Having left Mars Hill, the Michigan church he founded and led for a dozen years, Rob Bell, who now lives in southern California, is something of a freelance pastor. His 2011 book Love Wins landed him on the cover of Time magazine for the controversy it raised over heaven and hell: Does God save everybody, or do some people go to hell? Theological conservatives didn’t like Bell’s postmodern answer, essentially a qualified and paradoxical “yes” to both. His new book, What We Talk about When We Talk about God (HarperOne, Mar. 12), takes on another big question: Who is God? PW asked the questions as Bell toured in support of the book.

Would you explain the genesis of this book?

It started a long time ago; books sit somewhere in my head or heart for years. This one started with a Jane Fonda quote [in a Rolling Stone interview]: “I could feel reverence humming in me.” We have a whole world of people [like that] who have the sense there’s more going on in life. They go looking for an explanation (and) God seems stuck way back there. We need new and fresh ways to talk about God.

What was good about the criticism you got with Love Wins?

At some point [the criticism] loses its power; what can you say about me now? I met a couple two days ago, probably in their late 20s. She had found out that she has stage four cancer. She said, could you please pray for us? The fact that somebody somewhere doesn’t like something I said is just fundamentally irrelevant to the work I do. It just comes with the territory.

If someone were to say your theology is fuzzy, how would you respond?

That’s complete nonsense. I come from a tradition that believes that God hasn’t abandoned the world and God is actively present, redeeming and reconciling the world.

Would you call yourself an evangelical Christian today?

Does that word mean good news? An evangelical is somebody who, when they leave the room, you feel better because you heard the good news [from them], then yes. If it means people enslaved to rigid oppressive doctrines and dogma that suck the life out of them and oppress them, then no.

And surfing? Is there a theology to it?

You’re out like 200 yards from shore and there’s this big wave and you see it and there’s this orbital pattern of energy moving through water [and then] you are traveling across the surface of the water. It is indescribable.

What’s your next project?

My wife and I are writing a book about marriage.