Rob Bell: From structure to Spirit and back

There is structure in every movement of the Spirit, Rob Bell says. The better organized we are, the more we can organize around the Spirit and see what fresh winds are blowing.

 

Whatever their size, small or large, all movements of the Spirit require structure, Rob Bell said.

“My understanding of institutions is that there is an ever-flowing movement from structure to Spirit and back,” Bell said. “Spirit needs structure, and structure needs Spirit.”

Even a small house Bible study or prayer group, for example -- however spontaneous and informal it might appear -- requires discipline and habits, he said.

“Some say, ‘We’re all just gathering in my house, and God shows up, and we talk about our lives,’” Bell said. “Well, when are you getting together next? ‘Next week.’ OK, so you have some structure. There is some structure in every movement of the Spirit.”

Bell learned the need for structure firsthand as the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich.

“When we started, we would go a hundred miles an hour and then crash into the brick wall and stand up and go, ‘OK, that didn’t work. Let’s run this way!’ And so there’s definitely been some really significant maturing.”

One of the most influential pastors in the United States today, Bell is the author of several books, including “Velvet Elvis,” “Sex God,” “Jesus Wants to Save Christians” and “Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering.” He is also a featured speaker in NOOMA, a series of short films that “explore our world from the perspective of Jesus.”

In October 2010, Bell delivered the Franklin S. Hickman Lecture at the 2010 Convocation & Pastors’ School at Duke Divinity School. (Audio recordings of the lectures are available for free download through iTunes U.)

While at Duke, Bell spoke to Faith & Leadership about his view of institutions, the maturation of Mars Hill and what gives him hope. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

 

Q: How do you approach the creative process?

It’s actually simple. Something gets birthed, and it quite quickly announces, “I’m a book. I’m a sermon series.” It’s some fundamental insight or aha or punch in the face. It takes all sorts of different forms. So every sermon or film started with some really pure, simple, almost like an explosion or a glimpse or a “there it is,” and then it’s just the hard work of actually bringing it to what it’s supposed to be.

I didn’t do well leading a church. The week-to-week “How are we doing? Where are we going? How do we get from here to here?” -- I’m not wired like that. A team of people actually leads our church now. I do much better cheering those people on.

A few years ago I did a tour, and we made a film called “Everything Is Spiritual.” It combined quantum physics, dimension theory, string theory and Hebrew numerology in Genesis. Imagine sitting in a church meeting, and they’re discussing when you were 200 volunteers short in the children’s ministry, and I had that in my head!

It was always this sort of, “I’ve got to make that and share that with people. People have to see what I just saw.” So that is the impulse for me. It’s always been, “I saw something, I experienced something, I tasted something, I stumbled upon something, and my job is to show it to you, and then it will do its own thing with you.”

Q: Do you create alone or with other people?

It is extraordinarily solitary. You can talk to others all you want, but then you have to sit down and actually make that paragraph. It’s a pure, undiluted slog.

For the lecture at Duke, I sat with that for weeks. I started, I think, with quotes from Bob Dylan and Jay-Z, the image of Mr. Chen on the bridge in Nanjing [saving would-be suicides] and something about Sabbath. I worked on the idea of a paradox and a Eucharist, and made up the “eucharistic paradox.” I’d never heard anyone talk about the heaviness and lightness of ministry. It really helped me.

For weeks I had all of these pieces. At one point, I wrote each idea out on a 3 x 5 card, and then I said, “I think this goes there. Nah, I think this goes there. No, move that way back to the beginning. Oh, interesting.” That’s what the progression is like.

Q: You don’t teach by imparting straight information; you use visual images, story, sound and other media. Does that come from a particular view of how people learn?

It’s like creating a room and I’m inviting you into that room, or I’m going to build a room around you. There are various textures: carpet, tile, marble, and then there are chairs. It is words, and it is pictures, and it is feelings, and it is nudges.

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy.” Yet he also says, “Take up your cross.” I also had an image of Lisa Murch’s [art piece] called “Invasion.” I could have just said, “Sometimes it feels like everybody’s out to get you, and you get too many critical e-mails.” You can just talk about that. But for me the picture does the lifting.

There are people who can get up and read a manuscript and it’s compelling. The first time I ever heard N.T. Wright talk, he came out and just read. It was like, “Pow! Whatever you do, don’t show me pictures.”

Q: Your work seems to be equally attentive both to suffering and to beauty.

If you don’t have both Friday and Sunday, then neither of them makes sense. Think about pop music. Whether it’s the Jonas Brothers or their predecessors, ’N Sync, or theirs, the Backstreet Boys, they all sing, “Everything is great. I love you, baby.” Others sing, “Everything is terrible, dark and wrong.” You can draw a great crowd raging against the machine, but that doesn’t last if we’re just throwing stones.

Every once in a while somebody comes along who doesn’t say, “It’s a great day.” And they’re not stuck in how tragic things are. They have somehow made it to Sunday. When they sing, “It’s a beautiful day,” it lifts you up, and it isn’t trite, and it holds your cynicism at bay. That’s why people love U2. That's why certain film makers, they can finish the movie, and everybody is happy in the end, and you buy it. You know what I mean? Like you go to “Little Miss Sunshine,” they took me through Friday.

This is why conservative Christian culture is so horribly anemic and shockingly disappointing in its inability to create art that sustains. It isn’t honest. They don’t spend enough time on Friday. Sometimes you have to linger on the book of Lamentations.

There is a woman in our church whose husband was a very successful professional. They’re on vacation in Chicago, her parents are there and the kids out sightseeing. He says, “I’ve got to go up to my room and get something.” He goes down the street, climbs up on the roof of a building across the street from a Catholic Mass that is just getting out, and jumps off the roof. This gospel has to have arms wide enough to embrace where she sits. Jacob limps. Do you know what I mean?

Q. How have you apprenticed yourself to learn from others?

I have endlessly found voices at key moments that unlock something in me.

Everything changed for me when I was 16 and our family got a Betamax player you could program, and after school I could watch “David Letterman.” In my world the athletes and the good students were on top, and there was no irony. All of a sudden this goofy-looking guy with funny hair, odd teeth, wrestling shoes and his double-breasted suit found some things to be slightly ridiculous. That connected me with Jesus, who said, “Actually, the first will be last.”

Eddie Izzard blew my mind with what could be possible with one person on a stage for two hours. It’s stand-up comedy, but it is also history, philosophy and contemporary commentary. Whatever he is doing, it told me there are other ways to think about the act of giving an audience a gift.

Q: Tell us about the challenges Mars Hill has faced as it has grown.

My understanding of institutions is that there is an ever-flowing movement from structure to Spirit and back. Spirit needs structure, and structure needs Spirit. Some say, “We’re all just gathering in my house, and God shows up, and we talk about our lives.” Well, when are you getting together next? “Next week.” OK, so you have some structure. There is some structure in every movement of the Spirit. “No, man, she just talks, and we all learn, and it’s amazing.” No, she has worked hard to articulate those things. The other six days of the week she has developed disciplines and habits that cultivate something within her so that when she gets up, she can “just talk.”

Structure can be lethal. People have accused us at Mars Hill of “going corporate.” In other seasons it’s chaotic. What is interesting is that the better organized we are, the more we can organize around the Spirit and see what fresh winds are blowing. That is the art of it all. When you’re 28, you don’t know that. When we started, we would go a hundred miles an hour and then crash into the brick wall and stand up and go, “OK, that didn’t work. Let’s run this way!” And so there’s definitely been some really significant maturing.

Q: How is Mars Hill particular to West Michigan with its leftover Dutch Reformed Christian culture?

Whenever I teach, the first thing I say is, “Please turn to Ezekiel 18 ...” That is a liturgy of sorts that is unique to that culture. For those who are nervous that we’re going to lose the plot totally, the first thing I do is say, “Today we’re going to be in Matthew chapter 9 ...” That’s probably tribal language. The snipers on the roofs are not going to be able to say, “They’re off rejecting the Bible, just making stuff up.” We sing a lot of hymns. If we started something in Los Angeles, I don’t know we would sing as many hymns. At Mars Hill we can sing hymns with very sacrificial atonement language: “Nothing but the blood.” In other cultures, they’d be like, “What, blood? What are you guys talking about?”

Our church has a massive cross section of people. We have war protestors and parents of kids fighting in Iraq. We have the CEOs of companies and people who have been laid off by that company sitting in the same row.

Q: How are you thinking about the way your work can be institutionally embodied past your own lifetime?

That’s very dangerous territory. I think, “I’m supposed to make this next book.” The past couple of years I’ve been working on a book, a tour, a sermon series and a film all at once. But in this season I wanted to give myself to one thing at a time and really give myself to it. Instead of this going, going, going, now this is the only thing I’m doing.

Q: How would you define a Christian institution?

It’s dodgy to turn “Christian” into an adjective, but as disciples of Jesus, we want more and more peace. Shalom is proper relation with God, each other, ourselves and the earth. The alternative is to claim that, say, this insurance agency, that plumbing company are “Christian.” They take it on as an adjective: “Where Christ is first when we plumb.” There’s a deeper understanding of shalom than that, one where we are working to build the kind of world that can endure. That’s what Jesus calls us to do.

 

My perception is that there is a conservative Christian movement that is loud, angry and fearful and seems to be entrenching with more venom than ever. Whatever is not working, just white-knuckle it all the more. And there also seems, on the other end, a great joy in tearing down mythology: “You don’t actually believe there’s a literal exodus out of Egypt, do you?” But you don’t overcome apartheid from that place, because you’ve got nothing left.

Both sides are based on fear. They have the very same spirit. But there is clearly some other thing that has fervency and intimacy and piety and holiness and intellectual rigor. We need that. This voice tends to be significantly quieter in culture, because it’s not shocking. Its much easier to rally people around fear, anger and pride.

 

Q: Talk about your relationship with the theological academy .

I begin with the assumption that I'm not saying anything new. Please don't credit me with originality. Lots of people swam in this stream. My task is simply to translate. Not a lot of people are going to read, say, Jürgen Moltmann’s “The Spirit of Life,” but there might be ways to put that in language that more people have access to. If what I say is unique, that's humbling beyond words, but we don't need more people talking like that.

Q: Tell me about your love for the Old Testament.

It's a very quixotic collection; bizarre and brilliant. Its edges and oddness are its most enduring points. It teaches us a lot about human development. For example, Deuteronomy 21 is the spoils of-war passage: If you conquer and kill everybody in the other tribe, you can take the wife of the man you just killed as your own. Shave her head, give her some time to grieve and then take her. But if she doesn’t please you, you can send her away, but give her a certificate of divorce.

Oh, my word! But then you learn that, actually, women in spoils of war were just pure property. Deuteronomy 21 is actually a giant step forward for women’s rights. Let her shave her head and let her grieve her family. In other words, treat her like a human. If you send her away, you have to give her a certificate of divorce so she has rights and is not just cast out into the culture to become a prostitute. This was early women’s lib.

Now obviously, we kept going. But the Old Testament is full of brilliant insight, just crackling right there beneath the surface.

Q: I’m curious about your claim in “Velvet Elvis” that the shallowness of so much North American Christianity can be traced to leaders who haven’t plunged into the depths of their own souls. How should someone go about that?

One’s family of origin is really basic: “Where did I come from? I didn’t come here blank. I bring generations that are in there somewhere.” So when this happens, I respond this way: “That can be extremely illuminating, and if you haven’t named it, then it’s just sort of there. One has to move slowly enough to identify, say, a destructive habit. What would it look like to be free from that?”

My experience has been that there’s an interior journey into a grace and peace that’s right here, right now. There is bliss, a joy, a euphoria right here that God wants to give every single one of us in this space right now. And that so much effort is spent, “If I just build that, accomplish that, obtain that, purchase that, get that done, then there will be like an ‘Ahh!’” The one thing that I know for sure -- and I don’t know much -- is that at the heart of the gospel is, “You are blessed, right here, now. And in your lostness and strangeness and oddness and inability to get it right, Jesus comes to announce, ‘You’re loved.’”

It’s the absolute best thing in the world, and for so many of us there's a story about the rabbi from Krakow. The rabbi from Krakow has this dream, and in this dream he has a vision of a far-away bridge in a city, miles away, and under the bridge this treasure is buried. And so, he wakes up, and he journeys all the way to the city, miles and miles and miles he hikes there. And he's hiding in the bushes spying on the bridge, trying to figure out how to get at the treasure, and there are these police guarding the bridge, and one sees the rabbi from Krakow, and he says, “You. Come here out of the bushes. What are you doing here?” He says, “Ah, you wouldn't believe me.” And the policeman says: “Why are you here?” And he says, “Well, I had this dream, and in the dream I had this vision of this bridge, and there's sort of a treasure buried under it, so I'm spying on it because I'm trying to figure out how to get the treasure.” And the policeman burst out laughing. And he says, “Seriously, you believe in dreams like that? If I believe in dreams like that, I believe that there is some rabbi in Krakow who has treasure hidden under his bed.”

And the rabbi from Krakow says, “Thank you very much,” and he rushes home. And to me that is, it's under your bed. You don't have to go anywhere. So we do all this stuff, and all this posturing, and all of this, “Have you bought my book?” All of this, “How big is your church?” “Is your ministry growing?” All of this nonsense that is desperately trying to get something, and Jesus is like, “It's under your bed, OK?”

Q: What keeps you up at night with worry, and what gives you hope?

I don’t know. I don’t really worry. That isn’t something I -- I’m trying to think. Do I ever worry? I’ve had too many experiences where joy was my companion and really tough stuff, really hard, bloody sort of, “Ouch! That hurt.” And I’m fine. We’re fine. So I don’t really worry. What was your other question?

Q: What gives you hope?

I really do think the tomb is empty, and I think we’re going to be fine. I think the only thing left to do is enjoy. I really do. So we do. That’s what God says. It’s a Trinitarian universe. It’s like a divine dance. “Come on in.” That’s it. It’s just an invitation. I really do passionately with all my being find that to be the most compelling way to explain everything.