ON THE DAY ‘TIME’ magazine named Rob Bell one of the 100 most influential people in the world—ranking him with Warren Buffett, President Obama and Duchess Kate Middleton—a big red target splashed across his forehead.
Journalists swarmed, rolling out the C-word (controversial). “Christian” writers had a field day, incensed that he was the only Protestant on the list (New York Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan also made the 100). However, the acid that furious “Christian” commentators tried to throw in Rob’s face never came within 100 miles of his new home. And, here is the first fact today: Rob does, indeed, turn the other cheek. He doesn’t even glance at online commentaries about him.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm has interviewed Rob many times—dating back to Rob’s first releases in the mega-popular Nooma movie series. Upon the release of Rob’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob sat down for a lengthy telephone interview sorting fact from fiction.
INTERVIEW WITH ROB BELL
DAVID: People call you lots of things these days! I’m sure you’ve heard names used by fans and foes. Tell us how you describe yourself. A writer? An activist? A preacher? What?
ROB: I will always be writing. I finished this new book and there are three or four other books already in the works. Then, I do a lot of pastoring—specifically with friends and with people I have come to know who are in tight spots and need someone to talk with about things they can’t discuss with other people. So, I am a pastor in that way to a lot of people.
DAVID: OK, when you say pastor, are you on staff at a church now?
ROB: No. I do slip into a few places to hear good preaching. I don’t pastor a church—but we do have an extraordinary circle of friends who live in this area and we do have unique and special gatherings, sometimes over a meal.
DAVID: Let me push you further on this point, because it’s one of the most confusing questions for many journalists—and your critics have a field day with it. Let me cite probably the most prominent critic: the noted historian of American religion Martin Marty. I’ve known Marty professionally for many years and I know that he bats out his columns almost as stream of consciousness. In December, Marty fired off an infamous column, slamming you for going off on your own.
Here are Marty’s final lines, warning you about straying too far from the institutional church: “The inherited forms, though in need of revision, in any case often speak with an authenticity that demands some patience, while the quickly formulated and celebrity-endorsed versions may go as they came. One hopes Rob Bell sticks with some promising inventions long enough for him and us to see that while ‘Love wins’—‘new’ is less likely to.”
ROB: First, I don’t know Martin Marty. I haven’t read him. I’ve never met him. And, I doubt that he knows much about me. We each have our path and our calling. I certainly try to keep wise people around me—and to walk with them through what we’re sensing and feeling as we make decisions. Every day, I do my best to give my best to the world. So, for Martin Marty to make some random judgments about me and send them out into the world in a column like that—well, the main thing I need to explain is: It’s 100 percent irrelevant to me.
DAVID: I’ve known you and your family for years, Rob, and I know that’s not a pose. It’s a fact: You read widely in books by scholars and literary lights of your choosing—but you don’t read 99 percent of the stuff written about you online. Still, let me press you on this because what Marty is asking is a legitimate question. Are you a pastor? For a lot of Americans, a “pastor” looks like a man or woman heading a church.
ROB: OK, you are raising a great point. But why not ask that question of Billy Graham? We think of him as a pastor, don’t we?
DAVID: Sure, that’s a good model to raise. Plus, in his heyday Billy Graham, like you, was a very popular moviemaker. Now, people think of Graham as a friend to presidents and an evangelist in huge arenas. But, in his prime, Graham used every form of media available to him—including making lots of movies. I know, from past interviews, that you aren’t claiming to be the next Billy Graham, though. So, again, the question: Give us a title for your work now?
ROB: I’m a pastor. I describe myself as a pastor who makes things—whether it’s creating experiences or books or new things that will be available to people in the future. I’m a pastor and I create things and I will keep creating new things: the next thing and the next thing after that. If I am able to complete some of the things I’m working on now, these will be beautiful things that will help people.
I have learned the hard way that I simply cannot pay attention to people like Martin Marty writing some random column about me without knowing anything about my work or me. I can say this: I don’t know him; he doesn’t know me. I’m just a pastor who goes about my work creating things to help people.
ROB BELL FACT or FICTION:
KICKED OUT OF MARS HILL FOR DENYING HELL?
DAVID: This line of questioning is relevant to your new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, because the central message of the book is: “We’re in the midst of a massive rethink, a movement is gaining momentum, a moment in history is in the making: there is a growing sense among a growing number of people that when it comes to God, we’re at the end of one era and the start of another, an entire mode of understanding and talking about God dying as something new is being birthed.”
Sorting fact from fiction in the popular conception of your work—that’s really a part of what this new book is all about. Shedding the old, confusing, unhelpful myths. This new book isn’t autobiographical about your journey to the West Coast, but it certainly is about how confusing the old language is in describing your new work.
This leads me to ask about the troubling legacy of that big New Yorker magazine profile by Kalefa Sanneh. If readers look for the profile online, they won’t find it—it’s only available to New Yorker subscribers—but the summary the New Yorker has posted says: “Bell’s life can look like a cautionary tale: his desire to question the doctrine of Hell led to his departure from the church he built.”
Fact or fiction?
ROB: First, I want to say that Kalefa is an amazing writer and I thoroughly enjoyed the time I got to spend with him. I’m a fan of his work. I think he wrote a great piece. But, there was a misquote of Kristen that caused distress.
DAVID: Right. And this actually took a lot of us who’ve known your work for years by surprise. Frankly, I would have guessed you’d have touched off the biggest firestorm by becoming inclusive of gay Christians, but the biggest controversy actually erupted over a different issue. It was touched off by a claim you made in your 2012 book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. You dared to write that non-Christians won’t burn in the fires of Hell. A lot of things hit all at once: TIME magazine appeared in April 2012 with the 100 list, seeming to snub all other Protestant leaders; Love Wins debuted a couple of months later. Your critics were out for blood.
You already had planned to move West. Then, in November, the New Yorker profile appeared with the quote that you say Kalefa presented in the wrong way to readers. In that quote, your wife Kristen said that after Love Wins debuted: “There was a cost. And part of the cost was, we couldn’t keep doing what we were doing at Mars Hill.” I’ve researched the flow of news stories after that and this got boiled down to: Rob Bell was kicked out of Mars Hill for denying Hell. That version now shows up a lot of places online. Martin Marty furthered that myth in his December column.
ROB: If people think that I had to leave Mars Hill because of the response to Love Wins—that is just categorically not true. I left Mars Hill because of a sense of calling to come to California to work on these new projects here.
In fact, Mars Hill could not have been more supportive! Mars Hill was amazing! They had multiple book-launch parties for that book. They were incredible. I assume that there were some people at Mars Hill who weren’t happy about that book, but there were always people leaving and coming—that’s what Mars Hill always has been. People come and people go. It’s that kind of ministry.
DAVID: Well, I checked further and I think the best evidence is that Mars Hill still credits as the “Founding Pastor and Pastor Emeritus.” They’re still proud of you. So, the story of you being forced out—which is the way the story is told in a lot of places online—is fiction.
ROB: Mars Hill was great. Mars Hill’s leadership was great. They couldn’t have been better. Why did I move to California? Because I had a chance to produce a new kind of television show that still is progressing along fabulously.
ROB BELL: WAS HIS TV SHOW CANCELLED?
DAVID: Some online stories correctly explain your TV productions—and some have mixed up the details. It’s easy to get this incorrect version: Rob Bell moved to Hollywood to produce a TV show that flopped. So, let’s sort it out for readers?
ROB: I have been involved in two television projects. The first one is still progressing, as I said. But, since I was coming out here to work with Carlton Cuse from the TV series LOST on one production—we also produced scripts for a series based on a novel that I wrote but never published. The novel and the TV series have the title Stronger. It would be a dramatic series about a main character named Tom Stronger with some spiritual themes in it—but we wrote it as a regular TV series with plots and actors and so on. The ABC network bought it, like they buy all sorts of things, and we did some work on it last year—then it was not green lighted to air as a network pilot. Like all sorts of TV projects out here, it’s floating along over there on hold.
But I didn’t move to California to write and produce Stronger. I moved out here to work with Carlton on a different TV show—one we’re still working on.
DAVID: Lots of writers have tried to describe this main TV project as a kind of TV talk show about religion, spirituality and values. From what you’ve told me, I’m envisioning a next-generation Bill Moyers—like the landmark series he did with Joseph Campbell or that superb series Bill did on Genesis.
ROB: Well, I do see this project as winding up something like Bill Moyers. But, if we succeed, it will be a new kind of TV: Think of it as Bill Moyers meets Ellen meets Colbert meets a TED conference meets an AA meeting. Throw all those into a blender and push the button! (laughs) You’ve got to admit: That would be new—right?
DAVID: Yes. If you can pull it off.
ROB: That’s the point. It’s hard work. It would be a real game changer. That was worth the chance we took in moving to California. Think about this: In our culture right now, when people gather for Thanksgiving dinner two topics will get everybody talking: politics and religion. But, on television right now, you can only find one of those topics discussed all the time—politics. Religion is different. Sure, there’s a lot of religion on television, but there is virtually no intelligent discussion of religion on the major networks. Carlton and I still are working on that idea. That’s the idea—the real vision—that led me from Mars Hill to California.
We need television that explores questions about what really motivates people in our world today: Why do we get out of bed every day? What gives us hope? What motivates us? Where do we find our hopes? These are religious and spiritual questions. This is well worth the move West.
ROB BELL: HOW SHOULD WE TALK ABOUT GOD?
DAVID: OK, now we’ve come full circle and it’s clear where your new book falls in the overall arc of your work. Those questions you just listed? Those are the questions that, as a journalist covering religion, I’ve always told readers are the really essential spiritual questions of our era. You can debate the fine points of theology all you want, but what truly matters? You just listed the questions.
ROB: When I think of people reading this kind of book—or looking for the kind of television I’m trying to produce—I see a huge variety of faces. So many snapshots flash through my brain of people I’ve met everywhere I’ve traveled. What they understand—and what we too easily can forget in churches—is that people are interested in spirituality and religion because they already have sensed the sacred around them. They feel something when a child is born, or they hear an amazing piece of music, or they volunteer to help others and experience a common source of love and community. They experience these things, then they go seeking more of it—and they may walk in the door of a church—but in too many cases, they don’t find what they already know is the sacred part of life within the church. So, they walk back out the door.
DAVID: I know from many years of religion reporting that rabbis often make this point. I’ve talked with a number of Jewish leaders about prayer and personal signs that God is with us—and they will talk about feeling God. Often, they will list the same kinds of examples you’ve just listed. Evangelical preachers tend to give the impression that God is much more tangible in a “close personal relationship.” Your book actually begins with Jacob thousands of years ago in the Bible waking up in the wilderness and reporting: “Surely God was in this place, and I—I wasn’t aware of it.”
ROB: That’s why I don’t start this new book with dogma and doctrine. I start with the experiences of real people. I’ve learned a lot from Richard Rohr. The great power I find in his writing is that he often puts into words things that I’ve already experienced but haven’t been able to describe. In this new book, like Rohr, I start with experiences. Have you ever had this feeling? This new book really is about the fragility of the human experience. We are soul and bone. We are capable of greatness and we have the capacity to be prophetic. We may have experiences in life that open our hearts as wide as the ocean. But—we also have the capacity to be very small, petty and negative.
DAVID: In a way, you’re trying to restart people’s hearts in this new book. You’re trying to expand our religious imagination. That’s why the whole first section of your book is about the head-scratching, eye-popping, gee-whiz wonders that science is revealing about God’s creation, the universe. Here’s a passage: “It’s all—let’s use a very specific word here—miraculous. You, me, love, quarks, sex, chocolate, the speed of light—it’s all miraculous, and it always has been. When people argue for the existence of a supernatural God who is somewhere else and reaches in on occasion to do a miracle or two, they’re skipping over the very world that surrounds us and courses through our veins and lights up the sky right here, right now. We live in a very, very weird universe.”
One could describe this book as: A Psalmist meets Douglas Adams.
ROB: I’m trying to alert people to the full range of human experiences in which we find God. We find God in the full spectrum of human emotion from joy to tragedy from triumph to heartache. God is found in all of this. As a pastor, I’ve found that many people have been taught to believe that God is only in good things. Then, this leaves people with lots of questions when bad things happen. But across the fullness of Jewish and Christian traditions, we learn that God is in both the valleys and the mountaintops. For a lot of folks, organized religion becomes this system that provides a weekly God hit. Like my friend Peter Rollins, I believe that God is much bigger than the weekly God hit most churches give people.
ROB BELL: ARE YOU A CHRISTIAN?
DAVID: We just featured an interview with Peter Rollins. And I know that he describes himself as a Christian, but not like a lot of other people use the word “Christian.” So, let me ask that question of you. It’s obvious in reading your new book that you write as a Christian, but some of your evangelical foes want to question this point. Are you a Christian?
ROB: Yes. As a Christian I am part of an ancient tradition that overflows with wisdom and insight about what it means to be human—and to experience, to know and to live with God and each other. I’m trying to introduce people to this tradition because it’s beautiful and it brings all sorts of life to people who really need it. I’ve always believed that what I am doing is helping people today to tap into this ancient tradition.
DAVID: A lot of your critics get hung up on points that you’re now taking in stride in your writing and other forms of teaching. Your foes don’t like it that you welcome gay Christians. Popular culture seems to be swinging your way this year. I’ve lost track of how many executives in top American companies and how many Republicans have now gone on record as supporting civil rights for gay Americans. But your critics seem to be stuck on other points as well. We should point out that this new book is fully supportive of women’s leadership in the church, right?
ROB: The world is better when people are treated equally. A lot of women remain in religious traditions that won’t free them to serve in leadership. I say: We are standing in their way and we shouldn’t be. Women can lead us. They have led us. This has always been obvious to me. In the book, I tell the story of a woman with two master’s degrees who is sitting in her church when she hears the preacher tell the congregation that God doesn’t want women in leadership. Think about that! And it happens all the time. It’s so obvious to me that women should equally share in leadership.
DAVID: Same question on religion and science. You write that the two should go together hand in hand on our spiritual journey. A lot of your critics are still hung up on thinking that it’s got to be: Science vs. Religion.
ROB: Science can give us back our sense of wonder and awe. It was Annie Dillard who told us that a cathedral and a physics lab are both places where we hear God saying: Hello! When I hear scientists talk about their research today, I can’t help but feel awe. If we are people of faith who really believe in God as Creator, then this world ought to be a primary place of wonder.
DAVID: Well, last question: I didn’t forget your initial comment about other books in the works. Can you give us a preview?
ROB: My wife and I are writing a book about marriage and that’s been an incredible experience. I will say this: She has lots of wisdom! We’re both thrilled with the content we’re putting together for that book. So, you will see a book from us on marriage.
And, as you just pointed out, I’m fascinated with science and physical space. I’ve read a lot about architecture and the ways physical space affects our spirits. This is a discipline that’s been undervalued for far too long in the West. I want to help people keep finding new ways that our world can be a more life-giving place.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.