Rob Bell is one of the hottest names in contemporary evangelical life. He is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but is better known for his books, and especially, for his road show, which combines preaching with performance art, and is much-talked among folks trying to discern what’s next for American evangelicalism. He is currently touring in conjunction with a book, “Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering,’’ and last weekend he appeared at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. I caught up with Bell by telephone in Ottawa to ask him about what he’s up to.
Q: What does it mean to you to be an evangelical?
A: I take issue with the word to a certain degree, so I make a distinction between a capital ‘E’ and a small ‘e.’ I was in the Caribbean in 2004, watching the election returns with a group of friends, and when Fox News, in a state of delirious joy, announced that evangelicals had helped sway the election, I realized, this word has really been hijacked. I find the word troubling, because it has come in America to mean politically to the right, almost, at times, anti-intellectual. For many, the word has nothing to do with a spiritual context.
Q: OK, how would you describe what it is that you believe?
A: I embrace the term evangelical, if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That's a beautiful sort of thing.
Q: Is religion a part of that?
A: At the heart of the Christian story is resurrection, the belief that this word is good, and that, as a follower of Jesus, a belief that God hasn’t abandoned the world, but is actively at work in the world. Even in the midst of what can look like despair and destruction there is a new creation present.
Q: You’re sometimes described as an evangelical rock star, and portrayed as a kind of evangelical celebrity. What do you make of that?
A: It's a little unnerving, to say the least. Celebrity seems totally at odds with authentic community and honest, real sorts of relationships.
Q: But you come out of the rock world?
A: I was in a band. Some friends and I had a band. We were convinced we were the next great saviors of rock music.
Q: Do you preach, or perform?
A: I came up through your standard go-to-seminary path, served as an apprentice pastor, did weddings and funerals and hospital visits, but I always veered toward creating things. I was always setting stuff on fire, building things, bringing in piles of dirt. And I started to realize that there’s a dimension to the sermon in which it’s a kind of performance art. Over the years, I’ve realized that I have as much in common with the performance artist, the standup comedian, the screenwriter, as I do with the theologian. I’m in an odd world where I make things and share them with people.
Q: Presumably your events have a different goal than those of a stand-up comedian?
A: At the heart of the historic Christian story has been an insistence that every individual matters. So I think, for a lot of people, just hearing you matters. There are great causes of our day, and we can each take a small role and do something about that.
Q: But what is the purpose of your tours?
A: One is that, when you work really hard to create something, a book or a film or a sermon, it’s just pure joy to share it with people. Tonight I’m in Ottawa, and I’ll go up and for two hours take people on a journey through the content of the book. It’s the joy of the communal gathering, taking these ideas and turning them loose. At the most basic level, it’s just great fun.
Q: What is this tour about?
A: Give me the right music and lighting and setting, and you can do almost anything. What’s far more interesting is when people are presented with ideas and begin to reshape the way you see the world. This tour, I’m walking people through suffering and creativity. How many people, if you ask them to talk about defining moments in their lives, mention really hard things? People rarely say, ‘Well, I went on vacation…’ These moments in our lives that are the most traumatic, that we would do anything to avoid, end up in retrospect being the moments that shape us. My goal is to create an experience that opens people up. There is no altar call. No one comes down and checks a box.
Q: Why do you perform in entertainment venues?
A: I'm most comfortable in clubs and theaters. That's where I feel most at home. And I don’t believe the church is a building – it’s a group of people who have gathered around the resurrection. I don’t even buy the idea that a pile of bricks somewhere is a church. There may be more church going on at the punk rock club anyway. And people will say things like that – ‘We were at a crap dive, and I had a strange feeling that I was experiencing the divine.’’
Q: How did you get interested in suffering?
A: As a pastor, you get invited into the most poignant moments of people’s lives. Whether it's a wedding or a funeral or a hospital visit, you get invited into the center of the event, whether or not you know the people. So I repeatedly found myself literally in the front row of the most visceral, traumatic sorts of moments in people’s lives. And then, just doing lectures at a creativity forum and a writing festival, and talking about how art comes to be, there was a connection between these two halves of my life – all these connections between suffering and art-making.
Q: What have you learned from thinking about suffering?
A: For a lot of people, dominant questions center around, ‘Why is this happening? Why me? Why now?’ Unfortunately, the religious voice often enters into the discussion at an inappropriate time – ‘God just planned this.’ Really? Your God planned this, not mine. Maybe there's great wisdom in holding our tongue. The religious voice starts talking when it should probably be quiet. And there is a human response to suffering that often involves anger and hurt. That's totally normal and OK. My dad’s dad died when my dad was 8, and the culture in which he lived said, ‘We will not grieve, because that would be questioning God.’ People have all of this stuff in there, brewing and bubbling, and yet oftentimes people are handed this framework that doesn’t allow them to be human.
Q: Do people now just come up to you to talk about their own pain?
A: Yes, it opens up all sorts of things for people. In our church, we have all sorts of people who are really good at this. Generally, I am not the answer to people's problems. What people need are a community of friends, trusted people they can work this through with. I'll often just say, “Do you have people you can wrestle through this with? And, if you don't, can we hook you up with people? Whatever you're struggling with, we would love to introduce you to somebody, because there's somebody who's been through this.’’
Q: I’m struck by the fact that I don’t hear a lot of explicitly religious language, or mentions of Jesus, from you.
A: I think we have enough religious people who are going around trying to convert people. My guard is up when somebody is trying to convert me to their thing. Are you talking to me because you actually are interested in this subject, because you care about me as a human, or am I one more possible conversion that will make you feel good about your religiosity? I don’t have any embarrassment about my religion, and it’s not that I'm too cool, but I would hope that the Jesus message would come through, hopefully through a full humanity. If you have something to say, whether you're religious or not, if it is truly Christian and Jesus-centered, then it will help and be interesting and compelling to people, regardless of their world view. But I’m not just interested in talking to Christians. I'm interested in what does it mean to be fully human.
Q: Do you think of Boston as different from other parts of the country, because there are fewer evangelicals?
A: People have said, when you go out East, get ready! But, honestly, the Boston audiences are as expressive and enthusiastic as any, and strikingly so. They're even louder, literally just actually louder, every time we've been to Boston. I don’t alter what I'm saying in any city. And in the Bible Belt, a lot of people in the Bible Belt have very conservative fundamentalist voices in their head, so they're listening to me, and I 'm realizing at the same time they have all these other religious voices in their head commenting on what I'm saying, whereas in cultures that are less churched, there is much more freedom to listen and engage. So if anything the resonance is stronger in the cities.
(Photo, by Jim Frost, shows Rob Bell on tour.)