By Todd Williams
Rob Bell, the lead singer in a college band who found himself in seminary following what he describes as a “pretty standard career trajectory,” and was one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2011, is making a stop in Houston this Sunday as part of his “Everything Is Spiritual Tour.”
Having served as a pastor for the last 20 years, I was excited to get the chance to catch up with Rob as he was preparing to go on in Phoenix, the third stop on his tour.
“I love touring,” claims the father of three and the founding pastor of Mars Hill, a megachurch in Grandville, Michigan, that grew to nearly 10,000 members within 10 years. He traded that role (which he began at the age of 28) for the stages of various clubs and venues—not to mention spending time with Oprah and creating a number of TV and film projects.
He comes on the scene at a time when many churches seem to be struggling to discover their role in today’s rapidly changing society.
“I remember the first time I preached. It was like coming home. I found what it was that I came here to do. The sermon, for me, was somewhere between guerilla theater and performance art. It’s happening. It should raise questions. It should be complicated, inspiring, healing, provocative, dangerous, and subversive.”
He hasn’t always had that experience in church. Growing up in a “Christian” family (Bell is the son of Judge Robert Holmes Bell, who was nominated by Ronald Reagan to the federal judiciary and publicly confirmed by the United States Senate), Bell remembers that “going to church with my family was like, ‘grace and peace and forgiveness and love.’ These are the big things that everyone wants. So why are these things so boring?”
Finding ways to make this message relevant today has its challenges. I shared that I had googled him and found an interview in which Franklin Graham (son of the great Billy Graham) had called him a “false teacher.” Bell just giggled, remarking, “Well…bless him.”
Bell is unshaken by such things. He states he doesn’t spend the time or energy listening to what others think, remarking that it’s like white noise to him. “If you pay close enough attention to the sound of the refrigerator motor, you will hear it running.”
He believes that since our time here is short, and such a precious gift, why anyone would want to utilize precious energy “to shred someone” is beyond him.
His attitude is positive, and the message that he is sharing is clear.
While the Fuller Seminary grad knows his Bible, his theology is concrete and down-to-earth. His recent comments about the Church and marriage equality have drawn comments from even his closest evangelical friends.
Bell is compelling when he discusses relationships. “I would begin with one of the oldest aches in the bones of humanity—loneliness. If you want to get all biblical about it, the poet describing the Garden of Eden lets us know that something is wrong before anyone eats any fruit, and it is loneliness. It is natural, normal, and healthy to want to journey with a partner. So I always start with just the basics.”
He then asks, “Why would I want to deny somebody the joy of sharing their life with someone? We need a witness to our life.”
Bell explains that there are people who have a gift for giving themselves to the world without a partner. Bell told of a friend, a nun, who commented to him that, “I have chosen to give myself of many to the One, while you have chosen to give yourself through One of the many.”
He went on to challenge those who claim that the Bible is very clear about the “ideal” being one man to one woman. “Wait, wait…is that the ideal? Because some have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom. It makes me laugh. It’s as if Jesus says that there is an ideal beyond the ideal. ‘One man to one woman’ is the ideal unless you read what Jesus says about renouncing marriage.
“You can’t use the Bible—a library of books written across three continents and 1,500 years—and make a clear and concise rule book on human sexuality, which is one of the most mysterious dimensions of our being.
“And secondly, I am for monogamy, fidelity, commitment, and sacrificial love. I am for those things. I think the world needs more of these, and not less. Who would not want more love, fidelity, and sacrificial love in the world? Are you against these things?”
When asked about what the Church has to say about popular culture, he responded, “Sometimes cultural consciousness is ahead of the Church, and sometimes the Church leads the way.”
But more importantly, Bell believes that humanity’s first responsibility is spelled out by the poet who wrote the Book of Genesis. “The poet wants us to know that as humans, we are responsible for the care of the earth. We are to care for it well.
“The Church in many places has not led the charge to take better care of our environment. Sometimes it’s shocking [for churches to realize they are being left behind].”
He went on to explain: “The Spirit is moving through our culture, and you are behind the movement of the Spirit. If you remain quiet, the rocks will cry out…The prophets will come from [Hollywood]. The prophets will come from rap—you know what I mean? There will be those who rise up and speak the truth. They will take the reins on the issue. It may be you, or it may not. That’s hard for some Christians to admit.”
As an openly gay clergyperson who has been married for the past year, I shared with Bell that faith cannot be a “stay-how-you-are” undertaking. The recent court decision on marriage equality is about innovation.
Bell agreed: “The Christian tradition is one of innovation. When people are like, ‘That’s not what we have done before,’ I want to ask, ‘Have you read the Book of Acts?’ It is a book of innovation. Change is the tradition. That will always involve leaving behind the old and embracing the new. So this idea that we are not changing—really? Because at that point, you are at odds with your own tradition. And that’s not smart.”
Bell’s understanding of loneliness, and what he sees can be gained through relationships, is that “God does not want us to be lonely.”
“One of the deepest human desires is to share your life with another person. To have a partner for the journey. This goes back; think about it. Think of how many movies where that’s the point. Have you ever seen a movie where the point is promiscuity? Where the main character states, ‘I’m just tired of having a single relationship. I want to have a lot of shallow, superficial relationships.’ No, every movie starts with someone who’s all over the place, and then they meet this one person, and the viewer is asking, ‘When will they realize they are meant to be together?’ It is the story that we never stop telling ourselves.”
With clergy being put to the test about how to approach same-sex couples wanting to marry, I ask Bell if this is a make-or-break moment for many churches.
“Absolutely. Look at the statistics now—what is it? Over 80 percent of people under the age of 30 are for same-sex marriage? It’s just an inevitable wave of history, and the really sad thing is that those who are fighting gravity—fighting the movement of history—will continue to lose their cultural voice.”
Turning to the recent race-related violence in Charleston and other areas of the country, I asked Bell if he thought the Church would ever become color-blind. He responded that racial unrest is a larger cultural question. “I don’t think that the race issues in Baltimore and Ferguson are unique to the Church. We have an ongoing problem that goes beyond any one religion, tradition, or perspective. It’s still very heartbreaking.”
Years ago, I had shared that what one generation starts to accept, the next generation will embrace. With this reference in mind, I asked about what he has seen in the attitudes of his own children. “They have a whole different mindset. It’s something to see them acknowledge that this is the world and this is how it is.”
With all of these dramatic changes, I then asked Bell what Christianity has to offer the world. He was quick to respond: “I couldn’t care less about Christianity. I’m all about Jesus.” This unorthodox view may be the reason his critics like to take aim at him.
“You won’t find me talking about Christianity because it is a big, bulky group of assumptions and beliefs. But I find Jesus absolutely riveting and compelling. I think that there is something happening in the universe. I think that there is something moving through the universe, pulling us all into a better tomorrow. I think that there is a mystery hidden in death and rebirth. In the eucharistic mystery of bread and wine. ‘This is my body and this is my blood, broken and poured out for you.’ What would Jesus think? I think he would absolutely throw up over the pointless debates between religions. ‘What are you doing debating Hinduism? That’s the dumbest thing ever. I came to talk to you about what it means to be human, and you are all human, correct? What you all have in common is greater than what you have that is different.’
“People talk about relevance, or trying to make Christianity anything. There is a mystery within the Incarnation. There is a death-and-rebirth mystery hidden in the very fabric of creation. Jesus lived it, revealed it, invites us into it. That will never be irrelevant. That will always be right there on the pulse of where we are all at.”
I shared with Bell that for years I have focused on looking for ways to make the Church relevant in today’s society, and to find ways to bring scripture to life. He responded: “If you are looking for ‘relevance,’ then you are already asking the wrong questions.
“In the Book of Gensis, it’s Jacob waking up along the side of the road and discovering that God was in this place and he wasn’t aware of it. I would suggest that we are all waking up—we are all waking up, and some people are wondering. Some people are more awake. The whole story is about us waking up.”
“Any [stilted talk about] this-religion-versus-that-religion—I’m already bored. But waking up? Now that’s interesting—that is interesting!”
What: Rob Bell’s “Everything Is Spiritual Tour”
When: July 12, 8:30 p.m. (doors open at 7:30 p.m.)
Where: Cullen Performance Hall at the University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun Road
Details: Tickets available at robbell.com/portfolio/tour.
Todd Williams holds a Master of Divinity degree from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He has served several churches, and presently is the administrator of Hospice Care Team, Inc. Williams and his husband, Quincy, live in Texas City, TX.