Last week was one that I will not soon forget. I had to be in California for work, which normally means that my coworker and I will try to catch a baseball game. This time, though, we decided to get tickets to see Conan O'Brien. Unfortunately, Conan tapes his show in the afternoon, and there was no way we'd make it in time from the home office to LA to use our tickets. I was sorely disappointed. Until I saw someone post on Facebook about Rob Bell doing an event from the Viper Room in West Hollywood. No to baseball. No to Conan. Yes to Rob Bell.
We got to the Viper Room and spent some time laughing at all the guys who looked like us - slightly chubby with trendy glasses. It was like we had come home. Right at 7pm, Rob took the stage. He spoke for over an hour and then answered questions. Mine was the last one of the evening. You can watch the video of Still Painting here. After he got done speaking, Rob hung out and talked to people, including me and my friends. I told him about how we give away Velvet Elvis on our church website, and I told him that he was one of the patron saints of our church community. I asked him to come and speak at Vintage sometime. We'll see if we can make that happen. He was funny and gracious, and I hope it's not the last time I get to interact with him.
Rob is a controversial guy. No one denies his unbelievable talent as a communicator. He is enrapturing when he speaks. His books are conversation and engaging. His videos - Vanessa calls them a cross between a sermon and music video - are mesmerizing. But Rob is quite polarizing. His book, Love Wins, got him labeled a heretic by many. My posts about Love Wins are among the most trafficked on this little blog. People either love or hate Rob.
I am in the love category. Rob, through his work at Mars Hill Bible Church, has helped me to see how a church can create an environment in which people can bring their doubts and questions. He has modeled a way and thereby helped me to be a better practitioner of the kind of faith that is less focused on the theological arguments of the past and more engaged in helping people to wrestle with the questions of today. Short of Butterfly Theology's arrival on the scene, no book has better summed up the kind of church Vintage is trying to be than Velvet Elvis. I am who I am as a pastor and Vintage is what it is as a church because of Rob Bell.
I was on a bit of a high on Wednesday and Thursday, pumped up and excited about having spent just a couple of minutes with Rob. Thursday began with the mixed feelings of excitement that I would head home at the end of the day but also dread that I would be on a red-eye all night before finally making it back to Arkansas on Friday morning. I got through the day and boarded the plane at 10:30 pm PT with the realization that I was not getting upgraded to first class, which meant that I would spend the next several hours cramped in coach and probably unable to sleep. I was texting Vanessa about my complaints when Brian McLaren walked down the aisle of the plane.
Brian McLaren is kind of the godfather of the emergent church. He's the author of many books. He is not as well-known as Rob Bell, but he is equally as controversial. He has set forth a roadmap whereby the church can leave behind its intertwinedness with modernity and engage more fully with postmodernity. In Brian's case, this has meant an embracing of interfaith dialog and science, and it has led him to positions on hell, homosexuality, and politics that make him not-so-popular with evangelicals.
But I love him. When I was going through a deep crisis of faith, it was Brian's book A New Kind of Christian that saved me. Without Brian, I doubt I would have left fundamentalism. Without Brian, I think my faith would have died rather than emerged. Without Brian, Vintage Fellowship would not exist. Without Brian, Butterfly Theology would be a very short book. He is my hero. And he too is a patron saint of Vintage.
And he was sitting three rows behind me on the plane. When there was a lull in the passengers boarding, I went back to talk to him. I asked the guy sitting next to him if we could change seats so that I could talk with Brian. Brian suggested we talk when we got to Atlanta. That was a better idea than me chattering away while Brian tried to sleep on the red-eye. I returned to my seat and had a hard time getting to sleep.
When we arrived in Atlanta, Brian and I connected in the terminal and headed to Dunkin Donuts for coffee and breakfast. We spent over an hour talking about a whole host of things. We talked about the future of the emergent church and seminaries and how to respond to critics and how Vanessa's theological transformation mirrored my own and mutual friends. Brian could not have been more gracious to me. He listened and asked questions and wanted to know my story. He offered me counsel and affirmed me in my journey. I felt the same way about meeting him as I did about Rob - I certainly hope this is not the last time our paths cross.
I hope that Brian is a words-of-affirmation guy because I showered him with them. Thinking of how much they have impacted me, I wanted to just yell titles of his books at him - GENEROUS ORTHODOXY!! THE STORY WE FIND OURSELVES IN!! THE LAST WORD AND THE WORD AFTER THAT!! A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIANITY!! But I was able to restrain myself. I did tell him that in a very real and literal way, he had saved my faith. I told him that he had been my mentor ever since I left fundamentalism. I told him that I had learned to have an irenic spirit from him. We talked about me sending him a copy of Butterfly Theology and how we could get him to Vintage to speak to our community. My fingers are crossed.
In the last ten years, two people have impacted my life, my thinking, my ministry, and my theology more than any others. Those two people are Brian McLaren and Rob Bell. They are my heroes. In the span of four days, I met both of them.
I fully expect to meet Bono any day now.