Never have the digital and spiritual intersected as appealingly as they have for Rob Bell and Pete Holmes’s Together At Last tour.
The tour saw Bell, a former pastor and bestselling religious author, and Holmes, a standup comedian and podcaster, hit a number of U.S. cities to talk about what it means to be alive in the world today. This is a pitch right over home plate for Bell—the brand-name spiritual thinker hosts a show on Oprah Winfrey’s television network and might as well have a black belt in talking about the spiritual implications of human consciousness.
Holmes, on the surface, is the less obvious half of the bill. He’s released two standup albums and hosted a late-night comedy show, but his many podcast listeners know that he thrives in a theophilosophical context. His podcast, You Made It Weird, regularly sees him probe the metaphysical with his guests, which have included Judd Apatow, Noel Gallagher, Weird Al Yankovic, and a prominent Franciscan monk named Richard Rohr. Holmes established himself as a guy ready to investigate, entertain, and dissect all order of spirituality, which is what first got him talking to Bell for a podcast in May 2013. That’s when the pair cemented a friendship that planted the seeds for this tour.
“Pete is fantastic, I immediately liked him,” Bell told the Daily Dot. “We started hanging out together and it was really fun. I think we kept discovering that we were trying to get in the same house from different doors.”
Both men are drawn to the spiritual in a way that doesn’t gel with conservative dogma, and they confirm that their onstage banter is pretty much how their conversations go when they hang out privately. These guys are eager to kick the tires of existence.
“I’m trying to uncover what all the great myths and traditions are pointing to,” Holmes said. “I feel like the zealots are all owning or disowning the same thing, which is a literal interpretation of these stories that point to something greater than literally true.”
Put another way, to cling to the tellings of various faith-based stories as inerrant fact is to miss the point of these stories entirely; they are metaphors for something deep in the human psyche. The Together At Last tour aims to answer the question: What is this?
There are those who will have followup questions when confronted with the scientific realities of existence—that we are sentient beings living on a planet suspended in outer space, rotating around a giant ball of gas that will burn for the next 5 billion years. Humans are “factories of meaning desperate to make sense of things,” said Bell.
Holmes expressed this sentiment another way during the tour’s recent Boston show: “Terence McKenna, who I love, talks about claiming that you understand the world because you understand science is like trying to claim you understand Los Angeles because you understand the phonebook. I’m not satisfied. I’m left aching. Which is why I have this new passion of rescuing babies from bathwater.”
To Holmes, the bathwater is the dogma and baggage that can come along with fundamental spiritual beliefs. The baby—the thing worth saving—is the wisdom in which religious teachings are rooted.
This is hardly the way we’re used to hearing standup comedians talk about matters of faith, especially when they’re on stage next to a well-known man of the Lord—it’s a refreshing change of pace. “We want our pastors to be holy and our comedians to be secular,” said Holmes. “When you bring these things together that might not make a lot of sense together, [our audience is] hopefully left with [the] impression that it does work.”
Bell doesn’t see a distinct line between comedy and religion. “To me, everything is connected with everything else,” he said. “If you are going to talk about the divine and you don’t begin by laughing at its absurdity, then you don’t have much to say. The people who can be serious are the ones who acknowledge the silliness of it all.”
He cites Holmes’s bit below as a great example of what he means—it’s standup material, sure, but there’s wisdom and wonder built right into it.
Holmes’s and Bell’s holistic spiritual thinking often echoes the ideas of famed mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. Holmes especially is a fan: “[Joseph Campbell] talks about how something as wonderful as the story of Christ has been reduced to ethics and fundamentalism, meaning your beliefs in God are equated to your literal beliefs in a man from Nazareth who lived a sinless life and experienced a death and resurrection.
“Why do we want to drag God into reality? The whole thing is that it’s transcendent. Leave that where it is.”
The best standup comedians seem to be naturally drawn to the verboten. This instinct is just as alive in Bell as it is in Holmes, though he takes it a different direction. His writing has earned him heaps of criticism from the fundamentalist corners of the Christian community—he questions common religious assertions, perhaps most famously the existence of hell.
“A comedian parks himself on the boundary and says, ‘Why is this here?’” said Bell. “That’s a beautiful, divine impulse. There are all these topics in church where you can’t actually talk about them, so there’s something redemptive to the work of a comedian.” After all, comedians get to talk about whatever they want as long as it’s funny, and the funniest stuff ought also to be true.
The tour’s anecdotal evidence reveals that there is a market for comedy shows of this depth—some 1,200 people came to the gig at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre, despite only having a hazy idea of what to expect. Indeed, the first few minutes of the show were set aside for explaining how the evening would go—Holmes and Bell would discuss the importance of cultivating three things in one’s life: joy, honesty, and wonder. It was thought-provoking and inspirational without feeling like a self-help convention, and it was funny as hell.
“I have to imagine that when my agent would call and book us at venues, it was mostly a discussion of numbers,” said Holmes. “‘Pete draws this many, Rob draws this many.’ There was probably very little discussion of what the show is. Right now every venue that booked us was taking a chance.”
“I’m still not sure how to explain it,” Bell said. “Not that it’s so hard to explain. It’s two guys on stage using comedy to talk about spirituality.”
Whether you’re looking for a laugh, trying to scratch a spiritual itch, or both, this tour is perhaps the only one that can satisfy them all.
Screengrab via Pete Holmes/YouTube | Remix by Max Fleishman