ROB BELL has reinvented himself yet again, thanks to his new friend Oprah Winfrey. Rob began the year as the subject of a long story in OPRAH magazine, featuring a big photo astride his surfboard looking more like an action-movie star than a pastor. Then, Rob appeared in various Oprah TV shows and public events. He is closing the year by publishing his first book with his wife Kristen Bell, who is emerging as an eloquent, wise and often downright funny co-author.
The OPRAH photo isn’t a fanciful illustration. Rob actually is an avid surfer now and that photo serves as an apt metaphor: Once again, Rob has landed squarely on his feet, surfing deep waters of cultural change.
For those readers who have forgotten the early history of Rob Bell: As a young man, he was restless and even performed, for a while, with a punk-rock band. He studied at the famous evangelical college, Wheaton. He left Wheaton with a classmate (Kristen) at his side and with a desire to bring fresh energy into the Christian pulpit.
After a sojourn at another big church, Rob eventually founded the Mars Hill megachurch in Grand Rapids that, for a time, held the record for weekend attendance among Michigan congregations.
His creativity didn’t stop there. Rob wanted to pioneer new formats for bringing his Christian message to millions of un-churched Americans, so he launched the best-selling video series, Nooma. For several years, “Noomas” became the trendiest multi-media shown in mainline churches nationwide.
Then, Rob began moving with his pulpit! In addition to preaching at Mars Hill, he began touring the world doing long, stand-up performances about Christianity in comedy clubs and theaters.
Eventually, America’s self-appointed evangelical gatekeepers had enough of his inclusive preaching. Various yellow flags were thrown as Rob wrote and preached and toured, including a major controversy over Rob’s suggestion that people who are not Christian may wind up in heaven along with born-again Christians. Evangelicals called, “Foul!” and sought to drum him out of the evangelical camp.
The Bells moved from their home in the conservative-Christian heart of northwest Michigan to southern California where their circle of friends dramatically expanded. With that trans-continental move, they also signaled their decision to step away from the controversy over whether Rob truly is “an evangelical.”
Today? When Rob and Kristen are asked about the evangelical bubble in which they once lived? “We’re really out of that world now,” Rob says. They’re still devoutly Christian; they’ve just left the trenches of what amounts to an evangelical civil war.
What Oprah has given to Rob Bell is confirmation that millions of Americans really do want to hear about the life-affirming joy represented in Christianity’s core teachings. When Rob appears in Oprah’s programs, he is identified as a Christian pastor. He preaches that hope and joy is possible in our lives, today, if we allow faith to lead us into a larger, more compassionate awareness of our world.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Rob and Kristen Bell about their new book on marriage, The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ROB AND KRISTEN BELL
ON ‘ZIMZUM OF LOVE’
DAVID: As usual, you’re very timely with the subject of this new book. According to Pew, Americans’ attitudes toward marriage are deeply ambivalent, these days. Pew says that the percentage of American adults who’ve never been married has hit an all-time high of 20 percent. Beyond that, half of American adults now say that marriage isn’t necessary to have a happy life.
Even worse from the viewpoint of religious leaders, most Americans don’t look to clergy for advice on marriage. Most Catholics don’t like their church’s policies on divorce and remarriage. Many couples are annoyed that both Protestant and Catholic clergy tend to require marriage counseling before setting a date. The New York Times reports that it’s trendy simply to have a friend perform your wedding with a quickee Internet diploma as a “pastor.” All in all, the church’s relationship to the institution of marriage is pretty troubled right now.
We do have lots of people today who grew up in a culture where there were lots of things called “marriage” that were not beautiful, giving relationships of love. Lots of people grew up in homes where their parents wore rings and seemed to do all the right stuff associated with a marriage—but there was no spirit to the relationship, no flow, no ZimZum to the marriage. If that’s your experience, then marriage isn’t a big deal.
But relationships are a big deal in our lives. Lots of people are looking for guidance in trying to share their lives with someone. And most people understand that they are spiritual beings and there is something spiritual about marriage. That’s what we’re writing about.
KRISTEN: There are so many people who’ve seen what they don’t want in marriage—but that can be a good thing, too. It can lead you to ask: What do I want?
When I was in high school, I read Bill and Lynne Hybels’ book about marriage, Fit to be Tied, and that was very powerful for me because they talk honestly about their struggles. I began to think a lot at that point about what I wanted in marriage and that was good timing for me in those dating years.
Rob and I like to tell the story about the six weeks of pre-marriage counseling we had before we got married. We went to see someone who was about an hour’s drive away. Each time as we made that drive, we would try to come up with all the topics he would ask us about—and then we’d try to talk through everything because we wanted to be the best couple ever. What was interesting about that experience was—it set the tone for our relationship. We decided, right then, that we would be intentional about our marriage.
ZIMZUM OR TZIMTZUM?
DAVID: One thing I like about this new book is that it draws on a very old idea that you’ve borrowed from medieval Jewish mysticism: tzimtzum, or as you spell it zimzum. This is an idea associated with the great mystical teacher Ha’ARI or Isaac Luria, who is one of the major figures associated with Safed in northern Israel. On two trips to Israel, I’ve been able to spend time in Safed and I’m enjoying your very contemporary approach to reviving marriage drawing upon something so steeped in Safed’s mystic traditions.
For the readers of this interview, can you explain a little bit about what you call zimzum?
ROB: For a number of years, I studied and read about the ancient Jewish masters and I stumbled across this concept. I love strange words that unlock a new depth of meaning. And, of course, I realize there is much more to this idea than what we touch upon in our book. It’s a giant idea and many traditions and teachings now stem from this.
DAVID: In the book, you describe it as “a Hebrew word used in the rabbinic tradition to talk about the creation of the world.” You explain that the term describes how God—at the very beginning of the Creation—realized that God needed “to create space that wasn’t God” so that other things could fill the universe and thrive. Sometimes this is called God’s decision to “contract” to make room for creation to thrive independently.
ROB: When I talked to Kristen about this idea, we both had this reaction: God creating space for the creation of the universe sounds like marriage–the way we create space for another person to thrive with us. We create space in our lives for someone we love and they do the same in making space for us.
DAVID: You could have subtitled this book: “A Metaphysics of Marriage.”
ROB: Yeah. And I love that word, too: metaphysics. But if we used that word, a lot of people would keep asking: What are you talking about?! We’re already introducing the unusual term “zimzum.” We’re talking about the space that two people create between them in a marriage. And this space between us has an energetic flow to it. When you first meet someone, you have your own center of gravity—your own dreams and goals. Then, as you fall in love, there is this shift in your life. Your center of gravity expands and you find yourself making space for this other person.
KRISTEN: If you stop and think about the depth of what is happening between you and your spouse, it helps you to appreciate it, to treasure it and to act for each other’s well-being in a new way.
MAKING SACRIFICES IN MARRIAGE
DAVID: Kristen, that touches on another idea in your book that may seem strangely old fashioned in our self-centered culture. You write about the power of making sacrifices in marriage.
KRISTEN: You’ll find that, when you give something to the person you love and it costs you something, it actually brings you great joy. Some people may be experiencing marriage as a constant power struggle, always trying to get out of it what you want. But, we’ve found in our marriage that, when you’re willing to let things go and you have this mutual love—you find that things come back to you.
ROB: What we are describing is someone in a marriage choosing to place the other person’s well-being ahead of your own. When that happens, it can move and inspire us. We’re still telling stories about what firefighters did on 9/11 because their sacrificial actions filled us with hope.
What we’re not talking about in this book is the old suggestion that we have to suffer in marriage. In fact, we’re turning that idea on its head. We’re saying that it can be an exhilarating move toward the other person—if you choose to put their well-being first. If you listen to people talk about their marriages, you realize that the really great marriages involve two people committing themselves to each other. We’re talking about making a conscious decision that you want to do something for the other person.
We want people to pick up the idea that there are a thousand little moves back and forth between us in our relationships, every single day. We want people to be asking: What am I doing today that will help the other person? Can I pick up something on the way home? Can I take the kids for a while so you can do that thing you really want to do? It’s a constant process—a thousand little moves.
ENDLESS MYSTERY OF MARRIAGE
DAVID: Ultimately, you write that a way to test the health of your marriage is to consider: Do you still appreciate that there is a fascinating mystery in the person to whom you’ve committed yourself? Have you turned your partner into an opaque, two-dimensional figure—or can you still appreciate the deeper mystery in your partner? My father recently died in his late 80s and, even in his final year of disability, I was amazed at how eager my parents were to spend each day together. Even in that final year, I could see them discovering new things about each other.
I think that’s one of the best lessons in your book: Rediscover the mystery in your partner.
KRISTEN: One thing that’s happened to me recently is that, with the writing and publication of this book, I’ve joined Rob’s world. Now, I’m part of all of these experiences that he’s been having for some time, but that are new to me.
DAVID: For example …
KRISTEN: Feeling the nerves before an event starts. Or the way you think about an event when it’s over. There are numerous times in recent weeks when I’ve looked at him and said: You’ve felt like this? I have a whole new appreciation for what he has experienced.
ROB: So much of how you understand marriage flows from your understanding of what it means to be human. For a lot of people there isn’t much curiosity about life or about other people. So, if you don’t have much interest in other people, then you can stop trying to learning about the other person in your marriage. You’ll find that people in thriving marriages live with the assumption that this other person in your life is endlessly interesting.
OPRAH AND ‘HELP DESK’
ROB: I’m doing what I’ve always done. I’m a pastor. And, I help people see that everything is spiritual. I do my best to let people know: Your life matters. I’m in a new setting and I love it and I get to talk to a lot of people I’ve never talked to before.
KRISTEN: They always introduce him as Pastor Rob Bell. When he speaks, he gets down to real issues. It’s very convicting and pastoral. He states the truth and he invites people to make a shift in their hearts. And then at the end he does a benediction. I agree that it’s definitely the same trajectory he’s always been on. Rob has always had a passion for communicating. And his intention has always been to help people connect with God, to remove barriers people might have. He just keeps giving and it’s really fun to see him on that bigger stage, now.
DAVID: So, let me ask you the question I’ve asked you in our many interviews over the years: Should you still be described as “evangelical”? For a while, some of your critics wanted to debate you and eventually wanted to kick you out of the evangelical camp for some of your more inclusive teaching.
ROB: I don’t follow all of that anymore. We’re really out of that world now. I would say, if “evangelical” means hope in this buoyant announcement that we all, together, can do something about the problems in this world because there has been a Resurrection—then, yes, absolutely. But if “evangelical” means a particular sub-culture that has no larger cultural relevance anymore—because it’s focused on fear—then, no, that has no interest for me anymore. If you use “evangelical” in its original meaning—proclaiming good news—then, yes.
DAVID: OK, so a good example of taking good news into the public square is your appearance on Oprah’s Help Desk series. Clips from that episode are all over the Internet. You’re good at it. We’re going to show our readers a couple of examples from that show.
Then, let me close our conversation today by asking: What do you hope readers will do with your new book?
ROB: We hope that people will see they have tremendous power to change their relationships. In a marriage, you have way more power to affect the space between you than you may think. We hope it’s empowering and illuminating. And secondly we don’t want anyone just to settle. If you’re going to spend your life with someone—don’t settle. Marriage should be great.
KRISTEN: We hope that people will rediscover the mystery in their marriages—so that their marriages will bring them great joy.