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.”