Rob Bell is a prominent Christian pastor and author who has made major waves through the evangelical world for his insights and evolutions on subjects like sex, the existence of hell, and gay marriage. After more than a decade working as an evangelical pastor at the church he and his wife Kristen founded in Michigan, Mars Hill Bible Church, Bell stepped down in 2011 to "devote his full energy to sharing the message of God's love with a broader audience." In the years since, he's done just that—re-imagining modern Christian ministry in a variety of ways—such as appearing with Oprah on her Super Soul Sunday and writing a new book on the spirituality and energy inherent in marriage, which he co-authored with his wife. We interviewed Rob and Kristen for the Women & Religion project.
Elizabeth Tenety: Your new book, The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, is organized by themes inside a married relationship. What you think it takes to make a good marriage?
Rob Bell: In the first section of the book we talk about how the space between two partners is responsive, first and foremost. You meet this person and then something within you changes, more and more, but gradually, you find yourself caught up in their well-being. It happens very subtly at first, but as it gains momentum, you find that their thriving matters as much to you as your own and then you have a moment when you suddenly realize, ‘I am actually more committed to their well being than my own.’
So in the book, we begin with: ‘If marriage is about how you get all your needs met, it's never going to work. If it instead is, ‘there's this person who, deep in my bones, I want to see thrive’ and they're thinking the same thing about you, now you have something really, really interesting. A lot of people cling to their own wants and desires, like, ‘You're here to make me happy.’ The very nature of sacrificial love, (the entire Christian story), is that you give yourself away for the good of another. It does something profound to you, to them, and we would argue to the world as a whole.
Kristen Bell: There's a mystery to when you give yourself for the person that you love and they're doing the same for you. Something bigger than just the two of you is happening.
In the book we talk about when you love like this, you're connecting with the same kind of love that created the universe and sustains the universe. It's a really deep concept. It's helpful when we think about marriage in those deeper, more mysterious terms because there is way more going on and sometimes we can just get caught up in the busyness and the details of life that we forget about this gift that we have in this person, and also this thing called marriage that we get to experience.
Elizabeth Tenety: Why do we need marriage, not just in the relationship between the couple but in the world? Why is marriage good for the world?
Kristen Bell: Marriage is good for the world because there's so much that's broken in the world—there's so much that's fractured, from war to racism to people taking each other to court —so marriage is the place where there's oneness and unity. That gives us hope and it gives us a sense of strength. There are lots of things that are broken, but in marriage it's just a place that we can be one.
Rob Bell: The truth is, marriage raises questions about what kind of universe we're living in. For many people, they have a static view of the universe. The planets are fixed in their rotations, there may or may not be a divine being that animates it all. The whole thing is pretty much all some mass of energy just moving in time as it always has. In the tradition we come from, going way, way back to the earliest Jewish tradition, and later out of that the Christian tradition, was this extraordinary belief that there is a divine being who is a community of love.
That reality, at its deepest, moves forward because it is being moved forward by a divine being who is one and yet many. Trinitarian theology comes out of this. The idea that there is a nuclear energy source that is infinitely creative that is actually why, for example, there are so many species of birds, and why oceans work the way they do.
For us, as human beings it makes sense then if this is our origin, that we would crave community. That we would crave companionship. That we want someone to witness to our life and tell us that we matter. Marriage is about somebody who you have a shared collective memory with.
Marriage is one of the most primal ways we tap into what kind of universe we're living in. And yet, so many people have been burned. How many of your friends grew up in homes where their parents were married and there was no love or energy exchange between them, or the parents got divorced? There's so much skepticism and disillusionment with this institution. And yet, you still have human beings who love and want to embrace and want to connect. You still have these primal, basic, human longings that are going to be there whatever the current cultural institutions are.
Elizabeth Tenety: Kristen, you wrote in the book: ‘Sometimes women absorb messages from their family or the culture around them or especially certain religious environments that tell her, in subtle ways, not only with words, that she is not an equal. Therefore, her needs and desires and aspiration are not as important as her husband's.’ Can you talk a bit more about what that culture is like, particularly in the Christian world?
Kristen Bell: I grew up in a religious tradition where, in the church, men have the important roles. They would say things like ‘men and women are equal, they just have different roles.’ It never really made sense to me. I grew up with this vague feeling that it was my job to support my husband and that he would probably be doing the important work and my needs came secondary to that.
Elizabeth Tenety: That's what you thought growing up?
Kristen Bell:Yeah. I don't know if I …
Rob Bell:She never bought it.
Kristen Bell: I don't know if I internalized it. I noticed that it affected me at a subconscious level.
Elizabeth Tenety: How?
Kristen Bell: It was something that I had to reprogram. That's one of the reasons why we really like the zimzum model [a Hebrew word used to talk about the creation of the world] as we started talking about it. As we started relating the concept of zimzum to marriage, it's that it starts with two equal people who make space in their lives for the other. It's just a very mutual thing that's going on. That's the way it really works best. That's the way that the energy flows. Not when one person keeps denying what they really want because in that denial the true person isn't there.
We really feel like the healthiest kind of marriage is when you're fully honest about your desires and who your growing to be and that's when you can have that kind of zimzum energy relationship.
Elizabeth Tenety: How do you think that those kind of preordained roles affect women? You talk about how you were kind of a part of that culture but you never fully embraced those beliefs. I'm sure other women internalize that. How do you think those ideas affect women?
Kristen Bell: Actually, I didn't fully buy into it but I definitely noticed how it affected me.
Elizabeth Tenety: Can you give any examples?
Kristen Bell: Yes. I always felt like Rob's work in the world was more important than my work. Whenever we would make decisions, it would be ‘what is best for Rob?’
Here's an example: When we both graduated from graduate school, we were living in Southern California and for some reason I told him, ‘we'll just move wherever you get a job.’ Even though I was graduating from graduate school too, but I just had this belief that his work, especially because he was a pastor, was more important than my work as an occupational therapist.
I told him, ‘we'll just go wherever you get a job.’ He got a job in Michigan and I didn't want to move to Michigan. I wanted to stay in Southern California but I had this belief that this is how it works. This is what God wants us to do.
You can push down what you want and go with what the other wants, but it will come out in depression, it will come out in resentment, it will affect the relationship.
Elizabeth Tenety: Rob, in 2013 you came out in favor of gay marriage saying that you were for commitment, you're for monogamy and therefore, as a Christian pastor you are in favor of gay marriage. I'm wondering what, if anything, you think straight people can learn from the experience of gay couples?
Rob Bell: I think that all of the challenges of being with the person you love, if the two of you are going to run a household, maybe raise kids, support each other in your work, your careers, your interests, at that point you're talking about the same issues. Whether you're gay or straight. You know what I mean?
The question is: How do you love somebody well through all of the challenges? You have no idea who's going to have an injury, whose parents are going to need serious hospice care, who is going to have challenges at work, who is going to get a bonus, who is going to get fired, who is going to pick up the kids and make sure their lunches are made for next Tuesday's field trip. That's just how you share your life and create a life with somebody. You'll see all sorts of commonality there.
Kristen Bell: I think it's really interesting that there's a lot of talk about people becoming more cynical about marriage. Today there are a lot of people giving up on marriage and commitment. But then with gay marriage you have these people who are fighting for the right to be married. It's like they're saying, ‘we want to be committed to each other!’ It's the two things happening culturally at the same time. People saying, ‘I don't know about commitment’ and then this group of people are like, ‘we're fighting for the right to be committed to one person for the rest of our lives.’