Rob Bell on images of God for today and American evangelicalism, Pt 4
I spoke with Rob Bell Monday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London (pictured above). I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Here's part four of the interview, talking about things from John Robinson to American evangelicalism.
So when you're talking about that it reminds of another one of my questions which is around how... I wonder whether another problem that Christianity has today is that it's become too much an answer and not enough a way. Early Christians sometimes said we are followers of the way, and that's got lost. There's not enough process. It's far too much: here's the answer.
That is, yes, that is huge. The power of Eucharist to me is it moves the centre of gravity from having your intellectual furniture arranged properly, which I think for a lot of people... the thing is you've got to get this stuff right and cognitive assent to the proper things.
Yes, that's another way.
What's interesting about Eucharist is that it moves it to you and I, at a table, in our frailty and humanity being reminded of love and grace and partaking together and in that discovering our connection with each other and the world. That's a living, breathing experience. So I wonder what you're going to see... a baptism. When someone gets up and says, I was a heroin addict and my life was a wreck and I had this rebirth, and they are going to lower me into this water and they are going to raise me back up as a symbol of my new life. Who's going to argue with that? You know what I mean? I wonder if what you're going to see more and more is a reclaiming of these powerful acts because they rescue us from the brain vortex - not that what you think isn't extremely important and doctrines have their vital role - but it is the flesh and blood lived experience that endures.
There is the moment of revelation or the moment of change which is one thing that I'm sure happens...
One of many along the way.
Exactly, because maybe baptism is more like the day you go and see your therapist for the first time, and it's not until four or five years later - and then ten years after that - that you realise what was really going on.
You realise what they were saying to you.
That's one of the problems, we need the process emphasis, I feel. That's why Buddhism is so strong in this country, because it is saying, here's a whole series of exercises and tools and discernments that can take you on a journey.
Yup, I always begin with at least... of all the images that could be used, what the Christian tradition begins with is Jesus calling disciples who are students. So a student fundamentally begins from a posture of humility, with a sense of expectation and lots of capacity for surprise because you never know what might be just around the corner. And you're expectations are that you're going to be learning. So that is the fundamental posture of the whole thing, is if you knew everything then you would be the master. You are not the master. I'm shocked by how many people, when I say, wait, wait, wait. I don't know what you're thinking but I begin with this image of a disciple or a student.
So I am learning this way, and for Jesus this way was not esoteric or ambiguous. It was, I want to teach you how to worry less, how to be less judgmental, how to be more generous, how to be more loving of your enemies, how to stand in solidarity with people in their suffering. I'm learning how to live a way that is to me the best way, it's compelling, it's worth whatever cost or sacrifice comes with it. It's just a much more healthy framing of what this thing is. And of course, to be a student you trust the master. Sure. And that will have a personal dimension to it. I think you're completely right. Then process becomes natural. And of course, I'll always be growing, and learning, and expanding, and changing, and evolving. That shouldn't be a surprise.
I'm pushing on because I'm conscious of the time.
By the way, I have lots of interviews where the interviewer says, you know: you've grown. As I read your books, you know you've really grown. And I'm kinda of, is that - how is that a story that someone who is apparently a spiritual leader, which is kind of the point of spiritual institutions is that they would help you grows, is that a leader grows - how messed up is it that, that's a story!.
Well, it's probably the media's fault in large part.
Hey, you know what: you've grown! (He laughs.)
A bit more of a journalistic question. What images of God really work today? And I ask this because I notice that in the book you make a lot of spirit, ruach, breath - this are the kind of images. Not father, I don't think father mentioned once.
Yes, there is. There's a thing on language, I talk about father.
OK. I beg your pardon. The question I was going to ask was, this month is the 50th anniversary of the book Honest to God, which was a huge seller in this country.
I can't even tell you how much that book affected me.
Oh right, well how interesting because the front cover of the Observer newspaper which really got the book selling was, Our Images of God Have Got To Go. And it was particularly God the Father, and this felt like a liberation to people to be able to talk about other images of God. So what images of God work and maybe also how did that particular book speak to you?
There's like three questions there and they are all awesome. This man knows John Robinson which is just... OK.
Oh, oh! If it is free to think of other images that is wonderful but I don't think you have to toss father and here's why. A friend of mine just wrote a book and I just read the manuscript and he's a good friend of mine but I'd never actually heard his full story. His father abandoned him when he was young and his mother married a man who raised him. And later in life, maybe in his twenties, he went looking for his biological father. And found his biological father who wrote him a letter and said, I want nothing to do with you - after they'd met and interacted. I disavow being your father. Like one of those just bone crunching, I will not be your father from this time forward, I do not want to be known as your father. And this guy's like a great - my friend - but he literally says the image of God the father: I cannot tell you how helpful it is to my growth and psyche to imagine the love that I sort of long for from a biological father. How much of my healing has come from this image.
Flipside is there's a writer named Renée Altson who begins her book by talking about how she grew up in a family which wasn't healthy. And she says, by that I mean my father used to sing the Lord's prayer while he raped me.
So a lot of it is simply context. It's interesting to me in the Catholic church, that is male run, how popular mother Mary is. It's almost like if you don't give me a sacred feminine, we'll go find one. You know what I mean? Because of a divine image we can relate to.
Actually when people ask me what's your first thing that comes to mind (when I think about God): song - a song you're hearing that you want to hear louder. So if it's not an old man in the sky is it a whatever in the shy... it's actually more sonic. And a friend of mine who's a really good musician in Nashville, he thinks that the best metaphor for Trinity is three-part harmony, because it's tonal and the tones can stack on top of each other and you can hear them all the same, but they sound the best altogether. You know what I mean? It's funny to me that sound... for me personally that's the first thing that jumps to mind.
What did John Robinson's book, Honest To God, mean to you?
Oh my word! Well. I had been saying a few things, and a friend of mine who had been visiting from out of town said - he had read Honest to God and said... I think when he puts Tillich about the Ground of our Being that was the first time I'd seen clearly articulated my sense of needing people who did not believe in God but had a profound sense of justice or a profound appreciation for beauty - who did have these things that they were very dogmatic and convinced of. And I'm like wait, wait, wait - I know this category of things, you still believe it is best to be generous, and you still believe we should be kind, and you have a profound sense that we should care for the Earth. So you have all these things within you that are deeply held convictions: I think those things are actually connected with this word that you want nothing to do with. You are very doubtful about this, but you have not doubts about these things.
Secondly, his ordinary holiness in the Eucharist heightening our senses to the depth and the common. When a writer puts language to something that you have intuitively had the sense of... wait: this isn't about getting us somewhere else. This is about our growing awareness of this is a meal but it's more than a meal. I probably first read him when my oldest son was a couple of years old, and his birth, and my second son's birth, and my sense that my boys were just little sacks of blood and bones, and yet they were so much more. You know what I mean? It's like standing in the hospital holding my newborn sons was like somehow connecting me with the universe. Like there is depth to these little bundles that I can't even put language too. And each day with them somehow opens me up to the world in ways I never could explain.
So I think that's where his book, when he started talking about the depths and the commons. Oh, and then as a pastor, I kept realising, I think my job here isn't to fabricate an experience that will somehow give them this thing to get them to next Sunday. My job here is to help them see what's been right in front of them the whole time. So it's rooted to my own sense of I think I'm trying to do something else here.
Yes. Thank you. One last question, a bit journalistic as well. You know that American evangelicalism seems like a most peculiar thing in this country. Often rather frightening and terrifying.
It terrifies me too. Crazy.
How would you assess the state of American evangelicalism today, and to give that a bit more focus, I think you recently made some comments about same-sex marriage, in relation to that issue... um, what was the response from the 90% of evangelicals or whatever it is that would find that deeply offensive and problematic?
I've no idea. I don't Google my name. If evangelical originally was a term used by the first Christians to refer to the good news, this buoyant, joyous announcement that God's grace is real, that we can serve each other, and that sacrificial love trumps coercive military violence... I mean this was essentially a Roman propaganda term that these first Christians took and the military superpower that crushed everybody unless you confess that Caesar is Lord, and if you don't you get hung from these stakes. So the Roman empire goes around and we make you a province of Rome and we tax you to build bigger armies so we can crush more people. So the force of military violence is the way the world is made peaceful. Which always depends upon which end of the sword you are on. This little ragtag of people come along, and they're Jew and Gentile and slave, it's a crazy group of people from all walks of life. And they come along and say: oh, Jesus is Lord, and we've got good news. And our good news is about sacrificial love.
So, if I was your therapist now I'd wonder whether you are making an association between the Roman military and the very conservative, bad evangelicals. (Laughs)
Well, I would begin contextually with these first Christians who used this good news, this evangelical word, to say, there's a better way. And it's through serving, it's through humbly giving up yourself and sacrificing and joining the least of these, which to me is just a ... if that's what we're talking about when we use the word evangelical, then I'm in!
Let me just ask the same question in a different way. People like me look to people like you, hoping you're doing something to rescue American evangelicalism from what look like horrors so often. Do you have a sense of that at all? I take the point that you don't Google your name, but do you have a sense of what you stand for in the midst of American evangelicalism?
Um. People are very kind and encouraging and they say really, really nice things, so I'm overwhelmed with that.
Secondly, do you know how many evangelical leaders say things to me like, hey I love what you're doing, but I can't publically say it or I'll get fired? So when people who are known for being part of a movement start saying, I have real questions about this and I love what you're doing, elements of that movement are in trouble.
I think we have a large number of people in America who have evangelical roots who are more alive spiritually than ever, and more bouyant and hopeful about the future, like me. And we are grateful for our roots but we have rethought lots of things and we are more thrilled than every about where we are headed, and we are committed to telling the good news. And that sort of fearful, angry whatever rhetoric simply isn't compelling. And I actually think it is less... people... when people are scared they're louder. You generally yell fire in a theatre, you don't whisper it, if you're scared. I think it's a bit out of proportion.
I think that's a good place to end. Thank you.