Subversive, celebrity, radical, heretic … these are all adjectives that have been used to describe enigmatic religious leader Rob Bell. Popular pastor of the megachurch Mars Hill, Bell became one of the brightest rising stars in the evangelical world, but his penchant for theological questioning and boundary-pushing of the Gospel message, combined with unorthodox ways of communicating his message, began to draw criticism from key evangelical leaders, while drawing him legions of fans within and outside the Church. With the publishing of his book Love Wins last year, in which he questioned the foundational understanding of salvation, Bell further distanced himself from the faith tradition that raised him. And in a surprising move to many, last year Bell left Mars Hill for Hollywood, where he is pursuing creative new ways to proclaim his message.
James Wellman, a professor of religion at the University of Washington, spent a year researching the Bell phenomenon, and countless hours interviewing Bell for a new book, just out this month. Rob Bell and a New American Christianity explores the passion and complexity of Rob Bell, while affirming his influence and impact on the American religious landscape. Wellman spoke with us this week about his book, and the beautiful mystery that is Rob Bell. You can also watch our video interview here.
How did your own fascination with Rob Bell start? And did it shift or change as you researched and wrote your book?
In the summer of 2011, Lil Copan, from Abingdon Press, called me and asked if I would be interested in writing a book on Rob Bell. I was in the midst of other research, but the Bell project caught my attention. I said, “He is the only evangelical pastor I would be interested in doing a book on.” I didn’t know that much about him but I’d seen some of his Nooma DVD’s, and had heard from diverse people about how much they liked and admired him. I investigated a bit and it seemed to me he had done something beautiful with the gospel. I accepted the contract, and researched and wrote the book in eleven months—faster than any of my other books by a long shot.
My fascination really grew as I read and listened to his work and interviewed him and his associates at Mars Hill. His preaching was outstanding. It did something that few preachers can do: he made me interested in the Bible again. He taught me a deeper vision of God’s mercy and grace and truth. Bell’s creativity in all the different forms (DVD’s, preaching, writing and speaking) impressed me with its creativity. His willingness and fearlessness in trying new things fits the mode of an artist, willing to mix and match with a kind of glee and joy that was mesmerizing.
Also, the Love Wins controversy tends to overshadow some of his other work that I found even more compelling. The “Everything is Spiritual” tour DVD was illuminating; his book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, I found much more controversial in its critique of American empire than Love Wins; and again, his preaching. I frankly hope he goes back to preaching, I think it’s his best form of communication.
Bell is probably most famous for his last book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book earned him a firestorm of criticism from the evangelical community, and yet he didn’t seem to care that much. He offered no significant retort or response to his critics (or his fans, for that matter). This seems a significant attitude shift within a tradition that has had serious gate-keepers. How does Bell’s ‘non-response,’ especially to his critics, embody the future of American Christianity?
This is an important question. For Bell, the point of his work is to get it out there and let the chips fall where they may. After finishing a piece, he tries to give the outcomes over to God and move on. I think he was surprised by the Love Wins controversy and at times, for instance, in the Martin Beshir TV interview, simply befuddled. For him, the book amounted to raising questions that were not new to the Christian tradition, and I think he thought that this is what we all should be doing, asking real questions and trying to discern where God is leading his people. But honestly, I think he’s moved on. Trying to defend oneself is a waste of time to him. Fundamentally, for Bell, God is neither threatened nor is the gospel endangered by our inquiries. God is always bigger than our questions, doubts or answers, and always leading us forward into the good news of God’s freedom in Christ. So, Bell is interested in the next thing. I think his attitude of a “non-anxious presence” and a kind of disinterest in outcomes is refreshing. I found in my study of him a new surge of freedom in my own outlook and faith. I think he would say, “Take a breath. In that air is the spirit. Follow it.”
After creating and serving as the pastor of the biggest megachurch in the country, Mars Hill, Bell recently left and is now “church-less” in Los Angeles. How do you think his departure will impact the institutional church? Is he anti-Church, and if so, why, and what does that mean for the future of the Church?
No, not anti-church by any means; he thinks the church should be a catalyst for the Kingdom of God. And so the church, per se, is a critical factor in mobilizing and encouraging folks in the kingdom work. Most profoundly, the church is the space in which incarnation is preached and done. But, for him, churches can turn into cathedrals and fortresses against the world—they can become places where people hide, and so can become far too insular. Go out into the world and preach the gospel, serve the poor, and be the compassion of Christ in the world. I think, for Bell, the church is where people come together and break bread; they share their concerns; they share their resources; they examine themselves; they forgive and heal one another, and then they get up and go and to do mission in the world. One of the things I most respect about him is that he left Mars Hill without debt. He built no buildings. He did not leave that place with any burdens other than the challenge to live out the legacy of “turning the word into flesh.” As he said in his last sermon, “Beware of those who would turn flesh into word.” The gospel is always and only incarnated love—its not about dogma and rules.
As radical as Bell is within evangelicalism, he is hardly progressive to Progressive Christians. And yet his popularity among that group is quite strong. What particular gifts does Bell offer to the Progressive Christian movement?
Yes, Bell would never claim to be in one camp or another. He just isn’t a social movement leader. He is a communicator, who wants to compellingly share the gospel. I think he would say to progressives, “Loosen up!” Bell thinks that all of us tend to be hung on our rationalizations. We want to control what God can or cannot do. The truth is God can and will do what God wills; let God be God, and stop putting limits on God’s power in our lives and what God can do in the world.
You say that Bell is informed by an artistic and aesthetic sensibility in the way that he communicates the Gospel. Clearly he is equal part artist and religious leader. How do you see the two – art and religion – intertwined for Bell? And how is that transforming the religious landscape?
In some ways you have to read the book! One of the things I was struck by in listening to him to preach in particular, is that he is very empathic towards the pain and suffering in his congregation. Pain and suffering puts people in “liminal” spaces, where they are “betwixt and between.” That is, they are in places of transition in their lives where they are lost, and maybe even a little dizzy. In these places of lostness, the artist goes and lowers ladders and guides for people to find ways to climb out. I think Bell knows in his bones the pain and suffering of those to whom he serves. He has experienced suffering. His creativity comes, in part, from those places. He figured out ways to climb out of those “in-between” places, and he offers that to his listeners. In this way, like Anne Lamont and others, he says in so many words, “I’ve been there, and found a way through, you can too.” Readers and listeners hear that and they come to his work and word like hungry people, looking for their last meal. As to how he does it, again, read the book!
You also say that for Bell, the sacred is in the secular, and the two cannot be separated. Can you say more about that, and why that has made him so effective, as well why that has earned him so many critics?
Bell is simply not interested in building boundaries between God and the world. The world is the Lord’s and everything in it. To say that somewhere is sacred and another place is not is heresy for him. “The Lord was in this place and I did not know it.” The plaintive cry of Jacob is one of Bell’s favorite verses. The Lord is everywhere. For critics, this mixing of the sacred and profane is scary; somehow the sacred must be controlled. Bell simply says, “Sorry, that’s not what my God is about.” We don’t control God and God can do and act in ways that are always surprising. Critics will complain until the cows come home. But the artist just says, “Yes, God is in the place, places where no one else is looking, come and see.”
Who/what is the “beautiful Jesus” that Bell professes and is so passionate about introducing to the world? And how does his platform for doing so represent a new Christianity?
I’m not sure it’s so much a “new” Christianity as in the idea of a new innovation in the Christian faith, but he has come upon a way of expressing the faith that makes the words and the story new for his hearers. This again, is the act of an artist who is unafraid to go into corners and crannies of reality and find God waiting there all along. I think Bell invited folks, both conservatives and progressives, to break out of old habits and see again that the “Lord is good.” The world is full of God’s glory if we have eyes to see it. My sense is that our imaginations get crimped by status mongering and laziness, and wanting to be right rather than actually trying to discern and express how God is making all things new. This is why Bell has no interest in Christian debates over who is right, doctrinally. It’s boring and it leads nowhere.
What do you think the most important thing to understand about Rob Bell is as it affects the future of the Christian faith?
Be fearless. Stop listening to all the voices that say, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that.” To flog an overused phrase, “just do it.” Faith is dangerous but its beautiful precisely because it calls us out of old patterns of thinking and doing. It’s time to rise and see and proclaim the good news that all things are new. Okay, now, I’m preaching, but Bell stimulates folks to have the courage to follow their vision and gives them faith that God is leading them forward.
Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on Rob Bell and a New American Christianity.