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Rob Bell: Everything is Spiritual (…even cats)

John on July 11, 2006 at 9:30 am

The Glass House is a small concert venue in a little artists colony section of downtown Pomona. It’s surrounded by vintage clothing boutiques and used record stores. Usually it’s host to punk bands, but on this Wednesday night a somewhat different crowd had turned out to see a young pastor from Michigan named Rob Bell.

Our Ticketmaster tickets ($10) read “Door: 7PM Show: 8PM.” My two friends and I arrived a bit after seven and found the place already packed. Nearly 350 people sat on folding chairs facing a corner stage. The stage was black except for a huge whiteboard about four feet tall running the length of the stage, perhaps 16 feet. A few white lights were shining on it, making it appear to glow slightly.

As 8PM approached someone came on stage to ask us to turn off our cell phones and to let us know that tonight’s performance was being filmed. A few minutes later the mood music that had been playing in the background became louder, adding to the concert-like atmosphere of the show. Finally, Rob Bell stepped on stage dressed all in black. He uncapped his marker dramatically and we were off…

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He began with a ten minute discussion of Genesis chapter one, treating it as Hebrew poetry. He paused once to emphasize his underlying principle of interpretation, i.e. “the Bible is not a science text book.” If there were young earth creationists in the room, they decided not to throw vegetables at that moment.

At one point, he pantomimed Adam naming the animals God brought before him. When Adam named one “cat” God’s reaction was “Hey, I didn’t make that.” It was one of the lighter moments in the message. Rob then made this aside: “Someone out there with a blog, please don’t write that I hate cats. There’ll be demonstrators at the next show.” So while it was extremely tempting to title this post “Rob Bell Hates Cats”, I resisted.

The second and longest part of Rob’s talk was, in fact, about science. From quarks and strings to the vast universe itself, he covered an enormous amount of ground. I have a background in this material, so I listened with an awareness not only of where he was going, but also where he might have gone. The impression I had was of watching some agile person cross a river by leaping from stone to stone. At times he would slow his progress to draw out a tricky point, such as quantum entanglement or the stellar habitable zone. At other times he would skip lightly over issues too complex to engage in an abbreviated way, such as the differing interpretations of quantum theory. But always it seemed to me he dealt accurately and fairly with the material. It was an outstanding 20-25 minute summary of modern physics. It was a setup for a point he would make later.

Next, he turned to the issue of perspective. Using Flatland characters, he discussed how God’s interaction with our world may be difficult to understand in everyday language. This is where the “emergent view” of all things theological came across most strongly. Is God Calvinist or Armenian? Rob suggests there may be a way for him to be both.

I recognize that answers like this will never satisfy those who’ve invested any energy in either of the alternatives. And I probably enjoy a good theological argument as much as the next person. Still, I found Bell’s appeal to lay down our theological arms quite winning. There are simply some issues where the Bible stands in tension with itself. Perhaps this too is inspired and should be respected. At times I get the sense that the seminary-denominational complex has an institutional investment in keeping the arguments going. In any case, this was probably my favorite section of the talk.

Having loaded his plate with literally “everything”, Rob now had the unenviable task of summing it up neatly. If his conclusion wasn’t fully successful it’s worth pointing out that few pastors would even have the courage to try.

And there was a theme that came through, a single thread on which all the beads of science and theology were strung. We live in a very big world and yet its one in which our perspective has the ability to shift our understanding of everything. Is the universe an accident or a work of design? The truth is it could be either. Is theology confusing because it’s imperfect or because our language is insufficient? Again, it could be either.

Is anything spiritual or is nothing? Rob suggests that as Christians we must choose everything. It’s this perspective that changes what we see. We move forward through life with the anticipation — the faith — that God is not absent, that he may indeed be hiding in plain sight.

I don’t know if Rob Bell has read Roy Clouser’s The Myth of Religious Neutrality, but he certainly seems to have adopted Clouser’s ideas on the religious control of theory-making. In any case, Rob’s presentation of it is a lot of fun. If there’s one person I’d like to have a chance to have a long talk with at some point, he has to be near the top of the list. I’m already looking forward to his next book, Sex God.

The “Everything is Spiritual Tour” currently spans 23 citites. Several of the dates have already sold out. Check here for the latest. It’s definitely worth seeing. If you can’t make it, it was being filmsed, so hopefully the whole thing will be available on DVD at some point.

Update 7/16: I’ve finally added my one bad, blurry picture of Rob from the event.

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Category: Religion & Faith |

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