Rob Bell and Andrew Morgan: Heresy in Our Time
Tami Simon: This program is brought to you by SoundsTrue.com. At SoundsTrue.com you can find hundreds of downloadable audio learning programs, plus books, music, videos, and online courses and events. At soundstrue.com we think of ourselves as a trusted partner on the spiritual journey offering diverse, in-depth and life-changing wisdom. SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey.
You’re listening to Insights At The Edge. Today my guests are Rob Bell and Andrew Morgan. Rob Bell is the author of 10 books, including the New York Times best sellers What We Talk About When we Talk About God, Love Wins, and What is the Bible?. He’s been profiled in The New Yorker, toured with Oprah, and in 2011 Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Andrew Morgan is an internationally recognized filmmaker, focused on telling stories for a better tomorrow. His experience includes a broad range of work that spans narrative and documentary storytelling for multiple film and new media projects that have been released all over the world.
Together, Rob Bell and Andrew Morgan have created a new film called The Heretic. The film follows Rob over several years as he challenges deeply held conservative ideas while grappling with some of the most important questions of our time. In this episode of Insights at the Edge Rob, Andrew, and I spoke about spiritual innovation and the ways in which Christianity, as a religion, is being called to innovate in our time. We also talked about how a spiritual person can find a sense of community without being part of a formal religion. We talked about how Rob lives by following his inner call of aliveness, how he likes to make things and continues to put awe and wonder at the center of his life. And finally, we talked about the connection between pain and art making, and how we can each respond to the pangs we feel in a creative way in order to make a difference in the world.
Here’s my conversation with Rob Bell and filmmaker Andrew Morgan.
You have collaborated together to create a new movie called The Heretic, and to begin, I’d love to know more about how you met each other and how you decided to make this film.
Rob Bell: It was Andrew’s idea. I had nothing to do with it.
TS: Andrew, you start then. Tell me how this inspiration came to you.
Andrew Morgan:Yes, I met Rob a few years ago. We both live here in Los Angeles, and we actually met at a birthday party that our kids were attending. We started a conversation and I became really, really fascinated by the work that he was doing. I had grown up in a very conservative, evangelical family and area. And I had kind of grown away from most of that. I was just really fascinated by a totally different way of approaching some of these same ideas, just coming at it from a very different direction. For me personally, that was fascinating.
It was also interesting as a person beginning to understand just how much of an impact the Christian story, and specifically the evangelical Christian story, has had and was having on America as a country, as a nation. And I felt like a lot of what Rob was putting his finger on, it went right to the heart of some of the conversations and the issues that we were really addressing collectively.
So I just sat down with Rob and Kristen and I said, “I’m not sure what this is going to be, I’m not sure if it’s going to work, I’m not sure what it’ll turn into, but I’d like the ability to just start filming some of these conversations that we’re having, and some of the work that you’re doing, and some of the people that are your friends and in your orbit.” Yes, that was in like 2015 and that’s how we set out.
RB: Yes, and from the beginning it was Andrew’s film. And it was really, really important to me that my wife Kristin and I had no editing power, we had no approval, we had no creative, like I had no input, zero. I didn’t see the film, I saw the film two nights ago at the premiere for the first time.
RB: So it was really, to me, I guess, if you’re going to give somebody access, then you actually have to give them access. And then you just have to let them make whatever they’re going to make, and however it goes, that’s how it goes. Otherwise it’s not interesting. If it bombs, then bomb big. You know what I mean?
TS: So Rob, what was it like for you watching the film? What was your experience?
RB: Totally surreal. It was, I don’t, I’ve gotten to do lots of really, really compelling … I’ve really, really loved my work and have gotten to do lots of things that have made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, but this was… My kids, with my wife and kids in the third row just watching this film. I guess that was two days ago, I’m still sort of processing it.
TS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now I understand what you’re saying about giving someone free license, “Come in, it’s your film, Andrew, make what you want”, but did you feel at some point, “Wow this is really a risk? I have no idea how he’s going to portray me. Maybe this is an unwise risk.”
RB: I knew, I was familiar with Andrew’s work, and just listening to what he found interesting, I thought … Well of course it’s a risk, but I had some sort of deep, deep abiding trust that he understood at some level what I’m doing and that it’d be fine. There was a trust in him. And not even like a, “Well, I hope I look good”, but just a depth of wisdom in him that was really compelling to me. It goes way beyond “How am I going to look?” and more this is the work I’m doing, if you capture it … And a lot of the work is public, you’re talking in large groups of people. So if somebody films it, a bunch of people are already there, you know what I mean? So if he captured something that was like, “Oh, that was awkward”, the awkwardness was in the moment. Made it way more fun.
TS: Now you mentioned, Andrew, some of what you were trying to address in the movie in terms of speaking to an evangelical Christian audience. Coming at it from my perspective as a viewer, someone who would identify more as being in the camp that I think many listeners to Insights at the Edge are in, which is we’re spiritual but we’re not really religious. What can we learn from a film like The Heretic?
I got a lot out of it, and I’d like to share some of the insights and observations that came to me and hear you guys talk about it. One of them is just what it takes to be a free spiritual person in the world today. Not encumbered by the concerns of what do people think about me and am I going to be acceptable by the church of my upbringing or the tradition around me. You know, Rob, I really want to hear more about some of the big decisions you’ve made in your life to be that kind of free person. You left being the pastor of a megachurch with 10,000 people coming to hear you on a regular basis. Seems to me that was a huge step, to leave that kind of podium.
RB: To me, it was never about religion. I never found religion that interesting. What I found interesting was what it means to be human. What does it mean to be fully alive? What does it mean to see and taste the fullness and depth in life? So for me it was always like, it was always about curiosity, it was always about exploration, it was always about the big questions and the big mysteries.
So I came out of a tradition, but I kept following it and where it took me was into the big universal healing questions that everybody’s been asking, like your listeners. “How do you forgive somebody who’s wronged you? How do you figure out what you’re here to do? What do you do with those deep desires to make a difference in the world? And then the struggles sometimes and even monotony of everyday life. How do you keep long term relationships together?” These are the questions everybody’s asking.
So for me, even when you started a church—that’s sort of what you did in the tradition I came from—I was never trying to keep people in a religion. I was always interested in talking to everybody everywhere about what does it mean to be human. So that’s always sort of what’s been interesting to me. And if certain people didn’t get it or didn’t find what I was doing helpful, that’s fine, that’s OK. But I’m more alive than ever.
And there were moments, I distinctly remember, the church that you referenced, we started this church when I was 28, by like 30 or 31, there’s like 10,000 people and I distinctly remember these moments when I saw other spiritual leaders who would put on a game face and say what their institution needed them to say to keep stability and to keep the donations coming in, do you know what I mean?
TS: Of course.
RB: I watched others develop this, and then they’d say to you “Man, I am reading. Let me tell you about what I’m reading. It’s blowing my mind.” But I could never say that because people would think that I’m breaking the rules or they’d worry that I’m losing the plot. And I remember Kristin and I distinctly, in our late 20s or early 30s, being like, “That is not our path. Our path is to follow the questions wherever they take us.”
In the movie there, I talk about how we had that running joke, “If it all fell apart I’d just go sell shoes.” Better to be alive and on the path and filled with wonder and awe, wherever it takes you, than to be one more person who is like, “Eh, I have good health care, why would I risk disrupting this thing?” So that’s what it’s been like, just one long, slow evolution just following the next set of questions. And I’m having more fun than ever. That’s how I’ve seen it all along.
And if you actually do take the Jesus tradition seriously, then it takes you into all traditions. Like Ram Dass talks about tradition is like a catapult, if you take it seriously and it does its job, it’s like it thrusts you out into the great collective humanity where we’re all asking the same questions about our life together, our care for the planet, and what does it mean to go on your own interior path? And that’s just what kept happening to me again and again and again.
TS: Now what was it about being the pastor of this big megachurch that came to a point where you had to leave? Why did you leave?
RB: Well what’s interesting is when you think about the history of spirituality, people started building temples, and a temple was a sacred space or a holy space. The problem with a temple is you need, developmentally—if you think about human development—you need a temple to help you conceive of that which is sacred, holy, and divine. But what a temple does in naming a space holy and sacred, is that by default it names other spaces not holy and sacred. Those become average and common by default.
But the real gift of any spiritual path is how it illuminates for you the holiness and the sanctity of every moment, every breath, every encounter, every conversation. So what’s interesting when you have a 10,000-person-temple with millions of dollars flowing in, is I would stand up there and say, “The point isn’t this gathering or this big giant thing we’ve built, the point is you living with compassion, grounded and centered as a nurse, as a CPA, as a mom, as somebody who’s picking up trash, as somebody who’s helping with education. Whatever it is that you are doing, it’s discovering the divine that’s present in that.”
So what happens is you’re saying that, but you’re talking on a microphone in a giant temple, you know what I mean? In a giant institution. And so at some point, I kept going, “My message isn’t come to the temple, my message is the whole world is a temple of sorts.” The whole thing is sacred, it’s all on fire. And so it was like, “Oh wow, in taking this tradition seriously I have to keep going.”
So my work now is, like I’m doing a club/theater tour right now, I’m not in what you think of as churches or overtly spiritual or religious places. That’s been the past decade or so, the past seven or eight years. I tour in clubs and theaters, I’m in spaces that people don’t traditionally think of spirituality in, and I help people see the depth and the dimension of spirit that’s present wherever they’re at. And I’m having more fun than ever.
TS: So you broke out of something that started to feel too confining to you?
RB: Yes, yes. Broke out of, or sometimes I say I actually took it seriously, you know what I mean?
TS: Uh-huh (affimative).
RB: I took it so seriously that it took me somewhere. Yes, there’s a breaking out, maybe you could also say I just followed it where it took me. If you set out to try to love your neighbor, well, who knows who your neighbor may be. That’s when it gets interesting. So yes, it’s a long, slow evolution in the particular direction.
TS: Now Andrew, you decided to call the film The Heretic. One of the, I thought, implicit nods was to Jesus being a heretic, and of course other great spiritual figures, I think, people would say that Buddha in his time was a heretic in terms of speaking out against the class system that existed. And of course, we think of Muhammad as a prophet, and prophets are often considered heretics of a certain type. So talk to me more about this spiritual figure to be true to ourselves and free, how in some sense there’s a call to be a heretic?
AM:Yes, I think that’s a beautiful point. Yes. I think for me, I just feel, I continue to be very confused about why we value innovation in all shapes and forms. We value this idea that the world is moving, it’s heading somewhere, human history is not static, it’s in motion. And yet, some of the great belief systems or institutions that are designed to be guides to help us navigate this world seem at many times to not value those things and to be very rooted, not just in the past, but to be very rooted in these un-expandable ways of looking at reality.
So yes, for me, looking at a guy like Rob, it’s just like, of course there’s going to be a need to challenge and push on these ideas. It’s not like we got to this point in human history and we made it. It’s not like we’re waking up in a world where we’ve solved all the problems. I feel like religion and spirituality have offered tremendous value to millions of people, they’ve also done tremendous damage, and to be constantly evaluating where the line between those two things fall and just acknowledging, I think, the humility of what we don’t know. And I think that’s really something I’ve seen and appreciated in Rob’s work. For me, religion, growing up, was used as a way to consolidate or simplify the world. And I think a lot of what Rob’s doing is saying these are tools, and guides, and helps to open you up to the bigness of reality.
The reality is that there’s so much about the human experience that is mystery. There’s so much about what it means to be alive, what it means to lose people we love, what it means to be here on this planet flying through space. That is such a great question. So to me, to follow and spend time with someone who is asking those questions, and just willing to be honest about those questions in the face of what can be stifling certainty, brought me to that title.
TS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I’d love to hear from you both more, if you will, about how you might see the story of Jesus as a story of heresy?
RB: Oh my word, how long is this interview? Well, think about the political symbolism of the meal in the first century because for a first century Jew, the Roman Empire, the greatest military superpower the world had ever seen, had come in and crushed them. So you have an occupying foreign power, and there were a number of religious Jewish people who said the reason why we have been conquered by another foreign oppressor is because we have people in our midst who are unclean, who don’t have favor, who are, the word they used was sinners. So if we could just get rid of this unclean element in our society, then we could have the divine favor again, and that would have political ramifications, we could throw off our oppressor.
So all those passages where it said and then Jesus dined with the tax collector, and then Jesus dined with women, and then Jesus dined with sinners. The meal was a subversive political act because when you ate with somebody you are saying, “This person is loved and validated in the eyes of the divine.” To have meals with people, you could argue Jesus was crucified for eating. Because every time you read, well, he had a meal with somebody, and you’re like, “Wow, he seemed to have been quite hungry.” Oh no, no. That’s political theater.
He’s taking every single marginalized and oppressed group from lepers, all the way to Samaritans, all the way down the road. He’s taking every group that’s been pushed to the edges, that’s been marginalized, that’s had their rights denied, who’s had their humanity degraded, and he’s having a meal with them. This is spiritual performance art of a guerilla theater subversive … I mean, this is just beautiful.
You could argue that alone would get a person killed. So I, and this is me, my parents would take us to church growing up and I was always, I found the Jesus stories moving at some deep, deep level of the soul and psyche. Whoever had been pushed to the edges, he went out to the edges and embraced and welcomed them. And whatever hierarchy had been created, he just insisted that there was another hierarchy based on love and compassion and consolidarity. So I did not come into faith through an intellectual argument, or through dogmatism, or through you know what I mean, somebody knocking on the door with a pamphlet telling me I was going to hell or something. I heard these stories and at some level, they rang true to me about the nature of the universe we’re living in and what it means to be a vital flourishing human being.
So even when I first started getting called a heretic, I didn’t come into it through a denominational system, or even the word Christian to me, it was always, I just never thought, even the word Christianity always felt sort of bulky and strange because I had had this deep heart, intuitive experience with the Christ, the universal Christ who everybody, across all traditions has spoken of. The force, the glue, the animated energy that moves the whole thing forward and holds it all together. So that’s sort of how I came into it. In some ways, that’s more alive than ever for me.
TS: I’m curious, Rob, was there some experience in your youth? An actual moment in time? Or was this just a growing sense from your immersion in stories with Jesus.
RB: Great question. My Dad said to me, I remember one time, my parents would have people over for dinner, all varieties of human beings, my parents were very open and welcoming and gregarious. And I remember my dad saying to me, maybe I was in junior high, saying, “You know, when we have all these people through our house,” and they were always giving to somebody and serving somebody, they’re sort of larger than life. But I remember my dad saying, “You know, after people leave our house you start asking questions about the conversation we had with them.” I remember my dad saying, “You have a curiosity about why people are the way they are, why we do what we do, and what it all means. ”
It was one of those moments when somebody reflects to you something that you haven’t noticed. I think I was just always deeply curious about the depths, and it seemed to me, I had distinct memories sitting in the back of English class in high school with Scott Reeder and random people come to mind, watching the thing unfold, the prom queen, the high school quarterback, and feeling like it was surface. Like everybody was sliding down the surface of things. Like it was all treble, no bass. And that there were these larger mysteries and depths to life. That was where it was really interesting.
Of course, when you’re 16, you have no idea what that means. You’re just trying to get a good grade in the class. But I think at a young age, I just wasn’t content with surface. I wanted to understand the deeper realities and the deeper mysteries. So in some ways, I just set out to do that. In some ways, I’m doing what I’ve been doing the whole time. Yes.
TS: Sure. I get that curiosity, that questioning, that not being satisfied with the surface, but what made me ask the question was you were describing this inner feeling of a force inside. A force of love.
TS: You could say meeting a kind of Christ consciousness, and that’s what I was also curious about. That discovery, if you will, of some type of living source of mysterious, I don’t know, you could say answer, but mysterious love-
RB: Right. Right.
TS: In the center of your life. That’s what I want to know about. You encountered that.
RB: Yes, yes, yes. Because I went to a very competitive high school. I went to a public high school. And this is going way back, but I remember everything was hierarchy. There was always somebody who was better at something else. There was always a kid who was better in every class, in sports, in music. I remember a kid telling me, “Rob you weren’t invited to that party because you’re not popular enough.” I remember, it’s funny the things you remember, everywhere I turned somebody was ranking everything.
And what the Christ coming through the Jesus story said was that “You have everything everybody is striving for, you already have it. You are loved, there is a grace in the center of your being. There’s nothing that needs to be earned. There’s no achievement that will ease that ache because everything you’ve ever been searching for, you already possess. It’s already within you. The kingdom is within you.” I distinctly remember that being a really, beautiful, compelling, strange, unsettling idea in my teens. And that’s going way back. This interview, man, it’s good.
TS: Now, Andrew, you said something I thought was extremely interesting. You talked about how in our culture we seem to appreciate innovation when it comes in the form of technology or other scientific discoveries, we’re happy to cure diseases through innovation, but somehow when it comes to our spiritual or religious life, we want to go backwards in time. We’re not welcoming innovation. I think that’s really interesting, why do you think that is, that we don’t welcome innovation when it comes to our spiritual life?
AM:I think maybe one of the most important questions—I’d go so far as maybe one of the most important questions this century that human beings are going to fundamentally have to wrestle with and discover or the story is going to come to a very disastrous end—is how do we as people, how do we wrestle with new information or new ideas, new perspectives that might contradict or cause us to expand our own beliefs and assumptions about the world without losing who we are as an identity—ourselves, our families, our tribes, our countries—in the process? I think one of the things that we’re realizing is that we’ve come about as far as we can come in this sort of tribalistic—my belief is going to war against your belief, my way versus them—that kind of thinking really is having very clear now, very stark, very painful impacts on the world. And I think if you’re really being honest, a lot of that goes back to the way we have conceived of religion. And I think it will just be so interesting to see how we can begin to look at the world.
That’s so baked into our DNA, that’s so baked into the way we wake up looking at the world. That’s so the way we were taught, and trained, and raised, whatever tradition. A lot of traditions hold this kind of thinking. That it’s going to be so interesting to think about the sort of world that we could build moving forward, if we begin to say we can come from different traditions, we can carry different lenses to look at reality through, and at the same time, we can do so without being binary. They don’t have to be all mutually exclusive in the same reductive way that we’ve been handed.
So I don’t know the answer to this question, I just know that the answer to that question might unlock the next needed, necessary step in the human story.
RB: That’s good.
TS: Now it’s interesting that you talked about how this next step, our 21st century, if you will, spirituality will break down the divisions between us and them. And when I think of the evangelical Christian traditions in North America, I notice I feel a sense of us and them. I’m a liberal meditator, I’m a queer woman, I’ve been married to my wife for 17 years. I think of them as “them”, the evangelical Christians. And I’m curious if you can help me, and potentially some of our listeners, make a bridge of understanding.
AM:Yes, well, I think what you’re saying is very true and I’m not trying to undercut that reality. Part of why there are some aspects of this film where the gloves are off is that I have very little patience, as a person, with religious belief systems that cause people to do harm to other people. I have very little patience in 2018 with thoughts and ideas and beliefs that look innocent, but actually cause harm, and actually are used to do the opposite of what Rob alluded to the Jesus tradition was all about. And so on one level, all practices are not equal because some don’t value women, some hold lines where gender or sexual orientation is an exclusionary factor. So that’s one part of what you’re saying. And that’s wrong, and it’s OK for that to be called wrong.
I think when you go a step below that though, and you look at the next layer, you realize that that sort of behavior, that sort of thought pattern, to me that’s something that is nurture and not nature. That is something that is taught. I have young kids at home, and I really don’t sense that we come into the world looking through that grid. I think that’s something that we do for a variety of reasons, fear chief among them. So I think, it’s interesting, when we started making the film, we started shooting back in 2015, and then 2016 happened.
And as I’m sure your experience as well, I felt like all the knobs were turned up. All the divisiveness got deeper, and all the polarization got more stark and more contrasted. So I’m not sitting here saying, “This stuffs on the way out, it’s not really that bad.” I’m saying there’s a whole thing that really is destructive and it’s showing it’s true colors and I have no patience for it. It’s not helpful to any of us. But I think there is a possibility for something. If we look at the Jesus story, if we actually look at where the tradition came from, if we actually hold it up, as Rob was saying, about an insight and what it means to be human, I think it can take us somewhere that we desperately need to go.
TS: So we’re in a spiritual revolution in our time. I think that’s true, where the traditions are going to have to evolve in order to be relevant, and I’m curious what you both think in terms of the Christian faith. What it can really contribute, that we have to make sure, if you will, that we preserve and hold high?
RB: Yes. I think that you’re going to see a move from trying to get people into the club—because I think for a lot of people, the expression of the Christian faith that they were taught is, you’re right and you need to get other people to be right like you. And I think we’re already seeing it in lots of ways, but I think you’re seeing the birth of an understanding of if your faith is at all effective in doing something to you, it will move you to how can I serve. And you can’t serve if you don’t listen.
So I think you’re going to see all sorts of people listening in new ways and you think about even colonization and evangelism in previous centuries where, “Go to a foreign country and take Jesus to them”, but I think you are seeing people whose faith and Christian faith is moving them to different places, which is, “Go and listen and find out what’s needed and see if there’s any way in which you can serve” from a place of humility and compassion and solidarity. So you’re seeing that in lots of ways. The Jesus story is about death and rebirth. It’s about the mystery baked into every square inch of creation and that’s a powerful way to think about the world. And even what it means to be an integrated person who understands our connection to the soil, to each other, to your own interior path.
The number of, now, the number of people in the Jesus world who are talking about meditation and contemplation and the inner path, the enneagram, it makes me laugh how there are just whole movements sweeping the Jesus landscape that are really needed and necessary. This thing was so hell-bent on getting people into the camp that it didn’t teach people about their interiors, and now you have this whole new wave of people realizing that without a rich and humble inner life, you have nothing to say to the world.
You wouldn’t believe the fancy pants famous Christian leaders who want to meet and I always say they come at night. They’re like, “Nobody can know that I’m meeting with you.:
RB: And then they basically say, “I love your books, but I could not tell anybody that because I’d lose my job, but man, it’s just not working for me.”
Tami Simon:Well I have to say, I’m happy to hear they’re meeting with you.
RB: You can’t believe how many of those well-known whatever, people who have these voices, it’s not bringing them joy. It’s not working at a personal level for them and their families, and their neighbors are all sorts of people different from them, and they’re realizing that their neighbors are fantastic people and have the same spirit of life coursing through their veins that they do. So any time you see leaders quietly confessing that the whole system isn’t working for them, that tells me … They can elect them a president, but that’s a death rattle. That’s an extinction call. That’s the lie, the dying gasp of something that simply didn’t’ work and didn’t deliver.
TS: You know Rob, you made this comment that we’re in a time where we’re hearing a lot of treble notes, but not as much bass and that’s also a line that you say in the movie The Heretic. And I thought that’s interesting, it’s clearly from someone who thinks musically.
TS: And is tuned into the quality of sound, so what do you mean that we don’t have enough bass in our world today?
RB: Something happened with … Obviously every major new technology, it extends human capacity and does wondrous things, but it always has an underbelly. And one of the underbellies of the internet and these new machines that we can carry in our pockets that connect us with the world, is that it fire hoses people now with headlines, but the headlines yesterday—there was a headline about the Parkland shooting, but in the exact same sized font was a headline about the color of Kim Kardashian’s hair. So what’s happening to people is people are being fire hosed with headlines that are all the same sized font, but have very different weight.
In ancient Hebrew they had this word kavod, which was for business weights of scale, but it came to have spiritual significance. The weightiness, the gravitas of something. So I think what it’s doing to the psyche is it’s bombarding the modern psyche with all of these images and phrases and slogans and typography, but it isn’t sifting and sorting which of those things actually matter and which don’t. So a person can’t bear it at some level. So all of this noise, I use treble and bass, is it’s speeding up, the news cycle now is 17 minutes instead of 24 hours or two weeks. Depends on when the president last tweeted. It’s producing great speed and volume, but it didn’t bring with it the tools or the wisdom to sift and sort what of this matters and what of this doesn’t.
Even coming from The White House, lots and lots and lots of things that the government is spewing are of zero consequence, it is just theater. And I think that’s why you’re seeing this incredible resurgence of contemplative prayer, of spiritual teaching, of… Everywhere I go, people are so hungry for “Give me a filter, give me a system, give me a way to ground and center myself so that I can handle all of this.”
A number of people I am interact with who are leaving their cell phone in their car when they go into lunch at a restaurant, who are turning off their computer at a certain point in the day, because otherwise it’s all just high squeaks. It’s just high-pitched screeches. And what we want are those bass notes of love, grace, joy, transcendence, how to sit with our pain, how to listen to the suffering for the new thing that’s being birthed in it. So in some ways it’s awful, and in some ways it’s spurring us to new heights. Very interesting times.
TS: Now in terms of innovating in this century, I’m thinking here, Rob, that you left your role as a pastor, of being the head of a community because it was not true for you anymore. It was too confining, it wasn’t where the alive force inside you was taking you, and I think for a lot of people-
RB: Yes. Well said.
TS: A lot of people who identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious, the big loss they have is the loss of being part of a community. Being part of some regular gathering.
TS: So I’m off on my own, reading books, I’m listening to podcasts like this, but I’m not exactly sure what community my kids and I are going to be a part of.
TS: So I’d be curious, because you’d mentioned how you both met through your children, so you’re both family people. Where does a spiritual person find inspiring community if it’s not in a church?
RB: That’s such a great question. And it’s interesting, I have been nowhere in the world in the past couple of years that somebody didn’t ask that question. Like I’m on tour right now, and every single night somebody asks that question, anywhere I am. So I always begin with the power of the meal, and how many people looked to a community to organize their connections. And what I’m observing is people who are just doing that themselves now, they’re literally just inviting random collections of people into their homes and saying, “We all are resonating at some level with some new thing that’s happening, let’s at least start eating together. Let’s read that book together. Let’s listen.” I mean, the number of people who are listening to podcasts weekly with a group of people and having a meal and then discussing it. So I’m seeing all of these new expressions being birthed, where people aren’t waiting for someone else to say, “Meet next Wednesday at seven. ”
They’re just doing it themselves, which is obviously very interesting because in the New Testament, the Jesus movement started in living rooms. It started as these ragtag gatherings of people who are all hungry for similar things. So I’m seeing lots of people are simply doing this organizing themselves, and I’ve also noticed when you’re part of the tribe of your origin, there are all of these assumptions about the bonds you have with others. Well we’re all of this religion, we’re all from this town, we all come from these families that know each other, so I guess we’re all just in this together. But then when you lose that tribe, you’re lonely. But when you do meet up with somebody who you resonate with, you hold that resonance, you cherish it so much more.
Literally, you would laugh, people will come to my events and say I came to hear you, but I came to hear who else came to hear you in my town. I have done events where somebody would stand up at the end and invite everybody who was there to their house afterwards, because they’re like, “These are the people in my town who are resonating with this, let’s keep going together,” which I think is really interesting. That what people almost used to farm out to an institution, they’re now just doing themselves, which is almost this unexpected thing that is happening.
Intention, where people are like, “Wait who is my tribe, what does it look like?” But I always, always, always that loneliness … If you look at all the great traditions. Once you see you can’t un-see. Once you taste, you can’t un-taste. Once it’s out of the box you can’t jam it back in. And generally the ones who are waking up, I always say they walk with a limp because you’ve seen what’s possible and the dominant center of gravity of consciousness around you hasn’t seen that, so there’s a loneliness. And a lot of people weren’t taught that. They were taught, “You’re in, everybody else is out, here’s how we get the people who are out in.” But they weren’t taught if you grow and things keep expanding, if you stay on the path, there will be chapters of loneliness. A lot of people just weren’t prepared.
No institution will tell you that because institutions bend towards self preservation. The institution’s never going to say, “Hey you might outgrow this,” because that’s not good for the bottom line. But you might. You might have to keep going. Certain things you might have to leave behind. A lot of people weren’t taught that. And when they’re told that, as painful as it is, in my experience people go, “Oh, because they know it’s true,” and there’s some strange comfort in that.
TS: Now I just want to make sure I understand something, this metaphor of limping, that’s the loneliness that can come from leaving the familiar tribe-
RB: Well, it’s interesting-
RB: There’s an ancient Jewish midrash on the story of Jacob when he wrestles the angel by the river. Jacob, in the book of Genesis, he wrestles the angel and then he’s almost re-given his identity and then his hip is injured. So the rabbis go crazy with the story because it’s a weird story, but they talk about Jacob, from then on, he walked with a limp. But it’s a limp because he had experienced the divine. That’s a weird, fantastic story and in the midrash, the commentary on it, about this idea you’ve had these experiences of fullness and depth and transcendence. And not everybody around you, maybe not all of your family members, maybe your partner, maybe your whatever, they didn’t see what you saw, they didn’t have the same experience. And you have to follow it and keep going with it. It’s essentially the hero journey, you had to leave the village and go into the woods because the life was leading you and calling you.
Yes, that’s where the limping things comes from, this ancient tradition, which I find it funny and strangely comforting.
TS: Yes. It’s odd maybe that I’m that interested in this, but I’m going to keep going for a moment.
TS: I think sometimes there’s this idea that when you’ve had a deep contact with spiritual reality is you have wings, you’re flying free, you’re an awakened person. What do you mean I’m walking with a limp, really?
RB: Right. Right. Right. Right. And you think about, I always joke that you rarely see a guru with swagger, you know what I mean? You rarely see, the mystic is rarely like, “I got this, I’m dominating,” you know what I mean? We just don’t think it because there’s a certain humility that comes with growth and your own evolution. And for a lot of people it’s like, “oh, if you figure it out don’t you have a triumphant, a victorious, proud … ” Well no, because with that comes your burden for everybody. You want everybody else to see what you’ve seen, and that doesn’t often happen. So no, you look at all across traditions, the wisest ones had an ache for their fellow humanity, for their brothers and sisters. They wanted everybody to wake up at some level.
I think that, it’s like I did this event with the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu, and I was so struck, I was expecting … These are two people who have seen some of the worst suffering the world can hand out, and I was expecting it to be heavy. I was expecting them to be like, “Man it is rough out there,” but when they met—they were standing right in front of me when they met—they hugged each other and they started tickling each other and giggling. I did not expect it to go that way. And they were, I call it the light after heavy. There was a lightness about Dalai Lama.
At one point they asked him a question and he paused, I swear he was silent for 30 seconds thinking, and then he looked up and he said, “I don’t know.” He was so funny. There’s a light that is oblivious and ignorant, then there’s the heaviness that you move into, or you become aware of just what human beings can do to each other, but then… That was my first experience with the lightness that’s on the other side of heaviness. They pushed through the heaviness and realized, “Well, you do have today and you can see the good and the joy in today.”
So at some level, it’s not this triumphant “Man we’re winning, we’re going to take this town!” You know what I mean? It’s not this triumphant imperial thing, it’s this humble, grounded, convicted, it’s like you’ve absorbed … South American Indians have this phrase, “You make room within yourself for the immensities of the universe.” You don’t deny the pain and heartache, you’ve just made room for them within yourself.
TS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And this brings me quite beautifully to the final thing I really want to talk to both of you about, which is the connection between art making and being creative—which you both are intensely beautiful creators—and being in touch with our suffering. And I was reading, Rob, some about your book Drops Like Stars.
RB: Oh, yes.
Tami Simon:Where you were looking at how, instead of focusing on how a god could allow us to suffer the terrible things we humans suffer, instead we could see the gifts that come from suffering—the creativity, the empathy, the vulnerability. And I’d love to hear, for both of you, how in your own life you understand this connection between suffering and art making.
RB: Yes. Oh yes. I’ve always been struck with how the word pain, P-A-I-N, sounds a lot like the word pang, P-A-N-G, and they’re just a couple letters off, but to me that’s the path, is in your pain, ask what new thing might be birthed in even this? And this is painful, but what does it look like to see it as a pang, like a birth pang, instead of just a pointless, random exercise in human misery? What is spirit looking to do to give birth to? Because when I ask people, what are the four or five, think about your listeners, what are the four of five moments or experiences or events of your life that most shaped you into the person you are? That most created your spinal fortitude and your gratitude?
Whenever people are given just a blank slate to talk about what most shaped them, they usually talk about suffering, loss, betrayal, and pain. Nobody ever says, “You know I got a new pick up truck and then everything changed, “you know what I mean? Nobody tells those stories, they’re boring. And those stories, nobody believes. “I went to Hawaii and then it was like from then on…” No!
It’s like, your dad died, you got cancer, you lost your job and suddenly it woke you up, and all that pain turned into a pang. I think that’s like, it’s almost like a muscle that you learn to, over time, so that sooner you’re in the mess, you find yourself going, “Wait, wait, wait. I know this is bad, I know this is tough, I know this unexpected, this is excruciating, but what I’ve learned is that there’s probably some new thing lurking here somewhere.” So you’ve got to get it out, you gotta be angry, you gotta beat your chest, you gotta shake your first, you gotta give it all this expression, as any healthy spirituality would tell you to, but then you start looking. Like, “OK, so, what is lurking in even this, what new thing?” And that to me, that’s the path.
AM:What it always makes me think about too is creativity kind of always reminds me that the world is not this inevitable thing. It’s not this story that we’re standing on the sidelines watching unfold. That human history is made up by choices, and we don’t just naturally slide towards the kind of future that we want. Human beings do that. And I think when you create, for me, it’s a way of taking … You don’t choose the world that you come into, it is the way it is, but you’re here. And you have this little life, and you have a couple things you’re good at, a couple things that bring you joy when you do them.
It’s this constant reminder to me that we’re still in a story that has to continue to unfold and move forward. And when you create—as simple as when we make a film or something like that—it’s like I feel caught up in the flow of something bigger, I think. Because it feels like me as one small little person taking part in what’s happening. I get to stick my toes in the river, I get to contribute, I get to make a choice or a couple of choices that cause something different to happen. That’s wildly mysterious and just fun. It’s the most fun thing about being alive to me.
RB: Oh, that’s so well said.
TS: One of my favorite lines in the movie, and I don’t know how many other people will pick up on it, but towards the very beginning you’re asking Rob to describe himself, introduce himself to the viewers. And Rob, you say, “I make things.” And I loved that so much in terms of it just saying right there the power we have to be creative human beings who make a difference and, you know, I make things. I loved that.
RB: Yes, yes, yes. And I also, whenever people ask me, it actually is how it works for me. I don’t have some grand plan. I think a lot of people think about, well, how do you figure out your grand plan, how do you figure out. There was never a plan. Or people will talk about their career and I’ll start laughing, like, career? What’s that like? What’s it like to have a career? All I know is I have this thing burning in me to make, and I’m going to make it, and then after that there will be a couple more ideas, and then we’ll make that. That’s where the juice is, that’s where the life is, that’s where the mojo is. You wake up, and hopefully, the dream is that you have this sense of wonder and awe that you get to do this today. That’s how I see it, that’s where the life is.
TS: And then finally, what do you hope will be the ripples from the film The Heretic. What do you think, hope, will come from it?
AM:I think there’s a lot of different people coming from a lot of different backgrounds that will see a film like this, and I just hope that it makes people feel less alone. I hope that it makes people feel, whether the spiritual conversation, the God conversation, religious conversation, whether that’s just totally not an option for someone, whether they’re just repulsed by the whole notion of that, or it’s someone who grew up in a very strident, strict kind of tradition and it didn’t keep up with the complexities of the world they find themselves in, or it’s someone in a very particular tradition. I hope it just opens people up to this idea that the human story that connects all of us is so much bigger than some simple labels, categories, definitions, tribes, and that there is a whole lot of life waiting for anyone who chooses to, not abandon where they came from, not leave behind the tradition that helped them get to where they are, but that they can continue moving on that path. They can continue growing. And I hope along the way they can look around and see that there’s a whole lot of other people that’ll join them on that journey.
RB: Nice one. That was good.
TS: Rob, anything to add?
RB: Well it was his idea. [laughs.] To me, Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I didn’t ask for success, I asked for wonder and God gave it to me.” I think there’s this big gleaming, technologically advancing modern world in which lots of people played by the rules. They went and got educated, then they got a job, then they got a house. They’re following the rules, but it’s not actually bringing them the wonder and awe that is at the heart of what it means to be human. So I think you organize your life around the wonder and awe, and you take whatever steps you need to. And if in some small way my work helps people take seriously the wonder and awe, that, yes, that would be amazing. That would fill me with even more wonder and awe.
TS: Well in a nutshell, I just want to say, I love you guys. Thank you. Thank you.
I’ve been talking with Rob Bell, he’s the author of many books including Love Wins, What is the Bible? , How to Be Here, and What We Talk About When We Talk About God and documentary filmmaker Andrew Morgan, who has created a new film about the work of Rob Bell called The Heretic. If you want to watch the film, you can access it online through iTunes or Amazon. And it’s super worth your time because, in my view, we need heretics. We always have and we especially need them now in our world, that’s my own little caveat statement here to make.
Thank you both so much. Much, much love.
RB: Wonderful talking to you.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.