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Ryan Bell Discusses Fears and Fantasies in Interfaith Relationships


Ryan Bell began his presentation on Sunday morning by playing a six-minute Mad TV video clip, in which a psychiatrist gives a patient this helpful advice for overcoming her many fears and problems: “Just stop it!”

When he took the platform, Bell told us he was going to talk to us about “How Interfaith Relationships Will (and Won’t) Save Us, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the World.”

Bell first talked about the incredible impact of 9/11, how it broke his world apart, and how that was when he really began to realize how tied faith was to contemporary life.

He began to learn more about the Middle East, more about the world, and more about his own church. He began to learn what really mattered to people.

He said it was hard to do, but he had to just stop it. He had to just stop worrying about his own identity, and love the world. “Now I am intensely involved in interfaith relationships,” Bell said.

Then Bell said he wanted to talk about the common fears and fantasies in interfaith relationships.

Fear #1: The religious other is dangerous.

Bell said there is a whole industry of Islamophobia in America, and that the media and politicians tend to play on fear. Really, however, the Muslims in our communities are peaceful, and Islam is a religion of peace.

Reality: There are extremists in every religion.

Reality: There are plenty of secular/nationalist extremists.

Bell told the audience about inviting a Muslim friend of his to speak at church on Sabbath morning. He told about meetings he held with Muslims – eight sessions over 16 weeks. The two communities explored their differences, and their similarities. For instance, they admitted: “Sometimes Muslims are racist. If you are non-Arab, and can’t grow a beard very well, some people might look at you and think you aren’t a real Muslim.”

Bell replied to them: “Sometimes we are racist, too. Our church has parallel leadership structures so that some members of our church are not marginalized.”

Fear #2: This [interfaith work] is not the main thing we’re called to do. We need to proclaim the gospel, and the 3 angels’ messages.

Reality: God has been universalizing the message of redemption from the beginning.

Bell listed examples from the Bible: Babel; God called Abraham to bless all nations; Isaiah reminds the children of Israel that the blessing is for them, but also for all nations; Jesus says similar things. You are all a part of what God is doing to heal the world. Isaiah 49: 5-6 “My salvation will reach to the ends of the earth.”

But we want a proprietary message.

Fear #3: We will lose our identity.

Reality: We will lose our identity without interfaith relationships.

Bell told about visiting his friend’s mosque. He looked inside himself, and realized there was a fear of praying with Muslims. After examining his fear, he realized it was nonsensical. “So I prayed with them – and I didn’t lose my Christian identity!” he said.

Your Christian identity is shaped and formed – transformed – by these experiences. The most important part of what it means to be a Christian will be enhanced. In fact, if you don’t have these kinds of experiences, you are only talking to yourself, and you are in danger of losing your identity.

It is absurd to think we only have things to teach people, and nothing to learn from anyone outside of our little group.

Fantasy #1: We’re all talking about the same thing anyway.

Reality: It’s not exactly the same although there are common elements.

Reality: The great world religions are attempting to answer different questions.

Fantasy #2: We will all get along.

Reality: Otherness is irreducible. To forget this leads to either shallow “interfaithing” or devastating violence.

Fantasy #3: It will be easy.

Reality: It is fun, but not always easy. You will be stretched out of your comfort zone.

Bell helped organize a prayer vigil against gun violence [see photo]. He called it a “remarkable multifaith event.” Things like gun violence, hunger, terrorism – they don’t affect just one community. We need to make our voices heard all together. If we stay in our own silos, our endeavor is too small.

We need to get past this self-referential conversation. We need to stop worrying so much about our identity and begin to invest our lives in others.


Someone from the audience asked this question after the presentation:

How do you see the role of evangelism fitting into the model? Is there any room for the great commission?

Bell answered that what we need most in evangelism is fewer words and more action.

“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Evangelism is something that happens when we stop worrying about it.

If we are thinking church growth or recruitment, that is something else. Then let’s just talk about that. Let’s recruit people to work with us in the community, serve the homeless, etc, not just sit in our pews. When we stopped worrying about evangelism [at the Hollywood church], our church grew. Just get on with it. Do what God wants you to do. Then the people who want to join in with that will join you. They might not believe everything, but if they want to come along with you anyway, that’s awesome.


The first response was from Paul Mugane, who teaches at San Diego Academy. He was born in Kenya, and graduated from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical seminary founded by the United Church of Christ. Mugane talked about his background (including being sent to a Muslim primary school in Kenya by his Adventist pastor father), and deciding to study at a seminary with people from a multitude of faiths. “My identity was welcomed at the table,” Mugane said. “My Adventism became stronger.”

“If my identity is so fickle that it needs to be fenced in at all times, than it isn’t an identity I care to keep.”

The second response was from Deborah Levine, a Jewish writer and interfaith expert. She told funny stories about working with priests and rabbis and people of different faiths, and how important it is to listen first. She challenged women to challenge the discussion.

Ryan Bell is an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Global Studies Department at Azusa Pacific University, and has served as a pastor for the past 19 years. Bell has written numerous articles, contributed to several books, and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. He is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Hillhurst Review.

Top Photo: Ryan Bell speaks at a prayer vigil against gun violence.

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