Book Review: Everything Is Spiritual: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here
Everything Is Spiritual: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here by Rob Bell. St. Martin’s Essentials. New York, NY. 2020. Total pages: 307.
Those who have been in youth ministry for a decade or more are likely to recognize the name Rob Bell. A favorite speaker at previous Youth Specialties events and the Nooma series of videos, Bell broke onto the youth ministry scene as an ADD speaker with depth, charisma, and irreverent challenges to the status quo—all things those in youth ministry typically approve. Who wouldn’t admire and maybe even feel jealousy, if not amazement, at someone who planted a church that quickly grew to 10,000 in attendance in a matter of months? What drew so many people so quickly? Bell preached on the book of Leviticus! Seriously?!
In 2012 Bell went on a speaking tour with a one-hour (or slightly more) presentation by this same title “Everything is Spiritual.” Here’s a link for one of those stops: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2rklwkm_dQ. Since that tour went so well, four years later Bell did a follow up tour. It wasn’t as tight in the presentation, but still challenging, and with a bit more physics. See it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JT09JbaEh_I.
In 2020 Bell released this book version by the same title. Although the “one and only” chapter of the book runs for more than 300 pages, it’s actually a fairly quick read. In a combination of staccato and stream of consciousness flow, each page rolls into the next. Sentences aren’t necessarily complete, and font changes add punctuation, as do untimely (or specially timed) hard returns in the narrative. Those who prefer a clear outline, or at least a Table of Contents, might lose interest quickly. Those more free-spirited might find themselves reading, non-stop, their longest book for the past year or two.
Bell moved from entertaining to dangerous among Evangelicals in 2011 when his book Love Wins garnered extra attention, even making the front cover of Time magazine (April 14, 2011). While Evangelicals took exception to Bell’s presentation, Seventh-day Adventists should have claimed Bell as “one of us.” Why? Because he challenged the veracity of an eternally burning hell based on the God revealed in Scripture. The reaction among Evangelicals featured an unmasking of the desire to hold the fear of God over people by means of the fires of hell as the motivational stick. Some even went so far as to ask, “If there is no eternally burning hell, why would anyone follow Jesus?” Bells answer, “Love.” And hence the title, Love Wins. One other criticism of the book was that it almost sounded like the author was a universalist—everyone ends up in heaven. Although Bell took the reader right up to that point, he then retreated and refused to endorse a universalist position.
But the reaction to Bell seemed to be, for him, after the fact in many ways. He had moved on from pastoring the Michigan megachurch and returned to his childhood place in Southern California. As he continued to pursue the next pathway of his life journey, it didn’t include pastoring a church. He did stand-alone speaking gigs and a tour with Oprah. In 2015 he received an award for his podcasts. But, for many Christians, he seemed to disappear. And he seemed fine with that.
This book brings him back to both the general public and the Christian subset. Depending on how you read it, this book either pulls it all together for you, or it breaks it all apart. He seamlessly moves from personal story, including difficulties in his childhood and family issues, to pastoring and overextending in efforts to please others, to therapy, to solidarity with his wife, to subatomic particles such as bosons, gluons, up and down quarks, mesons, pions, and leptons. Even though he sees it all as the BIG picture, at times it seems like he’s providing only snapshots of one corner, or is it the other corner? Is he looking up now, or down? Is he writing this for his readers, or primarily for himself? Is God personal or impersonal? Do we find Him or does He find us? Does it matter? Will we ever know?
If you’d like to have everything tied off nicely, you should probably stay away from this plunge. If you’re open to being stretched, this could easily do that for you. If you yearn for new possibilities and perspectives, this might be your pot of gold.
In the end, Bell does believe that everything is spiritual, even if we might not be able to make all the connections just yet. But by continuing the journey, we are certain to find freshness and more, even though it might take us by surprise.
Steve Case, PhD, serves as president and janitor of the youth ministry organization called “Involve Youth” in Carmichael, CA, about 400 miles north of where Rob Bell lives.