By Celia Coates
Rob Bell’s book, EVERYTHING IS SPIRITUAL, has the subtitle: “Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here.” That subtitle made it the kind of book I’m really interested in reading. It turned out to be a wise and iconoclastic page-turner, an unusual book for a Christian pastor to have written. His ideas have a history of catching peoples’ attention in ways that led to his building a very large church at a time when most churches were shrinking and to writing books that have been best sellers. Perhaps you already know about his work. For me, his achievements as a pastor and author are not as wonderful as his having become a teacher who understands something about the true nature of life.
This book is his story and it’s about stories. It contains no chapters. It begins where he began, in his family, and then, page after page, it runs right on through the usual stages of a modern man’s life: adolescence, career confusion, finding his work, further education, falling in love, marrying, and then his career success. It’s a story of joy, love, loss, and suffering – one experience after another chained together by the questions he asked himself along the way. He has been an adventurous and dedicated questioner in his search for what’s true.
He tells two stories that show something about the lessons he learned. The first comes from his time in seminary when he was working with high school students. Their church was surrounded by neighborhoods not like the ones the kids came from. One weekend he told them that they were all going to take a walk just a few blocks away, knock on doors and ask people if they needed anything. (Where did that idea come from?) At the first house a woman came to the door holding a baby on her hip and when the kids asked her if she needed anything, she answered yes, milk for the baby.
“She explained to them that she’d been mixing sugar with water to feed the baby because she didn’t have money for anything else.” This shocked them, then they found money, found where they could buy milk, and set about giving her what she had asked for. This was not an ordinary Sunday School lesson. Moving back and forth between his seminary studies and the ways his students were meeting life also changed Rob Bell.
The second story happened years later when he met with a friend, a fellow pastor, who asked to be dropped off after their time together at a meeting with other pastors,
“He gave me the address, and when we arrive, I discover it’s a private airport. He gets out of my car and goes over to greet these other pastors who are arriving on private jets. I sit there in my Volkswagen, watching them all shake hands from a distance, feeling this profound sense of alienation.”
Bell had to keep searching for where he belonged, for what his own path was to be or, as he said, for what would “light me up.” He kept going back to the Bible to learn more and more.
“I’d heard those Jesus stories since I was young, and they moved me and resonated with me, but now they were taking on a new weight in my life, like they weren’t just stories, they were a way of life, a way of seeing the world, showing me something present in the elemental nature of the universe.”
“I saw how the Bible isn’t a book about how to get into heaven, it’s a library of poems and letters and stories about bringing heaven to earth now, about this world becoming more and more the place it should be.”
Rob Bell wrote,
“I was reading the book of Leviticus and learned that one of its major themes is the importance of sustainably caring for the earth. That’s in the Bible?
I then went back to the poem that begins the Bible in the book of Genesis. Yes, it’s there as well. This sacred responsibility to care for the earth. In the Bible having a healthy and sustainable relationship with the earth is not a cause or political agenda, it’s an obvious and unavoidable fact about human life.”
And a few paragraphs later he added,
“I read more of the prophets, these poets and sages who spoke all kinds of truth to power. Another of the ways they explained why they’d been taken into exile was because there was a widening gap between the rich and poor in their society, and whenever that happens, the entire system is in danger of imploding.
Again and again prophets like Amos announce that if more and more wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands everybody will suffer.”
Bell learned that everything, all kinds of stuff, is connected:
“Business, politics, education, art, science, caring for the earth, looking out for the poor, what you eat, where you go, sex, music, – It’s all spiritual.”
Every belief system has teaching stories, the ones Jesus told are not the only ones. There are, for example, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Native American, Zen, and Australian aboriginal stories that all have something to say about who we are, where we came from, and why we are here. They agree that reality is not split between the material and the spiritual and that we are all connected. They share some common values no matter how separated they are in time or how different their cultures: love of life and each other matter most. It’s the perennial wisdom that honesty and community and generosity are central to who we are and how we are to live. The truth of these stories is not just for Sundays. Everything everyday is spiritual.
Again, Bell’s words,
“This is the revolutionary truth at the heart of the Jesus story. He’s executed for insisting that there are other ways to change the world.
Praying for your enemies.
That’s been the power of the teachings of Jesus for two thousand years.
He insists that violence can end. We don’t have to live like this.”
I know that there are many, many quotes in this post, but Rob Bell has such deep and wise words to share. (Please read his book.) Here is a little more of what he has to teach:
“So say yes to the ancient wisdom tradition,
yes to everything is spiritual,
yes to new readings of the Bible,
yes to the Jesus tradition,
yes to the truths found in every tradition everywhere,
yes to science and art and waves and stories,
yes to shows and books and events and plays,
but underneath it all,
what I’m after is the wonder and awe.”
* * * * *
EVERYTHING IS SPIRITUAL: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here, Rob Bell, St. Martin’s Essentials, an imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2020.