’re just sure that this is all God’s message to you for the day. But that’s really one step away from carrying rabbit’s feet and tossing salt over your shoulder.
   God is working on something much larger than parking spaces. In this new book, we’re arguing that Genesis really is a back story and that Exodus is the pivotal catalyst for the Hebrew scripture. It is the release of people from bondage that’s the key.
   If you start getting into the whole creation-evolution debate, I say: None of us were there. You are, like, arguing for a six-day little creation, which I still can’t understand as an argument. That story is an abstract story if there ever was one. Trying to argue about the dates and times when the world was created is wasting our time. The kind of Christian world that wants to argue about that is trying to make absolutes out of the abstracts in Genesis — and at the same time they want to make abstracts out of the very absolutes in the Exodus story. The absolutes in Exodus are clear: Make slaves free. Find people healthy drinking water. Help the oppressed.
   Some people are working so hard to make absolutes out of the Genesis creation story and they’re ignoring the powerful absolutes there in Exodus: Help the poor. Help the oppressed. Help the enslaved.
   DAVID: Once again, you’re not sounding like what many Americans think of when they think of evangelical preaching and teaching. Clearly, there are a lot of people joining you in this message: Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and others.
   One thing I hear coming from all of these voices is a prophetic word of warning to the millions of Christian Americans that it’s time to learn a whole lot more about religious traditions and about the larger world around us.
   You know historian Mark Noll’s famous line, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that —
   ROB: “— that there’s not much of an evangelical mind.”
   DAVID: In your book, you write about how knee-jerk reactions to terrorism are so dangerous. You write, “Whatever they might do next, it would be nowhere as destructive as what we’re already doing to ourselves.”

   ROB: We’ve got to step out of our complacency. We’re 5 percent of the world’s population and we have 43 percent of the world’s weapons. That should be disturbing. Point blank. Disturbing.
   The Pentagon a couple of years ago spent $1 billion on advertising.
   You have everybody from George Washington on through saying: Be careful of large standing armies. And now we are paying a huge part of our taxes to have our military advertise to us?
   I would argue at very basic levels: If you are a Christian and you don’t start making some noise about what is happening in our world right now — then when do you speak out? We’re spending billions every month — that billions with a “b” like “bark” — on our wars right now. If we don’t say something is wrong about this now — then when do we say something?
   DAVID: But I don’t want people to misunderstand the bigger window you’re opening up in your book. You’re not even specifically focusing on the U.S. wars at the moment. You’re saying that God is much bigger than we have envisioned and is calling into being a compassionate community around the world. And you’re saying that it’s the duty of Christians to find out about what’s happening in the larger world.
   ROB: Exactly. If you’re going to say things that will be a stretch for people to accept, then you have to earn the right to say those things. You have to educate yourself. Hopefully I’m not just spouting off about stuff. I’m learning about what is going on in the world and I’m going back into our ancient tradition and working my way through all of this.
   DAVID: And now I’m hearing echoes of another important writer, a Jesuit teacher and activist we had in our Conversation seat last week: John Dear, S.J.
   In our interview, Dear said: “My point is that not only are people dying around the planet, but we have died in so many ways with them. Gandhi would say we’ve lost our souls. That was the effect on the people who first built the tools of atomic war. This was the loss of their souls.
   “We’re facing the death of our imagination. … We can no longer even imagine a world without nuclear weapons or a world without war. And yet that is precisely what we are called to do — to imagine the end of war.”

   ROB: Woah! Yes! He is so right on!
   From the very beginning people have struggled with this. Think of Solomon building God’s temple and he’s winding up using slaves. He has forgotten the kind of world he’s supposed to build. Yes, this is one of the central problems. He’s right. I like the way he says that.

   DAVID: In the second half of your book, you put it this way: “Most of the Bible is a history told by people living in lands occupied by conquering superpowers. It’s a book written from the underside of power. It’s an oppression narrative. The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, mighty empires, from the Egyptian Empire to the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire to the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire. This can make the Bible a very difficult book to understand if you are reading it as a citizen of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen.”
   And the problem is even worse today with our news media, falling on hard times, cutting way back on news from around the world. It’s harder than ever to see these truths you’re talking about, right?
   ROB: Man! Yes! This is a problem.
   At Mars Hill, we are always interested in helping people get a real name and a real face and a real story attached to “the other.” We want to get people one click outside their everyday world, because it’s when you move one click toward “the other” that things will begin to happen.
   If we can get that suburban housewife downtown tutoring at a school, that may be the one click that needs to happen. If we can get people out of their comfortable world and get them to a new place where they’ll meet and get to know other people, then that may be what they need to start making a difference.
   Now, I’m not talking about simply tossing people out of their depth, like, suddenly into a village in Africa without any preparation or assistance. No.
   But you won’t understand what I’m talking about until you’ve experienced other people outside your immediate circle in flesh and blood and begin to connect with the larger world.

   DAVID: As we close this, let’s return to the start of this Conversation. You do something toward the end of your book that’s also surprising for an evangelical author. There’s so much scoffing in evangelical circles about the idea of doing “good works.”
   And yet you write toward the end of your book: “The phrase good deeds comes from the Hebrew word mitzvot, which refers to actions taken to heal and repair the world. It’s a concept rich with significance in the Jewish tradition.”
   You point out that this idea is there in the Christian scriptures as well. You write, “The Eucharist is ultimately about what we do out there, in the flow of everyday life. … The church is not ultimately about attending large gatherings. Church is people. People who live a certain way in the world.”
   ROB: You know what happens with that debate? People get to debating salvation by “works” as opposed to “grace” — and as they talk about it, they actually shrink “grace” in the process.
   As people are arguing that salvation is by “grace,” they’ll say: “Hey, Jesus is a free gift,” and they’ll say it as if it’s the only free gift from God.
   They’re thinking too small. They’re shrinking it — as if each breath you take, as if the embrace of your daughter, isn’t a gift, too.
   When people talk about salvation as God’s gift, it’s like gift suddenly entered world history at one point.
   No, grace is the context, the umbrella. Everything is sitting under grace from the very beginning. We’ve been talking about grace the whole time. The whole context of the Bible from ancient times to today is that this is a God who rescues slaves, who helps the oppressed come out of darkness.
   This world always has been nothing but a gift. And when we begin to see that bigger story, it begins to change the way we see our world.
   In speaking to Christians, this is what I’m saying: If something is truly Christian, then it has to be good not only for Christians. It’s going to be great for humanity. If it’s a Christian way, then it should be leading us toward a new kind of humanity. A church should be an inspiring display of a new way to be human.


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   (Originally published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

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