“It’s my dream to encourage other people to connect the dots of spirituality for themselves, to recognize the fullness of their being and to live that fullness. That is where all our potential lies, and getting people to see it is what I was created for. That’s why when you see me on Super Soul Sunday on OWN, vibing with others who want to share their spiritual vision, wisdom, and experience, I am at my happiest and most fulfilled. When Rob Bell—pastor, best-selling author, provocative thinker—recently joined me on the show, we talked for two and a half hours, and I could have kept going. The ideas Rob sets forth in his books Love Wins and What We Talk About When We Talk About God opened my heart and my mind. People like him are the reason I set out to build OWN in the first place: to be able to gather a global community of like-minded seekers. This, by the way, is what I talk about when I talk about God. And yes, it delights me!” - Oprah. (Read more here – HT: Revangelical.)
Given her avid interest in spirituality and her enormous influence, some Christian ministers and pundits have made Oprah their favorite whipping-boy (er…girl?) for years, apparently conflating “talk show host” with “theologian.” They grew positively apoplectic when she begin lending her ginormous platform to pan-spiritual teachers like Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle, and The Office‘s Rainn Wilson (founder of the totally amazing Soul Pancake) – perhaps in reaction to their own waning influence as the cultural communicators of the day.
I get it. Multi-media ubiquity is a mixed blessing, as comedian Louis CK reminded us this week. We’ve largely lost a sense of the local – the town square, the parish, as a center for communal life. Instead we tune in – to television a generation ago; increasingly, to mobile video and podcast content today – and let increasingly-prominent arbiters of meaning tell us what to believe.
Intriguingly, I believe it was 20th-century Christians who led the way of mass-media engagement of ideas. From Fulton Sheen, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker and Paul and Jan Crouch pioneering television content to personalities as diverse as W.A. Criswell, Aimee Semple McPherson and Robert Schuller trail-blazing the modern megachurch movement (with notables like Bill Hybels and Joel Osteen energizing the second wave), both Oprah and Bell are beneficiaries of the large-format pioneers that came before them.*
And now, they converge. So what are we to make of it when Rob Bell steps into the circle of O?
Is this, as many evangelical and Calvinist brethren will no doubt exclaim, proof-positive that the Love Wins author has undeniably jumped the orthodoxy shark? Is this the ultimate unholy alliance giving renewed relevance to the ‘cult of emergence’s enduring triple-threat alongside Communism and Islam?
Sorry. I don’t mean to make light of some people’s concerns – well okay, I do mean to lampoon the newly-baptized Trifecta of Terror. After all, it’s created up quite a stir amongst fundamentalists, and even a brief public spotlight resurgence (if I’m allowed to use that word) for the Great Emergence last month. The larger concern for a “watering-down” of faith – I understand this, too. Raised in Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, and PCA Presbyterian backgrounds, “right belief” was of crucial importance to us – even when those “right beliefs” were different from one another across denominations and indeed, in some cases, contradicted each other. This all led to a crisis of both meaning and fellowship for me by age 19, where I had to give up odiously-brandished exclusive truth-claims even as I continued to care very much about truth, goodness, and beauty.
Recent books like The Evangelicals You Don’t Know, The Coming Interspiritual Age, and Occupy Spirituality point to increasing cooperation between followers of Jesus and those of other faiths when it comes to solving some of today’s most pressing global problems – and celebrating shared humanity.
I think that Rob gets this creative tension too. He’s centered-set when it comes to the magnetic attraction of Jesus and his Way, recognizing that it’s not about who’s in and out, but what (and Who) we’re headed toward. He’s no ‘universalist’ in the most generic sense of the term – he’s an inclusivist, betting large on the generosity of God and betting small on humanity’s hard-hearted intransigence…just like N.T. Wright.
His centered-set circle includes Oprah and her many viewers…as does mine.
I think Rob thrives when he’s having conversations with spiritual seekers like Oprah or comedian Pete Holmes. Listen to his 2+ hour conversation with the latter on You Made It Weird, and notice how relaxed and engaged he is, in stark contrast to when he’s fighting off the
pitchfork-wielding fundies certain more conservative evangelical audiences.
A winebibber and a glutton – friend of publicans and tax collectors.
Rob Bell: The Lost Interview
As promised, here is exclusive, un-published interview content from a conversation Rob and I had back during his Everything Is Spiritual Tour in 2006. Relevant’s now-defunct leadership magazine Neue published part of it (archived here); I’m not sure why they chose the portions they did. Here’s the full interview for the first time, including the redacted bits.
Mike Morrell: Rob, how do you feel about church growth?
Rob Bell: What do you mean?
MM: I mean the way it’s classically framed in ministry circles, in terms of numerical growth as the sign of the health of the church.
RB: James said that true religion takes care of the widows and the orphans. Are our widows and orphans being taken care of? Are people who can’t make their rent having other people chip in to help them make rent? People with cancer, do they have someone to drive them to chemotherapy? Are people in the local jail getting letters written to them and someone to visit them? That’s exciting church growth right there. It’s not a phrase that we ever use at Mars Hill; it’s not something that we talk about.
MM: That makes sense to me. Do you feel like the call of pastors has changed or evolved in our present context?
RB: A lot of people are rethinking the ways they have understood a pastor functioning in the past. For years, for many people, a pastor was somebody to “do” the ministry. But in Ephesians 4 a pastor is somebody who equips and trains the Body to do the works of the ministry. I think a lot of pastors are rethinking some of those fundamental roles in light of what the Scriptures actually teach. I think there are all sorts of fascinating things going on.
MM: Recently in one of your Mars Hill messages, you were talking about how your church is moving from a concept of “membership” to one of “covenant.” What is the difference in this shift?
RB: Membership sometimes has very static notions attached to it. You join, you’re a part, you pay your dues. You’re in. But a church is a living, breathing thing. It’s a body of people who have centered themselves around the risen Christ, so we wanted something that had a living, breathing, feel to it. Every year you have to renew. Every year we ask the question: is Christ present in our midst? Is the resurrected Christ on display? And we use that for another year of journey. So we’re trying to take it out of static, fixed, unchanging ideas and to move it into a living, breathing covenantal relationship, where we’ve all committed to this thing together. We’re going to journey there and see what happens.
MM: So what would happen if someone honestly assessed their lives and the life of the church, and decided “This year we aren’t going to be in covenant?” What would happen then? Would you all encourage them to find another sort of community?
RB: We have people who leave our church all the time! Yes. We’d say, “Tell us more of your story and let’s sort it through. If this isn’t the community for you, great. If there’s all sorts of junk and you’re running from, things you’re refusing to go on the inward journey and deal with, then let’s talk about that.” There could be all sorts of reasons. For us the issue is always entering into the person’s story and searching for what the Spirit of God is up to here.
MM: It looks like when I’ve read interviews with you the past few years, you keep referring to your church as a church of 10,000. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s been that size for the past few years, hasn’t it? Has Mars Hill hit a plateau at 10,000?
RB: Well, there isn’t any room. We moved into a former mall, so I think that’s how we can fit in three services. Building a bigger building seems to me to be an abomination that causes desolation when so many people in the world don’t have food.
MM: There’s such variety in churches today. I’m a part of a house church community with about 25 people.
RB: I think that’s great. I’m trying to preach messages that will thin the crowds out. Like in John chapter 6 when the crowds get biggest, Jesus starts saying things, and people are like “wow” and they start leaving. So maybe I’ll just start to preach some real sermons and we’ll see what happens.
MM: You make a good point about bigger buildings and global hunger. You said recently that we had the resources to end poverty. Who was the “we” in your statement? Do you think that church initiatives, government initiatives, celebrity initiatives (like the ONE campaign) are doing a good job? And how can we avoid making our “help” just another form of paternalistic colonialism?
RB: If it gives voice to the suffering in the world, it’s a good thing. Often, it’s important to go back a year later and see what’s happening. For us, our passion is always to find those who are in a particular geographical setting with some credibility, who have been there for awhile, who have a proven track record; people we can come in and partner with. In all humility we approach them and say, “Can we serve?” I think that some of the paternalistic colonialism comes with the assumption that we have the answers to others’ problems, and that’s not always true. So at first you have to chuck all results out the window and just listen. Find out if there is any clear and compelling action you can take. I think a lot of some of the negative effects of colonialism come simply from a posture of arrogance, which is probably rooted out of ignorance.
MM: What better theology and better readings of Scripture do you think can help us get the spiritual energy and resources to facilitate humble helping initiatives? Do you think that sometimes the evangelical emphasis on the “Fall” of humanity or the “end times” interferes on a practical level with our ability to reach out with compassion and humility to people?
RB: Ha! That’s an awesome question. First off, in Genesis 1, we’re all created in the image of God. So every human being is created in the image of God, then you have gender, male and female. Next you have location, some moved east to the plains. You don’t really have the birth of religion for a good twelve chapters. So first and foremost, other human beings are fellow image-bearers. So, when Jesus is teaching people to love, it’s not love so that you can… or love because…it’s just love. Period. It’s reclaiming the divine image that’s equal on every human being. And often some of the dangers of past works have been a failure to respect the whole humanity of others. “This person is a convert, this person is a project, this person is a possible notch in the belt,” and in the process, the image of God in every person isn’t respected. And that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. First foremost we feed and robe and visit and serve. These are things we do because Jesus said to do them, not because they will get us something. Everything has become “They’re wrong, I’m right, they’re missing, I have…” That whole posture will get in the way of actually blessing people.
MM: Why don’t so many Christians care about the world around us? We seem to almost have contempt for their neighbors unless they happen to convert.
RB: My observations have been that truth appears on the lips of all sorts of people, as does compassion. Grace and love are exhibited by all sorts of people with all sorts of labels and religious affiliation. So we’re back to every single person created in the image of God, breathed into by the divine. And, obviously, all of us are dreadfully in need of reconciliation with our Creator. But I think sometimes there’s a notion that if we beat people into a place of shame, where they don’t actually think they can make a difference, then they’ll receive Christ into their lives. That’s where things get very toxic, very fast.
MM: I agree. In this vein, I’ve heard a general critique about this understanding by some fellow Christians that I’d like to bounce off you. When we talk about a narrative understanding of redemption history, God’s story and our part in it, the critique is that this is humanism, that God’s sovereignty is being threatened in all of this. Do you ever run into the accusation of being humanistic in your efforts at Mars Hill?
RB: Of course it’s humanistic – we’re humans! I don’t even know what that means. This is how God has worked for thousands of years. I have a high view of humanity because I have a high view of God. When people speak against humanity they are speaking against God. The idea that our playing a real role in the divine/human story questions God’s sovereignty implies that humanity doing great things and God’s sovereignty are somehow either/or. This is an extremely limited and ultimately very narrow understanding of the world. The Bible did not drop out of the sky. People wrote it, people exerted a lot of sweat and toil. Luke says I’m writing for this purpose and the author of Proverbs says he writes for our instruction….so if you have a low view of humanity then you must have a seriously low view of the Scriptures, because this is how we got the Bible. If you’re a Christian, the only reason you’re a Christian is because somebody told you about Christ, and someone told them, and someone told them. You must at some point acknowledge that humans are capable of passing this message along to each person who’s so critical of the narrative theology to even have heard the message of redemption in the first place! People who say things like this rarely change the world. It generally just boils down to those who are trying to make a difference. History does not remember nay-sayers much. But we remember Nelson Mandela; we remember Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
MM: There is so much of how we see God and God’s purposes rooted in how we look at one another. Why do you think that so many of today’s Christians think of themselves primarily as “sinners?”
RB: In the New Testament that is not how people are identified. They’re identified as saints, they’re identified as holy ones, and they’re identified as the Bride of Christ. The whole premise of trusting Christ in the Scriptures is that you have a new identity. If you insist on calling yourself a sinner, you have to do it beyond the Bible. According to the Scriptures you now are somebody new, you aren’t who you were. I understand the value of “I still sin, I still struggle. I still need to be reminded of my fallibility, or my brokenness.” Yes, but you are a new creation. So you’re fundamental identity, and we all still struggle with this as it says in James, your fundamental identity has been radically altered in Christ. We’ll just call it eschatological realism, I’m being pulled into my true identity…
MM: That was the major discovery for me several years ago. It still amazes me how many Bible-believing Christians have a real hard time with that.
RB: These are the kinds of people who put Christ on the cross. Religious people who have a set understanding, an agenda of how way things are supposed to be, and are incapable of understanding or reconsidering the original intent of the Scriptures.
MM: When you first started Mars Hill, you said you wanted a place stripped of the clutter. You wanted a place where God to be freed up to speak. What are some ways we can challenge harmful religious systems in a loving way? To put it another way, how can we repaint our ecclesiological practices? For instance, do you feel like the professionalization of clergy, and the spectator arranged, monologue driven weekly event, ever undercuts the vision of Jesus?
RB: I’m leery of challenging conventional practices. If the intent is simply to challenge or be controversial, that’s never a noble attempt. The attempt for me is always truth, an attempt for the community of people who are learning the way of Jesus as his disciples. So, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a group of people gathering in a room to hear somebody talk; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a person in a church who gets a paycheck for their work in equipping the Body to the work of the ministry. What’s dangerous is when we fail to call things what they are. On Sundays at Mars Hill, we would simply say this is just a gathering of the church, or churches. We gather throughout all the days of the week as communities, but we actually journey together in smaller networks of people. So, if you come here on Sunday, you come for an hour and a half for whatever teaching and singing, and get some information, but please don’t say you’re a part of this church. You went to a services of this church put on. So to me, God can use all these different ways. The issue is whether we’re honest about what things are, and we call them what they are, and we don’t place expectations on things that can’t deliver. There are nineteen “one anothers” in the New Testament that are repeated 43 times—love one another, pray for one another—you can only do a couple of those in a church service. So let’s just be clear that when the Bible talks about. Let’s give those services proper weight. They can be extremely important, and at the same time, it’s not the flow of how you live your life day in and day out. There’s always a group of people who say that churches can only be small to be authentic, churches can only be house churches to be authentic. The truth is that people can be fake in a room of ten and they can be fake in a room of 1,000. We tend to have unbelievable moments of the presence of God, in rooms of 10 and in rooms of 1,000. Generally when somebody’s all against something I ask, “So how did you get burned by that group?” The reaction is generally against a bad experience. The issue is whether we’re being honest about the current expression we’re in the midst of.
While you’re waiting for the Oprah Interview…Rob Bell’s Greatest Interview Hits
*We could argue that what’s happening today, beginning with the Internet’s popular-use rise in the 1990s through the advent of the mobile web today is a process of de-massification or niche-ification of media creation, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.