I was working at a coffee shop when I read Velvet Elvis. Literally.
After college, I worked at an independent coffee shop hidden in the a shopping center between a scrapbooking store and a Blockbuster video rental store. Business was often slow; the six or so employees rarely overlapped shifts. I’d often get a good ten minutes of reading in between customers. Velvet Elvis had already been out for a few years — I had heard of it; it was a big deal. Once I read it, though, my reaction was: Shit. This guy wrote my book already.
My final year at a Christian college, I quit going to church with friends and started church-hopping, but with no intention of finding a church. I had only gone to evangelical churches and was curious what Episcopal, Church of Christ, Methodist, and all the other denominations were like. My skepticism in organized religion was building. I was angry; I was disillusioned. But also, like true evangelical, I wanted to fix it and set everyone straight.
I wanted to write a book. I might call it 95 Theses, or at least a related pun. Then, I wanted to call it Don’t Believe Everything You Hear In Church.
In order to write this book, I decided I could go to graduate school for journalism or theology, and I was in the midst of applying. Then, here was Bell, with his seminary degree already completed, already speaking with authority about the Greek meaning of words and the culture at the time the Bible was written.
I had to throw out my book idea, but I was also relieved. The thing is, what if I was wrong? My opinions on faith had changed dramatically, but what if I put out a bestselling book, and then my opinions changed again. I wondered if Bell looked back at his NOOMA videos and regretted anything he said, and if he could shut down distribution if he no longer stood behind his own words. I thought about I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book I loved, and how young Joshua Harris was when he wrote it (23). Everyone read that book. Was he stuck for the rest of his life standing behind the words of a very young man?
I knew I wasn’t ready to be writing my book yet. I’m glad I didn’t, because it would have been an angry book. I still had a lot of conflict to resolve.
I read Sex God, Drops Like Stars, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians (by far my favorite title).
Then I read Love Wins.
This time, Bell wasn’t writing my book. He was ahead of me. “‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’ (1 Tim. 2) … So does God get what God wants?” he wrote. There is no hell, at least not the eternal suffering as described in the churches I attended. I had not verbalized this before, but it was like Bell was reaching deep into my psyche and saying something I’d known was true all along.
As Christians, we have our set of beliefs, and when we’re struck with a conflict, like a loving God vs. an eternal punishment, we come up with workarounds. It was such a massive release to realize that something that couldn’t be true, wasn’t true.
By the time Bell published What We Talk About When We Talk About God, I was living in Brooklyn and not attending church at all, feeling alienated from it, but still exploring and growing my own spiritual beliefs. So when I saw Bell was doing a book signing in DUMBO, I got a ticket.
The bookstore was off cobblestone streets and had big windows so passers-by could see the packed crowd facing Bell as he spoke about the book. Afterward, I got in line to get my book signed. At the front I set aside my pride and asked Bell’s publicist to take a photo of us.
I was frozen and speechless after we took the photo. Bell said, “Thanks for coming.”
“Thanks for writing,” I replied.
With my signed book in hand, I wandered through the dark down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where I sat down, stared at the Manhattan skyline across the water, and cried.
What I had blurted out was actually quite profound. All of Bell’s books made me feel not alone. Each one, more than the one before.
The feeling of being not alone is a big one. It can change everything.
I meant what I said, that I was thankful to him for writing, because that’s all he did, write down his thoughts and ideas and experience.
Now, I knew there was no way around it, no putting it off further. I had to write my thoughts down too, because they could help someone else. I owe this to the world.
When Bell started a Tumblr page, writing frequent deep-dives into the Bible, I followed week by week, excited I didn’t have to wait for a new book. At one point, I used Tumblr’s Ask feature to send a question: Why hasn’t a mainstream Christian leader come out and said that premarital sex isn’t a sin yet?
I’d read a number of forward-thinking books on sex and Christianity, including Bell’s Sex God, but none had taken a stand on this particular issue. It’s a much less revolutionary issue than the existence of hell, but one my Christian friend groups still see in black and white.
“What is sin?” Bell responded.
When Bell started his podcast, The Robcast, I finally had a church again. Sunday mornings start in the kitchen, where I make coffee, then bring a mug back to bed and listen to the latest Robcast. Sometimes the podcast is teaching related to the Bible, and sometimes it’s an interview. Habits, whether it’s attending a church service or listening to a podcast, are grounding. As I continue to grow spiritually, I’m most interested in hearing ideas counter to the ones I already have. Somehow, Bell manages to still challenge and expand how I think about spirituality.
Other Christian writers and leaders whose work was once revolutionary to me seem to have stagnated. They once pushed my boundaries, and a few years passed, and I’ve pushed out even further and see them as regrettably tame. Maybe they asked fewer questions as they got older. Maybe they “made it” in the Christian world and needed to retain their primary audience to keep their careers afloat.
Bell stands out because he continues to push the status quo. He’s never comfortable. He’s answered my earlier question of whether it’s OK to print and distribute your words when there’s a tiny chance you could change your mind later.
I finally wrote my book. Shameless is about how I lost my virginity and kept my faith. It’s a topic Bell can’t steal, because he already wrote his book about sex and God. I’m the answer to my own Tumblr question, willing to say in print that I identify as a Christian, I’m single, and sexually active. I hope it will help people who have struggled with the same question, and they will feel less alone.