Rob Bell is on the move.
In 1998, as a 28-year-old evangelical pastor in Michigan, Bell founded Mars Hill Church. The community swelled into a megachurch, and Bell gained a national reputation among evangelicals anxious about their ability to reach Millennials.
But Bell stayed in motion. He developed a stylized image of a progressive, hip, open-minded Christianity. He preached social justice and pluralism, encouraged doubt, and supported gay marriage. Bell had already lost much of his evangelical base by 2011, when he published Love Wins, an argument against the existence of Hell.
Cast out of the evangelical mainstream, Bell traded the pulpit for the stage. He went on a Love Wins book tour, made the cover of Time, and left Michigan for California to develop a television show. After that project fell through Bell developed a talk show for Oprah’s OWN network, and he recently joined her on the eight-city “The Life You Want” tour.
(Oprah “has taught me more about what Jesus has for all of us, and what kind of life Jesus wants us to live, more than almost anybody in my life,” Bell told Religion News Service in December).
Over the course of his career, Bell has espoused an increasingly universalist message. His work seems to be most appealing to ex-Christians or those on the margins looking for a way to remain in the Christian fold. How, Bell seems to be asking, can I reject as little as possible, while remaining nominally Christian? (Which is precisely what irks his evangelical critics.)
Bell is particularly keen on bringing science into the mix. This summer, he’s on the 30-city “Everything is Spiritual” tour, which promises to show “how science and spirituality are long lost dance partners.” The Cubit’s editors saw Bell in late July, when the tour passed through Durham. A few hundred fans were in attendance, of varying ages, nearly all of them white. With the aid of a 15-foot-long triangular whiteboard, Bell gave a two-hour talk that referenced physics more often than the New Testament, discussing dark matter, quantum mechanics, and how molecules can inspire each of us to self-actualize.
This wasn’t pop science, exactly. It was closer to a mashup, owing more to New Age products like The Dancing Wu Li Masters than to traditional Christian theology. Bell’s talk is full of dizzying analogical jumps: dark matter is a metaphor for the hidden wounds in our past; the expansion of the universe affirms a progressive Christian vision of universal love; the physics of emergence invite us to self-transcend.
The universe is an amazing, mysterious place, Bell preaches, and we can see ourselves in all of it.
As a speaker, Bell is charming—quick and funny with a well-developed patter. The former megachurch pastor-turned-Oprah affiliate also plays a good underdog. Bell describes himself as someone who, like Jesus, does his work on the fringes. During a pre-show Q&A with VIP ticket holders, Bell shared a story of walking into an expensive new megachurch and feeling “constriction at a deep energetic level.”
“Institutions arc towards self-preservation,” he said, while “innovations happen in garages.” During the VIP event, Bell praised the startup mentality and told self-deprecating stories. He somehow managed to come across as the consummate outsider while relating a Deepak Chopra anecdote to a room of hundred-dollar ticket holders.
We sat down with Bell in the green room an hour before the formal show. In person, Bell has a kinetic charisma and speaks like an over-caffeinated surfer. When he laughs, he has a tendency to rock his whole body backwards and lift his feet into the air.
We discussed physics, the challenges of celebrity, and whether satellite photos and Biblical stories are comparable sources of knowledge.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What new scientific concepts are you working with on this tour?
The universe is expanding. It’s been expanding for 13 billion years. Omnicentricity: every point in the universe is the center of the universe. I just had this moment of realizing, Oh my word, all of our greatest experiences of love, joy, peace, and connection are when we move beyond ourselves, when we self-transcend. And what we’re learning from science is that our universe is expanding, and it naturally self-transcends—moves beyond itself—and that the moments of greatest joy, peace, love and connection are when we move beyond ourselves.
Bell mimes a moment of epiphany.
I was thinking about something [bad] that happened to me. I realized in that moment, I could shrink back, retract, withdraw, and say “Why would I keep giving myself if this is the response I’m going to get?” But when we do that, we’re going the opposite direction of the universe. It’s the opposite of expansion—it’s contraction and shrinking. And then that sort of drew me to this [story about] Jesus, you know: “Sum it all up, Rabbi: Love.”
Is he saying, “Line yourself up with fundamental energies and direction of the universe, which is to expand”? It’s almost like there’s a science of the soul.
What’s the value of using scientific concepts to describe religious…
I heard a sermon years ago on 1 Corinthians [chapter] 3: “All things are yours.” I never understood a division between the sacred and the secular. The whole thing felt electric to me from early on. I remember at a young age, when people would say, “That’s Christian,” I didn’t know what they meant. Whether it’s science or art or discoveries about the natural world, it all to me was beautiful, and it all belonged.
Faith versus science? I just never saw them in tension. I always thought, “If it’s true, then you embrace it.” Why would you ever put yourself in a position where you were against something that was true?
How do you still distinguish yourself as Christian, as opposed to labels like New Age, or Spiritual But Not Religious?
I’m always and deeply compelled by Jesus. I’ve always loved the idea of an open tomb, and a movement of people who insist that the world is made better not through coercive military violence but through sacrificial love. I love that these first Christians took on Roman military propaganda—“Caesar is lord, there is no other name under heaven by which people could be saved than that of Caesar.”
Then there’s this little group of people whose leader is crucified by this global military superpower, and they keep insisting that’s not how you make the world better, through just crushing everybody in your path. Peace comes through sacrificial love. So they take all this Roman military propaganda and they start subverting it. “Jesus is lord.”
Subversion. You also like the concept of “disruption.”
A Christian might say to you, “Go to my place Thursday night.” You go to their place Thursday night, and there’s this ramshackle group of people around the table. They put out some bread and wine. One of them says, “Okay, before we take the bread and wine, have the meal, does everybody have their rent paid? All of the single moms got the help they need?”
And then your friend, at the end of the evening—as you’ve seen, these people from all across, take care of each other—your friend might say to you, “So who’s making a better world, Caesar or Jesus?” I just love it. I love the poetry of it. I just always found it made for a better story about a way to live.
So I’m as orthodox as they come! And I love the idea of a Trinitarian understanding of things. Energy. An internal energy of a community of love that spills outward? I just love that stuff, it’s fantastic!
You often make use of the concept of energy on this tour. What makes it so effective?
I think that the Enlightenment and the modern world—especially with mechanical laws of physics, which were so fantastic—brought the idea that the whole thing is static. I think a number of people picked up over the past three hundred years that space is empty, we move things around in space, and there are levers and pulleys and buttons.
I think for a number of people, atheism is simply the rejection of somebody sitting on a cloud somewhere with a beard who might intervene from time to time. I think quantum physics, the little I know, it just intuitively puts…sometimes a poet puts language on what you intuitively feel and sometimes a scientist goes, “Hey, it’s all kind of relationships of energy.” Oh, yes!
I agree that quantum physics points to the limits of mechanistic, reductionist thinking…
Right! It was an absolutely necessary developmental step that helped us make airports, hospitals, and put ten thousand songs in our pockets. But it took us incredibly far, and it built so much of the modern world that it became so much the lens that other lenses seem silly. And now you have people going, “Oh wait, there are other lenses.”
But how do we reconcile these radical scientific concepts—that the universe behaves differently at different scales; that we’re probably in a multiverse—with any particular faith tradition, which at this scale seems so small?
A friend of mine always says, “If you’re talking about God, you’re talking about the metaphor for the mystery of the infinitely unknowable.” To me, the power of a faith tradition would be that it puts language on these deeper forces and realities.
If at any moment you’re one discovery away from your story being silly? It’s like the dude at JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] who is head of all things that we launch into space. I was at a party with him and he was like, “There’s life on other planets, and I think we’re very close to finding it.” This is one of the global experts, who’s like “Maybe not in my lifetime but definitely in yours, and it’s going to blow your whole story to shreds.” And I was like, “If my story was dependent on that it would, but it’s not.” And if we find out that there are nineteen other planets and they’re populated by Voltrons who use flux capacitors, then the story just got interesting. If your tradition is one discovery away from collapsing…
I sometimes just say, if this historical tradition helps tap you into the big thing, which goes beyond any tradition, now you’re onto something. The Exodus story: when people want to argue about whether or not it happened, and we don’t have any scientific evidence, I just say, “Yeah but the story has given people tremendous hope to work to rescue others, to organize for the liberation of those who are being repressed.”
Are there epistemological differences between a Biblical story, everyday experience, and satellite pictures of the moon? How do we navigate a world where there are different levels of… truthiness?
I know. And you have an oral tradition that’s been passed down and the text was probably amended fifteen times. I don’t have any clear answer. To me that’s part of the interesting thing about it. There’s a story of a great Biblical scholar who tells his students, “I think that one-third of what I’m telling you probably isn’t true. I just don’t know which one-third.”
Do you feel the same way about your own work?
Sure! I’m trying to tell the story of an expanding universe. I even worked on the language so that it had—not playfulness, but just, “this is the best new evidence. This is the best new story we got going now.”
Here’s the critique: that, “the universe is expanding” is a very loose way of talking about love or personal development. It’s a superficial connection between things that are substantially different.
If the metaphor breaks down, [at least] I took a valiant effort at connecting a few things. Malcolm Gladwell, who endlessly gets criticized for making it too simple, has this great line: “I take that as a compliment, because there’s all this extraordinarily new knowledge that people can’t get access to, and in order to help them have access to it, I have to simplify it. And if now and then I made it too simple, I’ll take that, because people did get access to a bunch of really interesting new stuff.”
What’s the difference between you and Malcolm Gladwell?
He sells way more books? [laughter]
Well, any time you go into something you’re not trained in, you run the risk that you’ll make a complete mess of it. I’m fully aware of that. I do think you can study enough and ask enough people questions that you can go, “You know, this is kind of what they seem to be saying.” So you approach it humbly, and say “Here’s what I think is fascinating, it’s because as a pastor I’ve dealt with lots and lots of people. Man, anybody else see the similarities?”
How interesting is that, that they’re telling us that dark matter is vital for the ongoing life of the universe, and we all have sort of the unknown dark matter: suffering. We all have stuff in us that we don’t quite know what to do with. And yet when you do deal with it, it becomes an engine of life. I don’t know how that works. Cool, huh?
Are these beautiful linguistic coincidences, or do you think these parallels say something fundamental about our connection to the universe?
Well, I think there’s a sort of “true, period.” Some things are true, they work across the board. But then think about Beck, who takes country, hip-hop, rock, and sort of pastes it all together, and goes, “Check that out.” He’s not trying to be Beethoven. “I’m going to throw a bunch of stuff against the wall. What do you think?”
Sometimes there have to be people, where that’s what they do. I’m not a scientist. But I also do notice, on this tour, that a bunch of people realized that science and spirituality are long-lost dance partners. If you have lots of people of faith going, “Let’s embrace science and see where it takes us,” that alone to me is really powerful, if you just move past some of these weird rivalries and dichotomies.
If your kid is sick in the hospital and the doctor can tell you a certain amount about what’s wrong, there’s a point at which you need somebody else who might be able to read you a poem, written by somebody whose child was in the hospital. The different voices speak to different aspects of the experience. Sometimes you need a poet, and sometimes you do need a scientist.
Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Scientists have culture and traditions, and we’ve seen throughout history how science inevitably reflects the values and assumptions of its age. You point to popular science that resembles certain Christian concepts, but isn’t there a risk that you’re caught in a feedback loop?
I would say it’s a risk. It’s also, I assume, what’s happening.
I would assume that what you’re looking for is deeply shaped by where you’re coming from, and so you’re finding the things that resonate with what you already know. “Yeah, I get it, I’m a human.”
And then there’s that beautiful moment when someone pulls the camera back. Even the multiverse thing to me is one of those. Okay, we’ve got this universe, it’s expanding, all that, and then someone says, “Well actually, it could be a whole bunch of universes and parallel time sequences.” It’s just fantastic!
Historically many Christians have resisted multiple-worlds theory because it threatens the idea of a single, absolute God. In a multiverse, Christianity becomes one little piece of a sprawling multiplicity. Does that sound threatening to you?
No. No, it doesn’t. Think about Galileo, like, “Hey, by the way, the Earth isn’t the center.” That blew people’s minds. There was a very nice hierarchy to everything. Actually the Earth isn’t the center. It absolutely rattled people, and we survived.
If we discovered that there were lots of universes, and there was a god present in each one who was somehow capable, and it blew people’s minds—we have had a history of this, and we’ve somehow recovered.
Do you look to celebrities and pastors to think about what to integrate, and what to avoid?
Yeah, I think I probably beg, borrow and steal from across the spectrum. So if I’m with my friend who’s in venture capital, and he’s trying to figure out how he uses his energy and resources to create something of serious value—I ask him a thousand questions and inevitably bump into some truth about his work and I go, “Oh, that informs what I do.” Or my friend Pete Holmes, the comedian. It was interesting to me rhetorically how many things I had made up to explain what I’m doing in my work, and then he’d be like, “Oh yeah, we have language for that.”
And I’d be like, “No way!”
You’ve talked about poets, scientists, Beck, and Malcolm Gladwell. I want to talk about you. How has celebrity affected the way that you understand yourself and the work that you do? How do you compare yourself to a stand-up comedian, or a musician, or a televangelist?
I have no idea. I seem to be unable to stand outside of myself. And I’m wary of people who are like, “This is my role.” I just get Apple’s rainbow death wheel!
You seem like a self-reflexive guy, you must reflect on…
Daily survival is wake up, make the kids breakfast, take them to school, walk the dog, work on the next thing. If I could help people see that faith is a natural intelligent response to the world that we’re in, if I could help rescue the Jesus story from some of the other perspectives that feel like they’ve hijacked it, that would bring me great joy. And if I could help people see that all things are yours—that science, art, geology, quantum physics, graffiti artists, are all to be celebrated.