Rob Bell on Sex, God, and Sex Gods11/14/2007
By Flip Blaney
It's 8 p.m. on a Monday night in Rocketown, Michael W. Smith's Christian Nightclub/Skatepark in downtown Nashville. The club is packed, sold out with a line snaking around the corner. The show was supposed to start an hour ago but the audience is well-behaved church kids—though they look like the casting call for a MTV reality show—hip, happy, shiny beautiful people with trendy haircuts, smart eyeglass frames and perfect airbrushed tans.
They say there's a "revolution" and, sure enough, somehow the youth group has become the cool kids. To quote youth movement author Lauren Sandler: "If you want to feel startlingly uncool, forget rock clubs or art galleries—just find your nearest hipster church."
The flock are not here to see Smitty or the Christian version of Fall Out Boy or even 's latest Nash Vegas extravaganza. No, more than one thousand people have paid $10 each to see a preacher—Rob Bell. (Number 25 on the 50 Most Influential Christians in America list. Five notches above Benny Hinn!)
In fact the "Everything is Spiritual" tour will go on to sell out 24 cities in 31 days, raising more than $65,000 for WaterAid.org, a charity to bring clean water to third world countries. Far as we know, Brother Bell hasn't waved his Armani coat at anyone yet.
Rob has brought new levels of quality and artistic direction with the powerful short sermon film series NOOMA and is founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Number 17 on the 50 Most Influential Churches list.) He also is the author of the acclaimed Velvet Elvis and his new bestseller SexGod is a scintillating, unauthorized biography of Tom Jones.
Actually, more scandalous than that, SexGod asserts that not only did the Lord God Jehovah invent sex but that the very act can be a spiritual thing itself.
An enormous white marker board spans the stage. Ambient lights and music surge and bubble, building anticipation. Clad in black, he emerges to spirited applause and in the first of many odd but charming moments, smirks and begins to clap along. Frankly, Rob Bell seems like a big kid. Awkward, a bit goofy, clearly attention-deficit and yet so super Bible school smart with the Torah and the Greek and the Hebrew that he often comes off as both brilliant and bewildered in the same breath.
He begins his message with "In the beginning ..." and starts to mark up the board, which by the end of the night will be filled with symbols and pictures and languages that would rival any divinity school professor. Or at least Gene Scott.
Bell possesses a sort of Taoist "doing by not doing, knowing by not knowing" quality that is entirely endearing and refreshing, balancing the profound with the silliness of surfer Zen and although The Chicago Sun-Times called him a 21st century Billy Graham, he is more like the un-preacher many have waited for so long now.
WITTENBURG DOOR: Everything is spiritual? Even the Roseanne marathon on TV Land?
ROB BELL: There's a Roseanne marathon on?
BELL: Sorry if I seem a little spacey. I woke up this morning and looked out the window at this huge Country Music Hall Of Fame thing and thought ...
DOOR: Welcome to Nashville. Tell us about your tour.
BELL: It's just for one month and we're in a different city every night. An hour and 45 minute talk-message, experience and um, a sermon on steroids. I don't even know what it is. Thelonious Monk says that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. I've learned on this tour that trying to explain what it is doesn't work well. And generally people get different things. But that's what we wanted.
DOOR: You talk a lot about storytelling—reclaiming the art of preaching away from the engineers and back to the artists.
BELL: Preaching is one of the original art forms, kind of the original guerrilla theatre. A sermon was an electric event; Martin Luther King Jr. changed the whole shape of American culture with a sermon. John Wesley out in a field in England, the Hebrew Prophets, (and) great movements like women's rights were often birthed through preaching. In our unbelievably wired culture, nothing is more foolish than somebody in a room standing alone insisting that God has spoken. So it's either brilliant or absolute foolishness. And I am open to both.
Originally, the word "sermon" meant you'd have no idea what was coming next. It was theological but also political and economical and obviously highly creative because if it didn't engage, then you wouldn't listen and you wouldn't be provoked or challenged or comforted. So in some ways for me my life's passion is to pursue this art form. Pump some electricity into it.
DOOR: The Church hasn't always been kind to artists. Especially ones bringing electricity.
BELL: Our assumption is that Church is where you say the things that have to be said. So people will speak but say, "Oh, I wouldn't say that in church." Well then, where would you say it? To me, it's the place where you would push it the furthest. A faith community should be the place with the most honesty and vulnerability and prophetic culture—calling things what they are. So when I hear people say, "That's nice but you really couldn't do that in church," I can't even fathom that. My understanding is it would lead the culture in reality.
I talk about having the first word. This idea that Church waits to see what the culture is doing then produces a D grade version with some sort of clever Jesus twist to me is utter blasphemy. The DaVinci Code, for example. You wait for a C grade movie with stars with bad haircuts and then gear your church teachings around a movie that many people aren't even going to see? That seems absolutely anemic.
DOOR: Welcome to our world.
BELL: I don't believe in Christian art or music. The word Christian was originally a noun. A person, not an adjective. I believe in great art. If you are an artist, your job is to do great art and you don't need to tack on the word Christian. It's already great. God is the God of Creativity. Categories desecrate the art form. It's either great art or it isn't. Followers of Jesus should have the first word instead of coming late to the game with some poor quality spin-off. Let's talk about things before everyone else.
DOOR: Most preachers never get to see their good theories make it to practice—are you seeing change?
BELL: Oh yeah—there are huge things going on. Like micro-finance. I was in Rwanda—essentially you take someone in poverty and give them a couple of bucks so they can start a business. We met a woman who started a business, built a house, fed her family and her business was now self-sustaining and growing—on a $40 dollar loan. A Western church gave this woman forty bucks and look what she's done. Economically speaking, that's one of the hopes of the world right now. We have more money than we know what to do with. American churches have more concentration of wealth than any time in history in a world with massive poverty. But some are exploring with micro financing, working with ground churches and trying things that could help save our world. They are so far out front. I was hiking through these slums in Nairobi where people are dying of AIDS and it's the Church figuring out how to give them medication, how to prevent and educate, to help give people an honorable death. The Church is on the front line.
DOOR: As a pastor, how do you motivate people to the front lines?
BELL: First, the scripture always bends towards the oppressed and the marginalized. Beginning in the Torah—take care of the widow, the orphan, the stranger among you. The story is written by oppressed minorities. And it continues, no room in the inn, they follow Jesus because they are hungry. The story always goes towards the underside of the Empire. I think it is sometimes hard for the American church to understand the Bible because we are the Empire. We are the ones in power, the ones with wealth. I think in some settings that's why the Bible has such little power—because it's an oppressive narrative. There are six billion people in the world, three billion live on less than $2 dollars a day, 800 million people will not eat today, and 300 million in Africa alone do not have drinking water. So we as Americans are six percent of the population yet we consume 40 to 50 percent of the resources. We are the upper, upper, rich elite. And our way is taking over the world. So we have to first ask the question—how can we take all this wealth and give it away? All the technology and beautiful parts of capitalism and bless the world and the poor—or else we're in deep trouble.
DOOR: Sometimes the issue of the poor gets lost in all the left vs. the right crap in this country. How do you cut through that? Serving the poor is not a new message.
BELL: The issue is not saving the poor—it's saving us. When Jesus uses the word hell, He does not use the word with people who are not believers or not believing the right things. It is a warning to religious people that they are in danger of hell because of their indifference to the suffering of the world. So the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not what heaven and hell are like. It's a parable to rich people warning them that their apathy has them in danger. Heaven and hell are present realities that extend into the future.
For a lot of Americans, this is about the saving of their own soul. Recapturing God's heart for the world. Otherwise I will end up not caring and not passionate. At our church, people are desperate to understand this culture of excessive materialism. We were made to bless the world. The original call is that blessing was always instrumental. When that blessing gets misconstrued as favoritism you have a very toxic thing happening. Our people are desperate to give, hardwired for it. I assume that people are good and just need opportunities.
DOOR: Um, we're getting the impression we might not see you on TBN anytime soon.
BELL: Ha. I think that's one of the most warped ideas—that God just can't wait to bless you. God blesses you so you will bless the world and if at any point I keep that for myself, then I am in trouble.
DOOR: Speaking of trouble, the Church hasn't always been the safest place to be real. You've gotta be catching some heat ....
BELL: Hmm. I don't read reviews, but apparently there are some people out there who feel that God or Jesus is being threatened. I catch wind of things, some people are pretty cranked up but it's not something I spend any time on. You can't take people somewhere they don't want to go. For every fundamentalist you piss off there are probably five more who start listening. For a lot of people it's like, "Oh, we can talk about that? Well, now you've got my attention." You know the issue is whether or not it's true and whether or not it's compelling. Someone asked me the other day, "What's the demographic of your people?" I was like "I dunno—sinners?"
DOOR: Actually, your church is one of the hottest churches in America.
BELL: I don't even know what that means. I know there's a woman in the second row in the second service that has cancer for the third time. I know there's a single mom named Erin who needs a place to live. I know this guy who just got custody of his kids and he's trying to figure out how to be a single dad. So to me a Church is real people trying to figure it out. The word hottest isn't really a word I associate with a community of Christians. (laughs) For my wife and me it's very important that we live as close as possible to a normal life in our city. So words like hottest and up and coming are not reality and not a place to live. It's a dead end road.
DOOR: What about the labels of Emergent, Neo-realism, Relevant, Post-modern? I've seen your name associated with all those movements.
BELL: I don't use those words. It's easy for that to become "Are you in or out?" A friend of mine calls it a conversation. Which I think is a much healthier way to think about it. There are all these people who are having a conversation about these pressing matters of theology and practice and I'm all up for that. But when it becomes some sort of label—are you with us or them?—that seems so destructive. But it's a discussion that needs to be had. I haven't heard anything dangerous. It's necessary for each generation. I'll take the Christian/Jesus label. Other than that, it seems a lot of labels really don't help anybody.
DOOR: Why do you think we have so many Jesuses? My Jesus vs. your Jesus, Conservative Jesus, Liberal Jesus, Pentecostal Jesus, Episcopalian Jesus ...
BELL: People will grab all aspects of the truth. I guess it would be hard for one person to wrap their arms around that much truth. Easier to grab small pieces, I suppose. I'll take all the good. I want the best of the Assembly of God Jesus, the Latin America Jesus; I want the best of all of them. Jesus talked about fruit, told great stories—you can say anything, but its actions that you can't argue with.
DOOR: How did this Mars Hill thing happen, anyway?
BELL: Seven years ago, a group of friends were just dreaming of something better. I guess the natural evolution of each generation is to explore what it means. How to live the way of Jesus here and now. So we started and it now feels like fifty years packed into seven. Mars Hill is an old mall. Our "architect"—I say that as a joke—says everything about the church should scream "Welcome to our church service! Now get the hell out of here." We say, "This isn't the church, this is a church service. It's just an hour where we have some teaching, some singing and you'll hear about things in the community." If there are 43 "one anothers" in the New Testament—serve one another, carry one another's burden's, confess to one another—you can only do a couple of those in a church service. Until you have a community that you are journeying with, please don't say you are a part of this church. You just come to a gathering. We are very intentional about that. The question is, "Who do you call when your brother ODs on cocaine? If your mom is in the hospital, who comes and sits in the waiting room with you? When you cannot pay your rent, who do you go to and say please help me out?" That's your church.
DOOR: Sometimes it seems the world gets that concept better than the "church." It's difficult to have community when you feel pressure to put on an act.
BELL: Oh yeah, that's not something we would ever place a value on. I don't understand why a Christian would ever put themselves in that sort of environment.
DOOR: What background did you come from?
BELL: I think if you are a follower of Jesus, everything you do is a life of mission and ministry. I actually think the "call to ministry" language was invented by Christians to excuse the disobedience of everybody else. If you are thinking of going into full-time ministry—are you a Christian? Too late.
My parents are very passionate, curious Christians and intellectually amped up. They were committed to their faith but very restless with the current manifestations of faith and spirituality. So I think I grew up on the edges with the idea that things could be better. I grew up in a nondenominational church but with the troubling thought that "Something's not right." There's a bass note missing, there's a poetry, a passion, a world-changing impulse that I don't see here. So I grew up compelled with Jesus but not particularly enamored with his followers. So I decided to change it! (laughs)
I stumbled into something I love. I went to Wheaton College and I played in a punk band and I ended up preaching a sermon for some bizarre reason and it was a moment. I thought, "I could give my life to this even if I wasn't very good at it. Even if I totally suck at it, I'd rather pursue this preaching thing." So I've been on a tear ever since. Um, can you pause this for dramatic laughter?
DOOR: We're still trying to wrap our brains around the idea of a punk band at Wheaton!