Q&A with Rob Bell: Everything is spiritual

July 14th, 2015

Rob Bell is well-known in Christian circles as an author, pastor and the featured speaker from the popular short film series NOOMA. He created some controversy in 2011 when he questioned the existence of hell in his book "Love Wins." Later that year, Bell stepped down from his role as teaching pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. Since then, he has focused on reaching a broader audience through various projects, including books, television specials and speaking tours. By mid-August, Rob's current tour, "Everything is Spiritual," will have stopped in over 30 U.S. cities.

In an interview with Ministry Matters, Rob talks about Jesus, science and faith, heaven and hell, marriage and sexuality, evangelical Christianity, his speaking tour and upcoming projects.

SHANE RAYNOR: You’ve done some speaking tours before, like “The Gods Aren’t Angry” and “Drops Like Stars.” How is “Everything is Spiritual” different? Who is the person you feel is the target audience for this tour?

ROB BELL: I get ideas about things I want to make and then I throw myself into it with everything I have. The joy is in the creation. So I've never had a target audience, it's always been about being true to the work as it emerges. This tour started with some sketches in a notebook several years ago and the ideas kept coming and building and connecting until there was this electric moment when I realized "This is Everything is Spiritual Part 2!"

SHANE: Why does so much tension seem to exist between science and faith? Is there a significant conflict or has this been largely exaggerated? What can Christians do to address it? 

ROB: It's absurd and quite tragic the way people have managed to pit science against faith. They aren't in conflict at all — they're long lost dance partners. I don't divide the world up into Christians and other people — we are all human beings, brothers and sisters, and we embrace truth wherever we find it, whether that's in a lab, a field or a cathedral. Because sometimes you need a scientist and sometimes you need a poet. I love how it's written in the New Testament: "All things are yours!" We embrace truth wherever we find it from whoever says it however we come across it. It's a big beautiful exotic heartbreaking mysterious world we live in and it's our home and we get to explore and learn and affirm truth wherever we find it.

SHANE: You recorded a television special on OWN called “The Rob Bell Show.” What was that experience like? Do you have plans for additional TV specials? A regular series?

ROB: Yes I have lots of plans. Haha. I had a blast making that special; the folks at OWN are extraordinary human beings and a joy to work with. As for future shows, we have some compelling things in the works, so stay tuned. Literally. 

SHANE: Were you expecting the fallout that happened after the release of your book “Love Wins”? Why do you believe it happened? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently regarding the book and the controversy surrounding it?

ROB: Apparently a number of religious folks aren't aware of the depth and breadth of their own tradition. Their problem isn't with me, it's with the diversity and inclusion and hope and possibilities that have always been at the heart of the Jesus story. And if one book by one dude can rattle you that much, what you're calling "faith" is really just fear. Does it hurt to be misunderstood and slandered and hated? Absolutely. But I love my work and I never stop meeting extraordinary people who are on the journey with me — how great is that? 

SHANE: Many Christians and some members of the press, both Christian and secular, have labeled you a universalist. Is that an accurate description of what you believe about heaven and hell? Why or why not?

ROB: I have no idea what that means. Those sorts of labels and categories seem like easy and lazy ways for people to dismiss each other and avoid actually engaging with the big questions. What I do know is that wise people of faith for literally thousands of years have been leaving room for the mysterious transforming power of divine love and grace. It makes for such a better story. 

SHANE: You’ve expressed frustration in the past with evangelical Christianity. Do you still consider yourself an evangelical? Where do you see the evangelical movement heading?

ROB: I would hope that wherever I go I bring good news — that's what that word means, right? It began with the first followers of Jesus taking a Roman military propaganda term and co-opting it for their own subversive purposes, insisting that the world isn't made better through coercive military violence but through sacrificial love. How great is that!? Unfortunately this word has been hijacked in recent years for other purposes but no worries, we're taking it back. 

SHANE: You’ve said that you “affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it’s true, it belongs to God.” But you’ve also spoken in the past of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s role as Savior and Messiah. The church you founded and pastored for years, Mars Hill Bible Church, affirms in its narrative theology statement, “Jesus is our only hope for bringing peace and reconciliation between God and humans. Through Jesus we have been forgiven and brought into right relationship with God.” Should Christians evangelize people of other faiths? How would you respond if a Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim friend asked you “Why should I believe in Jesus Christ?” 

ROB: I've been telling the Jesus story for over 20 years and I continue to find him more compelling than ever. I believe. More than ever. And over the years I have met countless people who call themselves Christians who don't appear to have any living breathing vibrant connection with the resurrected Christ and I've met countless people from every religious background including atheists that tell me of their very personal and real experiences of the living Christ. I don't have people asking me why they should believe something — that's starting off on the wrong foot to say the least. What does happen constantly with all kinds of people I meet is they say "I had this encounter with Jesus, can you help me understand it..." The labels, more than ever, simply aren't big enough to contain what the cosmic Christ is up to in the world. 

SHANE: How should the church approach the homosexuality issue? In your opinion, is it possible for a church to maintain a traditional view of sexuality and marriage yet still show love and welcome everyone?

ROB: This isn't an "issue" — these are people — they're our brothers and sisters and neighbors and co-workers and friends and aunts and uncles and it's time to affirm them for who they are as they are and their desire to share their lives with a partner. Can you be against them and welcome them? No, you can't. But you can affirm and embrace and celebrate people for who they are and discover all sorts of new family and friends along the way. 

SHANE: Tell us a little about your weekly podcast. What topics do you discuss? What’s the format? 

ROB: It's not a podcast it's a RobCast — haha. I talk about everything under the sun from suffering to physics to music. Sometimes I take a passage from the Bible and give people the setting and context and background so they can see what's going on just below the surface. Other times I interview friends and authors who have mind blowing things to say like Liz Gilbert or Alexander Shaiah or Pete Holmes. Sometimes my wife Kristen joins me and we talk zimzum. Sometimes I riff on a question listeners have sent in. I can't believe how much of a thrill it's been. What an extraordinary medium. 

SHANE: Are there any other books or films in the works you’d like to tell us about?

ROB: Yep. Lots. I filmed an online class people can take at Oprah.com and there's a new book coming early next year. Right now I'm on tour and we're talking about the next tour, and then I'll be doing some two-day events that we'll be announcing soon. I'm having more fun than ever.

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