There’s something different about Rob Bell. We last met during the Love Wins tour and he seemed exuberant; on the verge of being hyperactive – words unconsciously spilling out of him before he could stop them escaping. The PR storm that erupted following the publication of that book got everyone a bit excited.
He’s in London again, promoting his latest book and post-Love-Wins-Bell seems quieter, more measured. He pauses for longer than is comfortable before answering questions. He seems wounded; in recovery. Recouping from a two-year rollercoaster that saw him outcast by some from kosher evangelicalism.
At the end of last year, he left Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan– the church he pastored and had founded – because the criticism got too much, even from members of his own congregation. He was labelled a heretic and a false teacher because Love Wins alluded to universalism and questioned the existence of hell in light of belief in an all-loving God.
Bell took refuge in California with his family and a “close knit group of friends” as he took himself on a journey to find “a more forgiving faith”. He no longer has a regular place of worship, but occasionally slips in the back at a friend’s church; or finds God in the questions and observations about life that his children bring up around the breakfast table on a Sunday morning.
Maybe the recovery – taking time out from Church the Institution – is doing him good. “In the past two years, there’s been a joy in my bones,” he tells me. “Because whatever desire you have to be liked or admired, you get freed from some of that when it doesn’t happen. That need gets burned out of you.
“Here’s the thing about criticism: you wake up one day and … you’re alive. And you’re fine. All the bad things people could have said and all the bad things that could happen? They already did.”
Bell’s latest offering What We Talk About When We Talk About God hasn’t caused anywhere near the amount of furore that Love Wins did. But we should pay attention to this book. Because it’s his attempt to speak to a new generation of people who might not have grown up in church, but who are searching for something – whether they know it or not. Here is where Bell’s poetic language finds its home.
“I’ve met so many people who have this sense that it might not be an accident,” he says. “They realise that there might be purpose or hope or joy or that peace might be real. They can’t do the denial reduction thing which says we’re just a collection of biology and there’s nothing more going on here. And yet some of the views and conceptions of God don’t work for them.
“This book is for all of your cynical, smart, educated friends who love good music and good food and love to go out and hike around in nature and yet would never say that they’re remotely religious, but who do call themselves spiritual. This is a book to help them put some language on some things. One of the most powerful things is when you read a book and a person puts language to things that you’ve felt. So I’m trying to put language to experiences people have.”
He laughs wide-eyed when I tell him about The Sunday Assembly –London’s new atheist church where people get together to be inspired, sing songs and do acts of kindness in their communities. At what point does that become a church?, I ask.
“It feels like that thing is headed somewhere,” he says. “If that’s as hilarious and moving as it sounds then at some point the solidarity they are experiencing will get them thinking about God. That can only go on for so long before people go ‘wow, what is it about when we gather and sing songs that is so powerful?’ I wouldn’t call this church, but I would call it really fascinating and compelling.”
But what about the rest of us? The ones who may have grown up in church, but think there must be a better way to do it; a better way to be Christ right now in the places that we are.
What We Talk About When We Talk About God explores the idea of the ruach (wind) of God running through everything – every thread of our lives.
“The ancient Hebrews had this way of talking about the life force that surges through the whole universe. And then there was a thread that ran through it all. It had a source – a singular, common source – God.
“And because of this you have a sense that there is depth to life in joy and in suffering; things are what they are and yet they seem to point beyond themselves. We have a sense that life matters. When we use the word ruach we’re saying that God’s life-giving power isn’t something ‘other’. I’m trying to help people conceive of God in a new way in which God is not distant or detached or somewhere else, but the very source of all of this vibrant, dynamic life we see.”
I ask him whether he thinks that somewhere between the Hebrews and us, the Church lost God; or lost the meaning of who God is. Is that why he is so disillusioned with it all?
“I think we’re endlessly searching and discovering and learning and growing. Jesus calls disciples – and a disciple is a student. A student is learning and has a humble sense of surprise. Jesus is teaching us how to live his way in the world; how to worry less; how to be more generous; how to be less judgemental; how to be more forgiving. So in terms of who got it right and who got it wrong, that’s tough to answer. What we do have is this moment and all the things that have come before us; and our best attempts to tap into the full life that he spoke of.”
A lot of what he says resonates with a sense of dissatisfaction with the state of things that our generation of Christians is feeling. Something is changing. There seems to be a sense of movement. We are increasingly ill at ease with what has gone before and desperate to find a new, authentic way of re-learning who God is and what He’s got to do with us. Rob Bell and others like him are trying to do that – and occasionally finding themselves ostracised because of it. At times our own search for God will mean we critique the past and we poke fun at the fusty institutions of church. But at some point, we’ve got to provide a better way. Whether or not Bell & Co are actually providing that better way is still to be seen.
But they are challenging our generation to do something. “Any old donkey can knock down a barn,” he says. “It takes a special one to build one. I hope that your energies become less and less about what didn’t work and what wasn’t helpful and more and more about what you are going to build.
“It’s a natural phase to deconstruct why it didn’t work and be all bitter. That’s normal. But at some point, it’s destructive, because you’re all young and you have lots of energy and lots of passion. But we need you to build something. We need you to make the thing that you’re all longing for. You can’t just sit around thinking about why it doesn’t exist. At some point you’re the answer. That’s the challenge.”
What We Talk about When We Talk About God (HarperCollins) is available now.