bits and pieces of clouds, ether, maybe even ideas
Monthly Archives: March 2010
Donald Miller is in a room of 500 or 600 people, all waiting for him to speak. But as he steps behind the podium and begins, his voice seems more suited to a small group of five or six.
“Okay,” he starts, “what are some of your favorite movies?”
A murmur of response—”Come on!” Miller encourages—and then people start shouting out titles.The Matrix! A Beautiful Mind! The Straight Story! Finding Nemo! The audience oohs and aahs at each other’s choices. Little Women! Napoleon Dynamite! It’s a Wonderful Life! The shouting goes on for a while; they forget this is a workshop.
“Okay, great,” Miller says, bringing attention front and center. “Now, call out your favorite parts of the Nicene Creed.”
Awkward giggles throughout the room—they know they’ve been had. Then one man pipes up: “It’s a wonderful life!”
Miller laughs along with, maybe louder than, everyone in the room. He’s enjoying that his point was made for him: We know our movies better than we know our creeds. And now self-help banalities—Your life can be wonderful—compete for our attention with the classic truths of the Christian story.
In the next half hour, Miller delivers a variation on a theme ascendant in evangelical Christianity: Truth is rooted in story, not in rational systems. The Christian mission is not well served when we speak in terms of spiritual laws or rational formulas. Propositional truths, when extracted from a narrative context, lack meaning. “The chief role of a Christian,” he says, “is to tell a better story.”
In keeping with the movie theme, Miller quotes at length from Robert McKee, the Hollywood screenwriting guru whose book Story (1997) is at once a detailed guide to the principles of narrative and a primer on the principles of meaning. Miller says that the criteria McKee instructs writers to use in editing their stories—Is there conflict here? Does my protagonist have a purpose?—are the same criteria we can use to edit our understanding of our lives and the Christian faith.
The Donald Miller speaking at this conference workshop—casual, yes, but also focused, deliberate—is perhaps not the Donald Miller people expected to see. Best known for Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, a youthful, angsty collection of personal essays that has sold more than 800,000 copies since its publication in 2003, Miller has refined his craft and his range of interests. At 35, he is a maturing youth—freshly shaven with short hair, plain blue jeans, and a beige sweater over a white button-down shirt. He has no pretense of hipster chic, or much pretense of any kind. When bumping into old conference circuit acquaintances or making new ones, he likes to talk of music and film but also college basketball and Hey, how is your wife feeling these days?
Miller, often described as “irreverent” or “bohemian,” is a frequent speaker at mainstream evangelical events just like this one: a mid-winter conference at the Hines Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay, a gathering of evangelical church and parachurch workers in New England, with the usual buzz of platform speakers and ministry workshops. Miller is comfortable here, which, apart from his book sales within the Christian industry, doesn’t seem quite right, given his countercultural evangelical image. Other recent gigs for Miller include the Women of Faith national conference and a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) convention. He is likely the only speaker at such events who has launched an online literary journal, the Burnside Writers Collective, and whose book site includes links to politically liberal organizations such as MoveOn.org and Greenpeace.
But he manages to fit in just fine. He is not an evangelical interloper. He is an evangelical insider. “They love him,” explains Jim Chaffee, Miller’s booking agent. “He’s progressive but not pissed.”
He is also neither irreverent nor bohemian—at least, not much. But for mainstream evangelicals today, Miller is a bridge to an irreverent, bohemian world. His work is framed with bohemia—a road trip, a pint of beer, an occasional curse word—but filled with explicit longing for Jesus. He never takes on basic Christian tenets or evangelical priorities such as biblical authority and spreading the gospel, but he asks just enough questions, with just enough gravity, to attract readers who have similar reservations about their faith culture. He’s a sotto voce critic of evangelicalism, telling anxious audiences that it’s okay to question the faith, yet keep it.
At the conference in Boston, attendees hear from a lineup of evangelical celebrity teachers: George Barna, Henry Cloud, Bill Hybels, Jack Hayford, Joni Eareckson Tada, Sheila Walsh, and more. Topics range from “Your Role in Jesus’ ‘Dream Church'” to “How to Lead a Person to Christ: The Simple Basics.”
Miller’s talks—a morning keynote address to about 4,000 people, plus the afternoon workshop—are short on how-to’s and long on critique. During the keynote session, he takes the crowd through a history of paradigms for church ministry. He objects to overconfidence among evangelicals. “If your mind is not constantly being changed,” he says, “you’re not following Christ.” Miller believes sharing the gospel should be like setting someone up on a blind date, not like explaining propositions. He takes aim at the corporatization of evangelicalism, detectable through such evangelicalisms as, “Be profitable for the kingdom of God.” He lampoons teaching series with titles like “Three Keys to a Biblical Marriage.”
“It seems to me there are a million keys to marriage,” Miller teases, “and they change depending on what kind of mood she’s in.” The joke kills. All his jokes kill. Miller is embraced every bit as enthusiastically as his celebrity speaker elders. Or more so. “Yours is the only talk so far where people stood around and talked afterward,” one woman tells him. “So refreshing. So real.”
At the book-signing table after his keynote address, Miller is handed copy after copy of each of his four titles: Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows What (2004), Through Painted Deserts (2005; a reissue of his first book, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance), and To Own a Dragon(2006). But mostly, he is handed copy after copy of Blue Like Jazz and offered testimonials about the book’s effect:
“I’ve been a Christian for over 20 years, and I’ve never been so excited about a book.”
“Your book was the only thing that got my daughter through college.”
“I love Blue Like Jazz because it’s, like, a Christian book, but it doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself.”
A 40-something woman approaches Miller with two plastic grocery bags filled with copies of his books. “I’ve already bought Blue Like Jazz 13 times,” she gushes. “But I gotta have all these to give to people. I’m a Jesus girl, but I also like to go out and do tequila shots with my friends. This is a book I can give to those friends.”
At the end of the day, Miller and I walk through the February chill to a pub and grill in Boston’s South End. He tells me that comments like the ones at the signing table are par for the course when he speaks at events like these. He feels he must be meeting some great need that exists for evangelicals today. “You feel confident because you know that this is actually a refreshing message for people,” he says. “They don’t feel accused. They don’t feel hurt or offended by what you’re saying. There’s a sense of, ‘Hey, we have lost meaning, haven’t we?’ “
He compares his experience to Paul speaking to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Paul understood Greek culture, he was winsome, and he could make an appeal for truth in a way that Greeks would receive. I point out that in that scenario, Don Miller is Paul, and evangelicals are the Greeks.
Miller nods. “I actually believe that I’m setting people free from something that is frustrating them.”
The Greater Trouble
It’s easy to see why Miller believes he is setting people free: His fans sound like the liberated. And if he critiques evangelical culture, it’s always with care for evangelicals. Many evangelicals are critics of evangelical culture because they are concerned with what is being communicated to non-Christians. Miller, on the other hand, is critical of evangelical culture because he worries about what evangelicals are communicating to themselves.
In Searching for God Knows What, Miller writes about the “Four Spiritual Laws” approach to witnessing:
Millions, perhaps, have come to know Jesus through these efficient presentations of the gospel. But I did begin to wonder if there were better ways of explaining it than these pamphlets. After all, the pamphlets have been around for only the last fifty years or so (along with our formulaic presentation of the gospel), and the church has shrunk, not grown, in Western countries in which these tools have been used. But the greater trouble with these reduced ideas is that modern evangelical culture is so accustomed to this summation that it is difficult for us to see the gospel as anything other than a list of true statements with which a person must agree.
“The greater trouble” with these approaches, Miller takes pains to say, is the trouble causedevangelicals. Throughout Searching and Blue Like Jazz, especially, Miller is pastoral in his concern that evangelicals shed whatever cultural baggage might be causing confusion in their lives of faith and return to a relational understanding of God.
In one of his talks in Boston, Miller offers a parable about evangelical witness: A husband decides to woo his wife, so he takes her out to dinner and gives her a list of the things he loves about her. “All those things are true. Do you see that?” The wife nods. “Well, then, you know I love you.” The wife doesn’t swoon. “But everything on this list is true! If you believe the items on this list, then you should be able to accept that I love you!”
The Parable of the Foolish Husband prompts mmms and claps and knowing headshakes. Miller does not make anyone feel bad about harboring formulaic versions of God or of the gospel. He relates to feeling bad about those versions and asks, “Why don’t we try another way?”
It’s a truism of sales that products do well when they meet felt needs. Blue Like Jazz sold just over 20,000 copies in its first year, but word of mouth (and a seeding effort through Campus Crusade for Christ, which placed the book in packets passed out to college freshmen) moved the title slowly but surely onto the bestseller list. Greg Stielstra, vice president of marketing for Thomas Nelson Publishers, says the book is now—four years later—seeing an increase in units sold per week.
Blue Like Jazz takes its title from the notion that jazz music does not resolve, which Miller sees as a metaphor for the ambiguities of the life of faith in God. But if anything, Blue resolves its beefs with evangelicalism succinctly and consistently, with chapters that are more like the 3-minute condensations of pop rock than the lingering improvisations of jazz. The book is a tour through sites of frustration for evangelicals, especially young evangelicals. Chapter titles include “Belief,” “Church,” “Romance,” “Community,” “Money,” “Worship,” and “Love.” On each subject, Miller begins by describing a well-known problem with slight insolence, but ends by offering, well, a resolution. In “Church,” he writes, “I don’t like institutionalized anything,” listing beefs with churches he’s attended. But within a few pages, he tells the story of his current church in Portland, Oregon, and writes, “So one of the things I had to do after God provided a church for me was to let go of any bad attitude I had against other churches I’d gone to. In the end, I was just different, you know. It wasn’t that they were bad; they just didn’t do it for me.”
Miller says fans of Blue are “people who don’t want to be in evangelical culture but don’t want to reject it either.” He gives voice to their cultural hang-ups and agrees there is a problem—Yeah, Christianity can be lame that way—but quickly suggests they move on.
Like Reading My Own Diary
Miller pledges that his writing style will change significantly with his next book, A Map of Eden, which debuts in 2008. He says he learned the most about himself from writing his most recent book,To Own a Dragon, which chronicles Miller’s experience of growing up without a father and offers lessons he gleaned from a mentoring relationship with photographer John MacMurray. It is also his most focused, consistently well-written book. But Miller says that as he wrote Dragon, he found his heavily personalized writing style was not challenging anymore—it lacked the thrill of creative discovery. (He’s rediscovered the thrill with a screenplay version of Blue Like Jazz, co-written with Steve Taylor and Ben Pearson. And he has plans to create a television show, set in the famed Powell’s bookstore in Portland.)
To date, Miller’s writing style has been casual, even lackadaisical. Most chapters in his books take the form of mini-essays, but they’re more like long e-mails written to a friend than prose intended for mass consumption. Like most authors, Miller writes in a style he admires: “The books I like are the ones that get you feeling like you are with a person, hanging out with a person who is being quite vulnerable, telling you all sorts of stuff that is personal,” he writes in Searching. He says he got that feeling from Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies and credits that book with giving shape to his voice.
But Miller represents a new kind of casual. Published writing is generally a step removed from everyday speech, but Miller’s style quotes the quotidian. Consider a sample from Blue Like Jazz, chosen at random:
My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove he doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove he does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.
Read it aloud, and it sounds like speech. Which is precisely what Miller’s fans like about him. “You write like you talk; you talk like you write,” a young woman in Boston said to Miller, and her comment was both an observation and a compliment.
Miller’s fans like his writing not just because it sounds like his speech, but because it sounds like speech, period. His thoughts on paper “sound” like thoughts—anyone’s thoughts. Miller’s essays on faith are exciting for fans because reading him is like having themselves explained to themselves. “It was like reading my own diary,” said another fan in Boston.
On the first page of Blue Like Jazz, we learn that Miller was raised without a father, that his family was poor, and that an undersized bladder caused him to wet the bed until he was ten. Such details, frankly delivered, litter his writing. Later in Blue, we see Miller yelling at a roommate whose motorcycle wakes him each morning and slowly waking to the realization that he is not giving money to his local church. He tells his version of a multitude of problems most every evangelical has experienced and offers lessons learned. His writing feels like a friend constantly calling to say, “Man, I realized something bad about myself today, but I think I’ve got it figured out now.”
The Language of Spirituality
Miller’s words are a mirror for his fans, and they love what they see—so could his popularity be read as (yet another) indication of our culture’s deep narcissism? It’s a fair critique in an age when people document the minutiae of their lives in written and visual media—blogs, YouTube, cell-phone pictures sent at every passing moment. Such self-expression is not testimony; it’s not a profession of anything but self. It is public without being communal.
The danger for Miller is that fans would see themselves in his writing, be comforted that those selves are as they should be, and believe that there is no conflict between loving Jesus and, say, doing tequila shots with your friends.
But to read Miller that way is to miss the upshot of his low style. His adventures in evangelicalism have more to do with classic Christian experience than contemporary narcissism. His style is not an exercise in self-aggrandizement, but in self-exploration. Miller is helping readers address certain frustrations in evangelical culture because his writing is related to a pillar of the evangelical experience: spirituality.
In Blue Like Jazz, Miller makes a point of distinguishing between Christianity, the religion, and Christianity, the spirituality. Some readers (like this one) may have a hard time appreciating the difference at first blush, because spirituality is a catchword and a trend both within Christianity and without it. Evangelicals are drawn to the spirituality of Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, and Henri Nouwen, even as they flinch at the spirituality of Joan Borysenko and Deepak Chopra. Spirituality sounds nice, but is it sufficiently theological?
Bruce Hindmarsh, a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver and the author of The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (2005), warns that the imprecision of the termspirituality affords those who employ it the benefit of insight without having to be insightful. But Hindmarsh argues that the word, used biblically, is fecund with theological and practical content. “You could almost capitalize every use of it in the Pauline letters,” he says. Spirituality is “life in the Holy Spirit, or life in Christ in the Holy Spirit.”
Spirituality is dialectical: It denotes that which animates (enlivens the self), but also that which integrates (the self with others). Spirituality is about a closely examined life of faith. It is about the self, but it contains a check against self-absorption by calling the self into relationship with Christ and people.
Evangelicals who emphasize spirituality are recovering the classical roots not just of Christianity in general, but of evangelicalism in particular, a faith movement that is “at its core a spirituality movement,” says Hindmarsh. “The historical roots of evangelicalism are about awakening to interiority.” Hindmarsh’s research has led him to the journals of Christians from the early modern period—both giants of the faith like George Whitefield and John Wesley and laypersons who are forgotten to history but whose journals recount their personal stories of faith. These accounts are “embodied theology,” says Hindmarsh, “theology that is taken up into someone’s life in real time.”
Spirituality combines deep self-examination—;Who am I, and how am I living?—with a call to integrate with the world outside the self. True spirituality is never merely about the self, but about the experience of the self in the world with God.
This true spirituality is what readers respond to in Donald Miller. His essays are personal, yes, but not solipsistic. They may resolve too quickly, but to their credit, they often do so by calling readers to greater sympathy with others, deeper faith in the love of God, and more patience during trials of discipleship. They tell of the self in the interest of community concerns. They are ultra-casual in tone, filled with the clutter of informal conversation. But that very style and tone draws evangelicals who can relate to Miller’s story of faith.
Miller’s books describe the experience of being evangelical in a manner that echoes the feelings and thoughts of thousands of evangelicals today. And because he is careful not to reject the faith, he helps readers—especially culturally conflicted young evangelicals—recover it. His books encourage a certain amount of Christian navel-gazing, but only long enough to get the fuzz out.
Patton Dodd is Protestant editor for Beliefnet and a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Miller created the Belmont Foundation, which “seeks to effectively respond to the American crisis of fatherlessness by equipping the faith community.”
Christianity Today articles by and about Donald Miller include:
Guys and Dads | Elephants in puberty are like men without fathers, says Donald Miller. (June 13, 2006)
Finding a Family | A man needs a dad. I found mine when I moved in with a friend. (Excerpt from To Own a Dragon, June 13, 2006)
The Campus Confession Booth | What I considered a horrible idea turned into a moment of transformation. (Leadership, July 1, 2005)
Learning to Love Moses | The difference between meaning and truth. (An excerpt fromSearching for God Knows What, by Donald Miller, November 1, 2004)
The Dick Staub Interview: Why God Is Like Jazz | “Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, talks about why Christians need writers who honestly deal with their faults and why penguin sex is an apt metaphor for believing in Christ” (August 1, 2003)
Tying the Clouds Together
Rob Bell’s metaphors and references make his listeners stretch, but his wisdom for preachers is down to earth.
Tying the Clouds Together
Rob Bell’s metaphors and references make his listeners stretch, but his wisdom for preachers is down to earth.
Monday, February 1, 2010
He once planted a church by teaching through Leviticus. He can use a rabbit carved from a bar of soap to illustrate the nature of suffering. Google his name and the term “Sex God” will appear among the top entries.
Rob Bell is the most interesting preacher in the world.
Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but his reputation as an innovative communicator came largely through his video teaching series, NOOMA. Since launching Mars Hill in 1999, Bell’s ministry has expanded into books, DVDs, and live tours, but he is still committed to shepherding his community at Mars Hill through preaching.
Leadership managing editor Skye Jethani sat down with Bell to discuss his approach to communicating, the state of preaching in the church, and the risks the pulpit presents to a pastor’s soul.
Your sermons are known for pulling from unexpected sources—everything from art history to quantum physics. Why?
When Jacob woke up after his vision of angels ascending and descending on the ladder, he declared, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.” And Jesus says, “My Father is always at work even to this very day.” Jesus lives with an awareness, an assumption that God is here and he’s at work. Dallas Willard calls this “the God-bathed world.” This has deeply shaped me.
My assumption is that God can be found in all of the interesting things buzzing around us all the time. So we can take something from here and something from there and bring them together. A friend of mine calls it “tying the clouds together.”
What’s an example?
In high-end quantum physics they believe matter isn’t stable. The atoms in a chair are connected in a pattern of relationships. And the Bible begins with a triune God—a relationship of loving, giving, creative energy. Ah ha, there’s something there.
Drops Like Stars began when I realized that basic art theory has all of these connections with suffering. And so it generally starts with some odd moment of connection. And then from there it’s just the hard work of hunting things down, digging things up, becoming aware of all that’s going on around us all the time. I have journals filled with fragments, and over time they grow.
How is that different from how you were originally trained to preach?
A lot of pastors were trained to read the verse and then read the commentaries. But after a while the two are just talking to each other. One’s focus can actually become smaller and smaller until everything is funneled into the particular text. The movement then becomes in rather than out. So it’s Tuesday afternoon and a pastor is sitting in the office reading James 2 and four or five commentaries hoping to find that little nugget. When all the while there’s a huge world of insight and implication and ideas out there.
Rather than shrinking our vision, the text should become a pair of eyes with which we are able to see even more. There’s a great big world out there with quantum physics, and architecture, and economic theory, and the thread count of clothing, and the fact that refrigerators in Europe are smaller—all of these seemingly random events and occurrences and happenings are all connected and help us see how this really is God’s world.
That covers content, but what about the sermon structure?
There’s a whole world of screenwriting wisdom that we can tap into as preachers. There are storytelling insights about arc, tension, narrative, perspective, point of view—these things aren’t taught in most seminaries, but they’re essential to understanding how stories work, which means they’re incredibly helpful in understanding the Bible.
Imagine a pastor on Thursday staring at this obscure passage in the life of David trying to figure out where the sermon is. One playwright says, “When in doubt, just have a different character give the line.” And suddenly it clicks—do the sermon from the perspective of Uriah. Boom! Just one little adjustment and all of a sudden the whole thing works. My experience has been that the modern preaching, teaching, training system doesn’t tap people into all this. The imagination involved in the art of the sermon can end up being stifled.
There’s a lot of emphasis today on practical preaching, helping people address their felt-needs, and giving direct application. Is that foremost in your mind when you prepare a message?
When I prepare to teach a text there are a few questions I always ask. First, “What’s the thing behind the thing?” and “What’s the truth behind the truth?” So if we’re talking about tithing, we’re really talking about generosity and participation. And if we’re talking about generosity and participation, then we’re really talking about whether you view the world as a scarcity or as a world governed by a Trinitarian God. Is the universe at its core a sliced-up pie where you grab your slice and then protect and defend it? Or do you believe that at the core there is an endlessly self-giving, loving community of God we are invited to step into?
So you can talk about tithing—giving your 10 percent. Or you can wrestle with a scarcity versus a Trinitarian view of the universe with tithing perhaps being an implication at the end of the message.
So you’re trying to help people see a larger view of reality, through the lens of the gospel, rather than just giving them practical application.
Yes, exactly. I call it the truth behind the truth; the mystery behind the mystery; reality behind the reality. If you say we’re going to do a series on marriage for the next five weeks, there’s a chance that people who’s aren’t married, who are single, or who are divorced are going to think,Well, I guess I don’t have to show up for five weeks.
Another way to approach the subject is to see marriage as one of the applications of the truth behind the truth. The truth behind the truth would lead you to preach one week on being honest, the next on apologizing, and the next on serving others. Those truths apply to everyone. And then each week you might include a point on how it applies to marriage.
Does our inability to find the truth behind the truth explain why we ignore large sections of the Bible in our preaching? We just don’t see much practical how-to in Obadiah?
It’s interesting you bring this up because when our church started, I spent the first year and a half preaching through Leviticus verse by verse. But now it’s a part of our church’s DNA to assume that every text has something for us—even ones that make no sense the first time you read them.
It may be my own warped sense of humor, but it was always the odd places in the Bible that I found most compelling. It’s God’s inspired Word, and it’s all useful. But to really believe that—that’s when things get interesting. I’d rather trust God, jump into those texts, and discover what God has for us.
I really like the idea of throwing yourself at its mercy. I’m just assuming there will be things here. Last year we did Philippians verse by verse. It took the whole year. I always begin with the assumption that there is way more going on in the text than we see on the first reading.
With more familiar texts, like Philippians, you have a different challenge. How do you bring forward new insights without deteriorating into novelty?
We use phrases like “historic orthodox Christian faith” a lot, and we ask how Christians before us have understood the text. What did the church fathers say about this? For example, we did Lamentations for Lent. For thousands of years Christians have taken the season leading up to Resurrection Sunday for reflection.
We frame many things like that. Here are ways people have thought about this, understood this, expressed this over the years.
So you’re not just trying to be different or innovative, you’re trying to be rooted?
Right. We’re interested in the way of Jesus and being true to the way of Jesus. If what we dig up is rattling or provocative or surprising, great, but setting out to be shocking or controversial, that’s not a goal God honors.
What else have you found unhelpful when preaching?
Focusing too much on something in the text that is an issue of hairsplitting debate among theologians. You are assuming that people care as much about the debate as you do. Somebody may be sitting there thinking, “Dude, I’m a plumber. I didn’t know that was a debate, and I didn’t know that it needed to be resolved. I’m just trying to figure out life with God and you spent sixteen minutes letting me know that you understood the origins of this particular Greek word.” Some things just aren’t helpful.
Why do we get sucked into those unhelpful debates?
In some sense we are justifying our existence. We want to appear smart and authoritative. We want to display what we know and prove that we deserve to be up here on the stage rather than humbly receiving the role as a gift.
I have definitely been guilty of trying to show people how much I know about a verse, and that’s different than allowing them to see how the truth of it has impacted my life and can transform theirs. When we put language on our experience with a text, then it becomes life-giving preaching.
So for legitimacy as leaders we rely on our intelligence rather than our intimacy with Christ.
Right. It’s about walking with God. As a pastor it is easy to fall into a pattern of life that is isolating, and in a weird way “Church, Inc.” becomes your sphere of life. Before you know it, as pastor you’re out of touch with what other people are really struggling with.
How has your role at Mars Hill changed?
A few years ago I felt like I was on a treadmill and the dial just kept getting turned up faster and faster. Three services, elder meetings, staff meetings, weddings, traveling, writing. And then some very wise elders realized it wasn’t healthy. They said, “Okay, here’s the deal. You’re a part of Mars Hill, and you’ll always be a part of it. But we are going to arrange things so that it doesn’t kill you and it doesn’t kill us.”
It’s been a long, long process, but over the past year it’s been working really well. There aren’t any models for this kind of thing, so it took a lot of discussion, sweat, blood, and prayer. But it’s working. I preach a little less than half the Sundays at our church, and then I write and tour and make films and the leaders of our church invite me in to issues and meetings only when it’s proper and makes sense.
How has sitting in the seats and watching others teach regularly impacted you as a preacher? Has your perspective shifted?
I’ve realized how much of my energy and headspace in the past was used trying to get people to do things. I would get all worked up: Why can’t we care more about the earth, the poor, the needy, literacy, people who are suicidal? But sitting and listening to other teachers has been such a gift. They’ve shown me new things. And I’ve realized how easy it is to make people feel guilty, to tell them they should do something. But through these other teachers, I wasn’t being told what I was supposed to be doing. I was being invited to consider what might be true and then act out of that. It’s been so freeing. A real gift.
Your NOOMA video series has been popular. What do you think about the increasing number of preachers and churches using video technology to expand their reach?
It’s powerful but there’s also a dark side. Video is not church. You put images and music on a screen, and people will listen. But it’s also dangerous. You’re playing with fire. I think video technology deserves to be scrutinized heavily.
Go a little deeper. What makes video dangerous?
I don’t think we know yet what the long-term impact will be on disciple-making. In 10 years we may discover what particular kind of Christ follower is formed by video preaching. I see warning lights on my dashboard. It’s unclear what video may do to the ways we conceive of life together.
In the New Testament, there are 43 “one another” passages, and during a Sunday morning service you might be able to practice three or four of them. And as the service gets large, you can probably do fewer. A massive group setting is also dangerous. You can come, sit, listen, and go home and think, I’ve been to church, even if you haven’t practiced any “one anothers.” And with video that only gets more intense. I’m not sure that’s the direction we want to be heading.
We want to be calling people to deep bonds of solidarity with one another. We may gather in a massive group, but from the stage I often say, “This is just a church service. Church is actually about caring for one another, and serving one another, and speaking truth to one another in love. Don’t get the two confused.”
The evidence suggests that video can have a fast and broad impact. So what’s the alternative?
There is something more powerful than simply beaming yourself into other locations, and that is raising up disciples. Over time that will go farther and faster, but right now it will be more work and slower. With technology today it’s easy to spend all of your energies reproducing your own voice, but there is a longer view that says, what if instead of beaming video to those ten locations, we train ten people who can go there and lead? That’s a very basic question that should be in the mix somewhere.
Is developing other leaders part of your calling now?
That’s the reason we recently did “The Poets, Prophets, and Preachers” seminar, and it’s why I’ve got seminary students I meet with regularly. Meeting with them also changes my thinking because they ask great questions. There’s a reason Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs—everyone learns.
What do you teach these students about the spiritual side of preaching?
First, the public nature of preaching exposes you to a wide spectrum of feedback—from the really good compliments to really venomous criticism. Both can be dangerous because they lead to either pride or pain. We need to work at becoming the kind of person who is so deeply grounded in who we are, the work we are called to do, and the words we are called to speak, that the ambient hype that surrounds the preaching event doesn’t get the best of us.
It’s important to create a circle of trusting, loving people around you who will tell you the truth no matter what. They can help you think rightly about the criticism and keep you balanced. Preaching isn’t just about the sermon, it’s about becoming the kind of person who can actually handle the role. It’s like a Ferrari. If you don’t know how to drive the thing, you’re going to crash into a tree.
Based on your metaphor, I imagine you’ve hit some bumps on the road.
Oh, for sure. Preaching will inevitably reveal all sorts of stuff residing in your soul. The stage is like a magnet, and any little shards of insecurity, pride, fear, or greed in you will eventually be pulled to the surface. So you have to go down a journey toward becoming a particular kind of person or it will consume you.
What does that journey involve?
If you’re going to preach long term and do it with more hope, more joy, more passion, and more wisdom, then you’ve got to be willing to dig down into your own soul and psyche and history. How do you seek approval? What messages did your parents send you? What voices do you hear on your shoulders?
The other part is sustainability. That’s an important word for me. Some pastors think about how to survive the next five years. The better question to ask is, how are we going to thrive? How do we construct a rhythm and pace of life that ensures five years from now we’ll have more passion, more energy, and we will be filled with new and fresh ideas about life in God’s world?
Go into any church office and ask the leaders, “Is this sustainable? Are you more passionate, more expectant, more rested and ready to go than you were a year ago, or is this thing gradually killing you?”
Just this week I asked a seminary student, “What day of the week do you not answer email? When do you take a Sabbath to remind yourself that you’re not a machine, you’re a human?” And he said, “I don’t know if I can do that right now.” I was like, “Well, if you can’t do it now in seminary, what happens when you have real responsibility?”
How do you balance the church’s expectations and what’s actually sustainable?
There is a thick church culture that consumes pastors and spits them out. But the pastors also allow themselves to be consumed. So it goes both ways. Both sides need to reevaluate things. The first people a pastor must have this discussion with is his or her family. If you’re married, start with a spouse. Then have this discussion with the church’s leadership. Start with the people you report to, and assume that these people have “hired” you to give your very best. Explore together how your life can be set up in such a way that you can give your very best in these tasks.
One of my problems was that I didn’t understand how to properly bring the leaders of our church into this exploration process. But as we learned how to do it, everything changed.
I don’t know any elder in the church who wants the pastor to be burned out. No one wants crappy sermons. No one wants you dragging yourself to meetings with no ideas. So, that’s where to start. Tell the leaders, “You have brought me here to serve you well. Let’s figure out how I can give to my family first and then give my best to the church.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Rob Bell is one of the hottest names in contemporary evangelical life. He is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., but is better known for his books, and especially, for his road show, which combines preaching with performance art. He is much talk about among folks trying to discern what’s next for American evangelicalism. Bell is currently touring in conjunction with a book, “Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering,’’ and last weekend he appeared at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. I caught up with Bell by telephone in Ottawa to ask him what he’s up to.
Q. What does it mean to you to be an evangelical?
A. I take issue with the word to a certain degree, so I make a distinction between a capital E and a small e. I was in the Caribbean in 2004, watching the election returns with a group of friends, and when Fox News, in a state of delirious joy, announced that evangelicals had helped sway the election, I realized this word has really been hijacked. I find the word troubling, because it has come in America to mean politically to the right, almost, at times, anti-intellectual. For many, the word has nothing to do with a spiritual context.
Q. OK, how would you describe what it is that you believe?
A. I embrace the term evangelical, if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.
Q. Do you preach, or perform?
A. I came up through your standard go-to-seminary path, served as an apprentice pastor, did weddings and funerals and hospital visits, but I always veered toward creating things. I was always setting stuff on fire, building things, bringing in piles of dirt. And I started to realize that there’s a dimension to the sermon in which it’s a kind of performance art. Over the years, I’ve realized that I have as much in common with the performance artist, the standup comedian, the screenwriter, as I do with the theologian. I’m in an odd world where I make things and share them with people.
Q. I’m struck by the fact that I don’t hear a lot of explicitly religious language, or mentions of Jesus, from you.
A. I think we have enough religious people who are going around trying to convert people. My guard is up when somebody is trying to convert me to their thing. Are you talking to me because you actually are interested in this subject, because you care about me as a human, or am I one more possible conversion that will make you feel good about your religiosity? I don’t have any embarrassment about my religion, and it’s not that I’m too cool, but I would hope that the Jesus message would come through, hopefully through a full humanity
How to fully engage listeners
An article by Rob Bell
A lot of pastors, when they approach the text, have in their heads a list of rules. There are hermeneutical and exegetical rules. It’s a good idea to get close to what the Bible actually might be saying. There are rules like “God is God, and we’re not.” But a lot of them have rules about the methodological and execution part of the preaching task.
What we need are people who will approach the text and say, “God, what do you want to unleash here?” The guiding principle is the text, and you’ve encountered the living, sacred Word, and you’re going to explode if you don’t share what’s happened in you, as opposed to Well, I guess I have to start it this way. You don’t. I have to have an intro.Prove it. Maybe some teaching people have no idea where you’re going until the last minute, and maybe that’s why it works.
When Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, everybody thought it was going to be a Pharisee who stops, and a Samaritan stops. Get it? He has them. He’s working them over.
Sometimes I intentionally have three teachings going at the same time. I want you to be wondering, That has nothing to do with what you’re saying now. I have no idea And then at the end, oooh. If you don’t get that oooh, you’re in trouble.
The Historical Dimension
We swim in a deep stream. There are all these different dimensions. When I approach the text, I am part of a historical movement of people who said yes to God—to the revolution. I want to connect people. The Scriptures are accounts of redeeming. It’s a story, and I get to be part of the continuing story.
Abraham left and set out from Haran. My mind immediately thinks,Okay, Haran, where was it? Can I get slides? Can I get pictures of it? What else happened there? What was Mesopotamian society like at that time? Are there other documents from Haran? What’s the landscape like? What were the people like? What language did they speak? What was the currency? Are there other writers from that time? If you actually believe he’s a real dude leaving a real place, then what was Haran like? If I knew something about Haran, would it help me understand the text?
It’s not that you need this. It’s not like you need the Bible—plus. But if we’re serious about bringing it to life, maybe up comes a slide of Haran. “Let me tell you about this place.” Especially for the person who’s never been in church. Oh, okay, this is real people.
A friend of mine did a teaching on the sociopolitical climate of Gath. It sounds exciting, doesn’t it? He walked through the god Dagon. He walked through the cult of Dagon.
Here was Dagon currency. Here were Dagon’s cultic rites. Here was the way Dagon was organized. Here was Philistinian society. Here were the four Shephelahs that led from the Philistine region to the Israel region. David and Goliath battled in the Valley of Elah. What was the Valley of Elah known for because it was one of the four Shephelahs? Why do David and Goliath go battle here? What did Goliath believe about Dagon?
When he got to David and Goliath, he’s reading the text, and people are, like, wow. If you understand Dagon and the things Goliath says, why does David say, “So the whole world will know”? Well, that’s because of the Valley of Elah and what it was known for.
We swim in a deep stream, and there’s a historical dimension. When I approach a text, I immediately want to know what’s going on here.Why does he say this? And why does she say that? And why does this guy go here?
It’s real people in real places at real times. When you come to the text, you’ve got all of these different things to draw from. That’s my central idea. How do I connect these people in the third row who—their kid is sick, he lost his job, and her mother is in failing health? How do I connect them with real people in real places at real times who struggled with the same kinds of stuff?
Here’s an example. King Herod was escaping from the Parthians. He’s fleeing south of Jerusalem, and he finds out he’s been rescued, and he’s going to have his kingdom. He decides, I want to mark this place by building a mountaintop palace. The only problem is there’s no mountain there. Herod builds a mountain in the middle of the Judean wilderness, and calls it the Herodian. It had a lower pool—in an area where it hasn’t rained in eight hundred years—with a gazebo in the middle that you could only get to by boat. Unbelievable. There’s a little town in the shadows of the Herodian called Bethlehem. When Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem, this giant mountaintop palace would have been right there.
What’s interesting about this is we don’t know where he got the dirt for this mountain. All we know is somewhere there isn’t a mountain. It’s like Archaeology 101. Even to this day it’s dry, loose dirt at the top.
The reason why I say this is if you’re on the Mount of Olives and you look south, you can see the Herodian, and then way off in the distance you can see the Dead Sea. Jesus, leaving Bethany, going into the Temple Mount, which means he crossed over the top of the Mount of Olives, turned to his disciples and said, “if you have faith like a mustard seed, you can say to a mountain, ‘Be thrown into the sea,’ and it will be done.”
What else was Herod known for? Herod built a stadium. They’ve excavated 350,000 seats. They believe it sat 500,000 people. He built the second temple. Bill Gates has a paper route compared to Herod. And Jesus turned to a group of post-pubescent Talmudean disciples and said: Hey, by the way, you have faith? You can do greater things than Herod.
In teaching and preaching, when you can capture this element of real people in real places, it does amazing things.
The Experiential Dimension
These are questions I ask myself. How can I make it as hard as possible for somebody to sit with a holy stare? How can I make it so you have to engage? How can I create an experience such that it becomes harder and harder for people to stay spectators? What’s happening in this text? What could I have people do? What could I have them say to each other? What can I have them feel, hold, or look at? Is there something I could hand out?
When I talked about how Ephesians says we’re God’s handiwork, the word is poiÄ“ma, which means artwork. I purchased a lump of modeling clay for everybody. When you walked in, you were handed a chunk of clay. I did the whole teaching around forming. “You’re God’s art.” The title of the sermon was “You’re a Piece of Work.” Which is a biblical phrase. What can you hand out?
I’ve handed out honey. The rabbis used to place honey on a kid’s finger and say, “May the words of God be as delicate.” When you walk in and you’re handed a honey bear, people are engaged.
I was thinking about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness: What if I could convince our whole congregation to fast on the Saturday before our Sunday services? What if everybody could come to the Sunday services having not eaten on Saturday, and when they walked in they were handed a rock? And what if the whole teaching was Satan saying to Jesus, “Turn this rock into bread”? How can I let them know we’re going somewhere today? “I want to take you somewhere, so here’s this rock.”
Last Christmas, I had somebody buy everyone in the church a little chunk of myrrh. We talked about how myrrh was used to ease people’s suffering when they were being crucified. At Jesus’ birth the parents are given myrrh. Real hopeful gift there.
If people can smell it, the kids can chew it, if you can create as many different dimensions as possible—many of us are tactile—if we can feel it, it makes more sense.
How can I get people out of their seats? One Easter, we built a tomb. I gave people sheets of paper and talked about how Jesus rose from the dead.
If somebody died and came back to life, that is a dangerous person because they’re not scared of much. You can chuck your flannelgraph, white-bathrobed Jesus, because this is one dangerous dude. He survived death. People who aren’t afraid of death are frightening to be around because they’ll do anything. If you have given your life to Jesus, you have trusted your life to somebody who knows what they’re going to do. Whatever you’re scared of you need to write it on a sheet of paper. We’re going to spend some time worshiping. You need to take whatever it is you fear and throw it into the tomb and leave it there.
And to see on Easter Sunday people walking up and spouses sobbing and then throwing it into the tomb
I did this message on “The Gospel According to Salsa,” and talked about how my wife makes the best salsa in the world. And I will arm-wrestle you about that. Everything in my wife’s salsa was living at one point. The tomato was living. The parsley was living. The cilantro was living. The onion was living. But in order for it to be made into salsa, it had to be plucked from its life source. The tomato had to be cut from the vine. All of your food was living at one point, but it had to be severed. It had to die in order for it to make it to your plate. If you’re at a restaurant and your food is not dead, leave immediately. But there’s this principle in which we have to eat to live.
What’s interesting about your food is that everything that you eat—and food gives you life—it had to die first. Death is the engine of life. The worm is eaten by the bird, which is eaten by the cat, which is eaten by the wolf, which is eaten by the grandchildren of the worm. Even in the physical realm, death is the engine of life. That’s why a Twinkie isn’t good for you, because it was never really alive.
Here’s the idea. Death is what gives life to the physical universe. When God sends his Son to give us life, his Son has to die. So the cross isn’t just true sacramentally. Death is life all over the place. God giving us life through Jesus’ death isn’t a new idea in the history of the world. It’s God working in the flow of what he’s already created. I started thinking, That’s what Jesus keeps saying about really living. To be fully alive you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, become a servant. It’s still true that in order to live I have to die. We had this cross set up, and we said, “What do you need to die to, so you can really live? We’re going to spend some time worshiping. Come up and kneel at the cross and take whatever is on that sheet of paper and jam it into the rocks at the bottom of that cross.
I’m always trying to think, How can we engage people, and they can do something?
One of the problems for preachers is when they’re thinking, What am I going to say about this text? The question should be What does the text want to say? And how many different dimensions can I get going? In my message “The Goat Has Left the Building,” I had slides talking to you, I read the text, the goat came in, the high priest in his outfit, and I said at one point, “Turn to the person next to you” and say such and such. Hopefully you were engaged at multiple levels. You were engaged visually. You were engaged auditorially. There were multiple things going on that carried the thing along. We’re like artists.
We have all of these different tools at our disposal. We have this massive world God has created, and the Scripture leaps to life with truth that can’t be kept down. Think about the example of Jesus: Check out those birdscheck out those liliesa man had two sons.
What’s Jesus doing? He’s saying, “Look at the world. You can learn about God from that.” So I want to pull from those many different things.
Another thing we do is assume a teaching is about me talking. There are times when the worst thing I should do is talk. I heard a teaching the other day; a guy told the most unbelievable personal story. It was an overwhelming story. The problem was, previous to that story was a lot of talk, and immediately following the story was a lot of talk. Mark Twain said, “if I would have had more time, I would have said less.” That story was brilliant, but it got steamrolled by the stuff before and after. You don’t have to talk the whole time to be preaching.
What I’m learning is there are times when the worst thing I can do is talk. For me, in my message “The Goat Has Left the Building,” when the high priest was walking toward his seat, it was sacred moment. I can’t explain it. The problem with some of our preaching is you can explain it. You got your four points, your three applications, and this is what the text means.
At the end of the parable of the prodigal son, is Jesus saying, “Okay, here’s the deal—God is the father figure”?
What if at the end of Gladiator, Ridley Scott, the director, came out and said, “My intention was that you identified with Russell Crowe”? Great stories tell themselves. What we need are the storytellers.
The “Celebrate a Mystery Rather Than Conquering It” Dimension
One of the things that helps people is, when we’ve explained enough, we should let it sit. I have mystery on my side.
John 3:16 says: For God so loved the world that he gave his Son.
Why did God give his Son? Because God loved the world. You mean God loves everybody? No matter what they’ve done? God loves everybody the same. His love is unending. God’s love is expansive. It’s unlimited. It endures forever. Do we have God’s love now? I’m just scratching the surface. Why does God love the world? God is love.Okay, sure. That fixes it.
The nature of mystery is that when you get an answer it raises a whole new set of questions. You know the foundations of our faith, the Trinity? Yeah, sure, the Trinity, I got that one nailed. We believe as orthodox Christians, and yet the nature of believing and placing our faith in the Trinity raises new questions. How could God be three in One? How can God be a community of self-giving love, of oneness? The nature of truth is that it brings up more questions. That’s why sometimes you heard sermons and thought, I’ve heard that all before.The person was preaching the doctrines of the faith, and yet you knew something was missing. A friend of mine says, “if you study, and it doesn’t lead you to wonder and awe, then you haven’t studied.” Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder.”
There’s a time when words fail and you simply have to worship. When you are preaching, there are moments, when we stop and say, “We’re just going to sit in awe of God.”
The “You Be You” Dimension
You be you. I always think about the dimension of new identity. You aren’t who you were. Where in this teaching is God’s message to the people that I’m leading or teaching at this moment about who they are in Christ? How is this teaching going to paint for them a more beautiful, compelling picture of who God says they are in Christ? I want to create these pictures. I want to create teachings that are so beautiful that people are pulled into the ways God created them to live. How do I do this? Where is the empowerment element?
The “There Are No Rules” Dimension
There are no rules. Other than basic things like doctrine: God and Jesus. But in terms of how you’re going to do it, maybe there’s no intro. Maybe the whole point of the teaching is it comes at you and people are just, like, wow!
I did a teaching one time on silence where I put the whole teaching on slides and stood there for forty-five minutes. At the end I said, “Let’s stand for a benediction.” Up came “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” and I waved and walked off.
Maybe you read a whole Book of the Bible. Sometimes reading the story is better than anything you could say. What does it take to bring it to life?
Things Taste Better When They’ve Been Marinated
I work on teachings for as long as four to six months, a year. You’d think I was obnoxious because if we go out to lunch I’ll be diagramming on a napkin.
If you’re married and I said, “Tell me about your wedding day,” you could tell it to me. You wouldn’t say, “I forgot my notes.” No, you just tell me.
Those of you who have kids, if I asked, “How old are your kids, and what are their names?” You won’t say, “I have my notes some place. I don’t have my PowerPoint with me.” No. Boom, boom, boom, these are the ages. Why? Because it’s a part of you.
What if your teaching was such a part of you it was like telling about your wedding day or like telling about your first job? What would it be like if you could tell it like it was a story you told 200 times?
That’s my passion. I have found the harder I work and the farther out I’ve been working on it, the more freedom I have.
The people who are listening to you, they know when it’s become a part of you. They can feel when the speaker is just giving some information and observation, and they know when it is coming right through your soul.
We don’t need people who sing the notes off a chart. We need soul singers. We need prophets. We need poets. Our generation needs people who have had an experience. They’ve got their hair set on fire. They’re wild-eyed, and they can’t wait. I got to say this, or I’m going to explode.
I’ve been wrestling with this lately. God makes the world in six days; rests on the seventh. Six days, seven. Six, one. Six, one. There is a rhythm to six days on and one day off. I started thinking about drummers and how drumming is all about the spaces. It’s all about hitting it and then backing off. Music and beat and meter and drum are a reflection of how God made the world. If you don’t take that day and live according to the beat God has put in creation, your song isn’t going to be good. When the drummer is off, the whole song falls apart. Rhythm is something that’s built in; it’s elemental to life.
Everybody I come in contact with, I say, “Check this out. Think about this. Sabbath and drums.” I get something like this, and I can’t shut up about it. By the time I get to share it with people, I will have told the person at the gas station. I will have told the person at 7/11—everybody I come in contact with. “Check this out. Sabbathdrums.”
I invite you to become thoroughly unbalanced like me.
Rob Bell is pastor of Mars Hill (Grand Rapids, Michigan), and author of 2009’s Drops Like Stars (Zondervan).
Is John Lewis the best company in Britain to work for?
It is owned by its employees – or partners – who have a say in how it is run, and receive a share of the profits. Surely this the way every organisation should be run . . .
It’s just before opening time on bonus day at John Lewis and, boy, are we excited. Up and down the country, the 69,000 people who work for the nation’s favourite retailer are gathered, impatient. At head office in London’s Victoria, in 28 John Lewis department stores from Southampton to Aberdeen, 223 Waitrose supermarkets from Plymouth to Norwich, the ritual’s the same: a specially chosen staff member (“partner” in JL-speak) opens an envelope, and reads out a number.
The number will be a percentage. Over the last decade or so, it has ranged from 9% to 22%. It’s the percentage of their salary that each John Lewis employee, from executive chairman to checkout operative, takes home as that year’s bonus. If the number is 8%, they’re looking at an extra month’s pay; 16% is two months. So what’s in the envelope is pretty important, and in the partnership’s flagship Oxford Street store, partners, nearly 2,500 of them, are everywhere: crowded dozens-deep in beauty on the ground floor, lined up on the escalators, hanging over the balconies in the atrium.
“This is the moment,” says Adrian Wenn from pictures, lights and mirrors. “This is the moment when all you’ve done, the contribution you’ve made, when it all comes home. Hope it’s a good one. I’ve got a wedding to pay for.” A good one it is. Frank d’Souza from furniture (picked because he closed the store’s largest single sale of last year, at £50,000) tears open the envelope as the assembled throng counts down. He holds the card triumphantly high: 15%. “Magic,” cries Lee Bowra from childrenswear. “Absolutely brilliant. That’s our deposit complete. We can buy a house.”
In the depths of what everyone keeps telling us is the deepest financial and economic crisis since the second world war, John Lewis plainly has not done badly (operating profit up 20%, if you didn’t read the business pages last week). That’s partly because it stacks its shelves with goods of a certain quality, and sells them to a certain kind of customer with a certain standard of service. After all, Middle England loves John Lewis: if a product is on sale in one of its stores, you know you can trust it. Plus you can be sure you’ll be served by someone who really knows what they’re talking about and, most unusually of all, is eager to help.
Partly, it’s down to that splendidly arcane Edwardian slogan: Never Knowingly Undersold. It also has something to do with the reason everyone was cheering so loudly last Thursday: unlike other high-street names (unlike most companies, in fact), John Lewis is owned by a trust on behalf of its employees, each of whom has a say in its running and a share in its profits. This is Britain’s largest and most venerable example of worker co-ownership. Its avowed purpose is not the making of shedloads of short-term profit to placate a bunch of remote and greedy shareholders, but “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business” (that’s from the partnership’s constitution. It bears re-reading).
And at a time when the limits of the more traditional capitalist model of shareholder ownership stand cruelly exposed, John Lewis’s ongoing success is increasingly prompting all three main political parties to point to it as a possible template – for other companies, for schools, hospitals, even local councils.
But what’s it like to work for an outfit run like this? Well, it’s worth noting that there are some partners who weren’t at work last week to hear the 2010 bonus announced. They were off staying at one of the five holiday centres the partnership owns and runs for the benefit of its employees. These include a 16th-century castle with private beach on Brownsea island in Poole harbour, an imposing Victorian pile on the shores of Lake Windermere, a 24-room outdoor and watersports club on Lake Bala in north Wales, and a country house hotel in 4,000 rolling acres of Hampshire.
Nicola McRoberts and her partner, Pedro Pereira, are staying in one of the 12 modern wooden lodges on the Leckford Estate, near Stockbridge. The self-catering cabins, popular with young families, have two or three bedrooms and are smartly furnished with leather sofas and bedlinen that a John Lewis shopper might recognise. Nicola works in the stationery department in Welwyn, and Pedro is a Waitrose chef. They’re here for five nights, at a cost of £176. “It’s a good company to work for,” says Pedro. “I didn’t realise how good until I joined.” Employer-employee relations at John Lewis, says Nicola, “are completely different. They want you to be happy.”
The estate is a working farm which, says its managing director Malcolm Crabtree, sitting at the wheel of his Land Rover, supplies Waitrose with flour for bread, barley, oats for cereal, free-range chickens and eggs, organic milk, apples, pears and a lot of mushrooms. It also supplies partners with two nine-hole golf courses, a cricket pitch, bowling green, tennis courts, two swimming pools and some of the finest fly-fishing in the country, on the fabled river Test.
Just down from the lodges, in the heart of the estate and a stroll from the river, is Leckford Abbas, an appealing ivy-clad manor house now run as a hotel for partners. There’s an oak- panelled library, an elegant lounge, a billiard room and a well-stocked bar, and the food in the dining room is fresh from the Leckford estate. The most noticeable difference between this and some chic home counties hostelry is the price. B&B here is £20.25 per person per night, and the three-course dinner costs £11.25. The other significant difference is that the bedroom doors lack keys. “There are privacy locks on the inside,” says manager Chris Marston, “but you can’t lock the rooms from the outside. There’s a feeling it wouldn’t be . . . right. It’s partners and their guests who stay.”
In the lounge is Anna Clark, who worked for John Lewis for 27 years before retiring last year – retired partners, providing they completed 10 years service, get the same benefits as working ones. “I can’t tell you what that means to me,” she says. “But I’ve always used my benefits – I’ve been in the gliding club, the sailing club, the photographic club. It’s not just the bonus at John Lewis, you know.”
Too right it isn’t. Besides the bonus, John Lewis partners also have a rare and near-priceless non-contributory final salary pension scheme. They and a named other (husband, girlfriend, mother, whoever) get 25% off most John Lewis products, and 15% in Waitrose. There are half-price theatre and concert tickets; subsidies for whatever educational or leisure course they want to follow; plus a raft of sabbatical and extended leave possibilities.
What matters to Ann King, who is on a Leckford art course with Clark, is that “you still belong. I’m retired, and single now, and it’s precious to know there’s all this to do, and that everywhere you go you’ll meet people you feel you have a connection to.”
It’s not easy to find an unhappy John Lewis partner, despite the fact that they stay with the company twice as long as the industry average. That’s partly, says Wenn at the Oxford Street store, “because if you’re unhappy about something, you have a responsibility to do something about it.” Which brings us to the man who invented the John Lewis model. Long before it became a hotel for staff of the two retailers Britain loves best (see the last few Which? and Verdict consumer satisfaction surveys), Leckford Abbas was his country home.
Born in 1885, John Spedan Lewis was a radical with the means to do something about it. There were plenty in the early 20th century (and, for that matter, now) who believed, like him, that “the present state of affairs is a perversion of the proper workings of capitalism”; that it is “all wrong to have millionaires before you have ceased to have slums”; that “the dividends paid to some shareholders” for doing essentially nothing were obscene when “workers earn hardly more than a bare living”; and that co-ownership and partnership, rather than exploitative employment, might be “the new source of working energy of which our country is in such grave need”.
Spedan Lewis was the elder of two sons whose father had founded the John Lewis department store in Oxford Street, so by the age of 21 he not only had a quarter share in that but was also on his way to becoming director of Peter Jones, his father’s other shop. It was at about this time that he came to the realisation that between them, he, his brother and his father were raking in a sum equal to the combined salaries of everyone else who worked for them. He was determined things should change.
Spedan Lewis swapped his stake in the Oxford Street store for total control over Peter Jones, where he instituted shorter hours, longer holidays, and a dose of democracy. Within five years, the Sloane Square store had turned an annual loss of £8,000 into a profit of £20,000. Heartened, he added a partial profit-sharing scheme, then, in 1928, a constitution, and finally the John Lewis Partnership Limited (he ran the business, but shared the profits). The ultimate step was an irrevocable trust settlement that turned ownership of the partnership – and a responsibility in the running of it – over to the people employed within it.
What does that responsibility mean? “We ask not only that you do your day job, but that you play an active role as an owner,” says Patrick Lewis (no relation), a partnership board member. “That you engage with your colleagues and work with them in thinking through what will make the business successful. Our shareholders aren’t passive and distant . . . they have lots of opinions.” Those opinions are voiced through democratic channels. The chairman and board run the company’s commercial activities, but an 82-member partnership council elects nearly half the board (and in theory, can sack the chairman). And the Partnership council itself is largely elected through a network of forums representing every department of every JL branch and Waitrose supermarket.
“It works,” says a chirpy Ashley Davis in menswear at the spectacular marble-and-glass Cardiff store, new last September (9,000 applicants for 750 jobs; queues round the block the day it threw open its doors). “It was branch forum week last week and each department had its say – on local branch issues mainly. Opening hours, the canteen, that kind of thing.” For Sallie Beech, also a newbie, “there is a feeling of equality. You belong to the business, but it belongs to you too.”
A veteran of five years, Kirsty Reilly in womenswear, speaks of the “passion and commitment” that come from “being engaged, because you have a vested interest in making sure it works, for you and for the people you work with.” In floor-coverings and furnishings, Beth Smith says co-ownership ensures you “make that extra effort. And because you’re all partners, there’s no backstabbing. Motivation’s different.” She also likes working for a company where “the thinking’s long-term. It’s not about making a quick profit at the expense of bigger values. The partners’ voices really do carry weight. It’s not just window-dressing: we decided we didn’t want to work on Boxing Day, and we didn’t.” Smith reckons another company would have to double her salary to get her away from John Lewis, “and even then I wouldn’t be happy”.
(I should say at this point that everyone I speak to in the John Lewis Partnership, is astonishingly, almost relentlessly nice. It’s a word the very nice Cardiff managing director, Liz Mihell, hates: “Can’t you say decent?” she says. “Caring? Warm? Nice is horrible. It’s shared values, really.” Whatever, it’s plainly another factor in the firm’s success: good service can only come from people who like people, who are happy discussing their needs, who want to help. Half the new Cardiff employees had no retail experience: what counts in recruitment, says Beth, is behaviour. “You can train anyone to do things,” she says. “But nobody can teach someone how to be.” It’s known as having “green blood”.)
In any event, the net result of these rights and responsibilities is employees who think and feel rather differently about their work than most. That feeling extends to the 30-odd nationalities represented among the 200 or so partners at Waitrose’s new supermarket in Westfield, the huge upmarket London mall in downmarket Shepherd’s Bush. Since the complex opened at the end of 2008, says department manager Ceira Thom, one rival retailer has had to fire 42 staff, mostly for stealing. Waitrose has sacked one. “The level of emotion she aroused was astonishing,” Thom says. “It was like: how dare she? That’s my bonus. This is my company!”
The point, though, is how this different way of thinking and feeling about work translates. John Lewis, we’ve seen, does more than all right. Employee-owned companies currently contribute some £25bn to the British economy. According to an annual index compiled by a leading law firm, they outperform the FTSE by roughly 10% each year. Research by the Cass Business School indicates that employee-owned businesses also create jobs faster; are significantly more resilient in an economic downturn; deliver far better customer satisfaction; boast substantially higher value added per employee; and, depending on the sector and size of the business, can deliver markedly higher profits (co-owned businesses seem to work best when they’ve got fewer than 75 staff and operate in knowledge- or skill-intensive sectors).
So why isn’t every company organised this way? Partly, as Lewis points out, because it’s not easy. “We’re a commercial organisation,” he says. “We have to make a ‘sufficient profit’ to sustain and develop the business. That sets the bar quite high for the commercial success we need. On top of that, we distribute a share of the profits in the form of a bonus, and also in other ways, that will benefit our members collectively.” (The constitution says a share of profits must be spent “undertaking other activities consistent with its ultimate purpose” – which is, remember, “the happiness of all its members”.)
What constitutes “sufficient profit” is, obviously, a tricky one. The total amount the partnership redistributes to members, in bonuses and all those benefits, is more than a regular PLC might pay out in dividends, Lewis reckons. But what’s best for individuals isn’t always best for the business, and achieving a good balance is both hard work and a source of discord between executives and partners (opening hours and pensions are two notable recurring headaches). “Running a business this way isn’t an easy option,” says Lewis. “In many ways it’s simpler to have one boss who just says: right, we’re doing this.”
But mainly, as Will Davies of the Demos thinktank points out in Reinventing the Firm, the received wisdom for years now has been that shareholder value – “the belief that a company’s primary purpose is to maximise its value for the benefit of external shareholders” – is the only way to judge a business. In fact, as Davies says, a company is about far more than the price of its shares. It’s about “people, relationships, knowledge, reputation, all of which have enormous impact on long-term value. Firms are social and political, not just economic and financial.” That’s not, though, the way many people see things – at least until the recent banking crisis showed just how bad the shareholder value model was “as a mechanism for accountability, and for creating value”.
Post-crisis, and in the run-up to a general election, politicians from all parties have made much of the “John Lewis Model” being transferable to public services: giving local providers ownership of their own (public or private) budgets, and of the services they deliver. In theory, public services are fertile terrain for co-ownership, a great way to harness the strong vocational commitment in the sector. In practice, reckons Nigel Mason, policy director of the Employee Ownership Association, “it raises a multitude of questions about how it could really be made to work”.
Politicians like the sound of employee ownership, Mason says, because despite increased expenditure, public service productivity continues to fall, “and they really need to increase engagement, motivation and innovation, and provide a better service to the user”. Westminster also likes the notion that with public service spending cuts inevitable, “co-ownership would be a nice sweetener”. Employee ownership, though, is “not a panacea. It won’t work if the conditions are such that any independent business would fail. It needs careful thought and planning about ownership and governance structures, and the precise terms of contracts. It can certainly work in some sectors – small-scale community care provision, for example. Big, complex enterprises running on fine margins may be more problematic.”
Of course, as Patrick Lewis notes, John Lewis has had 80 years to get its “virtuous circle” working: look after the partners and the partners look after the customers, who look after the profit. “It’s a culture and a way of working,” he says. “You can’t do it overnight, and it won’t be right for everyone. But it’s worth trying.” And if we’re really talking, as perhaps we are, about where capitalism should go next – about what exactly a good company is, and what it should do – there are worse models to look at than John Lewis.
• This article was amended on 16 March 2010 to correct the opening date of Westfield shopping mall.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
Christopher Nolan revisits and analyzes his favorite scene in ‘Dark Knight’ | Hero Complex | Los Angeles Times
For your inner fanboy
The “Dark Knight” director gives a deep dissection of his single favorite scene in the movie — the gripping interrogation sequence, which (with no special effects and only bare-bones lighting) would become “the fulcrum on which the whole movie turns.”
This is the second of a three-part interview with Christopher Nolan, the director of “The Dark Knight,” which was released in mid-July and is now approaching $1 billion in worldwide box office. The numbers are astounding, but even more startling is the fact that the 38-year-old filmmaker captured that kind of global audience with a movie that is relentlessly dark and finds its axis in the performance of Heath Ledger as the nihilistic and sadistic Joker.
I asked the London native to pick one scene in the film that he would circle as the essential moment in the movie, either in its service to the overall story or the film’s texture. He answered quickly.
Nolan: To be honest, it’s pretty easy for me. The scene that is so important and so central to me is the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in the film. When we were writing the script, that was always one of the central set pieces that we wanted to crack.
GB: At what point in the production schedule did you shoot it?
Nolan: On the set, we shot it fairly early on. It was actually one of the first things that Heath had to do as the Joker. He told me he was actually pretty excited to tear off a big chunk early on, really get one of the Joker’s key scenes up in the first three weeks of a seven-month shoot. He and I both liked the idea of just diving in, as did Christian [Bale, who portrayed Batman]. We had rehearsed the scene a tiny bit. We had just ripped through it a couple of times in pre-production just to get some slight feel of how it was going to work. Neither of them wanted to go too far with it in rehearsal. They had to rehearse some of the fight choreography, but even with that, we tried to keep it loose and improvisational. They wanted to save it all. We were all pretty excited to get on with a big chunk of dialogue and this big intense scene between these two iconic characters. It was quite bizarre to see Batman across the table across from the Joker [laughs]. I’m glad you asked this. You know, I could actually talk about this scene for hours.
We had a lot of time to shoot it too, because it was so early on. Quite often, as you get behind on other things and you run toward the end of the shoot, things can get very squeezed. But you tend to schedule the first few weeks very generously to give the crew and the actors and myself time to find our feet and find our pace. So we had a couple of days to do it.
GB: Can you give me a snapshot memory from those days shooting the scene?
Nolan: It was a great set built into a location. It had all of the advantages of feeling that we were in a real place. Nathan Crowley, the production designer, built these great mirrors and this long, tiled room that I really loved the look of; it had the feeling almost of an abattoir or something. That all fed into the brutality of the scene. We wanted to be very edgy, very brutal. We wanted it to be the point at which Batman is truly tested by the Joker and you see that the Joker is truly capable of getting under everybody’s skin. I’m realizing this now about that scene — I haven’t thought this through before — the synthesis of all the different elements that I’m most interested in within filmmaking all come in that scene.
Nolan: The scene starts between Gary Oldman [as James Gordon] and Heath with the lights out, and [director of photography] Wally Pfister literally just lit the scene with the desk lamp, the table lamp, and nothing else. And then when the lights come on, Batman is revealed, and the rest of the scene plays out with a massive overexposure. He overexposed like five stops, I want to say, and then printed it down to bring some of the color back in. But it’s this incredibly intense overhead light which let us move in any direction. We had a handheld camera and shot however we wanted, be very spontaneous.
For me creatively, that had been about inverting the expectation. We’ve all seen so many of these dark movie interrogation scenes where somebody is being given the third degree. We just wanted to completely flip that on its head. And have the bright, harsh, bleak light sort show you the Joker’s make-up and its decay. The Batsuit was redesigned for this film. And unlike the suit that we had in “Batman Begins,” it’s capable of really being shown in incredible detail and still hold up to that kind of scrutiny under that bright light. The suit looked much more real and more like a functional thing this time. The whole scene was about showing something real and brutal and getting this real harshness.
Nolan: Yes, and I think you start to see it even at the beginning of the scene where everything is in closer. There are tight close-ups with just a little drift to the camera. We start in a very controlled way, but even within that frame, the way Heath is bobbing in and out —and he’s actually bobbing in and out of the focal plane because, you know, it’s very hard to follow someone whose leaning toward camera the whole time. It actually really adds something. We’re continually trying to catch him with the focus. You really see his movement back and forth. That way, even in a tight frame, you have this sense of strangeness. On the other hand, you have Batman sitting there just very, very controlled, restrained as you say. Then there’s a point where it spills over into real physicality and he drags the Joker across the table. We go handheld at that point and shot the rest of the scene with handheld to be very spontaneous in its movement. They had rehearsed the stunts and the fight stuff very specifically, but we really let the actors work within that. I had never seen anybody sell a punch the way Heath was able to with Christian. I got the violence I wanted. What I felt was really important creatively for the scene was that we show Batman going too far. We show him effectively torturing someone for information because it’s become personal.
Christian and I had talked a lot on “Batman Begins” about finding a moment in that film where you actually worry that Batman will go too far. A moment where his rage might spill over and he would break his rules. We never found that moment. It just wasn’t there in that story. There was a lot of strength and aggression in the way he played the part, but I don’t think the story provided that element of losing control. What the Joker provides in the second film is the fact that his entire motivation is to push people’s buttons and find their rules set and it turn it on itself. And Batman of course places such importance on his rules, his morals. It’s what distinguishes him, in his mind, from a common vigilante. The Joker is able to twist him around and make him question his own approach and his own actions.
GB: In the first film, the Batman’s most memorable moments of intense aggression feel more like theater — he’s doing it in a calculated show to scare people. The first movie seems to be about Batman’s fear; the second one is about his rage.
Nolan: Exactly. That’s why we never found that moment of danger, the one we had talked about, where there’s this danger that Batman will just lose it and go too far. That rage is very much a central part of the story in ‘The Dark Knight,’ and that interrogation scene is the fulcrum on which the whole movie turns. I think Batman finds out — and Bruce Wayne finds out — a lot about himself in that scene. I was just delighted to get to see Christian show that rage. And it’s wonderfully balanced with Gary’s control as well. Even though everyone remembers the scene as being the Joker and Batman, Gordon played a very important part to setting it up and allowing this interrogation to happen. And then as he is watching from the sideline, he sees the exact point where this is going too far. He knows Batman well enough to observe this, to recognize it. He tries to get in, but Batman has locked the door. And what we get to lead to, by the end of the scene, when he’s just pounding on the Joker, I think Heath managed to find the exact essence of the threat of the Joker and who he is: He’s being pounded in the face and he’s laughing and loving it. There’s nothing you can do. As he tells Batman, “You have nothing to do with all of your strength.” There’s this sort of impotence of the strong and the armored and the very muscular Batman; he’s very powerful, but there’s no useful way for this power to be exercised in this scene. He has to confront that.
Originally, at the end of that scene, once the Joker reveals his information, Christian dropped him and then, almost as an afterthought, he kicked him in the head as he walked out of the room. We wound up removing that bit. It seemed a little too petulant for Batman in a way. And really, more than that, what it was is that I liked how Christian played it: When he drops the Joker, he has realized the futility of what he’s done. You see it in his eyes. How do you fight someone who thrives on conflict? It’s a very loose end to be left with.
— Geoff Boucher