384: Conversation with Rob Bell, hitting the road again — news on key dates

“MANY of the most significant moments in our lives come not because things went as planned, but because it all fell apart. It’s following these moments of difficulty — or sometimes tragedy — that we are freed to see life in a whole new way. … And there’s something divine in that.”
Rob Bell about his upcoming “Drops Like the Stars” tour and book

ews that Rob Bell is about to embark on his third U.S. tour — and this one involves his first-ever “coffee-table book,” plus interactive experiences within the theaters where he’s scheduled to appear — is likely to start selling out tour dates fairly soon. So, book your tickets early.
    That’s not all! He’s about to announce another international pastors’ conference — we’ve got details here in today’s story — and that’s also likely to sell out almost immediately.
    Because Bell is a spiritual innovator. Back before he became a world-renowned evangelist (he’s toured the U.K. successfully and has fans across Europe and in many other lands) — before all that unfolded — he started out performing in a punk-rock band early in life. His passion for Christian renewal truly blossoms in artistic approaches to the big problems — the barriers, the chasms, the entrenched arguments — that keep people from the true spiritual energy of the faith.

    He has this surprising habit of flipping traditional issues on their head, then inspiring people with a completely different perspective on the situation. For instance, his book “Sex God” wasn’t even about sex — at least not the sex topics readers would expect in a book of that title written by an evangelical pastor. Instead, he stepped way waaaay back and wrote that book as a meditation for general readers about the theology of our human bodies and human passions.
    His new tour, called “Drops Like the Stars,” will be the first tour directly linked to the release of a new book. In this case, he designed the new book in a “coffee-table format,” not because it’s supposed to become a precious keepsake that will gather dust, but because he wants people literally to open up this big new book in the middle of their living rooms and explore its challenges and insights together.
    And, get this: When you walk into a theater with him for the “Stars” tour — he’s not merely going to come out on stage and talk for two hours, which is the trademark style he established in his earlier tours. He’s sworn us to secrecy about exactly what he’ll do inside the theaters this time, but he plans to “hand out things” and “walk into the crowd” and “show people things” in new ways. And, yes, he’s running with these new ideas in all sorts of creative directions. For instance, there will be a couple of strange new T-shirts that only people who have glimpsed his “new visual language about suffering and creativity” will understand.
    Got it? Very cool. Very creative. Will sell out quickly. Buy tickets now.
    But you may be smiling (or frowning) and scratching your head and saying: Wait! This new tour is about the relationship between “creativity and suffering”? Suffering?
    Isn’t that kind of a … a downer for a Rob Bell revival tour? Suffering?


    DAVID: You’re not giving fans and followers much information on what’s about to unfold — and we’re coming right up on your early shake-down appearances in your home state of Michigan. We’re just weeks away. What can we tell people about this tour? It’s all about creativity and suffering?
    ROB: Yep. That’s what you’ve got so far. It’s not much, I know. But, I don’t want to spoil the surprises. This is the first time I’ve done something that is in multiple media formats all at the same time. It’s a book but also a tour. It’s a big thick coffee-table book with pictures and sketches, but it’s also going to be a tour.
    DAVID: You’ve given me some hints about why this tour is different than the others. What can we say here in this Conversation about what will happen in your appearances?
    ROB: Well — various things will be handed out to the audience and people will have to do certain things with what we give them. Other tours? I’d walk out and go start to finish with what I had to say — then I’d walk off stage and it was over.
    This time, it’s interactive. I’ll wander through the crowd. People are handed stuff. There are pictures on the stage. It’s all over the place.
    DAVID: For readers who haven’t kept up with you and Mars Hill: This is one of the U.S.’s largest churches, but it still looks like an old shopping center. Intentionally. It seats 3,500 to 4,000 people. You fill it at least a couple of times on the weekends. Plus many, many more people follow your preaching online through the church’s Web site. You’ve sold a huge number of short messages on DVD in the NOOMA film series. You’ve sold several books. There are DVD documentaries of your earlier tours available as well. You’ve got something like 26,000 fans on your Facebook page. And, on top of all that, you occasionally host big conferences for pastors who want to learn from you about new ways of communicating the message of faith. That a pretty good summary? 

    ROB: That’s about right. And, hey, there is another big pastors’ conference coming up.
    DAVID: I remember the big one you held a couple of years ago at Mars Hill. You barely mentioned the idea — you spread the word online, as I recall — and you packed Mars Hill with pastors from across the U.S. and around the world. Thousands of them. You’re doing something like that again?
    ROB: Yeah. But it’s not at Mars Hill this time. And it hasn’t been announced yet. You can tell people to watch the Mars Hill Web site and the Rob Bell Web site. It’s going to be July 5 through 7 this year in Grand Rapids.
    We’re calling it “Poets, Prophets and Preachers: Recalling the Art of the Sermon.” I’m very excited about it. It’s going to be awesome! I’m going to talk about the failure of language and metaphor. It’s going to be just great.

    A friend of mine, Peter Rollins, a philosopher-slash-poet from Belfast will be with me. He wrote this book, “How (Not) to Speak of God.” He’s also started a group called IKON in a pub in Belfast. He’s coming to talk at this conference about what’s called “transformance” art, which I can’t quite explain. But he’s going to be there in person to explain it. He’s going to talk about the anatomy of a parable. He’s one of the freshest voices I’ve heard.
    And Shane Hipps, whose new book is called “Flickering Pixels,” will be there. We’ve just begun to hear from Shane and he’s going to do a couple of talks.
    DAVID: When can people find out more and sign up for this?
    ROB: This will be public later in March. We’ll have a Web page up. You can find links to it from the Mars Hill site or the Rob Bell site.
    DAVID: How many people does the new venue seat?
    ROB: I think it fits about 2,200.
    DAVID: So, it’s smaller than Mars Hill. Seats will go fast, right?
    ROB: I just know it’s going to be a great experience.

    DAVID: One common question I get from readers, whenever we mention Nooma or your other work is: Can we travel to Grand Rapids and hear Rob preach? And the answer is a little complicated. People can check the church Web site for your preaching schedule, but you’re not always speaking. You’re teaching there about half the time? Is that right?
    ROB: I do 25 Sundays a year. I’m the founding pastor and the teaching pastor. We’ve got a whole leadership team, though, who lead the church. We have lots of other people who teach on Sundays.
    DAVID: You’ve had some amazing visitor on stage there at Mars Hill. But you’re the real draw. You seem to gain energy as you get going in these talks.
    ROB: Yeah, I love teaching. This past Sunday, I did this thing on rap music and then I was connecting that with plastic surgery and princess Diana. I was preaching out of Lamentations. It was such a joy to preach all that. I got into talking about our culture of denial. I was asking people why we don’t want to see pictures of our soldiers who come home from Iraq dead. We were connecting a whole lot of things for people. Oh, man, we were cookin’ on Sunday.

    DAVID: Now, I know you. I’ve known you for year, we’ve featured your voice in ReadTheSpirit before and I know your preaching style, your books, your NOOMA films — so what you just described sounds spiritually creative and exciting to me. But it also can sound like a strange jumble of stuff to people who don’t know the way you weave and inspire and connect themes — from life today with the biblical world, from our own individual lives — to the lives of other people.
    So, let’s get back to explaining more about the details of this tour — this two-hour theatrical experience on suffering.
    ROB: I don’t want to give away any of the surprises of what will happen in this tour, but let me give you at least a little idea about this.
    First, I’m not talking about why we suffer — there are lots of books and theological interpretations on questions like that out there already.
    I’m talking about the fact that we do suffer, we all find ourselves suffering at some point — and I want to explore the relationship between those experiences and creativity. I’m not saying that we all should suffer to be artists — it’s not that.
    What I’m really talking about is the spiritual art of elimination. Great designers know that their work isn’t about what you put into things — it’s knowing what to remove or take away. Michelangelo said his sculpture of David was within the stone all the time, just clamoring to get out. It’s design by elimination.
    What happens when you meet someone who has just learned they have cancer. Do they want to talk about relandscaping their yard? No, they talk about relationships and reconciliation and the meaning of life. This is a process of renewing life by elimination.

    DAVID: So, this isn’t your take on “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
    ROB: No, I’m not here to offer all sorts of explanations of why people suffer. Other people have done that stuff. The fact is: We suffer. I want to talk about: What now?
    The whole presentation we’re doing really is all over the place and touches on everything under the sun. I want this to feel unbelievably honest for people. I open by telling this story about a man who has two sons and — well, actually, I don’t want to give away too much here. I want people to come and experience it.
    DAVID: And it’s not a downer?
    ROB: Our suffering often is gut wrenching. And yet, I also want this experience to be buoyantly, creatively, inspiringly uplifting. I want people to develop a new kind of insight into what’s happening in this process of suffering. I want to help people develop a whole new visual language of what’s possible.
    DAVID: And there’s a book, too?
    ROB: We’re doing these early dates in Michigan before the actual tour to make sure we’re ready. The book is almost done, but it hasn’t been sent to the printer yet. It will go to the printer a couple of days after the Michigan dates are over. We can’t change major things in the book, but we do have time to tweak it if there’s some big inspiration that hits us during these early dates.
    DAVID: So, the people coming to the first Michigan shows may actually have an impact on the final book and final tour presentation.
    ROB: Yep. I want to see what happens here.

    DAVID: Sounds like it’s perfectly timed. Millions are suffering right now. It’s amazing that you were able to pull this together for this moment of global change and crisis.
    ROB: I didn’t. I mean, I’ve been planning this for three years. People may find something helpful here for what they’re going through right now, but this isn’t in response to events happening right now. This has been in planning for a long time.
    DAVID: Until we’ve actually seen you on the road, we don’t know a lot about what you’re planning to say about this. But you’re not urging people to seek out suffering. You’re not saying that people need to suffer, are you?
    ROB: No, this isn’t about tortured artists ad it’s not about how only people on medication write the really good songs.
    What I’m talking about is the art within disruption.
    Sometimes when we suffer we have to create a whole new tomorrow because the one we planned on is gone. It’s horrible and gut wrenching, but it also creates the possibilities for new futures.
    DAVID: One theme you’re talking about here sounds very close to our own approach at ReadTheSpirit. We focus very much on questions like: Why should I climb out of bed in the morning? How do I make it through another stressful day? At the end of the day, did anything I do really matter?
    ROB: There are all sorts of explanations people have figured out in answer to this question: Why do we suffer? People have these very complicated answers. They get into free will and God and Creation and corrupt hearts and all sorts of things come up in these big explanations of why we suffer. But, ultimately, having arranged in my brain in a particular way all these larger theological questions — does that really help me get through today? I don’t think so. I’m interested in: How do we navigate — today? This book and this talk is all about seeing where we are — seeing today — in a different way.
    I’m interested in talking to people where they are, right now — today — and saying to them: Maybe we can see where we are — in this new way.
    I’m interested in life as art.
    Abraham Joshua Heschel once was asked if he had anything to say to young people.
    “Think of life as art,” he said. “You are a work of art.”
    I put that in my own book. That’s brilliant.


HERE’s what Rob Bell is saying in his own words, already, about the tour …..

We plot, we plan, we assume things are going to go
A certain way and then they don’t and we find ourselves
In a new place, a place we haven’t been before, a place
We never would have imagined on our own,
And so it was difficult and unexpected and maybe even
Tragic and yet it opened us up and freed us to see
Things in a whole new way
Suffering does that—
It hurts,
But it also creates.
How many of the most significant moments in your
Life came not because it all went right, but because
It all fell apart?
It’s strange how there can be art in the agony…
The Drops Like Stars tour is a two
Hour exploration of the endlessly complex
Relationship between suffering and creativity—
And I’d love to see you there.


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