“The Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”
Cool quote right? Who is going to disagree with this? But let’s face it, the line comes from a book by Rob Bell- Velvet Elvis, and the very name of the author is going to produce some serious controversy regardless of his opinions or theology. I found myself reading with the same lens: I was desperately searching for the heretical claims of Bell in order to wag my finger at his trendy poetic book. I was gritting my teeth imagining him tapping away at his macbook pro, with his black rimmed glasses, sipping french press coffee, and wearing a scarf with a t-shirt. After my wife talked some sense into me, I understood that I needed to remove my agenda from the reading, and just investigate what it is that this rising star in the realm of Christianity really has to say. Then it started to dawn on me that people with skinny ties and Toms shoes can have something valuable to say. (Are you guys picking up on my unnecessary bitterness?) Lo and behold, his points that are buried in (almost) stream-of-consciousness writing, and difficult metaphors- are actually pretty good.
The book is difficult to summarize as a whole. Its subtitle is ‘repainting the Christian faith,’ but it is done by targeting about 7-8 different issues in his chapters that Bell calls “movements.” I’ll try my best to give you the pop of each movement in a sentence:
1. JUMP: Our beliefs should be flexible and capable of changing and evolving just as we are as a people and as a culture. Cool quote: “Doctrine is a wonderful servant and a terrible master” (25). WARNING: Bell will use the word trampoline in this chapter about a thousand times.
2. YOKE: Living for Jesus is like becoming the yellow part of an egg. (Just kidding) The bible is a living book; any ‘bible based teaching’ is someone’s interpretation, and our interpretations should be susceptible to change and growth. Cool quote: “Jesus expects his followers to be engaged in the endless process of what it means to actually live the scriptures” (50).
3. TRUE: The truth of God is found throughout the entire world, and not just confined to ‘Christian’ experiences. (I think this is the best chapter… oops… movement in the book)
4. TASSELS: The plan of God through Jesus goes beyond forgiveness – it is restoration.
5. DUST: Jesus believes in us, and we are actually capable of being like him despite how unqualified we seem. He has an awesome illustration here about being covered in the dust of your rabbi. The imagery is following Jesus and following him closely.
6. NEW: We are new creations that should live in the identity of how Jesus sees us, and not in the sinful ways we see ourselves.
7. GOOD: The body of Christ and the church is something that is good, and we should strive to be the original body and church that God had in mind.
Velvet Elvis is a good book to read that is worth your time. I think the overall message is great. Bell wants Christians to migrate away from a rigid harsh faith that has beat people down – Christians and non-Christians alike for centuries. He wants to broaden the scope of how we see truth, and to live life in a way that really replicates that of Jesus and not just a garbled interpretation of scripture. Good stuff.
But frankly, I’ve never cared much for his writing style. It is still impossibly cool, and too postmodern for my taste. And I always feel like his reasoning is flawed. In one point in the book Bell argues that Jesus actually gave us authority to have different interpretations of scripture:
“Notice what Jesus says in the book of Matthew: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
“What he is doing here is significant. He is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible. He is giving them permission to say, “Hey, we think we missed it before on that verse, and we’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is what it actually means.” And not only is he giving them authority, but he is saying that when they do debate and discuss and pray and wrestle and then make decisions about the Bible, somehow God in heaven will be involved. Jesus expects his followers to be engaged in the endless process of deciding what is means to actually live in the Scriptures.” (p. 50)
What? Where in the world did that interpretation come from? Jesus isn’t talking at all about interpreting scripture differently. And it seems to me that Bell’s ultimate aim when it comes to doctrines and dogmas is to foster discussion about what the meaning of scripture really is. Discussion and debate that sharpens and changes our beliefs is great, but I can’t get the continual emphasis that Paul places on knowing doctrine and truth out of my head as I read the book. Of course it will be our particular interpretation of truth, but it should be sought out none the less. It seems that Bell often will throw the baby out with the bath water. He nuances truth in such a way that to me almost makes it seem relative to each person. And he always comes to these conclusions by unlocking a mysterious Greek or Hebrew word that has had a hidden concept for centuries. I just want a reference, something that shows me where these ‘concepts’ come from. They’re really cool but Bell would have to admit that they will dramatically challenge a great deal of Christian traditions. A footnote or two on these translations would be sweet.
However, like I said before, Bell does an excellent job at detecting the shortcomings of the church, and his challenges of these failures make Velvet Elvis a good one. But his logic, writing style, and interpretations of scripture knock down the book to the 3rd shelf out of 5.