A review of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)
Rob Bell (b.1970), preacher at Mars Hill Bible Church, has become a highly influential speaker and writer in the Christian world. Here I offer a few of my own views on his 2005 book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. I organize my thoughts under three heads.
1. What resonates with modern culture
One reason believe Bell has been so successful and popular is that so many of his observations and insights resonate with modern culture. For example,
“The Christian faith-tradition is filled with change and growth and transformation. Jesus took part in this process by calling people to rethink faith and the Bible and hope and love and everything else, and by inviting them into the endless process of working out how to live as God created us to live” (p.11).
Well put. This is hardly the encouragement extended to members by most church leaders. The younger generation—to say nothing of the older—prefers an interactive learning style. Journey is often appreciated over destination (not that I think it would be fair to Bell to accuse him of such lopsidedness). Bell continues, “The challenge for Christians, then, is to live with great passion and conviction, remaining open and flexible, aware that this life is not the last painting.” He does not like the word “reformed,” preferring rather “reforming” (p.12). Who, after all, can claim to have arrived at all the truth?
Further, the younger generation seeks authenticity: “So the way of Jesus is not about religion; it’s about reality” (p.21). Moreover, in addition to authenticity, humility, especially in relation to outsiders (non-believers) is highly valued: “Jesus talks about this “in and out” a lot in his teachings. He keeps insisting that the people who assume they are in may not be in and the ones everybody thinks are out for whatever reason may be in” (p.28).
Bell touches on other issues of modern interest, like litter and pollution, which he sees as spiritual issues (p.158). One other observation our author shares is golden. Referring to outsiders, Bell writes “… serving people is the only way their perceptions about the church are ever going to change… it is so toxic for the gospel when Christians picket and boycott and complain about how bad the world is” (p.166). So many believers I have met have dogmatic, sometimes bigoted, prejudices and commitments. They are members of this political party or that one. They are for this and against that. They much prefer certainty to suspending judgment, even in the absence of conclusive evidence.
2. Some possible concerns
Although there is much in Velvet Elvis to spur us to wholesome thought, there are a couple of points at which we perhaps ought to be concerned.
For example, discussing new interpretations of the Bible (p.50), Bell stresses that the Bible is a communal book (p.53). Therefore we should be leery of private interpretation. So far we agree. “Everybody’s interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. Nobody is objective.” Yet how far should our skepticism extend? We probably agree with Bell that “It sounds nice to say, ‘I’m not giving you my opinion; I’m just telling you what it means.’ The problem is, it is not true.”…(p.54). Surely he's right: we all assume our own objectivity. “The idea that everybody else approaches the Bible with baggage and agendas and lenses and I don’t is the ultimate in arrogance. To think that I can just read the Bible without reading any of my own culture or background or issues into it and come out with a ‘pure’ or ‘exact’ meaning is not only untrue, but it leads to a very destructive reading of the Bible that robs it of its life and energy.” He also reminds us that no one really follows scripture alone; there are other sources of authority (like church tradition, peer pressure, and other forces).
But if none of us are objective, then how about Bell? Is he objective? Why should we listen to him? Doesn’t his argument undermine his own credibility?
Another questionable position he takes relates to the end of the world. He
hyper-literalizes the new earth, insisting that heaven is to brought here, to us (p.160). In this Bell resembles Alcorn. “One of the most tragic things ever to happen to the gospel was the emergence of the message that Jesus takes us somewhere else if we believe in him. The Bible ends with God coming here” (p.171). But what about John 14:3? Jesus said that at his second coming he would take us to be with him. That does not easily mesh with Bell’s view.
Then there is the matter of sources, which often in Bell's work are absent. The emperor Domitian was hymned by chorus of 24 (p.65). What is the source? His comments about “healing in the wings” (p.106) also lack documentation. Bell comes across as though he’s heard these points somewhere else, but hasn't done his own research. Besides, and perhaps more important, how do we know what the Judaism of the Pharisees was like in the first century? Isn’t most of our knowledge diffracted through the lens of third century rabbinic Judaism? Like Ray vander Laan, too much credence is given rabbinic Judaism. Interesting reading, for sure, but we expect more caution in a man who already challenges us to be aware of the lenses through which we read the Bible, by which our understanding may be distorted.
Indeed, in some comments, one suspects exaggeration, as when he shares that a friend of his claims to have been the only student at the Yeshiva who didn’t have the entire Old Testament memorized (p.127)! Or the bold claim that “Rabbis had no interest in having the student spit back information just for information’s sake” (p.128). (The two claims seem to be irreconcilable.)
There are also some places where Bell is almost on track. Take his words, inspired by James 2, decrying our failure to respect the image of God in others (p.167): “Oftentimes the Christian community has sent the message that we love people and build relationships with them in order to convert them to the Christian faith. So there is an agenda. And when there is an agenda, it isn’t really love.” But are agenda and love mutually exclusive? A little thought shows us that this need not be the case. If this is not clear to you, consider such passages as Luke 10:5 and 10:10-12.
“I am learning that the church is at its best when it is underground, subversive, and countercultural” (p.168). Words sure to appeal to the radical -- and to me, I admit -- but once again, a bit overdone. Or how about: “I am learning that the church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties” (p.170). Perhaps Bell is deliberately speaking hyperbolically. I do like his qualifying words “As Christians, it is our duty to master the art of the long meal” (p.171).
3. What I especially liked
Last, here are a few of the salient points in the book that meant the most to me.
“Being a Christian, then, is more about celebrating mystery than conquering it” (p.34). This means a lot to me as one who often reflects on theologically. May I never attempt to tame God, capturing him in neat formulas or humanistic platitudes!
“So many leaders in Christian communities are going so fast and producing so much and accomplishing so much that they become a shell of a person. There is no space to deal honestly with what’s going on deep inside them” (pp.118-119). To one who has been challenged to "live in the now," and who spent 20 years ministering as a church worker (1983-2003), I freely admit I need to watch myself. Thanks, Rob Bell.
“If you find yourself wanting to take me less seriously, let me ask a question: What was the ritual the first Christians observed with the most frequency? Exactly. The common meal, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. And what did this meal consist of? Hours of talking and sharing and enjoying each other’s presence” (p.171). I too have often longed for a return to a communion meal.
One last example will have to do: “I don’t have to have arrived; I don’t have to be perfect; but I do need to be on the path” (p.119). Journey and destination are integrally connected. I think our evangelism will be much enhanced when we invite the watching world not to join a perfect church, the elite who have "arrived," but to walk with us as we continue to seek His face, and His will, in His word.