An Evening with Rob Bell

The foreword to I Sold My Soul on eBay is written by a pastor named Rob Bell.

If you’re an atheist, maybe you haven’t heard of him. I hadn’t until last summer.

Same deal if you’re a Christian over 30.

But in the past several months, I’ve run into a large number of younger Christians who love this guy. Their ears perk up at the sound of his name. You know that feeling of instant connection you get as an atheist when you talk to a stranger and realize the other person loves Pharyngula, too?

It’s like that. But for Jesus people.

(Incidentally, I was telling my sister about Rob and sent her a link to his Wikipedia entry. Her response was simply, “He’s hot.” She said the same thing about Kirk Cameron. This is why my sister and I don’t get into religious debates…)

It’s hard to describe what Rob does that’s so interesting, even after you’ve experienced it. But after you’ve heard him talk about faith, you wonder why your own church isn’t like his.

The New York Times wrote a positive article about him last summer during his “Everything is Spiritual” tour. (By the way, if you’re an atheist and you’re wondering why you should read on, just do it.)

Mr. Bell hopped onto the stage.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and earth,” he began, without introduction. “Now, it’s a very old book.”

This, Mr. Bell believes, is what church can look like. For the hall’s bartenders, it was the start of a slow night.

Mr. Bell, 35, is the pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, an independent evangelical congregation in Grandville, Mich., outside Grand Rapids. The church has a weekly attendance of 10,000 and meets in a former mall.

His performance here was the first in a monthlong tour of 21 cities — joined by one roadie, a whiteboard and his wife and two sons — taking him to venues usually presenting rock bands. His 100-minute talk, billed as “Everything Is Spiritual,” features no music or film clips, no sound other than his voice and the squeak of his marker, filling the board with Hebrew characters, diagrams, biblical interpretation and numbers.

… Alex Beh, 23, who lined up an hour early for the performance, said it had left him exhilarated.

“It’s more like Jesus’ teaching than the church’s teaching,” said Mr. Beh, adding: “I loved that there was beer available. The church needs to go more in that direction, more culture-friendly rather than sectarian, or dividing people.”

“He’s figured out how to convey basic Christian doctrine in a highly skeptical culture,” said Quentin J. Schultze, a professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, who has studied Mr. Bell. “He’s very challenging in his sermons. There’s no appeal for money. You get a sense of intellectual substance and depth of the faith.”

Anyway, Rob’s new book is out and he finished the last leg of his book tour in Chicago last night, so I went to go see him. The book is called Sex God (you won’t see James Dobson publishing anything like that, for sure).

There was no lecture. Rob just got on stage and just did a Q & A session. Many of the questions pertained to religious doctrine and church advice, and weren’t terribly exciting, but a few (very, very paraphrased) comments stood out… (as always, I need to say I didn’t have a tape recorder, so don’t quote me. And I’m not writing everything that was said, only what stood out to me.)

  • Rob (when he stepped on stage): So… whaddya wanna talk about?
    Whole Audience: SEX!

  • Question: How can we find a community like [Rob's church] Mars Hill?
    Rob (sarcastically): I recommend watching Christian cable… you get this deep, authentic relationship.

  • Rob: The church is not a building. It’s your community. It’s who you call when you find out you have cancer or miscarry a baby… [He said more things like this, but interestingly enough, didn't mention anything about Jesus or the Bible.]

  • Question: What do you think about Free Will versus Destiny?
    Whole Audience: Oooooh…. [laughter]
    Rob: Whenever people ask this, I just want to say: What seminary are you from?

  • Question: What do you think about homosexuality in the church?
    Rob: First of all, to those who speak against it, if you don’t have gay friends, just shut up about the issue… I have many Christian gay friends… I spend a lot of time apologizing for what other people have said to them… there are five verses in the Bible dealing with homosexuality, and those verses don’t include Jesus… they also don’t deal with orientation or monogamous gay unions.

  • Question: What do you think about speaking in tongues?
    Rob: I’ve never heard anyone speak in tongues about something that wasn’t already in Scripture.

A couple other points:

When asked about the Eucharist, Rob talked about the importance of being a living Eucharist, giving our body and blood (metaphorically) to those around us. It’s something many people already do (atheists included) and we could all use more of it.

There was also a question on what Rob thought about criticism against him (he gets his share from other Christians). His response might well have been said by Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris when answering attacks against their writings:

For every [person] you offend, there might be a thousand hearing it for the first time.

Good advice.

After the Q & A was over, Rob showed the latest NOOMA video (NOOMAs are hugely popular short films about spiritual topics, featuring Rob). It opened with Rob talking about other belief systems predating Christianity. These other beliefs also had prophets who died and then ascended to Heaven. These prophets were also mediators between God and the people. So, when Christianity came about, what made it so special?

I heard that question and waited for an answer. Essentially, all I got was that those other belief systems made you believe with brute force. Christianity wanted you to believe through love. (Crusades and the like notwithstanding.) It wasn’t a compelling argument for me, but then again, the purpose of the video wasn’t to answer that particular question. If you want to see another example of a NOOMA, go here and click on “Play 001 Rain film.”


[tags]atheist, atheism, I Sold My Soul on eBay, pastor, Rob Bell, Christian, Pharyngula, Jesus, Wikipedia, Kirk Cameron, church, New York Times, Everything is Spiritual, God, Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, Michigan, Grand Rapids, Alex Beh, Quentin J. Schultze, Calvin College, Sex God, James Dobson, homosexuality, gay, lesbian, Eucharist, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, NOOMA[/tags]

  • The Unbrainwashed

    Hemant,
    I’m thankful that your blog keeps me up to date on atheist current events, but I’m dismayed regarding the fervor of your “friendly” atheist stance. I begrudgingly admit that mocking the faithful might not be the best means to dispel conflict. However, you’re entirely too nice and not forthright enough in your attacks on religious belief. You also seem to cozy up with the delusional too much and aren’t willing to engage them or challenge their inane ideas. Sarcastic comments like the ones you often provide don’t force the religious to examine their faith. Maybe your approach is more conducive to theist vs. atheist peace. On the other hand, the approach of Dawkins and Harris is not only the best way to combat and eventually discard theism, but also much more intellectually stimulating.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Unbrainwashed….

    Where’s YOUR blog with YOUR approach?

    I mean, what’s the deal telling someone else their approach should be different? You be the atheist you want to be, and set that example for us.

    We’re not all here to be Dawkinses and Harrises. What would be the point of all being wanna-be Dawkins clones?

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Unbrainwashed… I hope you keep doing things your way. I hope you keep seeing this as a battle to be won, and theists as delusional idiots to be attacked.

    Why? Because I am a Christian, and I know that as long as you keep utilizing those kinds of methods you will never actually convince any Christians to actually switch sides. You will never actually make a difference at winning the war you are so keen to fight. So if you want to persuade me to stay just as I am and not really take your views seriously, keep right on doing what you’re doing.

    On the other hand, Hemant’s friendly atheist approach has done more for increasing my respect for atheism this past year than people like Dawkins, Harris or yourself could ever do. Hemant could almost convert me. Your approach never could.

    Just FYI

  • http://nothing2special.blogspot.com JCB

    I happen to stumble upon your writing. I appreciate your perspective.

    The “conversational intolerance” described by Dawkins and Harris leaves me unconvinced. I agree that all topics should be subject to rationale in public debate. Religion should not be off limits. But I find challenging people to evaluate their faith works only after you have earned their trust and respect, even then discourse must remain civil.

    There is a fine line between putting someone on the defensive and encouraging rational thought. Your perspective is encouraging Friendly Atheist.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Back on topic… I have to admit that I am a huge fan of Rob Bell’s. I deeply resonate with his approach to faith, and I love his communication style.

    Though if you’re interested in learning more about his approach, I’d recommend starting with “Velvet Elvis”, not “Sex God”.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    In response to the above comments: The problem with merely accepting irrational religious beliefs is the implication of these actions. If atheists all acted like Hemant, then the religious will not have a rational mirror with which to examine their viewpoints. We can’t be mere friendly atheists and allow the religious to continue in their delusion. The rational amongst us must take a hardline approach because faith is such a powerful force. I’m not advocating that we go on a physical crusade, but rather an intellectual one where we don’t simply accept “faith” as a viable conclusion. Yes the religious can lead good lives and can be very productive members of society, even scientific communities. But, the false reality that the religious covet is an enveloping one which can only be dismissed through an unabashedly critical look at one’s beliefs. Hemant’s approach is simply an amicable discussion that doesn’t really accomplish anything in the way of ridding the world of superstition. Atheists can’t sit there and allow the theist to spew inanity without confronting it.

    Specifically to Mike C: Of course you enjoy your discourse with Hemant moreso than the honesty provided by Dawkins and Harris. Hemant doesn’t challenge you. He doesn’t force you to approach your faith in a rational manner. He tries to reach an understanding with you. This is calming, you feel safe in his softball approach. You don’t have to get on your battle gear and engage in any in-depth thought. Dawkins and Harris depict your faith as it is: a delusion perpetuated by childhood indoctrination.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    Oh and one more thing: I highly doubt your claim that Hemant could ever change your mind. That’s the most powerful driving force behind religious belief. It’s almost impervious to reason when one is so deeply entrenched in its opium. You will probably never switch sides because you always have the excuse of faith to fall back on. You will never look at your faith in an impartial manner because you simply believe with no evidence to justify that belief. This is the epitome of an unfalsifiable idea.

  • Ian Matthews

    The problem with merely accepting irrational religious beliefs is the implication of these actions. If atheists all acted like Hemant, then the religious will not have a rational mirror with which to examine their viewpoints.

    This is poor philiosophy and very sloppy. I could as easily argue that I refuse to accept irrational materialist beliefs, that materialism is based on assumptions and lack of proof rather than rationality.

    You will never look at your faith in an impartial manner because you simply believe with no evidence to justify that belief.

    You have no evidence for atheism either. Surely the only logical conclusion based on empirical evidence alone is agnostocism.

    The way atheism gets around this is to define the ‘rules’ of science (e.g. only that which can be seen is evidence) and then dismiss anything which cannot follow the ‘rules’.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Several years ago (almost a decade now actually) I went through a period of critically looking at my faith and seriously considered atheism as a viable option. For a number of reasons, which are unimportant to this discussion, I rejected atheism as an insufficient explanation for all of my questions and experiences. I hadn’t really gone back to give it much further thought since then.

    However, last year Jim Henderson called me to see if he could send Hemant to our church. Meeting Hemant and being very impressed with his friendly atheist approach led to my being drawn further into conversation with even more friendly atheists over at the Off the Map message boards – people like Siamang, TXAtheist, Helen, Eliza, Karen, Wendell and others (sorry if I left anyone out). We have gotten into many intense, in-depth debates and no one has pulled any punches or pussy footed around the issues.

    Through this dialogue I have come to have even greater respect for the atheist perspective, and while I still find it insufficient in some ways and remain unconvinced, I have come a lot closer to seeing it as a viable alternative if I were to ever find good enough reason to abandon my belief in God. I have discovered where some of my former reasons for rejecting atheism were misguided or based on incorrect assumptions about atheist beliefs. And I have come to see where some of my own religious beliefs were in inadequate as well.

    If Hemant had come to us looking for a fight and with hostility and disdain toward people of faith, I would never had any desire to go any further into conversation with him or these others. I find this true on the other side of the line as well. Street corner fundamentalist Christians with their bullhorns and fire and brimstone sermons win very few converts. But a Rob Bell, who treats people with love and respect and encourages questions, doubts, and listening to differing viewpoints, can eventually win over a lot of people to his way of thinking.

    Rob has a saying that springs from his religious faith: “Love Wins”. That is true, I think, for atheists as well as Christians.

    Peace,

    -Mike

  • Logos

    Love may win, but for a lot of people hate is just more fun.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Unfortunately that is often true no matter which religion/worldview you hail from.

  • Logos

    you are correct sir!

  • False Prophet

    Ian Matthews said,
    You have no evidence for atheism either. Surely the only logical conclusion based on empirical evidence alone is agnostocism.

    Now who’s doing poor philosophy? Theism is the position making the extraordinary claim; it is the position that requires evidence to support it. If I told you I saw an unicorn in my backyard, and I couldn’t produce a shred of empirical evidence to the point, your logical conclusion would not be agnosticism–you’d think I was mad.

    An honest atheist is agnostic to the extent that he will be open to the (exceptionally slim) possibility that he can be shown evidence that he is wrong. But then you would have to say you’re agnostic towards unicorns and fairies and elves and ghosts. People say “I don’t believe in unicorns”, not “Unless evidence is presented to me that unicorns exist, I reject their existence.” It is the same with atheism.

    The way atheism gets around this is to define the ‘rules’ of science (e.g. only that which can be seen is evidence) and then dismiss anything which cannot follow the ‘rules’.

    That’s not the “rules of science” that’s just plain common sense. If someone told you a flying saucer landed in their backyard you would demand some kind of evidence. Why is it suddenly so different when we’re required to accept that some sky fairy embodied a human being, preached a bunch of stuff that most people had heard before, and got himself killed in a spectacularly brutal fashion so he could go back into the sky?

    I have a lot more respect for the theist who admits faith can’t be explained rationally than this kind of illogical gymnastics.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    I’ve said before that if God exists, then it’s frightfully important that the best theologians in the world really grapple with the best arguments out there for atheism.

    The world needs deeper, more critically thinking theologians, unless God wants more atheists!

    But honestly, I think real doubts about what you believe are part of a rich examination of WHATEVER beliefs you have. Critical thinking is important, and I’m not restricting that perscription just to people who disagree with me.

  • Ian Matthews

    Now who’s doing poor philosophy? Theism is the position making the extraordinary claim; it is the position that requires evidence to support it. If I told you I saw an unicorn in my backyard, and I couldn’t produce a shred of empirical evidence to the point, your logical conclusion would not be agnosticism–you’d think I was mad.

    You are only claiming that Theism is extraordinary because of your definition of ordinary. You make empricism the norm and then proclaim everything outside of this as crazy. The aim is not to prove anything but to test a theory, so if the basis of science is to dispove a theory through evidence then show me how you have disproved the theory of non-materialism?

    An honest atheist is agnostic to the extent that he will be open to the (exceptionally slim) possibility that he can be shown evidence that he is wrong. But then you would have to say you’re agnostic towards unicorns and fairies and elves and ghosts. People say “I don’t believe in unicorns”, not “Unless evidence is presented to me that unicorns exist, I reject their existence.” It is the same with atheism.

    Even with your prejudicial comment above, I still disagree. I neither believe or disbelieve in elves – so maybe I am agnostic on this. However, this is still basing existence and truth on a materialist worldview which I reject. The world existed before it and will exist after it. This whole philosophical idea of evidence and truth is such a modernist position and is, frankly, a passing fad that is already fading. I suggest Alistair McGrath’s ‘The Twilight of Atheism’.

    That’s not the “rules of science” that’s just plain common sense. If someone told you a flying saucer landed in their backyard you would demand some kind of evidence. Why is it suddenly so different when we’re required to accept that some sky fairy embodied a human being, preached a bunch of stuff that most people had heard before, and got himself killed in a spectacularly brutal fashion so he could go back into the sky?

    You miss your own circular logic: ‘only empirical evidence is valid; only what is empirically verifiable is true’.

    I have a lot more respect for the theist who admits faith can’t be explained rationally than this kind of illogical gymnastics.

    My point is that the very basis of rationalism is faulty so is not a good basis for a non-belief in God.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    This whole philosophical idea of evidence and truth is such a modernist position and is, frankly, a passing fad that is already fading.

    Yeah, that whole “reality” thing is so passé.

    Chase fads all you want, Ian. I’ll follow the evidence where it leads.

  • Ian Matthews

    Yeah, that whole “reality” thing is so passé.

    Chase fads all you want, Ian. I’ll follow the evidence where it leads

    You are assuming that Rationalism = Reality. It is nothing to do with reality – it is a philosophical system that defines reality a certain way (empiricism). Truth has been discovered in many different ways before this became the dominant force, and it will be discovered in many other ways as the age of modernism passes. It is nothing to do with chasing fads – although you are simply desperately hanging on to one ‘fad’ yourself.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    You are assuming that Rationalism = Reality.

    Well, that depends on how you define both terms.

    it is a philosophical system that defines reality a certain way (empiricism).

    I’m not certain that I do that. I merely exist in the world around me. I eat when hungry, I sleep when tired. When the baby cries, I give her a bottle. I don’t pray to invisible magical things to make the baby stop crying. I’m not denying that invisible magical things exist, it’s just that I don’t know any way to interact with them. And the baby’s crying, and I’m busy, and the bottle has always worked in the past…

    Truth has been discovered in many different ways before this became the dominant force, and it will be discovered in many other ways as the age of modernism passes.

    So you now have the ability to see into the future? You really know that in the future there will be new and different ways to discover truth? By what method have you divined the future, and how do you know that it’s an accurate prediction?

    How do you define truth, by the way? How do you know when you’ve gotten hold of a “Truth”? How do you tell it from a falsehood?

    It is nothing to do with chasing fads – although you are simply desperately hanging on to one ‘fad’ yourself.

    And what is your method for determining true methods for finding truths? How do you know you’ve gotten hold of a good true method and not a fad?

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  • Matt Channing

    Unbrainwashed–

    I just love it when arrogant know-it-alls scream in my face.

    I became a Quaker largely because of the emphasis placed on the importance of silent reflection. I had left my original church because I had thought I had had enough of Christianity. I became an atheist and found that many of the character traits I found unsavory in the churchgoing people I knew were present in atheist circles as well.

    For me, the approach was everything. My worldview is too contradictory and complex to be shouted through a bullhorn.

    I find Hemant’s approach accessible, humble and respectful. He seems to understand, the way a few Christians are starting to see, that people like to have conversations, rather than be told, talked at, talked down to or shouted at.

    It’s hard not to read Dawkin’s and Harris’s criticisms of the practices and behavior of people of faith and not say “Well, he’s got me there…”, but Hemant seems to be a lot more kind, and a lot more compassionate. It’s a discussion for him, not a monologue or a proclamation.

    He and I may disagree, but I get the feeling he doesn’t wish me harm, or thinks I’m stupid.

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  • http://www.adammetropolis.com Adam Metropolis

    Hello! The following link is for a video in which Mark Driscoll, an opponent of Bell’s, explains why he disagrees with his style of ministry. I hope it will be helpful!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bie-Wu8S20E


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