Big Interview - Rob Bell - July August 2010

God is with us in the muck, the mire, the failure and the pain, says popular writer and speaker Rob Bell. ROB JAMES reports

It might come as a surprise to some, given his current popularity as both speaker and author, but this “Hipper-Than-Thou-Pastor” (TIME Magazine) only “stumbled” into preaching having once dreamed of ‘making it’ in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

Things didn’t “pan out” as he planned, however, and he ended up “really broken”.

But a sense of  “I guess there’s something else to do”, and a chance invitation to preach, transformed his life. As he stood up to speak, he says he suddenly felt he was “home”.

Bell, for all his success, has more than his fair share of critics too and so is as qualified as any to explore the relationship between creativity and suffering.

He certainly seems ‘to be scratching where people itch’. His latest tour Drops Like Stars has attracted large numbers and heartfelt accolades.

The theme grew out of Bell’s growing awareness of the “messiness of life”. He illustrates this by reference to the parable of the Prodigal. “You don’t find out if the elder brother decides to join the party. You don’t get a nice neat happy ending.

“And yet,” he continues, “sometimes the religious voice charges in, in an effort to be helpful, saying: ‘Well I guess that’s just how God planned it’.

“But you respond: ‘The God who planned this, I don’t want anything to do with. We find people come in with slick biblical solutions, but we just want to acknowledge it’s messy.”

Bell does not offer explanations so much as issue an invitation, believing that this is how we should react to those experiences he views as “disruptions”.

“Lots of people have explored the ‘Why?’ questions of suffering. I want to set aside the ‘Why’ questions and ask another set of questions: ‘So what?’”

Bell suggests that when he talks to people about those “key moments that shaped and defined the next period of their lives, they often talk about the difficult events when they had to re-think everything. That box being smashed had within it seeds of creativity; the planned tomorrow which was fundamentally an act of imagination.”

Authenticity is a key for Bell who illustrates this by reference to the Psalms.  He believes that such “disruptions” have the potential for making us honest as well as helping us draw closer to God.

Which brings Bell to the Cross and the Resurrection. For Bell, these are promises that we can find God in the muck, the mire, the failure and the pain. And when we’re willing to go through them we will find ourselves experiencing resurrection, experiencing hope – but not a hope that comes cheaply.

“God came into the world and screamed alongside us. The Cross is God’s way of saying: ‘I know how you are feeling’. It is the ultimate divine act of solidarity.”

Bell is obviously an intensely creative person. “I get a vision for something,” he continues. “The vision for this Drops Like Stars book and tour was all about the unexpected relationships between suffering and creativity.

“My wife and I are currently working through a book on marriage and I probably have four or five books in my head right now. So part of it for me is that I have to make this or I will spontaneously combust.”

He continues: “For me, over time, it’s hopefully creating things that help people meet the resurrected Christ. And my experience has been that the resurrected Christ is found in all sorts of unexpected places.

“I take great joy in helping put language on things that people have experienced but perhaps didn’t have language for, or to connect things that they have a sense of ‘I think maybe there’s something that relates these but don’t quite know what it is’. Putting language on that brings me great joy.”

Given Bell’s current popularity, he’s clearly offering people much more than joy.

  • Drops Like Stars: a few thoughts on creativity and suffering is published by Zondervan

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