Author Rob Bell Talks About Christian Progressivism, Spreading Grace, And The ‘Real’ Jesus

In 2006, I was a freshman at Lee University, an evangelical Christian school in Cleveland (TN). At the time, I was your typical conservative, evangelical Christian. The brand of Christianity I followed was the brand with which I’d been raised: Pentecostal, fundamentalist, literalist, charismatic, evangelical. Walking around campus, however, I would occasionally see “Love Wins” bumper stickers on the cars. What did that mean? Was it some sort of universalist hippie message, like “Coexist”?

I looked up the phrase online, and immediately discovered Rob Bell. His book Love Wins (which stirred up controversy within conservative evangelical circles due to its discussions of Christian universalism) hadn’t yet been written, but those bumper stickers were passed out freely after services at the rapidly-growing church he’d founded in Grandville, Mich.: Mars Hill Bible Church. I read Bell’s book Velvet Elvis and understood fully, for the first time, what it was about Christians that made other religious groups dislike us so much. I watched his speech Everything is Spiritual and found myself in awe of the seamless blending of science and religion, in which one actually supported the other.

Ironically, it was during my time at a conservative Christian school, in a conservative Christian family, in a conservative Christian town — that I finally began to truly question what it was I stood for. It was the beginning of my unraveling away from creationism, away from fundamentalism, away from any idea of God that presented him as a cruel dictator rather than a loving deity. So when Rob Bell burst into popularity, I couldn’t have been more excited.

In 2014 and 2015, when I was in the throes of one of the hardest times of my life, after moving to Richmond with my husband and two children and finding myself at odds with an increasingly hateful church, What We Talk About When We Talk About God kept me grounded and helped keep my faith alive. It was that book, too, that got Bell an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

More recently, Bell has been staying busy with his popular podcast, The RobCast. Last year, he went on tour for “Everything is Spiritual: Part Two” and released the film version on YouTube on Monday. He’s also recently written a book called How To Be Here, for which he will be holding events throughout 2016. Though Bell officially resigned as a pastor in 2012, he finds himself “preaching” more than ever — whether it’s online, in writing, or in person.

We sat down to discuss his latest projects, and what they mean for his growing audience and our ever-changing culture:

So the tour film of your second “Everything is Spiritual” tour just dropped, right? It’s available on YouTube for free. What made it different from your first “Everything is Spiritual” tour?

Well, it’s interesting when nine years go by, you’re a different person in some ways. And what’s also interesting is the evolution as a teacher. When you’re younger, the mind plays such a more prominent role because you’re so excited to know cool stuff, you know what I mean? Like facts, figures, “I’m gonna blow you away with just unbelievable facts about the universe!” As you get older, it’s almost like you — it’s not that you leave the mind behind, but the soul becomes more interesting. What does it look like to live more fully and freely? So I hope that in the film, the new one — this isn’t just about wowing people. This is about how we actually live in the world and how we see things in the deepest seat of our being.

Where did you get that cone-shaped whiteboard? Because it interacts cleverly with the ideas you present.

I know this designer. He’s really good. He’s actually becoming sort of internationally known because he keeps making things nobody’s ever seen before. I just started sending him drawings, like literally on the back of the napkin kind of drawings, and giving him little snippets of what I wanted people to think and feel, and I remember it dawned on me, “Oh, the whiteboard, it needs to be a triangular shape!” So he started sending possible designs. Some of them were so massive and insane! But eventually we just kept talking and he was like, “What if it looked like this?” And after iteration five or six or seven, I was like “That’s it!” Now all we have to do is figure out how we’re gonna take it all around the country. Right now, it’s right beside my house. I’m thinking about auctioning it off and giving all the money to charity: water to get people water who don’t have it.

The whiteboard made the talk so much more engaging. And you’re already such an engaging speaker!

When I first knew I had something was when I had the first drawing. I drew that triangle and expansion — there was a moment I was sitting there and taking notes, when all of a sudden I was like, “Wait. The universe is expanding, and your moments of greatest love, joy, peace, and connection are when you expand.”

As a communicator, if I could connect the ongoing 13 billion years (and going strong!) of expansion of the universe — with all of the everyday temptations we all have to NOT expand, but to go the other direction — oh my word, that would be something. That was like a legit moment. That’s the thing! Every day you either line yourself up with the fundamental direction of the universe, or you go the other direction. And we all can give instances in our lives that we did either. That was a moment for me. Huge moment.

Where did you get a lot of the inspiration for your “Everything is Spiritual” tour? The way you weave science and religion together is incredible, and it seems so hard to do.

I don’t see [science and religion] as different things. So for me there’s no conflict, and there isn’t a division. It’s all our endless learning and growing and exploring of this life we’re living. My question is “How did anyone ever split them?” At some level, the theologian and the scientist are both students of awe and wonder. Like if you talk to the best ones, they’re all basically going, “Wow.”

I never saw religion as something that sort of figured “it” out, and then spends all this awkward energy trying to protect and preserve “it.” I saw them as two hands on the same body. They’re actually dance partners.

How do you think that people can spread grace and peace on a daily basis? It seems easier to have a generalized concept of  beliefs for those things than it is to actually act on them.

I don’t think of beliefs as something that exists in your head, where you have your intellectual furniture arranged in a particular way. I see an endless, infinite, encircling loop of beliefs and actions. To me, they’re all one endless flow amongst themselves. So our beliefs and how we live are always talking to each other. They’re always having a conversation.

So I begin with grace — that this is a gift. We are loved, and love is the ground of our being. And oftentimes we are spending extraordinary energy trying to engage that which we already have. I begin with the moments that you’re trying to impress somebody, trying to win somebody’s approval, trying to prove that you’re bigger, badder, faster, smarter — those are moments when you’ve left home. You aren’t trusting the grace and love that is already yours.

I begin that this is a gift, and in response to this extraordinary gift, what am I here to do? Is there anybody here to help? What demands expression? Is there somebody in trouble that maybe I have something I may help them alleviate their pain? It’s a very, very practical way of living in the world. I don’t think in larger terms, “Oh, I’m gonna change the world!” For me, it’s basically, “What’s the next thing I can do today?” It’s a very sort of calm, not that dramatic or sexy thing — let’s try that, and see what happens. It’s the only way it’s ever worked for me.

As a fellow progressive Christian, what keeps you inspired to keep fighting for a better public view of Christianity? I saw recently that over a million people had signed the boycott against Target because of their inclusive bathroom policies. And you know most of those people self-identify as Christians.

I don’t actually use the word “Christian” much, because I think Jesus would be mortified that a religion with very strong codes of in-and-out had started in his name. I think that Jesus, at the heart of his life and message, was a call to universal healing and solidarity — not inventing more labels and categories to divide us. I don’t have a problem with the word “Christian,” I just don’t think it’s the point, and I actually think, oftentimes, it gets in the way. Especially in the word “Christianity,” which implies some big sort of cumbersome system, when at the heart is a Christ who invites us to live in the world in a particular way.

So defending some big system isn’t interesting, but what is the Christ up to, and how can we be a part of that? What healing is waiting to unfold? Now that’s interesting to me. And the problem is, probably like you, I met so many people who would never call themselves a Christian who were so Jesus-y, and I met so many people who were loud and outspoken about how they were Christians who didn’t seem like they were Jesus-like at all. I don’t find the categories helpful at all. I think what Jesus is doing is calling us beyond form. To not clutch and cling to some of these forms, but to let go of them.

A religious affiliation can sometimes be a way to bolster your own ego. “We’re Christians, and they’re not!” When the invitation is to let down and let go of all those chains so you can really be free. Especially now, you have people who when you say “Christian,” they think “oh, you mean the people who are boycotting Target?” I don’t think the heart of the Jesus message has much to do with boycotting Target.

What made you want to write How To Be Here? It seemed different from your previous works. Was there a specific incident that made you think, “Whoa, people are super stressed out about the direction their lives are going right now”?

The book is actually where all my previous books were pointing. Somebody else said in an interview said this book was different because [my] other books are theological. But if “theological” doesn’t lead you to how you actually live in a very practical sense every day, then you’re really just talking about abstract ideas. So in many ways, the book is where all my other books lead, which is a very practical talk about how you actually order your day and how you deal with failure, fear, creation. I don’t see it as much as change in direction as where the direction was actually headed if you took it where it was actually pointing.

Part of it was my continuing observation that something about the modern world fragments people. It fills our heads and hearts with worries, stress, almost like a feedback loop of questions about past, present, future, money, vocation, passion, calling, desire, paycheck — and I noticed that whenever I talked about those ideas in the book live, there was a tremendous hunger. And I especially noticed lots of educated, empowered people whose questions came from places of dis-empowerment. Like people who had gotten to the top of the company and were asking questions like, “I feel like my life is being controlled by forces bigger than me. I gotta be at work, I gotta be at this meeting.”

I kept noticing, how did the modern world with all of its luxuries, options, and technologies, that were supposed to save time? We were supposed to save time! None of us are making our own butter. So where is that hour and a half that 200 years ago was spent making butter? Show me that hour and a half! It’s almost like this whole system was designed to save us time and give us freedom and options and power, but it strangely has created a generation of people who talk about the rat race, who talk about the treadmill, who talk about being a cog in the machine — something about this system is feeding back in on itself. And that’s where a lot of the book comes from. Is there some better way to think about the whole thing?

I can see that now, how your previous books kind of layer into How To Be Here, and how the practicality of it can tie into the theology you’ve been writing about for years.

What’s really interesting is that if you read the gospels, what Jesus kept talking about was full life. Like, “I came to bring you abundant, overflowing life.” Part of it also, for me, is if you keep going into the center, what you keep coming back to is that Jesus kept insisting that that’s the point of his whole thing. So what does full, overflowing life look like? And if you can’t speak to that, then at some level you’ve really lost the plot. The ultimate Jesus message isn’t having lofty, abstract ideas about what happens when you die. It’s very concrete guidance and direction for how we live right now.

It’s interesting how you appeal to so many more people now than just evangelicals like you did when I was introduced to your work in 2006, and now you have such a larger audience.  Do you think that makes you more influential? Does that make your message stronger?

One day I’ll be talking to artists, and then the next day I’ll be talking to CEOs, then I’ll do pop-up events for the How To Be Here tour, and I sort of move in and out of all these strange places. None of them are considered religious or spiritual. I just keep learning what I’ve known for a while, which is that people who would claim no religious or spiritual affiliation are so hungry for spiritual guidance… I just know that I’m drawn to situations that aren’t overtly co-opted by some religion. I like to create new spaces where we can talk about what it means to be human. And that’s just been a blast.

In your book you talked about your energies, your ikigai – as being this web of things that make up what we are, and what we say “yes” to and what we say “no” to. So what is makes up your ikigai exactly? 

“Ikigai” is a Japanese word for that which gets you up in the morning. It’s also translated as “your reason for being.” The idea is of that is, what is it that gets you out of bed in the morning? What are you here to do? That might shift and morph over the course of your life. I have this family, we have three kids, and for my wife and I, in our loving and enjoying our kids, we make a huge breakfast every morning. We do eggs, French toast or pancakes, a big fresh smoothie. We do it right. And somehow, that is just this grounding, centering ritual.

Then I always have the next thing I’m working on. Today I’m finishing up the first draft of my next book and going over details about some upcoming tour stops we’re doing. For me, my ikigai is that I’m trying to create space where people can wake up to the depth and spiritual vibrancy of their lives. I come out of the Jesus tradition, and I believe the tomb is empty and we get to announce that and bring good news to people who need it the most. So that’s what I do.

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever said “no” to?

I said no to being on The Colbert Report. Because I had something I had to go do. I should have just done it anyway! I had been on tour for like a month, like every day in a different city, and I had a couple of days to catch my breath before I went back to my regular job at the church. I had just a couple of days. I was so tired I could barely see straight. And they asked me if I wanted to be on The Colbert Report. The few days I had to catch my breath, I would have been on an airplane!

What is the craziest thing you’ve ever said “yes” to? 

Well, there’s a comedian named Lyssa who has this show called The Bitch Seat… I try not to rank the crazy because that’s what I try to say “yes” to. Though on a very practical level, we were in South Africa on a boat and my friend asked if I would like to go cage diving with great whites. My heart has never beat harder. Killer great whites and The Bitch Seat! The craziest things I’ve ever done.

Watch Everything is Spiritual below…