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Seeking joy

Rob Bell unleashes full-scale assault on cynicism

Rob Bell brings his show “An Introduction to Joy” March 31 to Cain’s Ballroom

Russ Dixon

Writer, speaker, theologian, joy-seeker—Rob Bell wears many different hats. His fans call him brilliant; his critics call him a heretic. The former pastor has written almost a dozen books, including the New York Times bestseller “Love Wins,” and his latest, “What Is the Bible?” In 2011, he was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine.

On March 31, Bell is bringing his “Introduction to Joy” speaking tour to Cain’s Ballroom. Bell talked to me from his home in Los Angeles about life, love, and the perilous state of Christianity in the age of Trump.

Blayklee Freed: So I know you’ve been to Tulsa before because I actually was at your 2015 show at the Brady.

Rob Bell: Oh man, that was my first time in Tulsa. I loved it.

Freed: Any fond memories of that show?

Bell: Yes, I remember a serious love and warmth—because I had never been before, so when you go to a place you’ve never been before, if anybody shows up, you’re thrilled. I distinctly remember—these people, they’re ready. There’s a thing in the room, like a joy, a hunger, like everybody’s on the same quest.

Freed: You were mostly talking about [how] the natural order of the universe is to come together and make something greater. … What does humanity coming together look like, particularly in America right now?

Bell: What we now know is [in] the universe, for roughly 13.8 billion years, like bonds with like. … So when you think about racism, the reason why this is so disturbing to us is it’s the failure of like to bond with like. It’s going the opposite direction than the direction the universe has been going to 13.8 billion years. So it’s not just that these things are wrong and immoral and unjust—at a deep physical, biological level, they violate how the universe, or even a human body, came to be what we know as these bodies in this universe. … I just want to say to everybody—you’re holding up a 13.8 billion year process. It’s so crazy. And then you also, you wonder what would have to happen for us to all to have something we have to come together again.

Freed: Right. How do we get to that “Star Trek” utopia?

Bell: [laughs] Yes, and theorists call it a super ordinate, which is an event or an issue or a cause that nobody is against. It’s something that literally unites everybody on one side, and these are the great questions we’re in the midst of.

Freed: Do you still consider yourself an evangelical Christian? Do you still identify with that in any sort of way?

Bell: For me it was always about—what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be most alive? How do you forgive people that have wronged you? How do you actually find the inner resources to love your enemy? How do you figure out your path of what you’re here to do? … Whatever the word of the day is … why would you confine yourself like that? … I love the works of Ilia Delio, who’s [a] scientist [and] spiritual explorer. I love Eddie Izzard. For my reference point, it’s always all over the place, and I always found the Jesus path utterly compelling. … That word that you used earlier [“evangelical”] … people [ask], am I or am I not? It just seems like when it comes to matters of love, wouldn’t you want to be in whatever category is the biggest, widest, most expansive posture of love?

Freed: Identity is a really tricky thing because what people put upon you can be perceived as your identity but also what you’re trying to stake claim of for yourself is your identity … your story in particular makes me think about that.

Bell: There’s a number of things that worked for people that don’t work anymore. When 73 percent of people who call themselves evangelicals vote for Donald Trump, that word is broken. It no longer works—and language has cycles, so words work for a while to name and describe and orient us, and then certain words lose their efficacy … so you have to be willing to walk away from them, set them down, give them a break, and you’re seeing that now.

Freed: Can you try to explain why there are so many white people who call themselves Christians who support [the Trump Administration’s] very un-Christlike policies? What’s going on right now with this group of people?

Bell: If you think about how healing conscious has worked over the span of our species, when there is disruption or trauma or loss or any sort of event that causes disequilibrium, human being generally respond in one of two ways: We either allow the pain of that disruption—that change, that transition, that innovation—we either allow that pain to break us open and we become alert and aware of new possibilities … or we dig in our heels and retrench and regress.

There’s a large number of people for whom things have changed. The world is different. We are moving. We are connecting more with other tribes. Technology has connected us in unprecedented ways, and there’s a large number of people who are responding to the new world we find ourselves in. … They have dug in their heels and they have gone the other direction. And obviously if you are a candidate and you can play on those impulses, you can get very far down the road, which is why “the wall” has become such a loaded, almost iconic symbol. It’s speaking to a deep pattern in human consciousness, and it shows two responses. … the idea that somehow that impulse is linked with the Jesus revolution is just so absurd. You have to be just like—that is just, I mean obviously the word is ‘antichrist.’

This is the power of a tradition. Like the Hebrew prophets, like the prophet of Isaiah, there’s a whole section of writing … that has God saying to these religious people, I hate your festival. Your feasts make me want to vomit because you come here, you sing these songs and do these rituals, but you do not practice justice. … This acknowledgement: Sometimes the institution that assumes they’re the ones doing God’s bidding are actually in direct opposition to peace and love and justice. So this is actually not new territory.

Freed: You say the Bible can provide this platform kind of a context for what’s going on today.

Bell: Absolutely.

Freed: Are you going to talk about that when you come March 30?

Bell: The new tour is called “Introduction to Joy,” and it’s about lots of things … Where in your heart do you locate to place all the pain and suffering and loss of life, and how joy is found? I call it the wisdom after wisdom tradition … What does joy look like in a world where we have this many things that are broken and wrong?

So it does actually introduce people to a particular wisdom stream that a lot of people aren’t familiar with that, to me, is so of the moment. And I’ve talked about how the tour is a full-scale assault on cynicism. And, how can you be free of cynicism when it’s everywhere among us?

Freed: Well that’s about all I had. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

Bell: I enjoyed it.

Freed: Alright, we’ll see you in a couple of weeks

Bell: Fantastic—see you soon.

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