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Rob Bell: podcaster, bestselling author, performer and, yes, pastor

Rob Bell: podcaster, bestselling author, performer and, yes, pastor
Rob Bell recording his top-ranked podcast. (Gina Ferrazi, LA Times)

Conjure up an image of a former mega-church pastor and you will almost certainly not envision Rob Bell.

Tall, slender and dressed with the casual hipness of a tech entrepreneur, Bell greets me in his airy West Hollywood home office looking less like your mother’s Sunday-service leader than he does Tony Hawk. (A limited-edition Dennis Busenitz skateboard deck mounted on the wall, as well as a multitude of neatly racked surfboards, add to the effect.)

“If I’m at a party, I’ll introduce myself as an author,” says Bell. “If I start with ‘I’m a spiritual teacher,’ people are like, ‘Get away from that guy,'” he jokes good-naturedly. “‘What, do you have a white robe in the trunk?’”

Despite the fact that Bell subverts preacherly expectations, there are tells. He forgoes my introductory handshake for a brotherly hug. He has a penchant for the phrases “Oh my word!” and a barely suppressed, caught-in-the-nick-of-time “What the F-what?” To the left of his desk, alongside a semi-opaque, sea-glass-colored surfboard fin, hangs a carved wooden cross.

I am reminded that in his latest book, “How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living" (HarperOne: 224 pp., $25.99), Bell devotes a chapter to the importance of surrounding oneself with objects that are “vital to your path,” [p. 162] a kind of Marie Kondo-lite, and that Bell’s path has by no means been a straight or narrow one.

“I sort of came up through this world where I didn’t fit,” he says. “I remember going to a pastor’s conference early on and thinking, 'I’m trying to do something very different.'”

“How to be Here,” as well as upcoming events at Wanderlust Hollywood (sold out, on Memorial Day) and Largo (see box for more info), bring that difference to light. Bell seems constitutionally incapable of being limited to one vocation — he is a pastor, speaker, author, podcast host, surfer, filmmaker, husband, and dad. His refusal to define himself by any of these single roles, and instead embrace hybridity, may make him the consummate Angelino. He is constantly open to being redefined.

Indeed, Bell left a thousands-strong Christian congregation at Mars Hill Bible Church, which he founded in his native Michigan, not long after questioning the existence of hell in his wildly contentious, bestselling book “Love Wins.” (In a recording of his live talk “Everything is Spiritual,” Bell recalls with amused fondness a protestor’s sign: “Believe in Hell, Not Rob Bell.”)

Since relocating to California in 2012, Bell has gone on to spread the word in an entirely different manner: his first formal appearance wasn’t at a church at all, but at the Viper Room. Oprah’s “Life You Want Tour” followed two years later, and his own events and workshops, which fuse science, spirituality, and self-help, routinely sell out. As we discussed his latest endeavors, a sleek outdoor pool trickled soothingly in the background. God is good, but speaking engagements with Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert have their rewards.

Discussing his current obsessions, Bell rattles off Icelandic prog-rockers Sigur Rós (“I’m bonkers about that band”), David Simon’s miniseries “Show Me A Hero,” and the LA Comedy Store book “I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era.” He quotes Jesus and Yeezus with equal fluidity: “How to Be Here” pulls from both the bible and Kanye’s Twitter feed.

He is a proponent of inclusivity, including support for women in church leadership, gay marriage, and considering spiritual practice outside of the confines of a pew.The sermon, he says, has been “forgotten as an art form,” one that, in its ideal state, should fall “somewhere between guerilla theatre and performance art.”

“No matter how hard you try, if you’re in a church service on a Sunday, people have all these cultural preconceptions. No matter how accessible you make it, for many people it’s already been co-opted by something,” he says. “Where do we exchange ideas? Where do we tell stories? The sermon ought to take place in the larger culture’s exchange.”

So rock venues, theaters, and comedy clubs, as much as churches have become his spiritual home. “Yes, this is where this goes,” he says of hosting his events at Largo, where he will be speaking on May 31st to what he anticipates to be an eclectic crowd. Besides, he says, when he appears at venues that cater to the larger culture’s public eye, “It also has to be good.”

Bell’s years as a preacher certainly inform the ambitious, profound, and category-defying talks he gives now, but there are also parallels between his current work and that of a comedian. He has toured with Pete Holmes, who had an Evangelical upbringing, and whom he counts as a close friend. (“Pete started coming over to our house every Saturday. He said ‘My goal is to Uncle Buck your kids.’” Despite those corruption efforts, Bell says, “I think we spent Christmas last year together.”) It’s clear that Bell enjoys a good joke as much as the rest of us, but it’s the comedian’s potential carte blanche to prod at society’s taboos that he finds most compelling.

“Whenever anybody stiffens up -- ‘I don’t know if we can talk about that. We probably should avoid that’ – That’s like red meat to a comedian. It’s like chum in the water. ‘Why don’t we talk about that? Why is that word off limits? Why are you ashamed of that?’ That’s where a comedian does her finest work: all of the places in us that we don’t really want to talk about,” Bell explains. “What I realized is there was this cultural Pastor Politeness: whatever you do don’t offend… In the world that I came out of, it gets people fired and gets people up in arms. In comedy it sells tickets.”

It also sells books, although “How to Be Here” is by no account controversial. It is less prescriptive than many self-help titles, sitting slightly apart within the genre. Bell writes about confronting failure, surrendering outcomes, and finding your ikigai, a Japanese concept akin to a raison d’être.

That the title of the book sounds like a mindfulness practice doesn’t bother Bell one bit; he is eager to explore murky, intangible, concepts without pigeonholing them.

“I think there’s something more going on here,” he says of our lives on earth, and of his sense that if we’re able to truly be present for them, there is much to marvel at. “And I think for many people, spirituality, religion, God, Jesus, whatever has been trivialized. I think we’re way beyond one particular religion, we’re about what does it mean to be human.”

French is a writer in Los Angeles.

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