Rob Bell 2.0 (or Where Are the Artists?)Essays, Featured — By John Wofford on November 19, 2009 at 12:00 am
It’s been over a year since we last spoke to mega-church phenomenon Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Today, Burnside Writers Collective correspondent John Wofford talks about the completion of the popular Nooma teaching series, Bell’s reaction to recent developments in Maine, his vision of an American patriotism not rooted in war, how a rabbi affirmed his Christianity, and reclaiming the art of teaching.
BWC: It’s been a while since our last interview with you, and I’m inclined to say that what’s upcoming for you is a reinvention— “Rob Bell 2.0”. What new direction are you heading in? And what’s this I hear about Nooma being over?
Rob Bell: It’s sort of an endless evolution. I have a new series coming out next year—I can tell you that much. When you work within a particular format, each has its strengths but it also has its limitations. With Nooma, we made twenty-four. And then, you start musing on, “What if I do this? What if I try this? I’m bumping up against this element of it, so what happens if I remove that element?”
Obviously, being able to view [the videos] free online is a factor. When we started Nooma in 2001, we would make something that, six months later, came out in a store. And now, that just seems funny. Now, you make it, and then next week everybody’s got it.
I’m endlessly interested in content—how to make something shorter, denser, get to it faster. Film can sometimes get in the way of what you’re doing. With filmmaking, you can have these nice panoramic shots, and I love it: it’s great film, it’s great cinema. But there’s this thing you’re trying to say, and you’re always trying to get at it—the essence. Raw essence. Faster, better, stronger.
With Nooma, people said, “No one will watch these. No one will buy these.” You kind of have to see one, and then say, “Oh! I get it!” Hopefully, this [upcoming project] has the same sort of effect. I’m endlessly restless.
BWC: So I take it this new series will adapt to or embrace the file sharing age?
Bell: Yeah, one of the things we’re exploring is making a film and releasing it in such a way so that people could instantly send the link to their friends… how to make it as easy as possible so that everyone could watch the highest resolution quality, etc.
BWC: You’ve already explored the “high content, low word count” concept with your book Drops Like Stars, and it’s clearly a big concern to you at the moment. What inspired this “endless evolution” you’re referring to?
Bell: The first century rabbis were not praised for going on and on and on and on. Great rhetoric has never been about how many words one can fill the air with, it’s always been about how clean and uncluttered and lean an idea can be articulated. It’s always been the short, crisp parable that has infinite layers of meaning that knocks around your head for days. The idea that you have to go on and on to prove that you’re smart, it’s relatively new. Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”
I was working on a new book this morning, and about whole sections I said, “There’s so much there that can go.”
BWC: Do you think the church as a whole is embracing a more streamlined approach to message delivery?
Bell: I don’t know if the future is in 17-minute worship services, but I think there is so much more clutter in the world: more advertising, just more. One of the ways you honor people’s time is that you get to what you’re saying quickly, and well. Maybe “quickly” isn’t even the word. Maybe just “well”—well intentioned, thoughtfully. Distilling an idea down to what it is, making its access easier.
And there’s this group of churches—thousands and thousands of churches—who are encouraging their members not to be consumed by our wealth and abundance but using it to help others in smart and innovative ways.
BWC: Turning an eye to social politics, how do you feel about news like that of Maine’s repealing of LGBT marriage rights? Granted, everyone’s got an opinion, and I’m not asking you to answer the “Is homosexuality a sin?” question. But in general, how do you feel we should respond to this news, and that of other minority groups? How should our faiths inform our behavior?
Bell: You can simply take a side, which a lot of churches do. If you’re a leader, you say, “This is where we stand” and if you’re part of it, just go along with it. The problem with that nice, neat view of reality is that in a church like Mars Hill, we have members across the full spectrum. So we have war protestors and we have parents of soldiers currently fighting in Iraq.
There are people who say, “Well, you need to talk to the half of the church that’s wrong, and get them right.” But then that’s where your energies go. That’s all you do. Convincing all those on one side to come over to the other. The next week, though, the issue will be something different. And you spend most energy on yourself.
What we say is, “What are the things that 10 years ago, this year, and 10 years from now that we could address?” For instance, we’ve been building a micro-finance bank in Burundi for those trying to get loans. We send accountants over to see if things are sharp, filmmakers to capture it and spread the word, and show others what our money is doing…what’s actually happening. We’re also working at a local school. There are about 150 kids being mentored, and the school is asking the church, “Please send more!” The goal is to have a mentor for each child.
We pour our energies into something together. “You and you are at odds on a certain issue? Could you work on THIS together?”
We talk about being aggressively non-partisan, while acknowledging that what we’re doing will have political edges. So if we talk about the environment, for instance, it’s not because we’ve been co-opted by a particular political party. It’s because this is something pretty close to God’s heart. We talk about widows and orphans. We talk about empowering people. It’s not because we’ve been co-opted by another side. It’s because it’s helpful.
Bell: It’s really interesting, actually. I was talking to this guy who—he’s a pilot, grew up, was in the Air Force. And he said to me the other day, “There’s a bunch of us that thought that when America is threatened you go to war and destroy your enemy. Over the past couple years, I’ve made all these friends at Mars Hill. And that sort of thinking isn’t working anymore. My faith doesn’t allow me to see things like I used to.”
To me, that’s quite beautiful. Sure, it’d be really easy to get 200 cool people in a basement somewhere—people who all “get it.” But when people start moving toward the center, toward each other, it’s cool. It’s beautiful.
Our interest is everybody, wherever they are, moving along. It means we might move a little slower, and it can be frustrating, but it’s great. We take that quite seriously. The center of Jesus’ teaching is “Love your enemies.” Making enemies isn’t interesting. Fear isn’t interesting.
Fear is great for fund-raising. It’s great to raise money on talk radio that way. Create an enemy and you’re set. But we’d prefer to have a meal with the enemies. That’s more interesting. We actually, truly believe that Jesus gives a compelling, stunning, provocative, inspiring vision of what life can be. We really trust that.
BWC: As someone in the process of converting to Reform Judaism, I love that emphasis on ethics over theological disputes.
Bell: My faith became vibrant, really turned a corner when I stumbled into the Jewish roots of my faith, when I found mitzvot, understood the feasts, Leviticus, “olam haba.” Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity about the holiness of Christianity, and that Christians took the God of Abraham to the world. There’s some line in there, which I probably massacred. But reading that, I thought, “Oh. It’s okay to be a Christian.” Because church history and all those things—Christian cable, for instance. It’s like, ugh.
But you know, it’s okay. Just own it. Own it. Everybody has their embarrassing relatives.
BWC: Speaking of relatives, you had a baby daughter earlier this year! There’s a cliché where folks talk about how having a new child changes everything. Are you feeling that way?
Bell: There’s definitely the realization that certain things, which I thought were important, aren’t anymore. Time flies, you’ve got to enjoy each moment. You’re just that much more aware. So whatever thing I’m supposed to rush off to, it can wait. It’s awesome. I was very, very busy when our kids were born. But now I’m chill.
BWC: Have you found your groove? Parent, husband, teacher, media figure…
Bell: Things are good. I just played soccer, which is why I look like this. I do it every Wednesday. This morning I wrote a book, while my daughter was lying on my arm. Took her for a walk with the dog. Made my boys breakfast this morning. Later today we’ll go to football. Next week, we’ll go on a tour. It’ll be Denver, Kansas City, Dallas. The family’s going to come on this one. And I’ll be at Mars Hill on Sunday. It’ll be a blast.
Next year will be the Art of the Sermon series. We filmed hours and hours of material for the release. Some of it seriously makes me laugh.
BWC: What inspired that program?
Bell: I absolutely love the art of sermons. I don’t know—it’s like an ancient form of guerrilla theater. Think of the prophets. Ezekiel cooks his food over human waste. Hosea marries a prostitute. This is like performance art; that’s what its roots are. And with Jesus, it’s the gestures, the movements, the nods, the euphemisms, and the turns of phrases. All those things he was doing? Classic Jewish rhetoric. Everything is connected to everything. The questions about a sermon: “Well, did you like it? How’d they do?” Think about after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” sermon. Would somebody say, “How’d he do?”
My interest is in reclaiming the sermon as a provocative, serious art form. Somewhere along the way, the scientists, who just dissect a passage on a cold table, hijacked it. All of the pathos and drama and blood and sweat and tears are squeezed out of it, because there are “three things you need to know!”
BWC: Three points and a poem, perhaps?
Bell: There’s no discovery, there’s no possibility, there’s no evolving, there’s no sense of “What’s next?”
The sermon is a wild, unrestrained sort of event. Part of my life’s work is reclaiming that. Where are the artists? The pastor’s peers are the spoken word poets, the stand-up comedians, the filmmakers, and the theater directors! That connection is what I’m interested in.