Rob Bell's Holy Shift: It's preaching, but not as we know it
There are a few names which, if you mention them to Christians on either side of the Atlantic, are guaranteed to prompt a reaction. Rob Bell is one of them.
Known to a generation from his early 2000s Nooma video series, Bell became a staple of evangelical youth groups. His early books cemented that reputation, with Time Magazine naming him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
A series of deviations from the list of evangelical shibboleths culminated in him famously being bade 'farewell' in a tweet by the doyen of conservative Calvinist faith, John Piper.
After Love Wins, his 2011 book which explored themes of universal salvation, Bell was deemed beyond the pale by conservative churches. Audiences at his live events, previously in the thousands, dwindled. He left Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Slowly, Bell began to reach a different crowd. Appearances with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) began to give his work a fresh audience. He started to appear at more inclusive events, such as the Greenbelt Festival in the UK. A podcast, called the Robcast, began in 2015 and has since gone on to be lauded by iTunes.
The last couple years have seen a slew of books from Bell: a lifestyle book, How to be Here, a tome on Bell's biblical theology, What is the Bible? and even a novel, Millones Cajones.
The live audiences have come back too. In many ways that takes Bell back to what he says is his first love – delivering sermons. Though he may not be preaching in churches so much these days, he's certainly still preaching. From a regular residence in an LA comedy club to tours as far afield as Australia and Brazil, Bell's energetic style hasn't changed, even as his content has evolved. Bell is about to embark on his first tour in the UK and Ireland in eight years, in association with Greenbelt.
He spoke to Christian Today as he prepares to visit and began by describing what drives his work:
'The Genesis 1 poem which begins the Bible is what shapes my thinking on all of this... an unfolding and evolving universe in which keeps moving forward. The engine of creation isn't violence and conflict but overflowing joy!'
What about those people who think the Bible hasn't got anything to say any more?
Think about the height of modern arrogance – that there is no accumulated wisdom, that nobody before us ever had anything of use to say about how to forgive somebody who has wronged you, how to have boundaries with somebody who's toxic, how to worry less, how to practise non-violence in a culture that only knows 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth'.
There are certain truths about the human condition that people have been wrestling with for thousands of years. Wouldn't the most open-minded thing be to at least do a brief survey to see if there's anything there? Ultimately, it isn't an intellectual head game. It's a flesh and blood taste and sight and sound and feel – that's what it is.
Your critics would say that you don't pin things down enough, though.
The moment you have perfectly defended and argued for something is the moment you have killed it. The butterfly has been pinned down. When you're talking about the infinite, the absolute, the meaning of life, part of the art as a person of faith is to enter into discussion with conviction and a buoyant hope and intellectual rigour, but without killing the subject of the discussion.
As a citizen of the Western World, it's astonishing how many ideas are just basic givens about how we see the world, that actually come from the Bible.
Some people would argue that the Hebrew prophets are the very first articulate vision of social justice in history. Other people argue that the Apostle Paul and the Gospels was the first coherent argument for the equality of sexes.
When you read the Gospels, this is the fundamental tension. Jesus says things like, 'Spirit is like the wind'. Of all the metaphors! Build your doctrine on that! If it's true then there will be some polarity, some paradox at the heart of it. The known and the unknown, the revealed and the hidden, the answer and the question...
You're about to tour the UK and Ireland. What have you got in store for us?
I'm going to come to your country, I'm going to talk for an hour and 45 minutes about 'the Holy' and I'm making a case for the reclaiming of this word to explain a dimension of the human experience that Google simply has zero algorithms for.
I do a thing from the Book of Joshua, a thing from Isaiah. On paper that should not work. It's half theological reflection and half standup comedy and guerilla theatre. It's such joy to do and to watch people experience it. As things go more virtual, the live event will be more radical, flesh and blood in a room, elbow to elbow. It hasn't been edited or prerecorded. That's never going to go out.
The UK feels almost post-post Christian now. Do you think we're ready to rethink Jesus, as a country?
I think so. It's fascinating to me how many people will say to me, 'I am so compelled by Jesus!' They're not saying it in reaction to something or coming from a specific place. That happens to me all the time.
What brings you joy?
Anything with my kids. Premier League football, one boy is obsessed. He loves Manchester United, so I rooted a little for City just because you have to. And obviously we all love Liverpool – or we all feel a kinship with [Egyptian football player and Premier League leading goal scorer] Mo Salah – we all love that story.
Rob Bell is on tour in the UK and Ireland in July. The event in London's Union Chapel on July 2 is sold out, but tickets are still available for Cheltenham, Doncaster, St Helens, Dublin, Ipswich, Cardiff, and Edinburgh. Find out more and book tickets here. Tickets will not be available on the door.
Follow Andy Walton on Twitter @waltonandy