Smile Politely

When Faith Speaks: An interview with global thought leader Rob Bell

When I learned that Rob Bell was on the Pygmalion 2019 schedule, I knew that I needed to try to include him in the “When Faith Speaks” series. 

Bell is a best selling author. His podcast, The RobCast, is the #1 spirituality podcast, and iTunes named it Best of 2015. He’s been profiled in The New Yorker, toured with Oprah, and in 2011 Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. He has a regular show at Largo, the legendary comedy and music club in Los Angeles, where he lives with wife Kristen and their three children.

Despite his busy tour schedule, Bell found time for a chat with me. Below is my joy-filled conversation with Bell which previews his Introduction To Joy tour arriving in Champaign-Urbana this weekend.

Smile Politely: Tell me about the tour. Why this tour and why now?

Rob Bell: (laughs) You know, I always know I have a tour on my hands when I think about going around talking about joy in 2019. In my mind I think: That’s so absurd. I think I’ll do it. 

The tour explores the intersections between joy and suffering, between joy and devastation, the joy and the tensions, fragility of life. So, I am exploring the ancient traditions — specifically in Ecclesiastes — where joy is found in coming face-to-face with how fragile, how temporary life is…That the impermanence…the fleeting nature of life which lends itself to life’s power and poignancy. 

So, for many people, joy is like “happiness” or the opposite of sadness, like thinking positively is the opposite of thinking negatively. Yet, in the ancient tradition, joy embraces the full spectrum of human experience. We’ve lost people we love, we’ve had friends die from cancer. We’ve seen tragedy. We know just how precious and sacred the experience we are having is and how quickly it can go. So we value it and we find joy in this moment because we only know we have this moment.There are no guarantees. 

I call this the “wisdom after wisdom tradition” or the “alternative wisdom tradition.”

Which is: Hey, the whole thing is really fragile. There are way less guarantees than anyone told you. Uncertainty is baked into life, so you should do everything you can do to enjoy life right now.

SP: So, what are people saying to you?  How are they responding to the tour? 

Bell: Touring with this show since January 2019, I feel that these ideas are resonating on some level. Folks seem to be understanding: Ohhhhh, okay, instead of leaning away from the pain of life, you need to lean into it…and find something useful in there.

I’ve really been fascinated that any number our systems are melting down. We have presidential tweets during an insane news cycle. So how do we get information? What is true? You have people challenging conventional notions of education, power, finance.

Everything’s moving so quickly and so much of the nervous energy of the masses is fixated on whatever the latest scandal of the moment. So, talking about what has been true for thousands of years…talking about the deepest strains of human experience…talking about what people have been noticing, wrestling with for thousands of years is what I’m up to. 

I call it “bass notes.” We need bass notes more than ever. 

We are surrounded by a lot of high, squeaky treble notes: the news, our Twitter feed, the latest YouTube clip. That all has its place. However, at the end of the show, I always say that my job is to come to your town and sound the bass note. My job is to talk about something we have been talking about for thousands of years. Something that has this grounding, centering, anchoring feel to it.

SP: One of the things you seem to be pretty keyed into is discontent in faith communities?  Do you have any advice folks that are in faith communities, but want something more?

Bell: I haven’t talked about this particular issue in years and years and years.

SP: Well, the issue is still out there.

Bell: We are fundamentally tribal creatures. We need each other. I love that line from Jesus where he reminds us that “where two or more are gathered, there am I with them.” I always say: Where two or more are gathered, something is going on. So, whenever someone starts talking about their experiences with institutions in a faith community. I simply ask what they mean because historically church has always been a movement. It was people in backyards and homes and pubs. It was people connecting around the great causes of our day. So, this need some have to be connected with and have someone tell them what to do is curious to me.

I’m always more interested in people starting and creating the thing they need. You have a living room, right? You have a table, right? You have a backyard, right? The thing you are longing for: Make it. Create it. Start it.

SP:  But it is difficult to live under the fear or the stigma of what others will think of your innovation.

Bell: I began with the fact that the particular is always universal. So whatever you are experiencing, the odds are that someone else is experiencing something similar. What I’ve noticed again and again and again is that if someone is experiencing some agitation, some angst, some discontentment, they are often convinced that they are the only ones feeling that way. Yet, what they inevitably learn — by sharing or speaking about it — is that there are people all around them with the same questions, the same struggles. So you realize that you are not the only one feeling this way.

Secondly, just like in the Jesus tradition, they killed him, but like him, you have to follow the Spirit where it leads you and everybody might not understand it. This is the tradition of The Hero’s Journey. You go across literature, religions, traditions. This is an old, old story.

I love the ancient Jewish story of Abraham who hears this voice nudging him to leave his father’s household; when one’s father’s household was the source of one’s economics, one’s politics, one’s protection, one’s nourishment, one’s future. And yet Abraham hears a voice and he leaves. 

There is a long line of people who heard a voice, felt a nudge, realized Spirit was on the move, realized something new was asking to be birthed, so they followed it…because that is what building a life is, right?

So, the alienation, the risk that people don’t get it. The rolling of the eyes. It’s painful, but I just say: Welcome to the Tradition. This is how it works and you are not the first.

SP: I hear you.

Bell: But be clear: This faithwork, it does things in the world. It pulls things out. So, all that healing and peace-making and justice work has been fundamentally disruptive. Even the ideal of equality, it has edges that disrupt. These are not nice, warm, fuzzy ideas. The ideas have power and punch to them. 

SP: So who is your target audience for this show?

Bell: (Laughs heartily)

SP: (Laughing) Well, it says “all ages” on your promotional materials?!

Bell: Really, it never crosses my mind who my audiences are…For my books, tours, sermons, shows. It never crossed my mind. Okay, how about this: HUMANS!

SP: (Laughing) I should have expected that response.

Bell: No really, I get these ideas and impulses. These things come to me that I have to create. It’s why I’m here. And so, I make them. And then, share them. That’s what I’m here to do. So, I don’t know who it’s for exactly. I guess we’ll find out. That is part of the joy and mystery of it, finding out what the work means for people. 

SP: Ok, so here is the other question. You know what the show contains, though i’m sure it varies from space to space. But is this show, this tour, a call to reflection…or a call to action?

Bell (Shouting boldly): Ahhhhhhh, YES! Right On! (Laughing). It actually depends on who you are.

SP (Laughing): Yes,  of course.

Bell: There is this great old story about a Master-Teacher who has three students who come and visit her on Friday evenings. She reads to them from an ancient book of creation. One night, the students were walking home and one student says to the other two students: “I’m so sorry, clearly our teacher spoke to me all evening.” The second teacher speaks up and she says, “What are you talking about? I should apologize to the two of you. The teacher spoke with me the whole evening.” The third student says, “You both are out of your minds. It was I who was having a conversation with the teacher and left the two of you out. I should apologize.” Then, the ancient commentary has said “All three fell silent at that moment when they realized what had happened. So, it is with Spirit that each person swears that the Divine was speaking to each of them. 

This happened to me when I was giving sermons in my early 20s. I became absolutely enraptured with the sermon as an art form. I’d give a sermon and then someone would come to me and say something like “Oh, thank you, I finally made peace with my mother’s death”…Or something very personal, very intimate like that. And I’d say, “Oh, that’s so great.”  But then, I would think: Wait…I was preaching about generosity. The sermon had nothing to do with your loved one who died?!

But, then, I began to see: There is an architectural dimension to this art form of sermon creation. It’s like you are creating a space with words, a cathedral of words, and then people come into the space and they see things that I didn’t see. The sermon was like a room or a space where people come in and were seeing things more beautiful and extraordinary than I had ever tried to cook up. 

So at an early age, I came to the realization that I had the honor of creating some space with sermons, but that things happened in that space that were far beyond me. And that is part of “the juice”, the “mojo”, the “magic” of it. 

So when people say “these are my three points in a sermon” — which is fine — you are saying specific things, but the lifeblood of the message is finding out later what people actually heard. There is a mystery in that experience that is always sacred to me.

You can find tickets for Introduction To Joy here

Photo provided by Rob Bell

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