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The foreword to I Sold My Soul on eBay is written by a pastor named Rob Bell.

If you’re an atheist, maybe you haven’t heard of him. I hadn’t until last summer.

Same deal if you’re a Christian over 30.

But in the past several months, I’ve run into a large number of younger Christians who love this guy. Their ears perk up at the sound of his name. You know that feeling of instant connection you get as an atheist when you talk to a stranger and realize the other person loves Pharyngula, too?

It’s like that. But for Jesus people.

(Incidentally, I was telling my sister about Rob and sent her a link to his Wikipedia entry. Her response was simply, “He’s hot.” She said the same thing about Kirk Cameron. This is why my sister and I don’t get into religious debates…)

It’s hard to describe what Rob does that’s so interesting, even after you’ve experienced it. But after you’ve heard him talk about faith, you wonder why your own church isn’t like his.

The New York Times wrote a positive article about him last summer during his “Everything is Spiritual” tour. (By the way, if you’re an atheist and you’re wondering why you should read on, just do it.)

Mr. Bell hopped onto the stage.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and earth,” he began, without introduction. “Now, it’s a very old book.”

This, Mr. Bell believes, is what church can look like. For the hall’s bartenders, it was the start of a slow night.

Mr. Bell, 35, is the pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, an independent evangelical congregation in Grandville, Mich., outside Grand Rapids. The church has a weekly attendance of 10,000 and meets in a former mall.

His performance here was the first in a monthlong tour of 21 cities — joined by one roadie, a whiteboard and his wife and two sons — taking him to venues usually presenting rock bands. His 100-minute talk, billed as “Everything Is Spiritual,” features no music or film clips, no sound other than his voice and the squeak of his marker, filling the board with Hebrew characters, diagrams, biblical interpretation and numbers.

… Alex Beh, 23, who lined up an hour early for the performance, said it had left him exhilarated.

“It’s more like Jesus’ teaching than the church’s teaching,” said Mr. Beh, adding: “I loved that there was beer available. The church needs to go more in that direction, more culture-friendly rather than sectarian, or dividing people.”

“He’s figured out how to convey basic Christian doctrine in a highly skeptical culture,” said Quentin J. Schultze, a professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, who has studied Mr. Bell. “He’s very challenging in his sermons. There’s no appeal for money. You get a sense of intellectual substance and depth of the faith.”

Anyway, Rob’s new book is out and he finished the last leg of his book tour in Chicago last night, so I went to go see him. The book is called Sex God (you won’t see James Dobson publishing anything like that, for sure).

There was no lecture. Rob just got on stage and just did a Q & A session. Many of the questions pertained to religious doctrine and church advice, and weren’t terribly exciting, but a few (very, very paraphrased) comments stood out… (as always, I need to say I didn’t have a tape recorder, so don’t quote me. And I’m not writing everything that was said, only what stood out to me.)

  • Rob (when he stepped on stage): So… whaddya wanna talk about?
    Whole Audience: SEX!

  • Question: How can we find a community like [Rob’s church] Mars Hill?
    Rob (sarcastically): I recommend watching Christian cable… you get this deep, authentic relationship.

  • Rob: The church is not a building. It’s your community. It’s who you call when you find out you have cancer or miscarry a baby… [He said more things like this, but interestingly enough, didn’t mention anything about Jesus or the Bible.]

  • Question: What do you think about Free Will versus Destiny?
    Whole Audience: Oooooh…. [laughter]
    Rob: Whenever people ask this, I just want to say: What seminary are you from?

  • Question: What do you think about homosexuality in the church?
    Rob: First of all, to those who speak against it, if you don’t have gay friends, just shut up about the issue… I have many Christian gay friends… I spend a lot of time apologizing for what other people have said to them… there are five verses in the Bible dealing with homosexuality, and those verses don’t include Jesus… they also don’t deal with orientation or monogamous gay unions.

  • Question: What do you think about speaking in tongues?
    Rob: I’ve never heard anyone speak in tongues about something that wasn’t already in Scripture.

A couple other points:

When asked about the Eucharist, Rob talked about the importance of being a living Eucharist, giving our body and blood (metaphorically) to those around us. It’s something many people already do (atheists included) and we could all use more of it.

There was also a question on what Rob thought about criticism against him (he gets his share from other Christians). His response might well have been said by Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris when answering attacks against their writings:

For every [person] you offend, there might be a thousand hearing it for the first time.

Good advice.

After the Q & A was over, Rob showed the latest NOOMA video (NOOMAs are hugely popular short films about spiritual topics, featuring Rob). It opened with Rob talking about other belief systems predating Christianity. These other beliefs also had prophets who died and then ascended to Heaven. These prophets were also mediators between God and the people. So, when Christianity came about, what made it so special?

I heard that question and waited for an answer. Essentially, all I got was that those other belief systems made you believe with brute force. Christianity wanted you to believe through love. (Crusades and the like notwithstanding.) It wasn’t a compelling argument for me, but then again, the purpose of the video wasn’t to answer that particular question. If you want to see another example of a NOOMA, go here and click on “Play 001 Rain film.”

[tags]atheist, atheism, I Sold My Soul on eBay, pastor, Rob Bell, Christian, Pharyngula, Jesus, Wikipedia, Kirk Cameron, church, New York Times, Everything is Spiritual, God, Mars Hill Bible Church, Grandville, Michigan, Grand Rapids, Alex Beh, Quentin J. Schultze, Calvin College, Sex God, James Dobson, homosexuality, gay, lesbian, Eucharist, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, NOOMA[/tags]