Many people know Rob Bell left Mars Hill Bible church last year to move to LA and work with Lost producer/writer Carlton Cuse on some mysterious venture. Well, last night, I got a preview with a "beta test" of their new plans. My friend, Luthor, was able to get tickets to the show, and we wound up sitting in the front row, feet on the platform, literally three feet from Bell most of the night.
As Luthor and I were leaving and talking about the hour and a half event, I commented that it seemed like a modern, hipster Hour of Power. In many ways they were able to accomplish updates that Robert A. Schuller and others were trying to do while getting push-back to retain an outdated model.
I actually laughed inside a few times while observing some of the totally stereotypic hipsters in the audience. In one row, there were 3 or 4 guys next to each other, all with the same type of black, thick-rimmed Ray-Ban-like glasses on. I was amazed how many people seemed to have the same plaid patterned shirts, albeit in different colors. And the audience was rather white. And male. Well, there were women, but men were a bit more plentiful. Some of the production staff actually asked a few of the guys behind us to move so they could put women in because it was too many white males right in the camera's view. :)
Anyway, the night started off with a band (I don't remember the name, but they had a Southern folksy sound I liked) singing three songs. Then Bell and Cuse gave an introduction; followed by another song; an interview of Cathleen Falsani, a religion reporter; another song; a Q&A with Bell; teaching by Bell; then a closing rendition of Amazing Grace, with audience participation.
Looking at that format, it's a classic format for a church service, except for the band performing rather than leading a worship song (although there was some of that). And the Hour of Power flowed similarly, with an interview of someone about faith-related matters, followed by a message. The basic structure is there, but in a far more accessible manner for younger generations in Bell rather than Schuller (maybe it's a Robert thing that such programs can work well).
I doubt it would be officially called a church service or even Christian. From the introduction of the night and ensuing discussions, it sounds like Bell and Cuse are trying to help people see God all around them without the barriers that stop that observation. Unfortunately, "Jesus," "Christ," and "Christianity" have been given bad names due to the bad behavior of those of us who adopt his name. Sometimes we need to separate ourselves from the label in order to rediscover and re-experience the true beauty of the real Risen Christ.
One statement I really appreciated from Bell was that church is supposed to reorient people to be aware of God throughout the week rather than be just the one encounter of God during the week. While they will undoubtedly get criticism for not being explicit about Jesus and the Cross all the time (again, the Schullers have had their fair share of criticism on that front), Christ and his love were everywhere. Seeing Bell in person made me really believe that he deeply lives out his values rather than paying them lip-service like so many famous Christian talking heads. Ultimately, in my opinion, a person cannot have a full experience of grace and God without eventually encountering Christ, whether or not that person names Christ explicitly.
On the topic of criticism, one of my favorite lines of the night came from Cuse, who discussed some of the "vociferous naysayers" he encountered because of the ending to Lost. Bell laughed saying, "Is that what you're calling critics now?" I was surprised neither applied the term to Bell's detractors. Later, during the Q&A, Cuse read a question, "How have you dealt with the criticism from Love Wins?" Bell sarcastically responded, "There was criticism?" and then had a pause, seeming to consider a wise response. I impulsively responded, "vociferous naysayers," which got a nice laugh. I have to say it's fun making famous people chuckle. :)
One of the ways Bell has really earned my respect was by the way he has handled the plethora of criticism and sometimes flat-out cruelty following his writing. His lack of engagement in fruitless debate demonstrates, in my opinion, a maturity and faith not many people have. His discussion of trying to move to this and the struggle appeared so sincere and not just a PR response, which I appreciated.
Beyond these "lighter" topics, the theme for the night was grace. Falsani shared some amazing stories from her interviews with others, citing Phillip Yancey's definition of grace: "Justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you don't deserve." I think it's an important reminder for many us. And when I get spare time again, I think I'm going to have to read some Falsani's stuff--I liked what I heard.
Bell expanded on the topic of grace during his "sermon." Ultimately, I really hope the video or a transcript of the message is released sooner rather than later. There were so many great quotes that I wish I remembered. As Luthor noted, Bell puts into word many things some of us find hard to say. And I think he did that last night.
One element that really stuck out to me was that grace lets go of having to be right and is not always logical. As Bell knows well, so much discussion in the Christian realm has to do with debate and trying to be rational and right. But as I'm learning more and more, what is right is not always rational. And letting go of having to be right brings great peace.
A couple of illustrations of this. I've been making my way through the Star Trek movies (I know, how can a Trekkie not have seen them all already). Laci and I just saw The Voyage Home, which has a subplot of Spock recognizing that the right thing is not always logical, confusing some of his Vulcan brethren.
Further, some of the psychological sciences is supporting that rationality is not always best. In DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), for instance, the ideal "wise mind" is a balance of emotion and logic, making decisions aware of both, but perhaps going with the conclusion by one or the other.
Finally, another point that stood out to me was a question in the Q&A asking Bell what one element from another religion he would bring into Christianity. He essentially explained Buddhist mindfulness, noting the importance of stillness. He had some great quote, which I'll butcher here about modern American Christianity having a "caffeinated business" where we fear a God who is "always pissed off and if we stay busy enough, he may not notice us." While our theology does not always reflect that, our lifestyle does reflect exactly that. He noted the importance of stillness to rest in God's grace.
Ever since I took a Buddhist psychology course in undergrad, I noted the similarities between many Buddhist and Christian values, namely mindfulness. From my training and experience in DBT, this is an area of concern for many Christians, but it is actually a deeply Christian practice. Ultimately, this concept does not need to be taken from Buddhism and applied to Christianity. It is already deep in Christian tradition, although we often forget "the still small voice" and "be still, and know that I am God."
Despite Bell's use of media, I find he utilizes media in a way that actually creates a stillness in me. It does not have a frenetic feel of many Christian outlets. Rather, Bell uses the arts to focus attention intentionally and mindfully on one thing, allowing a depth of absorption that would be impossible with regular American distraction.
I'm not sure what will come of the show. I have a feeling this was a pilot that will be shopped around. I hope something positive comes of it because we need more God-centered, grace-filled shows that point people to recognize the Incarnation in daily life.