Rob Bell has his arms folded across his chest and is leaning back in his chair away from me. I’ve just asked him for his reaction to the controversy around his best-selling book Love Wins two years ago. There’s a long pause before he answers, but the body language of the 42-year-old American also speaks volumes. Perhaps it’s a question he’s getting tired of.
And there have been lots of questions lately, particularly over his recently announced support for committed gay relationships. It’s another marker in the evolution of the former mega-church pastor, and has left many once-enthusiastic followers confused or concerned at the direction he has taken in recent years. So, what’s up with Rob Bell?
The Rob Bell phenomenon
Not so long ago, Bell was the brightest star in the evangelical cosmos. Aged just 29 he started Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which in just a couple of years had an attendance of more than 10,000. His NOOMA DVDs ? short films reflecting on subjects such as suffering and forgiveness ? were being played in the living rooms of thousands of small groups. His first book, Velvet Elvis (Zondervan) received critical acclaim and his sermons were the most downloaded religious podcast on iTunes week in, week out.
It was the Rob Bell phenomenon. Here was a brilliant communicator ? provocative, creative and (most importantly) cool. Little wonder that his church grew so rapidly. When I visited it in 2009, I found a cavernous room (a former shopping mall) with lots of grey plastic chairs arranged around a central stage ? a minimalist approach which ensured that the congregation weren’t coming for the special effects. When Bell bounded on to the stage in trademark skinny jeans and black-rimmed glasses, and delivered a compelling, deep and dramatic 40-minute talk without any notes, you realised just how central his energy was to the life of the church.
Even by that time a lot had changed, and Mars Hill had been through some rocky patches. Some of those I talked to spoke nostalgically of ‘the early days’ when there weren’t enough chairs for all the new people each week. The crowds had thinned out since then. Some of the more conservative-minded attendees had left early on when Bell insisted on women in leadership. Then there was the attempt to have him removed from leadership by an unhappy contingent. A teaching series on peace that seemed to critique the Iraq War led to disquiet, and numbers dipped again. The reality was that Bell was growing up, and so was his theology, but not in directions that everyone liked. When I ask him if he recognises that his thinking has changed over the years, he says, ‘Of course. Growth is the point of Christian faith, so it’s funny when someone grows, and that’s news.’
As the wider church subculture increasingly embraced Bell’s brand of ‘hipster Christianity’, there were rumblings of discontent from some quarters of the evangelical world. When Bell undertook a speaking tour titled The Gods Aren’t Angry, he was widely seen as abandoning the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. The emerging Church movement he represented was increasingly viewed with suspicion by elder statesmen of the established evangelical churches.
Then in February 2011 things really blew up. Love Wins (Collins), a book in which Bell made a defence of the view that all people would one day be saved through Christ, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. To those who believed the trendy pastor had already been straying dangerously close to liberalism, this was the final straw. For weeks the Internet buzzed with discussion about whether Bell had become a universalist. John Piper, a leading New Calvinist, tweeted ‘Farewell Rob Bell’, while others leapt to Bell’s defence. Time magazine’s front cover story asked, ‘What if there’s no hell?’ and named him among the 100 most influential people in the world.
Which brings us back to my initial question about the drama his most controversial book created. ‘I love to create things and share them with people,’ Bell says. ‘I never set out to be controversial. The fact that it might help someone is overwhelming, and if someone apparently doesn’t like it, I don’t care. So it’s not a drama for me.’
From Mars Hill to Hollywood
Perhaps he was immune to it, but there was certainly drama at the church he pastored. Shortly after the book’s publication, Bell took to the stage to reassure his congregation that he hadn’t become a heretic. It didn’t stop a reported exodus of 3,000 or so people from the church at the time. How did he feel about that? ‘A lot of people came too,’ is his calm reply. ‘There are lots of people who, when you talk about God being love, have never heard that.’
Later that year, Bell announced his own departure from Mars Hill. Rumours abounded that his position as pastor had become untenable, but that seems unlikely. He visited the church earlier this year, preaching to a warm and receptive crowd as part of a tour for his latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (Collins). For Bell, moving on from the church after 13 years at the helm was simply a response to being called by God into other forms of ministry. Surprising forms of ministry at that.
He has teamed up with Carlton Cuse, producer of the Lost TV series to create a talk show-style television pilot. It’s a brave step that involved moving to Los Angeles with his wife and children, but with work still in progress, the details are somewhat enigmatic. ‘It’s a lot of different things I’ve done over the years thrown in a blender. Throw in Lost with NOOMA and some sermons and Q&A. There are lots of beautiful, inspiring things happening in the world.’
The good news is that those arms have unfolded and Bell is leaning in towards me. Talking about what he’s doing now, rather than the controversy of two years ago, has animated him.
‘Being a pastor, my experience has been that people want to talk about the things that matter most. People want to confess their sins, drag up their secrets, to be clean, redeemed and made whole. We want guidance on how to get along, how to forgive, how to love our enemies, be more generous, how not to worry.'
Talking about God
Nothing is ever certain in TV, but when you are willing to take risks, as Bell evidently is, extraordinary things can happen. What drives him is undoubtedly the same desire to see ordinary people connect with God that led him to start the church 15 years ago. Now his sights are set beyond the walls of the church and The Rob Bell Show (yes, really) could be on a screen near you soon. Similarly, his new (and far less controversial) book steers away from addressing committed Christians. He is in search of those who think they are non-religious but still sense what he calls ‘the hum of reverence’ within.
‘This book is for everybody who can’t do the denial, reductionist route which says “you are just a finely tuned collection of atoms and this whole thing is just a material accident”,’ Bell says. So is this his response-to-atheism book? ‘That voice has become popular, but for a lot of people it won’t do. They say, “Are you kidding me? I just had a child. Have you hiked in the mountains? Or have you heard the new Muse album?” But at the same time to talk of God often feels like a step backward for those people.’
Remoulding the picture of God for a generation that no longer understands what Christians are talking about is the task that Bell has set himself. The irony is that similar books from people who have come from a different end of the Church spectrum, such as Francis Spufford’s recent Unapologetic (Faber), have been welcomed as a ‘breath of fresh air’ by many evangelicals. The problem for Bell is that many of those same people think he’s been moving in the ‘wrong direction’, and church leaders are now wary of endorsing anything by him.
A central theme of his new book is that God is always ‘ahead’ of where his people are. He describes ‘clicks’ in history when God has moved people from one understanding to another. It happened in Old Testament times and again with the coming of Jesus. Two hundred years ago it happened to slavery. Now Bell believes the same transition will happen on the issue of homosexuality.
Affirming gay marriage
During his book tour, Bell responded to a direct question about his view of gay marriage by stating that ‘I think the ship has sailed and we need to affirm people wherever they are’. However, it’s evident that he isn’t keen for the issue to become this year’s equivalent of the Love Wins controversy. When I ask him to clarify his position on gay relationships, his arms resume their folded position and he leans back again. Another pause. ‘I am for fidelity and commitment and love and monogamy. We need to move ahead in this area. It’s time for the Church to acknowledge that we have brothers and sisters who are gay.’
It’s a similar sentiment to those that Steve Chalke (whom Bell counts as a friend) announced in January this year. So are we seeing a major shift in thinking on this issue in the Church? Bell thinks so. ‘This will quickly become how it is. I think it will shift very quickly. I think opposition will become more and more rare, to be honest. Some people are gay and some people are straight. That’s just the way the world is.’
Despite his confidence about the way the world is, I can’t help feeling that the battle over sexuality is set to continue for a long time. Many will interpret his views as a simple capitulation to culture. For Unbelievable? (the debate programme I host) Andrew Wilson, a leader in the Newfrontiers network, joined us to discuss the issue, though Bell seemed hesitant to be drawn out.
Faced with some direct questions about whether he really believed Jesus, Paul and the prophets would have been fine about loving gay relationships, Bell responded, ‘That’s a great question. I’ll have to think about it more.’ When Wilson pressed him on whether he was ‘lowering the asking price’ of the kingdom of God, Bell responded, ‘I’ve met people who are gay who have chosen to be celibate and do it out of a deep sense of conviction. I also have friends who have long-term partners they share their life with, and they are serious followers of Jesus, but they don’t want to live alone. I don’t see any reason to say you can’t do that and be a contributing member of the Church.’ But for leaders such as Wilson that begs the question of whether scripture or personal experience is the final authority on moral conduct.
While his new stance may further alienate him from traditional evangelicals, a typically winsome and engaging Bell was still warmly received at a packed out evening at the Union Chapel in Islington, London during his UK tour. The event, a simple talk based on the book, rounded off with a Q&A, was mainly populated by younger Christians who gave Bell a long round of applause at the end of the night. Their apparent tolerance for a pro-homosexual stance seems to lend weight to Bell’s optimism that views are shifting faster than traditional evangelicals may realise.
Seeking a bigger tent
Perhaps Bell’s recent confidence in expressing support for gay marriage is in part about being loosed from the pressure of holding together a mega-church that might disagree with him. He’s certainly not bothered about seeking approval from those who have already dismissed him for writing Love Wins. Nonetheless, the accusation that he has ‘gone liberal’ still rankles. For Bell, the arguments about orthodoxy between Christians are only alienating those looking on, and his frustration is evident. ‘This is part of the bulls**t that really pushes people away ? when you have a particular conviction, and all of a sudden your faithfulness to Jesus is called into question. This is why so many people don’t want to be part of the Church. This isn’t an issue about taking God seriously; this is the issue that the tent might be a little bit bigger.’
The search for a bigger tent seems to be at the centre of much of what Bell is now doing. His comments on homosexuality may have stirred fresh controversy, but his vision is much wider than that issue alone. Ever a creative and restless soul, Bell’s innate ability to communicate his understanding of the love of God has led him to search for new audiences beyond the Church. But what message will they receive? Is Bell’s desire to communicate God to a TV generation who don’t understand the language of the Church simply heading in the direction of the nebulous spirituality of Oprah? Do sin, repentance and a relationship with Christ still matter?
Apparently they do. ‘I’m a Christian,’ responds Bell. ‘I think it’s the best story going. When I was young and I first heard the Jesus stories I was captured by him. I believe. That undergirds everything I do. My experience has been that when I do my best to tell that story, for some reason people often respond by saying, “I believe too.”’
HOW ROB BELL GREW UP
1995: Bell graduates from Fuller Theological Seminary. Plays in a punk band and works in youth ministry at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
1999: Starts Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids. More than 1,000 people turn up on the first Sunday.
2001: With 10,000 in attendance, Mars Hill is the fastest growing church in America.
2002: Begins producing NOOMA short films ? the DVDs are international bestsellers.
2003: Bell’s insistence on women leaders results in drop in attendance at Mars Hill.
2005: Publishes his first best-selling book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. But his association with emerging Church theology earns him critics.
2006: Undertakes a nationwide speaking tour titled Everything is Spiritual.
2007: Time magazine interviews Bell, raising mainstream awareness. The Church Report names him as the tenth most influential Christian in America.
2008: A teaching series critical of the Iraq War causes a further drop in attendance at Mars Hill.
2008: The Gods Aren’t Angry tour and DVD raises concerns among some evangelicals that Bell is rejecting penal substitution.
2009: Drops Like Stars tour premiers in the UK at Greenbelt. Addressing the relationship between suffering and creativity, the tour sells out in the UK. Arguably the peak of Bell’s popularity, and his most creative and tightly produced event.
March 2011: Love Wins is published, in which Bell appears to defend universalism ? the view that all will be saved. The book causes a firestorm of controversy within evangelicalism. John Piper tweets ‘Farewell Rob Bell’.
April 2011: Featured on the front cover of Time magazine which lists him among the 100 most influential people in the world. But attendance at Mars Hill drops again following the controversy over Love Wins.
Dec 2011: Leaves Mars Hill Bible Church to pursue film and TV work with Lost producer Carlton Cuse.
2013: Announces support for same-sex relationships during tour for his new book What We Talk About When We Talk About God (see video below).
Photo by Steve Fanstone