Last year Rob Bell made waves with his book Love Wins which he describes as "a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who has ever lived." The waves became a tsunami when John Piper, a pastor and leader within the Gospel Coalition, tweeted "Farewell, Rob Bell" and dismissed him as a heretic. Agree or disagree with his point of view, Bell knows how to stir conversation. And there is one thing about Love Wins we cannot dismiss- how we think about the future shapes how we live in the present.
I've had the benefit of interviewing Bell a number of times and have always found him thoughtful, gracious, and genuine in his pursuit of Christ. He was kind enough to talk to me once again--this time about his decision to leave his church, the lost theology of vocation, and how our view of the end of the world impacts the way we think about our work today.
Skye: Apart from ministry, Christians talk very little about "callings." What do you attribute this to?
Rob: The problem goes back to how you read the Bible. A lot of Christians have been taught a story that begins in chapter 3 of Genesis, instead of chapter 1. If your story doesn't begin in the beginning, but begins in chapter 3, then it starts with sin, and so the story becomes about dealing with the sin problem. So Jesus is seen as primarily dealing with our sins. Which is all true, but it isn't the whole story and it can lead people into all kinds of despair when it comes to understanding just why we're here.
The Bible begins in Genesis 1 not with sin but with blessing, not with toil and despair but with life, and creativity, and vibrant participation with God in the ongoing creation of the world--which involves art, and law, and medicine, and education, and parenting, and justice, and learning, and thousands of other pursuits; callings that are holy and sacred in and of themselves. It's all part of flourishing in God's good world, which is our home. Here, on earth, is where the story begins and where it ends, and so our work here, in whatever way we co-create with God, is our vocation.
Secondly, we have to embrace our desires. For many, desire is a bad word, something we're supposed to "give up for God." That kind of thinking can be really destructive because it teaches people to deny their hearts, their true selves. What Jesus does is something far more radical. He insists that we can be transformed in such a way that our desires and God's desires for us become the same thing. Incredible. What do you love to do that brings more and more heaven into God's good world? What is it that makes your soul soar? What is it that you do, that your friends and community affirm, that taps you in to who you are made to be?
Describe how you discerned God's calling to leave Mars Hill to pursue new ideas?
It was a vast array of factors, beginning deep in the heart with the awareness that Jesus was calling, inviting, tugging, doing that thing he does when it's time to take a leap into the unknown.
Can you share more about where your energies are currently focused, and why you believe it is an important calling?
Nope. Haha. It's better to do the work and wait until it's ready to be released into the world. But it involves resurrection, of course, and the new world that's bursting forth right here in the midst of this one.
What/who has influenced your theology of calling and work?
Dallas Willard, and U2, and Steven Pressfield, and Dorothy Sayers. Do what you do with every ounce of energy and passion you have, give it everything you've got, put in the hours and pour out the sweat and blood and don't hold anything back. That's an act of worship, it is holy in itself.
Don't make grand claims about what it is, don't tell people what they're supposed to think about it, it will speak for itself. Let the Spirit do what the Spirit will with it. And most of all, enjoy the work. And while you're at it, relinquish the need to label everything "Christian" or "not Christian." Be a Christian. People can figure the rest out. It's a noun, after all.
Reformation theologians took "vocation," a word previously only applied to the clergy, and applied it to all believers. They promoted the idea that all work was God's work. What can we do to reclaim this belief in our communities?
Stop using the word 'missionary' and stop sending people out to the 'mission field.' Or keep the word, but also commission public school teachers, and dentists, and CPA's, and construction workers, and those people who take your money at the toll booth. We're all disciples, all ground is holy, every interaction and conversation is loaded with divine potential, anytime, anywhere. Ordain everyone, call everyone a minister, invite the whole church to be on staff.
You've obviously gotten a lot of attention for your thoughts about eschatology in the last year. How does one's vision of the future impact their work in the present?
The gospel is an embodied announcement about this world: it is good, and we're home, and the word took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. Heaven and earth are, in fact, coming together. We're home. Soil is good, and so is wine, and sex, and music, and muscle, and arranging things, and building things, and getting hungry people the food they need, and jobs that empower people to make better lives for themselves.
What you believe about where the story is headed deeply impacts how you live now and what you believe matters, now. We're not trying to help people evacuate. That's a denial of the gospel truth that Jesus is reclaiming everything.
Amy Sherman, in her recent book Kingdom Calling, argues that popular eschatology has eroded the Christian understanding of vocation. She writes, "If we (mistakenly) believe that at the end, the earth will be completely destroyed and that just our souls will live on forever, it's a bit hard to imaging being passionate for such things as environmental stewardship or cultural reformation.... If it's all going to be burned up, isn't our labor here on earth in vain?" How do you respond to Christians holding this view?
The truth is, people who hold these escapist views usually throw crap parties, because they're essentially waiting for things to end so they can go somewhere else. Jesus shows up at the party, turns water into wine, and then essentially says "Oh we are just getting started..."
If a 20 year old told you she was entering full-time ministry because she wanted to serve God and make a difference in the world, what questions would you have for her? How would you respond?
I would ask her is she's a Christian. If she said "yes," I would say "Too late! You're already in full-time ministry! The real question is: what are you going to do with your God-given passions and energies? Who are you going to help? What are you going to make? Where are you going to serve? Go do that, and release yourself from the need to give it labels.
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