Wandering outside the margins with friends

James Phillips
Posted 7/30/17

Iron City is a concert venue in Birmingham.

Most nights at Iron City, hundreds of people show up to listen to incredible music by artists from across the globe. Over the next few months, Judah & The Lion, Tesla and Sam Hunt are scheduled to take …

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Wandering outside the margins with friends


Iron City is a concert venue in Birmingham.

Most nights at Iron City, hundreds of people show up to listen to incredible music by artists from across the globe. Over the next few months, Judah & The Lion, Tesla and Sam Hunt are scheduled to take that stage. Velcro Pygmies, one of Jasper’s favorite bands, will be playing there on Aug. 19.

A little more than a week ago, hundreds of people came to Iron City for a different reason. They weren’t expecting a cool band. They weren’t expecting loud music. They came to Iron City expecting something spiritual.

I was in that group of people. I showed up for that same reason. I expected something spiritual.

Instead of a band that night, the sold-out, standing-room-only crowd showed up to listen to Rob Bell, a former megachurch pastor who has been labeled as a heretic and much worse by many in the evangelical world.

I was first introduced to Rob Bell about 15 years ago when my brother-in-law, a youth minister at the time, asked me to watch a couple of NOOMA videos. They were 10-minute short films of Christian teaching related to real-life situations. Bell, pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church at the time, was the featured speaker in the films.

A couple of years later, I experienced a major shift in my spiritual beliefs. The spiritual box that I had placed God in for so many years suddenly disappeared. When God destroyed that box, it unfortunately left me in a very lonely place. My spiritual journey had suddenly taken a violent shift, but my tribe had somehow missed the earthquake.

When wandering outside of the margins, it can be a beautiful thing when you collide with other wanderers. Rob Bell is one of those wanderers. I re-watched those NOOMA videos, which somehow had come into my possession at that point, and I saw them in a new light. I read Bell’s first book “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith,” and it was helpful to know that I wasn’t the only person out there who was repainting.

Over the years, I have found many incredible people who wander outside the margins. Bell just happened to be one of the firsts on that list.

Several close friends also came to the event at Iron City. I asked a few of them what they thought about Bell’s speech that night.

Emily Peterson, an admitted wanderer, was one of our friends at Iron City that night.

“I found several points he made resonated with me in my every day life, one of which is that if you really listen to your heart, you can feel that the image-conscious, political, Americanization of the Church in our country feels very false and antithetical to the teachings of Jesus,” Emily said. “He pointed out that the origin of the word ‘radical’ means to go back to your roots. That was such a significant moment for me. Ideas of justice, mercy and equality are not some new, progressive social movement. They are at the foundation of Christianity.”

Micah Wade, who described herself as “not an avid Bell fan,” is another friend who met us at the Iron City event. She joked that she and her husband attended the speech at the risk of her reputation.

“Some things he said were strange. Some of the ways he said them were strange. And to someone who leans right politically, some things raised my eyebrows,” Micah said. “However, most of what he said was real — real questions, real emotions, real dilemmas. And that was not strange to me at all. It was quite familiar to me, actually. For so long, I thought that to question was to sin, but without questioning, how do you grow? How can you move to a more fulfilling relationship with Jesus, or with anyone for that matter, without having to push past the surface level stuff and go deeper? Furthermore, if Christianity and spiritual discussion in general is only for the ‘religious’ among us, and to be kept within the four walls of a ‘place of worship,’ then so many beautiful souls will be excluded from the conversation.

“So I suppose the question isn't whether or not I agree with everything Rob Bell says. The question is whether or not I'm okay with asking questions. And the answer is yes,” Micah added. “Does that mean I'm abandoning the basic tenets of my Christian faith? Absolutely not. But I am trying hard to abandon the notion that in order to please God I have to have all the answers, as well as the notion that anyone who disagrees with me, or with any given spiritual leader or set of tenets, is on a path to destruction. My questions do not scare God. And I do not have to be scared to listen to people with differing views than my own.”

Doubt should be a central tenant to the Christian experience. Instead, doubt is squashed in most churches, because questions can be messy. When I’ve been at my weakest, to the point that I questioned where God was at, is when He’s found me in bigly ways.

“The Bible is as much about the absence of God than the presence of God,” Bell said in Birmingham.

Bell had never spoken in Alabama before that night. It was the next to last stop on his Bible Belt tour. He said at the beginning of his speech that he wanted to come to this area of the country 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.

“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,” Bell said. “So if you’re citizens of the most powerful global military superpower civilization has ever created, there’s a chance you might miss some of its most central themes.”

Emily said, “Once you do the studying and dig into the scripture and hear the truth of the revolutionary Christ and the early church, you can’t just go back to the status quo. It changes you. It inspires you to be better and do better.”

I believe that we live in one of the biggest mission fields possible. It is definitely not because people have never heard the words “God” and “Jesus.” It is because we have lost our way. We’ve lost our focus.

Sammy Snow, a definite avid fan of Bell, was another friend at Iron City.

“His thoughts on how the Bible deals with power structures are always helpful,” Sammy said. “I can look back and see how I never perceived any of that until recent years. But now that I can see it, how we use our power as a nation, city, community, and family is something that has become extremely important to me.”

All of us went to Iron City that night searching for something spiritual. We found it. We found it in the fresh take on our redemption song. We found it through the words of a fellow wanderer. We found it through the spirit who met us in that Birmingham bar. We also find it in each other every day.

“I think the thing I found to be the most uplifting was being around so many open-minded people who I held common interests with,” Sammy said.

When we left Iron City, Andrea said she could see why I liked Rob Bell.

“He’s just like you,” she said.

It’s hard to find people just like me. I liked the fact that Iron City was filled with people who didn’t look just like me. It was filled with people who didn’t think just like me. But it was filled with people who were and are seeking just like me. They fail all the time like me, and they wander like me. That is pretty cool.

“Oh yeah, and a Birmingham bar is a great place to talk about God,” Micah said.

James Phillips is editor and publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He may be reached at 205-221-2840 or james.phillips@mountaineagle.com.