More from the Heretic: Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis

“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.

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Love Wins: Rob Bell the heretic universalist…maybe

Well, I read it. Love Wins by Rob Bell has been a hot button topic for awhile now. Controversy tends to surround

Bell, and his latest installment in his impossibly cool line of books has given rise to an uproar in the Christian community. The subtitle: ‘Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who has Ever Lived’ almost makes you hold your breath in tension (Uh oh… he’s going to talk about that?). The twittersphere was exploding with commentary on their opinion of Bell and his book, calling him a universalist, a heretic and any other degrading thing you can possibly imagine (and all of this done without even reading the book… yikes). In my opinion this wasn’t a good move for people who want to discredit Bell because all of the controversy has just made me and the rest of the world want to read the book. So after reading, what was my take? Does Rob Bell believe in hell? Is he a universalist?

In all fairness, the book really isn’t about Bell developing a theology on hell. Nor is he trying to make a statement on hell’s existence. Yes you can conclude (by traditional definitions) Bell is a kind of… mini… universalist, and yes he does deny the existence of an eternal hell(in an extremely ambiguous way that is impossible to tack down). But his real aim is to alter the way we approach the gospel. Bell argues that the gospel is good news and ultimately about the love God has for everyone on earth. And honestly who can’t jibe with that? When you have statements like:

When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather that joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.

You aren’t going to find many who disagree with this. But is this conclusion only reached by changing our doctrines and dogmas?

The problem is, Bell diverts from the typical ideology of hell in order for the Christian story to be ALL about love. Bell would prefer to define hell (and heaven for that matter) as a place we create here on earth as a result of our actions instead of a place of eternal suffering and punishment away from God. Because how can a God that eternally punishes people be loving? It is a classic anthropomorphic argument (that means he’s ascribing human attributes to God) that attempts to rid God of any characteristics that would seem cruel or unloving if they were credited to humans.

One of the main things that I don’t like about Bell’s books is not his applications for Christians in his books, they are usually awesome, but his logic to get to these particular points always seems so flawed to me. His books, including this one, will have over extended metaphors, wild interpretations of scripture that seem to go beyond what the story is really trying to communicate, and my least favorite, he seems to know all these Greek and Hebrew words that have hidden meanings and concepts that unlock secret messages that have been concealed for centuries. And all of these words conveniently exclude any references or sources that show any evidence for these beliefs. For instance: Bell says that Jesus often used the word “heaven” and was simply referring to God. If this is true, cool. But I’ve never heard it, and you have no sources to validate your claim.

I love the fact that he wants Christians to separate from solely preaching turn or burn type messages, that’s good. (Even though it has worked in the past… see Jonathan Edwards and Jesus) But I don’t think the solution is to change our theology, that’s not the problem. There can be an eternal hell and a loving God. How it works… I’m not to sure. But I’m ok with these two seemingly contradictory elements to hang in tension on this side of eternity.

The book itself, in my opinion really isn’t that good. It has fragmented arguments and tends to ramble and repeat itself. If you enjoy his style give it a shot just to see what all the controversy is about. You’ll have to once again get past

Rob Bell’s

unbelievably…

Dramatic..

Writing.

But the book certainly won’t hurt your faith. It made me want to emphasize God’s love more to others I come in contact with, which is of course a great thing. As always with Bell’s books, go for the application he is getting at, they are almost always great, just disregard a big chunk of the poetic but sketchy arguments he uses to get to the point.

2nd bookshelf of 5.

Rob Bell: Jesus Wants to Save… Christians?

“Jesus wants to save our church from the exile of irrelevance.”

Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell and Don Golden is a cool looking book. Let’s face it, the way Bell packages everything he puts out makes you go: “Oooooo neato!” With its hip lime green pages and mysterious puzzle cover, you are almost obligated to take it off the shelf and have a look at it. But does its attractive appearance reflect the content within the pages?

Recently I’ve been a part of a bible study that has been taking a closer look at Matthew, and a theme that has been blowing my mind is how the first book of the New Testament is designed to point to Jesus as a fulfillment of the Old Testament. It does this by quoting prophetic passages, but also drawing parallels to the Old Testament. Something that has excited me the most is the idea of Jesus being the 2nd Moses. Let me explain as briefly as possible:

Jesus wants to Save Christians

Pharaoh attempts to kill Israelite males that could potentially threaten his kingdom, thus Moses and his family must find a way to dodge the malicious intent of Pharaoh. This succeeds because Moses is the deliverer of the Israelites who will lead them out of the oppressing slavery of the Egyptians. This draws a striking similarity to Jesus and his family fleeing the massacre that Herod authorizes to kill newborn males. This is to preserve the deliverer of God’s people not from physical slavery, but from the slavery of sin.

So once I heard from a trusted friend that Rob Bell’s newest book dealt with similar stuff, called: New Exodus Theology. I decided that I had to pick it up despite my opinion of Velvet Elvis and Sex God which I thought were OK at best. But Bell and Golden’s ‘manifesto’ argues that Jesus’ death on the cross was a liberating event that sets us free from any form of empirical rule. For the Israelites in the first exodus it was the rule of the Egyptian empire- for Christians today, it is not only freedom from sin but liberation from any oppressing force. And its here where the book gets a little bumpy. It becomes one of those hold your breath moments because you know you’re saying something controversial that is going to upset some of your readers.

Bell and Golden make the argument that Americans are an empire-like nation that draws resemblances to Egypt and Babylon. The similarities are primarily in our sense of entitlement and lack of aid given to those who are crying out for justice. Then, in classic Rob Bell fashion, he slams us with his overarching point: that THE CHURCH is essentially the agent God is using to liberate the captives from irrelevance and the consumerism of America, while aiming to end the oppression everywhere else in the world. It is quite a compelling argument whether you agree with it or not, and will undoubtedly cause you to take a closer look at your own views of God and country, and your role as a functioning member of the body of Christ.

Ultra Conservative Christians beware – if you think Christians should hold the bible tucked under one arm while waving an American flag in the other, this one is going to rub you the wrong way. Bell and Golden unashamedly bash consumerism, marketing, materialism, entitlement, the war in Iraq, and George W. Bush (and conservatism for that matter). I encourage you, if you read the book, to look beyond the political argument Bell and Golden make, and focus on what you can do as an individual as a response to the book. The staggering statistics will undoubtedly give you a sense of guilt and the feeling that you are sucking away the earth’s resources while others are dying around the world. But perhaps this isn’t such a bad idea… It is softened by Bell, admitting that guilt doesn’t do anything, but knowledge aids the situation.

The writing is typical of Rob Bell- he writes EXACTLY how he talks. And there are odd isolated double spaced paragraphs with no indention, and often only one sentence or one word per line.

I think he uses it…

Because he thinks,

It

Is

Dramatic…

Nevertheless, Bell’s unorthodox methods of writing read like a sermon and cultivate a sense of drama that feels like a JJ Abrams TV show. I’m not so sure I agreed with his logic or his oversimplification of worldwide events in light of the scriptures, nor do I like how far he extends the ‘exodus’ metaphor. But I certainly think there is a ton of truth in this book that will challenge any reader to become the body of Christ that Jesus truly meant us to be. The one thing I can never get past with Rob Bell’s book is the fact that the $20 item only takes 2 hours to read. It’s a decent work, but I would only pick it up if it’s laying on the shelves at Half Price Books.

Shelf 3 of 5