Rob Bell, the former megachurch pastor and author of the best-selling, controversial book Love Wins, is in Denver this week promoting his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. This is the pastor who, a year ago, left the church he founded to move to California to surf and work on a TV show with the producer of the hit series "Lost." Last night he spoke at St. Andrews United Methodist Church to a packed sanctuary of progressive Christians, seminary students, and Bell groupies. This morning, he meets me for breakfast and conversation about his book, the Church, quantum theory, inspiration, Resurrection, and of course, surfing.
Bell is taller and slimmer than I had expected, and he looks younger than his photos. There is a palpable sense of joy about him and laughter comes easily. His energy instantly lifts mine; maybe it's because of all the talk last night of how the human being—indeed everything in the Universe—is really energy in motion. Or maybe it's because of the way he talks of everything as being weighty (kavod, in Hebrew) with the possibility of God.
Deborah: It's so great to meet you!
Rob: It's great to meet you!
I heard you three years ago when you were here in Denver. A friend invited me and at that time, I had hardly even heard of you. I'm a liberal, mainline Protestant, and I grew up in the United Church of Christ. I'm not a theologian, just a regular person of faith that took a pretty deep dive into contemplative spirituality in my 30s. So what you talk about when you talk about God these days is like soul food to me.
But I'm getting ahead of myself ... For the person who didn't get to hear you last night and hasn't read your new book yet, tell me, why do we need new ways of talking about God?
Because we have this intuitive sense of reverence humming within us. In the book, I quote Jane Fonda, who was asked about her spiritual rebirth. She talked about the "reverence humming in me." I think it speaks to the sense we have that things are what they are and yet they're more. And these very popular voices that say "this is all there is—you're just a collection of neurons, synapses, and atoms" just doesn't work for many of us. No matter how smart and articulate it is, we are convinced that we are more than our biology, even if we don't have language for it.
So people go looking for explanations for this reverence and sense of something more, and generally that takes people into traditional understandings of God, and it feels like they're taking a giant step back. So I think the cliché of "spiritual but not religious" is true at some level. I think many of us are asking, "Is there some way to talk about God that doesn't just feel like a giant step backward?" That's where the book comes from.
So do you feel like you're talking primarily to people who have this sense of hum, but just don't get the church?
When I first started preaching, I realized this isn't merely Christian. If you're really true to Jesus' message, it's human. Who doesn't want help being less full of worry? Or who doesn't want to be more courageous? Who doesn't want to be more loving or forgiving so I don't have to be thinking of all the things people have done to me and carry them around everywhere I go? Who doesn't want to learn to forgive? So what happens is that the Jesus path transcends itself—that's what it means to be fully human.
When I started out, I was thinking "Okay, this is a Christian church," but the very nature of this message is that it leaps past its own walls really quickly. I have encountered—in traveling and speaking—that sometimes the people who want to talk about these things have been in churches forever. It's every religion under the sun, it's every condition; a couple of days ago it was a Sikh woman. It's people who say, "You know, I'm suicidal and every day I'm thinking about killing myself but I came to hear you speak." There's no rhyme or reason. It continues to astound me; I'll think I've seen everything and then someone will be like "Well, here's my background" and there we go, a new category for me.
Do you think the church still has a place? I mean, you're "churchless" currently, if that's the way you'd say it.
Depends on how you define church.
I think probably we're in the midst of a massive shift. Jesus calls it "where two or three are gathered," so that's far less a noun and far more a verb. Perhaps we're "churching" right now, as a friend of mine says. I think people are realizing "wait, we had this meal around a table and we were from all these different backgrounds but we were talking about the things that matter most and we actually ended up praying because it felt like the only right thing to do and... what is that?"