May 31, 2016
is a culture and religion writer based in Brooklyn, New York.
Through Hell And Back
Back in the summer of 2000, Rob Bell was doing backflips on his wakeboard when he fell and suffered a closed head injury. That means his brain knocked against his skull and caused pretty severe trauma.
In this case, Bell lost the ability to remember the past—and really conceive of the future. His brain was working so hard to restore all of its functions that it just didn’t have room for anything other than the immediate.
“I remember they brought my boys into the hospital room and I just kept going, ‘Wait, these are ours?’” Bell recalls. “I’m asking [my wife] Kristen where we met and what my job is, and I’m seeing it all as if I’m seeing it for the first time. I was getting this tour of my life, and it was absolutely astonishing.”
It took about a week for his symptoms to subside. As scary as his injury was, Bell says the experience forced him to learn a lesson he would never forget.
“I had tasted an entirely different mode of living where you’re only in the present moment,” he says. “I was like everybody else at the time, going to meetings, responding to emails, busy, busy, busy. Then I tasted this different way of living, and I didn’t have any muscles or skills or techniques for this.”
In February this year, Bell published a new book, How to Be Here. In it, he tells the story of his injury and explains how his newfound appreciation for living in the moment reshaped his life.
And because he’s Rob Bell, he packed the book with plenty of inspiration and provocation for his readers to follow suit.
“I was taught how to work hard, how to strategize, how to network, how to multitask, how to climb the ladder,” Bell says, “but nobody taught me how to be fully present. So, in many ways, this book is what I’ve learned over the past 15 years about how to feel like you’re not skimming the surface of your own life.”
But for those who have followed Bell’s ministry career, the last 15 years aren’t nearly as interesting as the last five.
"It feels like I'm doing what i've always been doing: Trying to give language to the deep stream. Everything is spiritual."
Firestorm and Brimstone
Prior to 2011, Zondervan had published four books by Bell, then-pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, including the insanely popular Velvet Elvis. But they didn’t publish the next one.
Officially, Zondervan executives said they never had the opportunity, but a spokeswoman told CNN, “If the promotional video for the book accurately reflects its contents, it is highly unlikely that Zondervan would have accepted Love Wins for publication.”
The book Bell did publish, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, questioned one of the most widely held beliefs within Christianity—the existence of hell and the nature of the afterlife. Basically, he built his book around one question: "Would a loving God really punish people forever?"
The arrival of Bell’s Love Wins was one of the rare occasions when saying it caused a “firestorm” isn’t an exaggeration. TV networks ran stand-alone specials about the book and its author. Publications like The New Yorker covered the brouhaha surrounding the controversy. More than a few colleges and seminaries hosted panel discussions and debates with and without Bell present. Love Wins also created an entire publishing market for books written in response.
Publishing executive Justin Taylor runs a blog more than a few people have called the “evangelical Drudge Report.” He’s made a habit of documenting all kinds of news within the Church world. In large part, it was Taylor who first highlighted Bell's controversial book when he posted the trailer for Love Wins on his blog.
Looking back, Taylor thinks the conditions were just about perfect for Bell’s book to land all of the attention it did.
“Bell had a charismatic persona and a popular reputation (especially among younger evangelicals) for creative envelope-pushing without crossing over into anything heterodox,” Taylor says.
"Opposite from his appeal to young Christians, many older evangelicals had a vague suspicion that he was a good communicator who was increasingly untethered from sound doctrine and careful exegetical theology, such that his trajectory looked sketchy and worrisome.
"These two things combined as background for why, when Bell seemed to be coming out with a more definitive move away from orthodoxy, the reaction was bound to be loud—both from his detractors and from his defenders.”
Not long after the book's release, in late 2011, Bell resigned from the pastorate at the church he founded.
Officially, he was off to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television. But from just about every vantage point, it looked like Bell had fractured his relationship with the Church world, and it kicked him out.
Go West, Rob Bell
It’s true, since Bell disappeared from the evangelical radar, he's only really appeared publicly in scattered events and TV appearances with people like Oprah, with whom he even toured. It seemed like a 180-turn from the Bell many had known through his groundbreaking Nooma teaching videos and popular books. But he doesn't see it that way.
“It doesn’t feel like a 180 at all,” Bell says. “It feels like a long, slow, very natural trajectory and evolution in the same direction.
“It doesn’t feel like a departure at all. It feels like I’m doing what I’ve always been doing: Trying to give language to the deep stream. Everything is spiritual. There is depth in the everyday, and that’s at the heart of the Christ story. It feels like I’m doing what I’ve been doing the whole time, just in different settings."
Bell and wife Kristen have three kids now, and they all live in the middle of Los Angeles. He still writes books. He hosts a popular podcast. He does speaking tours. Oh, and he surfs as much as possible.
In the settings he's in now, he's often the only Christian in the room, which is a stark difference from his earlier career pastoring a 10,000-member church. But, for Bell, this new reality is not a problem; it's part of the appeal.
Bell says his departure from Mars Hill wasn’t a run from the faith, or even from that church.
After Love Wins came out, some of the church’s leaders asked Bell what was next for him as a way of making sure the church could serve him well. As he and Kristen thought about what was next, he says, they kept coming back to this sense of the end of a season.
Bell’s head injury 15 years ago gave him a glimpse into a new kind of thinking: What does life look like without distractions?
He still remembers the feeling: “My brain doesn’t have any capacity for the future, which is where worry and anxiety come from, and my brain doesn’t have any energy or capacity to think about the past, which is where regret comes from. My brain can only be present. I am getting a tour of my life, but my brain is only able to take in what is happening in the exact present moment.”
A decade and a half later, Bell is no longer overseeing a megachurch. He’s not responsible for a congregation. He’s gone from one of Christian culture’s biggest names to a speaker who appears onstage with Oprah, reaching an entirely new audience.
And, in many ways, he’s free from the expectations of many evangelicals who bid him "farewell" during the Love Wins aftermath. For the second time in Bell's life, a difficult experience brought a new kind of clarity. “For many people, being a pastor means you’re also running an organization,” Bell says. “That’s why so many pastors are so burned out and barely hanging on: They signed up for [preaching and pastoring], but actually, day in and day out, the preservation of the institution becomes paramount.”
“I was taught how to work hard, how to strategize, how to network, how to multitask, how to climb the ladder, but nobody taught me how to be fully present."
Now, he says, instead of dealing with the responsibilities of running a megachurch, the expectations from fellow evangelicals or the weight that comes from the pressure, there are fewer distractions.
Maybe this is what being a pastor is supposed to feel like, he says.
“When you don’t have that on your shoulders, then it’s just you and the person,” Bell says. “It’s just you and them and the space between you and whatever it is they want to talk about. So it’s been very interesting to me, because I get endless moments when I am doing the thing people would say would be pastor-y, but there’s nothing in the way.”
Bell doesn’t link what happened with Loves Wins to any kind of traumatic experience. He doesn’t speak ill of anyone from his past and doesn’t seem overly concerned with defending himself to critics. But he still seems to have learned something from suffering—whether a head injury or a wave of criticism. He’s figuring out what it means to allow pain to bring clarity.
“Often, it takes suffering to heighten our senses and raise our awareness of this moment and the life we get to live,” he says. “Often, it takes some sort of trauma or soul-crushing loss to wake us up.”
Even his most ardent critics will concede at least one thing: Rob Bell is an incredible communicator. In this new phase, with a new sense of focus, he’s figuring out what that can look like, free from the noise of his previous life.
Ironically, that means taking it back to the beginning. It means revisiting the sermon itself, and reimagining how it can change the world.
“The sermon is an art form that needs to be reclaimed,” he says. “It’s the original guerrilla theater, somewhere between a recovery movement, a TED Talk and a revival. This art form has been hijacked in our culture. For many people, the sermon is how you build bigger buildings. But the sermon is about the sacred disruption.”
Bell now tours, writes and even takes his sacred disruptions into LA’s comedy scene. He has a residency at Largo, an LA comedy venue that also hosts the likes of Zach Galifianakis, John Mulaney and Sarah Silverman.
It turns out, there are still a lot of people eager to hear the reinvention of the sermon.
“[Comedian Pete Holmes and I] have a two-man show we do,” he says. “So I will be with Oprah and then a couple days later I might be at Largo, and then a couple days later I might meet with a bunch of activists and entrepreneurs. And then I might go out and talk at a conference on science and spirituality. And then I might go surfing.”
Bell still has his critics. And he’s on a non-traditional path for the man Time magazine once called “The Next Billy Graham.” But he says his passion is the same.
“I find the Jesus story and message more compelling than ever,” he says.
Instead of churches and pulpits, he’s in nightclubs and stadium tours. Life has changed dramatically for the guy who started a church, broke new creative ground with videos and books, and became one of the most polarizing figures in modern Christianity. But for him, that’s OK.
He didn’t leave the Church. He’s just trying take what he does best and move beyond church walls.
“I don’t believe this art form should be confined to a particular building on a Sunday morning or a Sunday evening,” he says. “I think it should compete with all other art forms, so that’s what I’ve tried to do. Leaving the local church in some senses was, ‘I have to keep going’ and ‘I have to keep announcing good news and the death and the resurrection mystery built into the fabric of creation.' I have to see how far you can take it."
Hitting his head showed Bell what a fully present life could be like. But starting over showed him how to enjoy it.
“Everything that could go wrong for me already has,” he says. “Lots of places I’d go to speak, there would be protesters out front. So at some point, you might as well be doing something you love.”
Choosing to live that way can be risky, but, for Bell, the risk has been worth it.
“Many people are stuck. They’re catatonic in some life they know isn’t their true path,” he says.
“It’s like, ‘Well, if I did that, people might not understand.’ That’s correct. ‘Well, if I did that, I might have to live in a smaller house.' Yep. ‘Well, we might lose a bunch of money.’ Yep. ‘Well, I might be misunderstood.’ Yep. But you would be alive, and what is better than that?”
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