How To Talk To “Nones” and Influence People: Rob Bell’s Transrational Experience

Did I really need to learn How To Be Here, urgently, right now? The book’s publisher had sent me not one advance reading copy, but three. A sign from the universe?

I decided to read the book to find out.

Or rather, to experience the book.

Because that’s the one word that is associated with the work of Rob Bell, a “contemporary Christian” thinker who is at once renegade and establishment.

Whether lectures or workshops or books, it’s all part of the Rob Bell Experience. So when I learned that Bell would be stopping in nearby Durham, North Carolina, for an all-day, in-person event, I was excited to attend. The book has a lot of white space. Short sentences that force you to stop. And think. And start again. What would Rob Bell do to fill up eight hours in person?

The message of the book is simple: look around at your life, decide if it’s what you want, then devote all your energy to living the best life you can. Don’t stop yourself from doing something you want to do. Just do it. Even if that thing is being an assistant regional manager of an insurance company—he actually says this—be the best assistant regional manager of an insurance company you can be.

Work on something called your “craft.” (Even the insurance agent has a craft.) Also, pay attention to the details of life. Use the fine china. Unplug and play with your kids. Take a “Sabbath” from email. And you, too, will learn how to be here.

Rob Bell, for most of us, will be best known as the guy who declared hell doesn’t exist—and caught hell for it from his fellow evangelicals. The author of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (and many, many other books), he is the former founder and pastor of the Mars Hill Bible megachurch in Grandville, Michigan, from which platform he resigned after the controversy.

Since leaving Mars Hill, Rob Bell has found an even sturdier platform. He writes a book a year, produces short films and a podcast, and goes on speaking tours with high-profile self-help personalities. But he would emphatically resist the notion that he is an “institution,” or an “industry.” He thinks of himself as a pastor without a church—without, that is, a building.

Buildings come in for a lot of flack from Bell. At most megachurches, he says, preachers preach sermons to fill seats, to win donations, to “buy a new building.” Although Bell’s original authority comes from his status as a megachurch pastor, these days he seems to get equal status from his choice —whether voluntary or under pressure—to leave that setting.

Whatever it is he’s doing now, it seems to be a mirror of the zeitgeist. We hear a lot about that portion of the population the media likes to call “nones,” those who respond to Pew Research polls on religious affiliation by checking “D: none of the above.” Mostly composed of 18-to-34-year-olds, this cohort sees affiliation with a religious institution to be neither necessary nor desirable, even if they are looking to do good work in the world, or to remain “spiritual but not religious.”

Rob Bell may not have a building any more, but he does have a space—or rather, many spaces. For this latest book, he’s going on what he calls a “living room” tour.

On April 9th, the day of the How To Be Here Experience in Durham, I was running late, and only found the place—a distillery-turned-events space with an unmarked address—almost by accident. I saw that the wide metal-plated door of a low-slung brick building was propped open, and on the stoop outside stood a tall skinny guy in hipster glasses, manning a card table with a laptop. “Is this the Rob Bell Experience?” I asked. He nodded. I gave him my name and entered the building.

Along the edge of the wood-and-brick interior was a ring of black café tables with fresh flowers. On one side of the room was a glass wall that afforded a view of gigantic ancient copper kettles and brewing machines. Folding chairs had been arranged in concentric circles radiating outward from an empty space in the middle; a hundred or so people milled about, friendly, excited to be there. There were long beards and shaved heads, T-shirts reading “Spiritual Angst” and “Sons of Dominion,” and strewn on the café tables were leather-bound journals, handmade scrapbooks, and sets of markers.

Over the course of the next eight hours Rob Bell held forth from the center of that circle of folding chairs. He began with a walk-through of the new book, chapter by chapter. At the end of each section, Bell would ask for “requests,” and audience members would call out topics: empire building, the Eucharist rhythm, raising kids!

Soon the event started to feel less like a book talk and more like a sprawling conversation. The audience seemed not only comfortable with the stories and the message, but actually hungry for both.

When I spoke to Bell on the phone a couple weeks after the event in Durham, he told me,

In some ways what I do is basic pastoring. It’s, you give people an idea, you let them respond to it, you give them another idea….it’s basic spiritual direction. Like the itinerant rabbi, the guru—not to say that I’m a guru—but there’s a long tradition [of that kind of work]. But so many people right now are rethinking everything…saying wait, is this it? They’ve been handed a way of experiencing the world that’s not right for them… Or they’ve experienced some kind of loss, and they don’t have the rituals, rites, forms to express it.

Instead, what they have is this. And what is this exactly? Occasionally after a particularly pithy inspiration point, there would be applause or an “Amen!” from the crowd. It wasn’t church, but there was a church-shaped hole in the room. Were these the fabled “nones” that I had heard so much about?

“Yeah,” Bell told me,

It’s funny, when I hear the latest Pew research I’m like, ‘I could introduce you to 9,000 of those people next week.’ But if I were to then say ‘I’m the leader of the nones,’ everyone would be like ‘That guy sucks!’ Because as soon as someone has named it and made a pamphlet, you’ve killed it…Headlines kill it. Don’t keep naming it. Just let it be a pop-up…therapy/performance art/meditation/ritual in Durham. Just enjoy it!

So I asked Bell if it had to expand: did the pop-up have to become a franchise?

You know, denominations start with people saying ‘we need to do this differently,’ and then organizing it. That’s not me. I’m not the organizer guy. I like to say my basic ministry is ‘you’re not alone.’ It’s people learning there’s a bigger conversation going on out there, like in the audience in Durham.

Some kind of conversation did seem to be happening in that unlabeled brick building, though I wasn’t quite sure what to make of its non-organizer. In the morning, the light shining through the large industrial windows in the front of the Rickhouse made Bell appear to me as a dark, featureless silhouette. The silhouette had a tall, gangly build (as a kid, Bell says, he always looked up to Larry Bird) and the squared shoulders of a stylish, Chairman-Mao-style jacket.

Bell was giving our side of the room a lot of attention, possibly because to turn in the opposite direction would have been blinding. At one point I turned to the young woman next to me and asked if she, too, was having trouble seeing Bell’s face. “Yeah,” she said, “I keep squinting at him, but I don’t want him to think I was crying.” It was a fair concern; emotions were high in the room.

“The greatest lie of the modern world,” Bell said to the crowd, “is that anyone has it figured out.” He proceeded to tell a story about going on tour with Oprah, and watching her work a stadium crowd, then leaving the stage, changing clothes, and going up to another room where she would meet “three or four hundred people” individually for photographs. “And every single person, she would be completely present for,” he said, amazed. But the real ending to that story was months later, when he talked to Oprah about watching her do that, and she said something like “Yeah, that was too much.” Even Oprah, Bell revealed, sometimes has trouble saying no. If she does, we are not alone.

The Oprah parable is meant as a teaching tool. But it also, of course, reminds us that he has intimate access to Oprah. In the book and in person, many of the examples he uses to illustrate his principles come from his own life. He’s an L.A. surfer and musician who hobnobs with vegan restaurateurs and Silicon Valley moguls. He does a two-man show with comedian Pete Holmes at an L.A. club called Largo. (After the show, Bell told me, some people have told him “it’s the best church I’ve ever been to.”)

If there’s a clash between his insistence that anybody can do this being-here thing, and the distinctly celebrity-culture incidents he uses to prove that, Rob Bell isn’t interested in pointing it out. That’s just his life, his material.

And of course people do treat Bell like a celebrity. A man who said he drove to Durham from Columbus, Ohio, was starting an online ministry known as “Radical Nation,” and he wanted Bell’s advice in making the decision to go “radically inclusive,” (or “gay-friendly,” to the rest of us), and on how to sustain his and his wife’s energies for pastoring. A serene woman in an orange scarf announced that she had opened what she called “a gym for body and soul,” and she wanted advice on how to reach people who didn’t want to be reached. Someone else described at length a Sunday School class he taught that was based entirely on improv-comedy techniques. He described responding to a woman’s fear of death by enacting an improvised funeral for her, in which she had to lie still and listen to people say nice things to her.

All of this was met with enthusiastic if sometimes bemused support from Bell.

Still thinking about Bell’s audience a couple weeks later when I spoke to him, I asked him about all those group-builders; did he get that a lot?  The “spiritual entrepreneurs,” he said, are indeed “pretty typical,” for this tour.

So many people at the Experience, in fact, had announced that they came from out of town with their own spiritual entrepreneurship project, that someone asked us all to raise our hands if we were actually from Durham, so that she could see if there were enough people to start to build a group with.

All of this was right in line with what Bell had been saying all along: everybody has spiritual questions, and they need a place to bring them. A place that doesn’t judge them, or expect allegiance like an institution would.

After lunch, Bell signed copies of the book. The long line moved slowly, because Bell spent time with everyone, autographing, chatting, posing for photographs. Like Oprah. And as with Oprah, there was something cozy about this process. Bell would chalk this feeling up to the “living room” atmosphere he’s created.

Part of it is what I’ve been doing for 25 years, but now I can control the setup of the space even more. There’s a power of a space that’s spiritual, but hasn’t already been co-opted by some institution, some religion.

All day, when people would call out topics for him to discuss, Bell kept adding one of his own, “Oh, and we’re going to talk about the transrational; don’t let me forget.” So finally someone shouted out: “Tell us about the transrational!”

Bell formulated it like this, in historical stages. First, there was the pre-rational, which attributed false causes to supernatural entities—my rain dance made it rain; God found me a parking space. Then came the rational, the enlightened, the scientific, the mindset that knows that rain comes not from dances but from water molecules. This mindset, Bell was repeatedly careful to point out, has given us a lot: schools and iPads and cars and cures for diseases. But as he explained, it has its drawbacks, which is why we need the transrational—or the rational understanding that that rationality itself has limits.

When I asked him where the concept came from, Bell credited philosopher Ken Wilber. “You know that gift of people who put language to something you’ve always experienced but never had words for?” Bell knew this concept would be very difficult for many people: “The mind is very good at parts vs. wholes, but there are things in the world that the mind doesn’t know what to do with, and then it kind of loops in on itself.”

This kind of “doubling down” on rationality is happening all over our society, according to Bell. He sees it in the fact that TED talks require you to talk about topics that you can prove with evidence—no spirituality allowed. You can hear it in New Atheist rhetoric, which, according to Bell, often mistakes the transrational for the pre-rational. “Right, the pre-rational and the transrational may be using the same language, but coming from a different perspective,” Bell told me.

Like when someone says “I’m praying for you,” and you think, well [that sounds crazy]. Well I actually am doing that, I actually am sending you all the best energies and thoughts on your behalf… yes, I know exactly how that sounds in the modern world and I’m still doing that.

Bell wants society to open up to the transrational, starting with those in his living room and moving out to unexpected venues.

Whatever awesome things science brings us, we are still desperate for the inner life. And you saw at the event in Durham, we were talking about things that can’t be accessed with the five senses—meaning the sacred, hope, joy, love. And these are not aberrations but normal ways of living. Part of what I’m doing is normalizing—normalizing sanity in a fragmented world.

At first, I wasn’t feeling the Rob Bell experience; the three copies of How to Be Here I’d received had not worked their magic. I was, however, intrigued by the charming, Larry-Bird-meets-Chairman-Mao figure in the middle of a circle of folding chairs, telling me things I mostly already knew, but in a way that made me feel like maybe I didn’t.

As a non-Christian, I kept waiting to notice the fact that I was listening to an evangelical pastor, but what Jesus talk there was seemed designed to float by. It did seem to mean something to many of those seated around me, though. Audience members asked Bell how to teach their children about Jesus without repeating anything they didn’t believe themselves; or how to respond to parents of the youth-group they lead who want to know how much they taught the kids about Jesus. “Isn’t that their job?” Bell asked, to murmured assent. He clearly had no patience for conservative theology, for institutions that insist, for example, that women should be submissive.

More than once, in answering an audience question, Bell would say, “People won’t go to a church that sends them backwards. They just won’t do it!”

I sympathized with the predicament of the isolated Christian trying make her way in the world without the comfort of church. But, never having been a churchgoer, it was hard for me to grasp this feeling of being unmoored. Until I realized, sitting in my folding chair, that there was something that was making me feel unwelcome in my community, something that was “sending me backwards.” I had moved to North Carolina almost a year before, from New York, in order to get my PhD in religion at UNC Chapel Hill. A good Northeastern liberal, I’d read the warning articles in The New Republic before I went, and I knew the Tea Party had taken over the state, but I could not have imagined something like the “bathroom bill,” or HB2.

When I sat in Bell’s audience in Durham in March, the fallout from the state’s recent anti-LGBT legislation was just beginning. Still, I kept waiting for someone in the audience to ask: what do we do if it’s not our church but our government sending us backwards? But no one did. Politics writ large seemed to fall outside the living room walls.

At some point some provocateur did ask Bell “the race question,” that is: “Why is everyone in this room white?” People shifted in their folding chairs. If these ideas about how to create your life and inhabit transrational spaces are so powerful, so world-changing, why are they only being shared with people who by definition already have the (white) privilege to hear them?

Bell took the question seriously. He acknowledged that the disproportionately non-white poor and disenfranchised may not have the luxury to “create their lives,” and that that is not okay. “Politically, people are starting to realize this doesn’t work.” But then he made a sort of trickle-down argument: when traveling to a new city, he doesn’t make efforts to recruit people from populations that wouldn’t ordinarily know or care about Rob Bell. He was fully aware that his audience consisted of people “high up on the pyramid,” and it was exactly by “changing the hearts of the people who run the system” that he hoped his work would begin to effect unspecified larger change.

“But I’m not going to apologize for the people in this room,” he concluded. And the people in the room applauded.

After that, I knew I wasn’t going to ask the HB2 question in front of that crowd. I also wasn’t quite sure how to formulate the query: I am a cisgender white woman, not especially connected to the transgender community.

Why did the law feel like a personal affront? By the time I had the opportunity to speak to Bell again, I understood why.

I live in a state that is now a national embarrassment for transgender rights, which are civil rights. My elected government treats my (and lots of other North Carolinians’) values like so much heresy. Every time I buy something with sales tax, I tacitly support that government. So I do feel personally out of place, without recourse, isolated, backward.

I offered this concern to Bell when we spoke on the phone. He responded thoughtfully, but cautiously. “Oh yeah. See the thing is: we actually do have real, life-or-death problems going on. And many of us are totally convinced that this” (he meant the stated reason for the law, the phantom possibility of trans, or fake-trans, people preying on young women in bathrooms) “is not one of them.”

True enough, but to say that HB2 is essentially a solution in search of a problem is kind of understated for someone who prides himself on being “radically inclusive.” Wasn’t it a real, life-or-death problem that a discriminatory bill could get passed? Bell did go on: “This is not us. We are better than this.”

Bell was telling me that I was not alone in feeling betrayed by HB2—but I wasn’t entirely reassured. We may be better than this, but it is not “we” who passed the law. It was state assemblymen who voted largely on party lines, in a state that has recently been mandated to redraw its heavily gerrymandered congressional districts. They drafted the bill to appeal to a particular socially conservative group of Republican donors. They showed their Tea Party “small government” rhetoric to be hypocritical by overruling the city of Charlotte’s democratic process. And even they had to call a special session in order to sweep the law through.

The bill also bans further anti-discrimination protection for any group (including, for example, disabled veterans), and makes it impossible for localities to raise their minimum wage. And that was before the risk of the state’s public education system (one which I work for and am invested in) losing billions of dollars of federal Title IX funding became real. How do we mobilize the part of us as individuals that is “better than this” to address these systemic issues?

Bell is authentically rankled by preachers in their big buildings who want to send people backward. And he does want to lead people into spiritual-but-not-institutional spaces where they can work out something better. But he actively resists telling them what that something better should be. In a way his aversion to politics echoes a much older style of American evangelicalism, where spirituality was not meant to be contaminated by the world.

And perhaps Bell knows his audience. Last month the Raleigh News & Observer published a basic explainer on transgender issues. What is “gender identity”? What is “gender expression?” “What does it mean to say “transgender man” or “transgender woman”? If this had appeared in the New York Times, people would have been baffled, or complained of condescension. But maybe the local paper just really knows their readership. They know that even those with whom HB2 doesn’t sit well don’t necessarily understand why; readers need information, but don’t know where to begin asking.

Rob Bell might be serving a similar function.  As he told me, people make a lot of very basic assumptions when it comes to religion. And they are not assumptions based on knowledge. “I’ll just ask people, ‘what do you mean?’ Even the word ‘God’—what do you mean by that? And you’ll talk to them and it’ll end up like ‘basically an old man in the sky who either gets involved or not.’ Well, no wonder it doesn’t work! And you just say ‘there are other ways to conceptualize the possible existence of a divine being.’ And sometimes that’s all you have to say.”

I hope he’s right.


Also on The Cubit: “As Orthodox As They Come”: A Backstage Conversation With Rob Bell

Follow The Cubit, RD’s religion-and-science portal, @TheCubit