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Interview with Rob Bell

Former megachurch pastor and bestselling author talks about faith, God and Oprah

By Tim Johnson

Q Once upon a time, you were something of an evangelical superstar, leading the thousands-strong Mars Mill megachurch in Grand Rapids, Mich. Then in 2011, you wrote Love Wins, a book that refuted the idea of hell, at least in the fire-and-brimstone sense. It was a New York Times bestseller, but evangelical leaders slammed it and Christian bookstores pulled your works from the shelves. What compelled you to write the book?

A When you’re a pastor or a spiritual leader, people ask you a lot of questions, and I realized a lot of them came from the same root. Many people were taught something called the “Good News,” but it’s actually a horror story — that unless you do, say, pray, believe, act the right way, you will suffer eternal torment. It’s not psychologically bearable. It makes people miserable and sad. And people are terrified because religion handed them a narrative that is not transforming and not sustainable.

I kept working at how to answer some of these questions, and once a certain collection of ideas had reached a tipping point, I realized I had everything I needed to write a book. I had to write it. Now was the time.

Q What did you make of the strong reaction to the book in the evangelical community? Why was it so harsh?

A My wife and friends probably anticipated it, but I didn’t. First off, these are people who are deeply ignorant of their own traditions. None of [what’s in the book] is new. But it’s a shock for some people to realize that their own tradition is far more loving, inclusive, intelligent, deep and mysterious than they’d been taught.

For a lot of people, when they use the word “faith,” they’re actually talking about fear. And if somebody pokes holes [in that theology], it turns out to be quite fragile.

Q How did the backlash affect you personally?

A It hurts. You’re human. So no matter how much you can say, “Come on, grow up, open your eyes,” when you’re misunderstood or blogged about or slandered — especially by people who have actually read the book — you have to go all the way to the heart of it, and then you come out the other side. You realize that on the other side, there’s strength, joy and resiliency. Now it’s like, “All right, let’s do this! Where else can we go? What else can we talk about?”

Q Does it irk you that you provided biblical justifications for your positions, but most of the backlash was personal?

A Honestly, I don’t read the critiques — it’s not a part of my life. And when someone just endlessly wants to argue the Bible, you already have a problem. Because the idea of sola scriptura is completely false. No one just reads the Bible. You read the Bible in light of tradition, in light of reason, in light of the new thing you sense is happening in the world.

Q Is the 21st-century evangelical church getting Jesus wrong?

A Two thousand years ago, a movement started around a mystic revolutionary rabbi who turned the whole system upside down by insisting that a new world can be made through sacrificial love. The dominant message of that day, of the Roman Empire, was that the world is made better through coercive military violence — just crush everybody in your path, and that’s how you make peace. And I think a whole generation around Jesus went, “Wait — we’re actually part of a global military superpower that goes around crushing people to make peace.”

A number of people have realized that there’s got to be a better way — that the politicization of Jesus doesn’t work anymore. A lot of really exciting things are happening as people are rethinking just who he was and what he was doing. We’ll endlessly be rethinking it. But the idea that he came to give us capitalism and nice shiny products and safe belief systems that have no room for doubt is completely ridiculous.

Q You left Mars Hill four years ago and moved to California. Why?

A We’d had an incredible season [at Mars Hill], but a whole series of experiences told us that it was time to go, so we said goodbye with love. Los Angeles has always been in our bones — Kristen and I lived in California when we were first married, and my mom is from there; I have memories of visiting when I was seven years old.

If you’re going to broadcast, if you want to spread ideas, Los Angeles is where you need to be. It felt like coming home.

Q When you left Mars Hill, you also left congregational ministry. What does your church look like these days?

A I see church as more of a verb than a noun. We have incredible friends, and we share our lives. [Historically], the whole church started with a couple of people around a table. You don’t have to be in a huge room with all sorts of formality.

Q A couple of years ago, you made headlines in the United States by publicly supporting same-sex marriage. What prompted that decision?

A Actually, I gave the answer in an interview that I’d been giving for a decade, and somebody somewhere decided that was an announcement. That wasn’t my intention — it was just me answering how I’d answered year after year after year. But that’s how it works these days — the interweb decides that you have decided.

As a pastor, you don’t deal with abstract concepts and topics; you deal with people. And people, we want other people to share our lives with. It’s a beautiful thing.

Q In December 2014, your self-titled talk show made a brief debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and you’ve also been a guest on her SuperSoul Sunday program. How did your friendship with Oprah come about?

A She had read one of my books and really liked it, so we did an interview. We talked for a whole day, and we laughed so hard I thought I was going to pass out. She’s fantastic. She’s as amazing as you think.

Q I see that you recently wrapped up something called the “Everything Is Spiritual” tour — tell me more about that.

A It’s a one-man show, about two hours long. I visited 31 cities in a row and talked about how scientists are telling us that the universe has been expanding for 13 billion years, and our hearts tell us that our moments of peace, joy, love, connection, euphoria all come when we move beyond ourselves. So what we know about the universe and what we know about our hearts tend to look very, very similar.

Q You have a new book, How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, coming out in March. What else can we expect from you in the next little while?

A All I’ve ever known is just to keep making the next thing. So I’ve got a bunch of books in my head that I can’t wait to release — a couple of them are on my computer — and then I keep coming up with new ideas for events and tours and TV shows. I’ll just keep making stuff because it’s so much fun. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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