ROB BELL was once the pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was saluted by one newspaper as “the next Billy Graham”. Today, he is more likely to be found on stage at a stand-up comedy club in downtown Los Angeles than in a pulpit.
But he has not stopped preaching. “I get a screen and put up sections from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it somehow works,” he says of his shows at the Largo comedy club, where he has a residency. “People just realise, ‘Wait, was that a sermon? Did I just buy a ticket for a show and I just heard a sermon? And I’m not only OK with it, it was kind of great to be there.’”
Bell moved to LA in 2012, a year after the publication of Love Wins (Features, 5 August 2011), which cast doubt on the idea of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment. To the US’s Evangelical gatekeepers, such as Franklin Graham and John Piper, this amounted to denial of the gospel itself, and a reason to warn their flocks off his work.
As a result of the book, Bell went from “being the coolest Christian in America” to “the biggest heretic in America”, Kent Dobson, his successor at Mars Hill Bible Church, says in The Heretic, a documentary about Bell released this year and directed by Andrew Morgan.
Bell notes that Love Wins contained nothing “which isn’t firmly within the historic Jesus tradition”, but the heretic label has stuck. It has even, perhaps, become a badge of honour, denoting a thinker unafraid to push theological boundaries and unsettle cherished assumptions.
Bell says that the move to California was not a direct result of Love Wins: the church, which he founded with his wife, Kirsten, in 1999, was “loving and supportive” and supported his decision “to follow the work where it takes you”.
“At some level, I’m telling a story, and, at some point, you say: ‘Where do people tell stories? And if I was in one of the capitals of storytelling would that do something new for the work? Would that do something new in me?’”
Bell had absolutely no intention to lead a church in LA. “I’m not ever in churches or overtly religious spaces. The whole thing is a temple. That drives what I do more than anything. As opposed to trying to build a temple, I come along and announce that the whole thing is a temple, the whole earth.”
AWAY from the demands of preaching weekly to a congregation of thousands, he has done more or less as he pleases: hosting a weekly podcast (“The RobCast”); the comedy-club residency; writing books and a play; going on speaking tours; and surfing. He even had a slot on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which he mixed motivational life-coaching — “You have more power to create your life than you realise” — with exposition of the Hebrew scriptures.
Unshackled from the expectations of a congregation, he has also voiced support for same-sex marriage. “Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural, and healthy to want someone to go through life with,” he told Oprah in one interview.
“The past few years have been. . . shall I use the word ‘fun’?” Bell says. “It’s just been absolutely amazing. . . The environment here in Los Angeles is . . . like being home.”
Bell’s job and location might have changed, but his fundamental sense of calling has not: he believes the sermon is “an art form” which needs reclaiming as “somewhere between guerrilla theatre and performance art”.
“I’ve been trying to reclaim the sermon for everybody, not for a group of religious people over here, but for everybody, about what it means to be human.”
This desire to open the sermon up to people outside Christian subcultures has always animated him, he says: it led to his starting Mars Hill, in a disused shopping mall; to his touring clubs and theatres with shows such as Everything is Spiritual and The Gods aren’t Angry, and his hugely popular Nooma DVDs; and, ultimately, to where he is today, talking about Ecclesiastes in a sweaty comedy club.
People outside the churches are hungry for depth, he says. Western culture is consumed by “treble notes”, the “of-the-moment, pressing concerns, what hit the internet 17 minutes ago”. People increasingly crave “the bass notes”, he says: the deeper matters that human beings have talked about for thousands of years.
“And when somebody can tell you a story, can quote a text, they can help you see that the thing that you are facing, that you are struggling with, that you are confronted by — oh yeah, people have been wrestling with that for thousands of years. And here’s some of the truths, some of the insights, some of the wisdom in the shared human experience.
“It’s amazing how much we’re craving this. And especially as people leave what you think of as conventional religion — they’re desperate for bass notes.”
BELL played drums in an indie rock band as a student at Wheaton College, Illinois, and he clearly still enjoys the buzz of touring and the immediacy of live performance (although he is rarely away from his family for more than a couple of nights, and takes his wife and three children with him on longer tours). “The people in a room — I love that more than ever.”
Next month, he brings the “Holy Shift” tour, which has already been around the US, to the UK and Ireland. The organisers, Greenbelt, with whom Bell has often collaborated in recent years, say that the shows contain a “mix of philosophy, comedy, theology, and subversive insight”.
“I’m sort of reclaiming the word ‘holy’. Can you in 2018 talk about the word ‘holy’ for an hour and 45 minutes in such a way that takes people places they haven’t been before? In some ways it’s like a giant experiment — can you do this?”
The comedic side of Bell’s work has evolved in LA, where he has been “spending lots of time with comedians”. One of these is Pete Holmes, star of the HBO show Crashing, with whom Bell has developed a two-man stand-up show.
“When we became friends, he was doing stand-up, but he was going after big truths, trying to work out the big questions, and I’ve been doing the big questions, but leaning into comedy. We both realised that we were leaning into the other person’s work.”
Bell insists that he does not employ comedy as a device to “get people to pay attention to the work. This is central to the work.” The comedian charges through “the polite boundaries of conversation”, and asks: “Why don’t we talk about that? What line just got crossed? The comedian goes and finds that line and marches right over it.”
For Bell, comedy can be redemptive.
“When a comedian is working redemptively, the comedian goes: ‘Hey, look: we can go into all of these forbidden, dark, frightening places, and we’re fine. Look, you’re even laughing about it: your own shadow, your own darkness. All of the things that you’re most mortified [about] are present within you, I’m going to talk about them, name them, I’m going to list them in excruciating detail, and you’re going to bend over, you’re going to be laughing so hard, you’re going to be doubled over.’
“Seeing that, it’s like a profound gift. It’s like the release valve for the soul, like everybody can just relax.”
BELL does not miss the Evangelical sub-culture in which he was once revered, perhaps because he never felt at home in it. “Even when I was a pastor in a local church, that seemed like a strange freak-show.”
Not surprisingly, he is scathing about President Trump and the white Evangelicals who helped to elect him. When he preached at Mars Hill against the Iraq War, some left the church, which prompted his realisation that “there is a religion way more sacred to people than anything involving God, Jesus, the Bible — and that is America.
” Even the gun, the gun is more sacred: it’s the untouchable that can’t be questioned for a lot of people.”
Trump’s election, he says, revealed what the gospel amounted to for many US Evangelicals. “It was never about the grace, compassion, solidarity, non-violence of the Jesus path. It was about protecting a particular 21st-century, free-market, capitalist vision for the world. And that thing had been masquerading as Jesus for a long time, and it revealed its corrupt, stained soul. . .
“One of the gifts of this presidency has been that that’s all now out in the open. It said morality, it said faith, it said trust in God, it used the word ‘Jesus’. But it wasn’t serious: it was all a giant charade, and now way more people see it than saw it before — and that’s important.”
Bell acknowledges that his views are radical, but he notes that radical in Latin, radix, means “root”; so “The radical isn’t the person who wandered off into the deep weeds, the radical is the person who went back to the source. It’s the tradition that wandered off.
“The Jesus movement was birthed as a counter to the empire, a subversive movement that was about caring for each other. Sacrificial love is how the world is made better, not coercive military violence. We need that more than ever.”
Indeed, Bell maintains that he is “more compelled by the Bible than ever”. What is the Bible?, published last year, sought to present the Bible as “an ancient library of poems, letters and stories”, with the potential to transform its readers.
His next project is an audio book called Blood, Guts & Fire: The gospel according to Leviticus, in which he revisits the book from which he preached his first sermon series at Mars Hill. “I’m completely blown away with all of what I missed 20 years ago in Leviticus: how much of Leviticus is about justice, about equality, about living with intention, about conflict resolution, about proper relationship to the earth.”
THE public appetite for Bell’s work shows little sign of waning, and his output remains prolific. But he does not come across as hurried or busy, or anxious to meet the next deadline. (He was happy to extend the interview ten minutes over the allotted time.)
“All of life is organised around having a life, and then the work comes out of bumping into neighbours and going for a meal in the neighbourhood and meeting somebody out in the ocean surfing. . .
“I’m just thrilled with all the people I encounter who are waking up to the joy that’s possible, and who are rediscovering that the Jesus path does something to you and it does something to the world. You don’t have to live with hopeless despair. You can actually live with intention, and you can actually be shaped in profound ways. That’s endlessly interesting to me.”
The full interview can be heard on the Church Times Podcast
The Holy Shift Tour runs from 2 to 14 July. For details about the tour, and to buy tickets, visit: www.greenbelt.org.uk/rob-bell. Tickets are only available in advance from the Greenbelt website, not from the venues or on the night of each show.
The Heretic is available to rent or buy online: thehereticmovie.com.