Ben and Ashley Baldwin were standing in line outside an Atlanta theater on a recent Sunday when they learned they were in danger.
The young couple – blond, tanned and draped in khaki and cotton summer clothes – were waiting to hear Rob Bell, a controversial California pastor, when Ben ran into an old college acquaintance.
After making small talk, the man handed the Baldwins a note. Opening it, they read a neatly typed message that began with, “A few questions to consider tonight.”
It asked whether Bell honored the Bible “as inspired by God.” Could his audience recognize “heresy” and guard against it? “As you listen tonight,” it advised, “ask God himself to show you what is true and what is not true.”
The Baldwins weren’t surprised. Only the night before, at another Bell event, a street preacher had warned them they would go to hell. Bell has a reputation among conservative Christians as a false teacher who leads others astray.
The couple decided to risk damnation and enter the theater. They’d heard enough about false teachers growing up in a conservative Christian environment built on “shame, guilt and fear.” Ben started listening to Bell’s podcasts about a year ago after going through a personal crisis.
“I got into a 12-step recovery group, and I sought lots of help within the church community,” said Ben Baldwin. “I was being handed Bible verses and told this was what you’re supposed to do. The answers I was given were insufficient because I still felt like I was dying inside. Rob Bell was not scared of those questions. He doesn’t provide black and white answers.”
Going to hear a pastor preach on a Sunday afternoon is considered an act of piety. But when that pastor is Bell and he’s speaking in the heart of the Bible Belt, it’s subversive. Bell, who made the cover of Time magazine, is an outlaw in the evangelical world. He was cast out of that kingdom in 2011 after he questioned the existence of hell in his New York Times best-selling book, “Love Wins.”
Bell is still in the business of making audacious moves. He was in Atlanta as part of his “Bible Belt Tour” to promote his new book, “What Is the Bible.” He has ventured into the belly of the beast – speaking in some of the reddest and most patriotic states in the United States – to deliver a risky message.
He’s telling audiences that a person should read the Bible “literately,” not “literally;” that people who talk the most about the Bible often know it the least; and to the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for President Donald Trump, he declares:
You voted for a leader who has “zero moral compass.”
Bell, who was once a megachurch pastor, says many evangelicals voted that way because they were motivated by “fear and power.”
“The reason why this person got elected in many ways can be traced to a misreading of scripture,” Bell said. “The way of Jesus is the way of nonviolence, it’s love of the other. The story of Exodus is remembering you were once wandering slaves, so whatever you do be kind to the widow, the orphan, the immigrant among you. So when a nation of immigrants starts putting up travel bans, you have officially lost the plot.”
It’s one thing for Bell to deliver such pronouncements from his home in Southern California, where he lives with his wife and three kids.
What happens, though, when he offers them from a stage in the Bible Belt, deep in the heart of Trump Country?
The type of progressive message Bell preaches doesn’t normally pack the church pews. But his Atlanta venue was a funky theater in the city’s Little Five Points district, an artsy intown area where people are more apt to openly smoke marijuana than cite scriptures in public.
Two hours before showtime, a crowd had already lined up to hear Bell speak. The theater would eventually sell out.
What was Bell doing to attract such crowds?
A tough question from the crowd
The people who assembled two hours before the show at the Variety Playhouse didn’t look like church folks. There were big biker types with ZZ Top beards, young women with tattoos, college-age students in sandals and shorts.
Bell doesn’t look a typical pastor either. Tall and lean, he was wearing navy blue capri pants and tan leather sneakers without socks when he came out before the show to meet some of his fans. He looked like a middle aged surfer and, in fact, he likes to surf when he’s back home.
The laid-back Southern California vibe he gives off, though, dissipates when he talks about his faith. He’s a rapid-fire speaker who can go from delivering comic one-liners one minute to in-depth discourses on first century Jewish hospitality customs the next. He’s a compulsive reader, and his dazzling erudition was on display during a Q&A session inside the theater before the show.
But there is another side to Bell’s ministry that was on display, one that endears him to so many fans. At the end of the Q&A, a young man raised his hand and told Bell he was struggling with his faith. He was awaiting the birth of his child but a doctor recently told him and his wife that their baby probably wouldn’t survive. Is he wrong for being angry with God?
An uneasy silence descended on the small preshow group, which had been laughing at some of Bell’s comic asides. But Bell didn’t offer any preacher platitudes. He told the man he had some tough times ahead. He spoke from personal experience: Bell was driven from the evangelical world in part because he was open about his doubts. He lost his church and some friends. Many of his fans are on the same journey: They don’t want to abandon their faith, but they have questions the traditional church can no longer answer.
Bell walked closer to the man and told him he could give him no easy answers. But he could tell him to avoid people who will try to comfort him by quoting scriptures like Romans 8:28 (“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God”) and by telling him his loss was somehow part of God’s mysterious will.
“Anyone who quotes from Romans and said it’s all part of a plan, they can’t walk with you,” Bell said.
He told the man to look for people who will be present with him and offer him “solidarity,” not “solutions.”
He said he would return to Atlanta in the years ahead and they would meet again and somehow things would be better for him.
“All the best to you,” he said quietly as the man nodded in appreciation.
Putting on a show
When the show began, Bell the performer emerged. Imagine a combination of a TED Talk, standup routine and confessional sermon.
He took to the stage backed by a throbbing hip-hop beat as a DJ chanted, “Who Dat? Who Dat?”
“Good evening ‘Hotlanta,’ ” Bell said.
Bell launched into a series of sermonettes, comic stories and self-deprecating jokes. He apologized to all the skeptics who were dragged to the show by friends who promised he would change their life. He told them there was an open bar in the back for them.
And then he delivered pronouncements that would have seen him heckled in many Bible Belt churches, where congregations don’t think twice about mounting an American flag inside the sanctuary.
Are you one of the Christians who love trying to prove to atheists that God exists?
Don’t bother, Bell said.
He told the audience he doesn’t like those YouTube videos where Christians “destroy” atheists in debates. Respect people’s doubts, he said. You can’t lead them to where they don’t want to go. Doubt is part of the biblical narrative, he said, quoting Jesus’ cry on the cross: “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?”
“The Bible is as much about the absence of God than the presence of God,” he said.
Do you belong to a church that says women cannot be priests or pastors?
Bad move, Bell said.
Any church that does so betrays the example of Jesus, who treated women as equals. Women in Jesus’ times couldn’t even testify as witnesses in court.
“Yet all the gospels have women as the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection,” he said.
How did Bell’s audience react to his pronouncements?
Cheers and more cheers. It was as if they were hungry for his message. Some turned and looked at one another with an “I can’t believe he said that” expression, but most were with him the entire night.
That’s part of Bell’s plan. He said he went to the Bible Belt because people talk so much about the Bible in the region but know so little about its historical context and the daily life of the people who wrote it. It’s a theme he explores in depth in his new book.
“The Bible was written by a minority group that had been conquered by one military superpower after another, so they’re highly suspicious of empires built on wealth and weapons because they’ve been on the receiving end of so much horrific violence,” he said.
“So if you’re a citizen of the most powerful global military superpower civilization has ever created, there’s a chance you might miss some of its most central themes.”
Thank you for a little heresy
For Ben and Ashley Baldwin, the couple who risked damnation to see Bell that night, what spoke most deeply to them was Bell’s insistence that it’s OK to not have all the answers.
Ashley said she grew up in a conservative Christian community that divided the world into those who were in and those who were out. It was hard to be transparent in such a world.
“There were a lot of things I wanted to change about myself, but I didn’t know how,” she said. “I was the good Christian girl. I was doing everything right, and our life from the outside looked awesome. But for me it wasn’t working. I was so depressed and miserable.”
She and her husband started listening to Bell’s podcast. Then they started showing up at his speaking events. The night before, they heard him speak in Charlotte, North Carolina, and drove down to Atlanta to hear him again.
She said she encounters friends who warn her against listening to Bell, but when she asks if they’ve ever read or listened to him, they say no.
“That’s part of the culture. They can’t read his books because he may lead them astray,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you really believe that God is the owner of truth, he’s going to show up in all kinds of places and in all kinds of people.”
Perhaps even in a renegade pastor.
Bell ended the evening not with a joke but a benediction.
“May grace and peace follow you, every day,” he told the crowd as he held his hands out in supplication.
It already has for the Baldwins. They say listening to Bell has made their life better.
Ben said some of his friends keep telling him he’s abandoned his faith.
“I was telling them that, ‘Guys I’m finally getting it. This Jesus guy has never been more important to me in my life,’ ” he said. “But they were scared because I wasn’t talking about it the way they were talking about it.”
Ashley said she doesn’t know what she would have done if she had remained on her religious treadmill.
“I think I would have probably ended up in a mental hospital or committed suicide,” she said.
Perhaps they are being deceived. The note they received before entering the theater asked them to “ask God himself to show you what is true and what is not true.”
So what is truth?
Both said their marriage went through a rough patch but is stronger now. Their faith is more alive, and they’ve made friends with people who love them unconditionally.
In a moment of exuberance, Ben even invited a crowd of Bell fans at the show – including the young man who said he could lose his child – to come to his home so he and Ashley could share dinner with them.
Maybe a certain type of heresy was just what the couple needed.