The overwhelming lightness of being Rob Bell
Rob Bell has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people and is one of the most powerful Christian leaders in America.
But the 45-year-old “hell-raiser” is no fire and brimstone preacher. In fact, Bell is no longer comfortable even calling himself a Christian.
“Christianity feels like a big, bulky sweater that doesn’t fit,” Bell says.
“I find Jesus utterly compelling – I think he would be mortified somebody started a religion in his name. The heart of Jesus’ message is universal and I think he would be repulsed that people created a way to divide people.”
It’s an astounding about-turn for the former pastor who founded a church that is America’s version of Hillsong on steroids.
But during his 20-plus years as a pastor, Bell became wary of institutions, such as the church, that feel like they have “been hijacked and are no longer doing what they’re supposed to do”.
And what they’re supposed to do, Bell believes, is facilitate more togetherness and harmony, not divisiveness and arrogance.
“We, as human beings, expend a huge amount of energy creating labels and distinguishing and pointing out differences but underneath is a shared humanity that is way more significant,” says Bell, whose best-selling book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, was rejected by Christian bookstores and triggered his departure from the church he had created.
Despite Bell’s disillusionment with the direction religion has taken, he believes more than ever, people are seeking spirituality.
“As human beings we’re so hungry for meaning – ‘who am I, what am I doing here?’,” says Bell, who Elizabeth Gilbert has called ‘one of the most inspiring spiritual leaders I’ve ever encountered’.
“Science does a fantastic job of giving explanations for certain phenomenon,” Bell continues, “then holding your child for the first time – you don’t need a formula or data – you need a song or a poem.
“Science doesn’t do very well at giving explanations to grief – there are whole dimensions of human experience that don’t exist in spreadsheets.”
One particular aspect of the human experience that Bell finds fascinating is our ability to rise in the face of horror.
He mentions candlelight vigils held after 9/11 and, more recently, the Orlando shooting in June where 49 people were killed and 53 more were wounded.
Why such acts of injustice exist, if there is a God, is not a question Bell claims to have a clean answer to.
“Well, anybody who can answer that question in a couple of sentences,” he says, trailing off. “For the world to be a world and for humans to be human it has to be free to be a world.
“The real question, to me, is how come, after so many horrific events, people rally around each other and light candles for each other?
“Why is it that people were kinder than ever after 9/11? Counterintuitively it brings out all the good in humans.”
They are moments that the lightness of the human spirit shines out of darkness. Such light is a quality that Bell believes can carry us through suffering.
“I did an event with the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu – what struck me was that these two humans have seen the worst suffering and hate… what was so overwhelming was the lightness,” Bell recalls.
“They were making fun of each other’s weight, they tickled each other, they giggled… what you pick up from them is joy.”
In his own life, Bell has also learned overwhelming lightness after many years as a pastor seeing “death and suffering up close”.
“It either overwhelms you or illuminates how precious life is,” he says. “I now call it ‘light, heavy, light’ – we’re oblivious to the world, then overwhelmed by it and then it’s not that you forget the heaviness… but, you make it to the lightness on the other side… you transcend it.”
The father of three believes he has found his own transcendence.
“I laugh way more than I used to and I’m more aware of the suffering than I used to be,” Bell says.
“I realised that I was here to bring people joy… to give a big, beautiful gift acknowledging how dark the world can be but that there is this beautiful light.”
Rob Bell’s Australian tour, on finding deeper joy and meaning in everyday life, kicks off in Melbourne on July 9. For more information go to: http://wakeupproject.com.au/rob-bell/
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