Rob Bell takes a lot of shit. Like this youtube video of Adolf Hitler agreeing desperately with Bell about the absence of hell. Or this other youtube video with a panel systematically refuting Rob Bell’s theories. And then there’s another youtube of Francis Chan‘s deeply committed effort to counter Bell’s Love Wins. And — aside from the hacks that did the Hitler video — these dudes are earnest, humble, and good people. And they aren’t alone. A lot of folks disagree with Bell. And it’s okay, good even.
Rob Bell spoke at USC yesterday. His talk was an entertaining 45 minute summary of his book. He’s a talented speaker. His delivery draws us in with a mix of storytelling, theology, cosmology and humor. He told us about his wife’s brush with death, when she survived a head on collision with a drunk driver. He marveled at the infinite smallness of the universe, describing how, the more we look the more there is to see. And he connected us Christians to our Jewish roots, reintroducing us to concepts of midrash and ruach and kavod.
It was all stuff from his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. It was a good speech. But the really moving part of the night was Bell’s Q&A with the audience. His unscripted interaction showed a kindness and clarity that I haven’t seen in many Christian leaders. He didn’t let his questioners overtake the forum, but he also wasn’t punitive. Instead he took each question seriously and responded from his own experience, sharing his stuff and making our stuff make more sense.
A few moments stood out to me:
- A “recovering fundamentalist” asked Rob what do with his anger with his religion of origin. Rob’s answer was generous and personal. He told him, first, yes, let’s go surfing together. Then he gave him two pieces of advice that also spoke directly to me: 1) There is a long road to forgiveness, be on it, because there are no enlightened bitter people; and 2) Be grateful for what you’ve gained from the tradition you’ve left.
- A gay man asked him how to reconcile his Christian faith, his history of surviving sexual abuse, and his sexual orientation. Rob’s answer was pastoral. He told the guy to be in good counseling and get to know himself as well as he can. Then Bell simply said (I paraphrase), there are gay people, that’s a fact. They need to be affirmed and welcomed into our community fully.
- When asked about facing criticism, Bell replied, the secret to criticism is that, if you keep moving forward doing your work, eventually every criticism that can be said about you is said, and then you realize that you’re really okay.
- When asked about why he left his pastorate at the fastest growing mega-church in America. Pastor Rob reminded us that, it doesn’t matter what we’ve done, we need to keep leaping.
In the end, Rob’s talk was just a talk about God, that God is real and that God is leading each of us forward on the great “arch of history” that bends towards justice. And Rob, he’s just a guy who followed his conscience and survived to tell us about it.
Rob Bell’s next stop in So Cal will be at First Baptist Church Pasadena on April 10th. This event will be sponsored by Fuller Theological Seminary.