Bear Grylls selects which projects to take on, he explains, by going for the riskiest. That may explain why this former SAS serviceman and adventurer climbed Everest at 23, circumnavigated the British Isles on a jet-ski and made an unassisted crossing of the Atlantic in an open inflatable boat, before switching to front extreme endurance TV shows such as Born Survivor, Wild Weekend and The Island.
His newest venture, he insists, is part of the same pattern of pushing himself to the very limit, though at first glance it looks like a curious departure from the norm. The man who, in a celebrated episode of Born Survivor, emptied out the guts of a dead camel in the Sahara and then sheltered inside its carcass, is publishing a book about God.
Soul Fuel, which he describes as “a daily devotional”, contains 365 reflections to carry readers through the year and give “strength to a failing body”.
That Grylls has a private faith has been known since he invited Barack Obama to say a prayer with him at the end of filming a headline-grabbing episode of Running Wild in 2015, when he took the then-US president trekking in Alaska. But a daily devotional?
Grylls—often pictured walking through fire in advertisements for his TV series—looks uncharacteristically sheepish. “This is the only press I’m going to do on this, because half of me is a little bit self-conscious, and a little bit apprehensive,” he confesses. “Faith is a really intimate subject. And a difficult subject. I could have not done a book on faith,” he muses, “and it would be a lot safer.”
It’s a curious word to use, suggesting he feels he may be making himself a target by coming out as a believer in our secular, sceptical times. “In the words of C S Lewis, when the children in Narnia ask if Aslan [the Christ-like figure] is safe, the reply comes: ‘safe, no way, but he’s good.’ I’m not sure if I have the exact words, but for me it sums up the journey of faith.”
He has never wanted to be categorised by faith in his public and professional life, he explains, in case it somehow causes viewers to see him as too holy or pious. “I have been asked to be patron of Christian organisations, and I always feel bad saying no, but I say no because I just don’t want that label.”
The book began as something he had written for his family. “I have three boys,” he says in reference to Jesse, 16, Marmaduke, 13, and Huckleberry, 10, raised by Grylls and his wife, Shara.
“Faith has been a quiet but powerful part of our family and their lives growing up. And if I were ever not around, which will happen one day, here [in the book] are my thoughts.”
Presumably higher-than-usual odds of not being around to see his young family reach adulthood are part and parcel of being an adventurer? “Well, maybe,” he replies, but he doesn’t want to be distracted from his main point about the book’s genesis. “Here are my thoughts on what will help you live an empowered, light-filled existence.”
How it went from family keepsake to main street bookshops brings us back to Obama. “So many people ask me about praying with Obama. It was an off-camera moment at the end of it, but I thought, here is a man who I could see had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it just felt natural at the end of our journey.” In a YouTube clip that went viral, Grylls asks the Lord to “bless and protect” the then-president’s “work and family” before both men say “Amen”.
Today, his voice trails away as he remembers the moment. “People generally don’t want religion, but they like community and kindness. That stuff transcends borders and cultures.”
Grylls grew up on the Isle of Wight, where his Royal-Marine-
Commando-turned-Tory-MP father, Sir Michael, took him as a boy climbing sea cliffs. What formal religion there was in his childhood came at Eton in the school chapel, and he didn’t like it.
“Everything was liturgical and cassocks and Latin,” he recalls, “and ‘you’re in trouble because you’re late’.” It was distant and cold and gave a false impression that God is distant and cold. “And, for me, it has been a lifetime’s journey that is still continuing; of unravelling religion from faith. The heart of Christ’s message was about freedom and fun and light and love and forgiveness and risk-taking—always messy. But my experience as a child was of it being too neat.”
After his marriage at 25 to Shara in 2000, the couple made their first home on a barge in the River Thames. Grylls got involved with a group of friends who met regularly to play squash. “It was brilliant, not a parody but a reflection of how ‘church’ should be, because there were 10 of us—me, a vicar, a second-hand car dealer, a gay antique art dealer, a policeman, a soldier and a nightclub owner. We were totally different, but we’d meet every day at 3 o’clock and we always had each other’s backs in our lives.”
The cleric in question was Nicky Gumbel, developer of the Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity that has proved effective and popular in bringing people back into church. He is also the vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London, which counts among its alumni Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Grylls and Gumbel remain close, though he is not a member of his congregation. “I do go to HTB [as it is known] a few times during the year,” he says, “but mainly to have lunch with Nicky before or after. I don’t feel I have ever been a fully-fledged member of any church. Having said that, I have observed his church from the sidelines for 20 years, and I think he runs an outward-facing, lovely church, full of love and acceptance.”
There have been some criticisms of HTB—for being a church-within-a-church in Anglicanism, cult-like, even, and for attracting mainly well-heeled young people. “All places have flaws,” Grylls reflects, “but Nicky’s leadership is rooted in humility. You see some church leaders and it becomes all about them, and their wealth, their buildings, if you’re this or that. Nicky has never been like that.”
Grylls, you may have gathered, is not someone who feels the need to channel his own faith through denominations or institutions. And that is very much the spirit of Soul Fuel. The text is based on a regular exchange he has about God with an old and close friend, Jim Hawkins, a school teacher.
“I miss the friendship and vulnerability of having an accountable buddy to share life things with on a deeper level than catching up for a beer,” he says. “With Jim, I’ve done a daily thing for many years; reading the Bible together and then emailing thoughts and some feeling and some struggles. Just short; 10 minutes.”
It is so important to him that he keeps it up even in the remotest parts of the world. “We do it absolutely every single day. If I know I am going to be out of comms for a few days, I’ll bank them up and send them.” In one of the entries, Grylls writes that the “perfect love of God” casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Is his faith the hidden force that makes him so fearless on screen?
“I have plenty of fear,” he corrects me. “I feel fear every day, but I’ve learnt two things: One, that that is OK; and two, that being brave isn’t the absence of fear.” And he feels braver, he isn’t afraid to admit, when he says a prayer—“when I say, ‘will You be beside me in this moment?’ My boys joke about me always going on about ‘God-confidence’, not self-confidence.”
“God-confidence” isn’t, he stresses, a cast-iron belief that he will always be safe. “Someone asked me recently, was I praying when my parachute wasn’t opening [in an accident in Kenya in 1997 that ended his SAS career]? Of course I wasn’t. I was saying, ‘F***, open!’ If I’d answered with some platitude, that would have been Christian rubbish. “That,” he protests, “is what puts people off Christians.”
Peter Stanford writes for the UK’s Daily Telegraph where the original version of this article first appeared. Used with permission.