Mega-Church pastor Rob Bell is probably one of the most controversial leaders within Christianity today. One thing that makes him controversial is that he says many things that a lot of atheist can find common ground on. Bell just released a new book titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.” I was intrigued by his the promotional video for the book and so I went about pursuing an e-mail interview with Pastor Bell.
“Hi Staks! I always enjoy talking with people like you about the things that matter most…”
Q: Greetings Rob, I want to start out by thanking you for doing this interview. Among most atheists, you are known for recently coming out in support of marriage equality for gays. This is an issue that most atheists are very passionate about. Were you always supportive of marriage equality or was this an evolution in your thinking?
“I’ve been asked that question countless times and I answered last week how I always answer it-but apparently that was the one time that was considered an announcement! Funny how that works…As a pastor I’ve held these convictions for a while. We need more love and fidelity and commitment in the world, not less.”
Q: What other issues do you think you can find common ground with atheists on?
“That list is long! How about less stockpiling of weapons and more effort to get clean water to the 800 million in our world who don’t have it and better policies to protect the environment and more civil political discourse and more resources spent on building microfinance banks in the world’s poorest economies and more work building better schools for urban youth…I could keep going, but I bet you could too.”
Q: On the back cover of your latest book you state, “How God is described today strikes many as mean, primitive, backward, illogical, tribal, and at odds with the frontiers of science. At the same time, many intuitively feel a sense of reverence and awe in the world. Can we find a new way to talk about God?” Most atheists are inclined to agree with the assessment of that first part. Can you convince us that the god of the Bible isn’t as you described and is worth talking about in a new way?
“Nope. I can’t convince you of anything. But I can tell the story in a way that you may not have heard. Let’s start with that whole ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ thing, which many use to refer to the violence and irrelevance of the Bible. What’s fascinating is that there wasn’t any legislation at that time in the ancient near east regarding what to do when someone injures you or your property. And so revenge was the order of the day. You hurt my donkey, I take out your donkey and maybe a horse or a chicken just to let you know who you’re dealing with, because we all know that revenge always escalates. Eye for eye was a new law that said the punishment must fit the crime, which meant you injure my donkey you owe me a donkey, that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. (Examples involving donkeys are great, aren’t they?) The point was less violence and a more peaceful, civil, just society. This ‘eye for an eye’ passage in the Bible was actually a step forward for its day, as were many of the passages in the Bible. Take the Prophets, who spoke truth to corrupt power, insisting that the exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful was wrong and degraded all of humanity. Those stories were giant leaps forward for their day, radically progressive visions of peace and harmony that we still aren’t at in many ways. Are some of those stories shocking and violent and repulsive?
Of course. That’s how those people saw the world. But in there somewhere you’ll find a sliver, a hint, a glimpse of the divine pull drawing humanity forward, step by step, click by click, into greater equality and love and justice. There been a longing deep in the human heart and bones for a better world, a more safe, fair, enlightened, just, peaceful, creative world from the very beginning…”
Q: Is it possible that you might be misattributing society’s forward movement to God?
“Of course, what is faith if there isn’t some doubt right there in the middle of the mix? They are, after all, dance partners.”
Q: As for the second part, do you think it is possible to feel reverence and a sense of awe about the universe without a belief in a deity?
“Sure-lots of people do.”
Q: Are you open to the possibility that God might not exist?
“I write about that in the book-about that gnawing sense that we may really be alone in the universe, at least in terms of God. I tell in the book about driving to church one Easter Sunday realizing that I didn’t believe in God. The only problem was that I was giving the sermon that day to 10,000 people. Which was a problem, to say the least! Haha. I decided to keep searching, and if my conclusions meant I had to leave my work and church, so be it. At least I’d have my integrity. As I kept going, I realized that I’d seen too much wonder and awe-in science, literature, music, serious drug addicts getting clean, marriages reviving, people with cancer having more joy than I’d ever seen a person have. I’ve seen, tasted, and experienced too much to deny that there’s anything more and close my mind like that. For me, the only intellectually honest and reasonable perspective is to remain open and believe. We all have faith-the only compelling question is: in what? or who? What I find compelling is becoming. What faith or perspective or world view makes you become a better person? More loving, kind, courageous, honest, generous? When I believe in the God Jesus talked about, it makes me less judgmental and more compassionate and more generous…that’s the mark of any belief system to me-how does it shape you? We’ve seen a lot of religion do a lot of bad shaping, haven’t we? So enough with that. But compassion and generosity and intellectual honesty and less judgment-we need more of that than ever, right?”
Q; What do you think atheists would be surprised to learn about your latest book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God?”
“That when I hear atheists talk about the God they don’t believe in I often don’t believe in that God either? That I love surfing? Or that I don’t think God can be proved in any way that matters? Or that I think there are new and fresh ways of talking about God that allow you to keep your wisdom, reason, and sanity? Or that if I could meet anyone in the world I’d meet Banksy? (Okay, that’s not in the book.)”
Thanks you again for taking to time to answer my questions.
Pastor Bell’s book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” is available on Amazon.com and anywhere else books are sold. Learn more about his books at RobBell.com. You can read my review of his book HERE.