Chiming or clanging bell? Rob Bell at #gb11

Rob Bell addresses the crowd at 'Jerusalem' Greenbelt 2011

Rob Bell was the speaker at Greenbelt who I though I ‘ought’ to go and listen to. I seemed to remember he’d written something controversial not that long ago, but I couldn’t remember what. I still can’t.

In the end, I heard him twice. On Saturday I followed the crowd, sheeplike, to the Main Stage. There I had my first “tweet-up” with a very nice tweeting vicar from the outskirts of London – but that’s beside the point!

Apparently ‘the Good News is better than that‘! Better than twitter, and talking about interesting stuff with fascinating people? Well yes, obviously – in the nicest possible way.

Actually, I spent the first half hour of his talk wondering what on earth I was doing wasting my time listening. He simply talked about himself – I have to say, he seems to do that rather a lot.

Then he got my attention, or rather, God did. For reasons I’m not currently at liberty to discuss on the web, his message “Be yourself, and take the next step”, was something I needed to be reminded just then. The same went for “don’t constantly worry about what you’re not – other people don’t need to hear it”! By the time he said something along the lines of “be patient about the next step and don’t worry about the one after that” I’d decided he’d been talking to my spiritual director. She too, I’ve since discovered, was also there, but I don’t think they’d met ūüôā ¬†I went away knowing God had spoken to me through some of what he said, but still not sure what I thought of him.

“Pure undiluted slog” was Rob Bell’s not a very inspiring talk title in the afternoon, but it was the one I was more interested in. Learning to find the things in ministry that set the creative juices running (courtesy of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit), and balancing them with the more ‘run of the mill’ stuff, is sort of part of where I’m at.

Again, the content of the Rob Bell’s talk wasn’t really that startlingly new. Again, there were quite a lot of amusing stories about himself; or at least amusing if you ‘get’ some of the jokes – I’ve never been to America, and I fear some of them were lost on me.

But there were some things that Rob Bell said, that chimed with me:

  • when we are creative we are being hypersensitive to God in the ‘place’ we’re in – which is a good thing;
  • we need to move slow enough to ‘see’ God in a place/experience etc;
  • collect things like photo’s, ideas, conversations; (that’s why I love my camera, and twitter!)
  • the reward for the effort of creating something is if it happens to resonate with someone – yes, that is a good feeling, but you created it first and foremost because God put it in you, so you need to be extra-ordinarily¬†grateful¬†for it;
  • creative things can be exhausting, because part of you, or your relationship with God, got dragged up and spilled out; (that’s how we grow in faith and discipleship to my mind);
  • the one I like most was that the cost of being creative, is part of a”Eucharist¬†reality”. Well it’s certainly sacrificial in time, energy, and sometimes money, so OK I can buy that! Is being creative also sacramental; an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace? Well yes, thinking about it now, of course it is. Surely that is what our priests should make the Eucharist: a creative, incarnational experience, for them, and for those who¬†receive¬†it? In fact to my mind, all worship should to mind be a creative space for God to work in people’s lives, which is probably why I got so excited about my¬†“Blessed” and “Molten” experiences.

Some of what he said helped me understand why some of us blog, twitter and generally dump stuff out onto the web – the web has made it so much easier than pencil and paper! Yes, I suppose it’s sort of healthy to just “get it out”, and not worry about how weird it is till later – but on reflection shouldn’t we be more aware of what we are doing than that? We should be able to discern in ourselves what is good and bad, that is why there are edit, preview and delete buttons! Yes, if we’re writing a book, then trust friends and the more experienced to edit it, but we should surely be able to get rid of some of the rubbish ourselves, before it gets to them. If we don’t, perhaps that’s why there’s some serious rubbish out there on the internet!

Of course, as Rob Bell rightly pointed out, especially with the web, but also with a book, you don’t have control over how what you publish is perceived. That is the risk we take. But surely when we’re writing about our faith, or how God could be active in the lives of others, those are the things we should be ultra careful about? Then once committed, we have to rely on God’s strength and insight to live with, and/or respond to the flack that follows?

I think the thing that I found most difficult was some of Rob Bell’s images, and the connections he made with some Biblical passages. It might be my poor memory or bad telling, but when I got home and recounted his ‘gorilla-man’ story to my husband, it clanged with him, and it clanged with me. Surely you give your money to the ‘street-act’ that is the best, whose talent and obvious commitment of time most deserves your respect, rather than too the buffoon who really didn’t have a clue?

In a similar way I didn’t get the link between Jacob’s (creative?) use of a stone for a pillow in Genesis 28, and the importance of his dream. Surely the dream was God’s free gift, his grace to Jacob, and didn’t result from any creativity on Jacob’s part? Perhaps I’m missing something.

So, for me the chiming bits of Rob Bell probably just outweighed the clanging sounds. But I’m still not completely sure to make of him, and I still don’t know why he’s meant to be controversial. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’m that bothered!



  1. What I thought I was going to hear was something about Universalism. I haven’t read his book (life is too short) but I’m fascinated by the thought of an evangelical who has come to similar conclusions to me – me, after 20 years of funerals that is.
    If anything, I wanted to applaud him for having the courage to think (what for some people is) the unthinkable. It seems to me (but perhaps I flatter myself) the most honest theology often requires courage …
    So I was disappointed not to hear anything about that particular journey.
    The jokes were funny. He was certainly engaging. And the two or three pastoral points he made were well worth hearing (which is just as well because we heard them several times …). But ….

    Sheesh, well I think it just felt like a well-tried formula which clearly wows people at home and wowed us for a while at GB11.

    I expect Rob is really good pastorally. I would have liked to have heard a bit more about that pastoral journey …

    The very nice (oh my gosh!) tweeting vicar from the outskirts of London.


  2. Indeed – I am still of two minds about him. Coming to GB for the first time (more accidental than not) and not originally from an English-speaking country(thus never having heard of him), I was told “That’s the guy you have to go see”. So I did, I went to the Jerusalem stage (albeit a bit late). He is an extremely engaging speaker, of that I have no doubt. Even though I tend to be very wary of people who make things sound easy, I was drawn to what he was saying. Funnily enough, especially the gorilla-guy- story stuck with me (as in: don’t concentrate so much on what you cannot do, but do what you can and give it your all).
    And yet – I too am not sure what to think. Maybe what came across was a bit too much “you should” instead of “this is my experience, maybe it coincides with yours at some point”. Which addmittedly makes it far more difficult, to engage your audience. On one hand I really liked the way he manages to say things very clearly in very few words. And then it’s not enough for me. It’s a good start, but I need things to be more precise, more deep, I need such a talk to have a dimension in which I am not talked to, but talked with (if that makes any sense) in which it remains open for my own interpretation. It’s difficult to put in words, but I think that confuses me about him. So aware, so eloquent, so engaging – and yet something’s missing.


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