Rob Bell's new Holy Shift Tour of the UK starts today, and you may be wanting to avoid it. Perhaps you fell out of love with Rob Bell because a loud clamour of voices told you he was dangerous and heretical. If that's the case his answers below may interest you. If, on the other hand, you never liked him even before it was popular not to like him, worry not: here are three proofs that Rob Bell isn't cool. So it's okay to check him out again.
1. He's no rock star
Sure, Rob Bell is buddies with Oprah and does gigs with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama – but he's no diva. For my first interview with him I'm 45 minutes late. I know this because the nice press person from Greenbelt Festival (the people who've brought Bell out to the UK) calls and tells me so, through smiling, gritted teeth. I'm his first interview of the day – the tour in fact – and is he annoyed I've put him out? 'No, you're fine! he laughs in response to my abject grovelling apologies. 'I like meeting people like you and talking about things that matter. Beyond that, interviews are interviews.' In my Skype window, he's sitting in a modest sized, simply decorated room with a surf board mounted on a high shelf. At some point a guy towelling his hair, I assume from the beach, strolls past in the background.
Actually, maybe Rob Bell is a little cool. But not in a way that needs to worry you. He later gets in touch through the Greenbelt people to say I can have another slot with him because the 25 minutes we got seemed too short for me. For this one, my Skype crashes about 200 times, cutting him off mid-flow of his opening answers every time. He gives me his landline number to call. No doubt secure in my inability to save it somewhere for using later. No tantrums, no impatience, no worrying that I'll stalk him with his number later. I have, in fact, already lost it. Which is a shame. He's an interesting, encouraging guy who somehow makes one glad to be a Christian.
2. He has no time for cynicism
The easiest way to be cool is to cultivate a sense of jadedness and cynicism towards the things that other people get excited about, and Rob Bell is having none of it. Several times during our chats he exclaims about how awesome some idea is, or breaks off to ask excitedly if I get how great some idea is. He tries to get me into his favourite band (who, admittedly, I've never heard of, but still). He's boundlessly enthusiastic – and not for tearing down the old structures of our religion as one might expect from a cool Christian on the fringes, but for re-engaging people with them. "
'Cynicism is actually lazy,' he says. 'It presents itself as worldly wisdom, but it really isn't.' He talks about the wisdom tradition found in Proverbs as the basic wisdom of causality: 'Do this and then God will do this. It's like an introduction to wisdom. It's what you teach your kids: drive carefully and don't marry a psychopath. There are rules for how everything works.' But he is far more interested in 'the wisdom after wisdom' of Ecclesiastes: 'That's for all the people who followed the rules and still got screwed,' he laughs.
Cynicism, for Bell, stops too soon in its horror that the world isn't always as easy to understand as the simple wisdom of Proverbs makes out. It fails to go to the truly dark places of Ecclesiastes, and then out the other side into the hope that a deeper reading of life offers.
'Go the whole way,' he advises the disillusioned flirting with cynicism. 'It's worse than you think. But go the whole way and you'll actually have a shot at joy.'
3. He still comes across as an evangelist
It's not just disgruntled teenagers who go into 'the heavy' as Bell describes this disillusionment (and for whom he has sympathy: 'They got in the game and they took some shots – they got their hearts broken, so now they hold everything at a distance,' he says.) But to the existentialists and thinkers who see life as meaninglessly brutish and short, the philosophers and scientists who see life as a cruel joke, he responds with the spirit of an evangelist, even a populist apologist: 'If you think about all of that wonderful existential despair that's been spouted by philosophers and poets, to all of it you can respond: "And then what?" Well said. You pointed it out. And then what?'
He finds the wonder of biology an argument in itself for a transcendent meaning in life, going on excitedly about the rate at which an entire human body replaces all of its cells. He draws a parallel with an eschatological belief in resurrection. 'So when people say "God raising someone from the dead, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard,"' he says, 'Listen. Your body is doing far weirder thing, millions of times an hour. If you say: "I reject such ridiculous fairytale stories," if that's your category, that if stuff is weird you reject it, well. All we're learning from quantum science and an expanding universe is the infinite weirdness.'
His excitement about resurrection is at odds with some of the flak Bell has taken for his latest book What is the Bible?, which has centred around the idea that he might not affirm a literal Resurrection. And yet he speaks so passionately, evangelically, about the amazing message resurrection communicates to a world that writes off Christianity as focusing on 'somewhere else and sometime else, avoiding the gritty earthiness of life'. Resurrection, for Bell, is a powerful engagement with the real world. 'For me,' he says, 'one of the greatest contributions of the Jesus movement is the joyous, buoyant affirmation of materiality, physicality and creation. Resurrection is about the affirmation of this world.' And that's a powerful apologetic for a postmodern relativist society that is frankly never going to be won over by appeals to rationalist proofs.
You may well disagree with some of what Rob Bell says. But a church which sticks to every aspect of your own beliefs is likely to be split and split again until the congregation numbers one. It's OK to hear differing views. And it's particularly OK to hear them from a man who seems to have a grasp, still, on what our world is hungry for in terms of deeper meaning and truth. And he's pointing them to Jesus. That's worth hearing him out for yourself, surely?
Jonathan Langley is a freelance writer and works for a Christian mission and development agency.