28 July 2010

Review: Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis"

I won't lie: I was somewhat hesitant to read Rob Bell's book, Velvet Elvis. I had heard many disturbing things about the author. For example:
  • He is a heretic
  • He denies the inerrancy of scripture
  • He denies the immutability of scripture
  • He denies the immaculate conception of Christ
  • He denies Christ's substitutionary atonement for the sins of the world
  • He secretly devours the souls of small children
Since I do not normally enjoy the company of heretics or baby-soul-eaters, I had my doubts about reading anything by this man. However, I also believe in giving people a chance to speak for themselves. Also, my friend Joseph Lynch generously offered to lend me Velvet Elvis, so I didn't even have to check it out at the library or purchase it in order to peruse Mr. Bell's ideas.

I knew Bell's ideas have been labeled as revolutionary, so I was ready for some new concepts in his writing. Prepared though I was, what I found in this book shocked me. More on that later; first, let me summarize the book so you can be ready to make a semi-informed snap decision about how heretical it is.

Bell's project is an ambitious one. His main premise is that modern Christianity (and, in particular, Evangelical Christian ecclesiology, exegesis, and theology proper) is fair game for review, rethinking, and revision. He writes,
As part of [the Protestant] tradition, I embrace the need to keep painting, to keep reforming. By this I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes ... I mean theology: the beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, the future. We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived, and explained."1
Right now, if you're anything like me, you're thinking, "Them is some mighty big britches for one man to fill."

But big britches or no, Bell does an admirable job of creating an accessible, interesting, and even compelling case for his postmodern Christian credo. He uses powerful metaphors to build his approach, and, rhetorically, his use of scripture to support his assertions is masterful (especially since his arguments are fairly certain to face vocal opposition from the "sola scriptura" crowd).

Despite Bell's implication that he will be shaking the very underpinnings of the Christian faith, his project is not one of overturning orthodoxy. Rather, he wants to shift the focus of what he sees as a dry, dull Christianity back to the things that made the teachings of Jesus so compelling:
  • His offer of access to an otherwise unknowable God
  • His promise to be our Way -- our only Way
  • His love for marginalized people
  • His genuine humanity (as seen in His anguished cry, "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?")
  • The transcendent love and joy He offers to those who follow Him2

After the first chapter (or "movement"), Bell does a series of close readings that interpret various teachings of Christ through a sociohistorical lens. In short, he brings historical knowledge to bear in his readings of Christ as one who consciously chose to teach within his own people's tradition: that of the Jewish rabbis.

For example, Bell reads the "yoke" of Christ in Matthew 11:30 as a technical rabbinical term referring to a rabbi's body of teaching. The "binding and loosing" of Matt. 16:19, again, is a technical rabbinical term referring to the strictness of a given rabbi's interpretation of the Torah. Again, these interpretations rely on extrabiblical knowledge, but Bell sees them as having a great deal to do with how Christians should read and apply Biblical truth. They also lead him to conclude that scriptural interpretation -- the binding and loosing and wrestling that are involved in exegesis -- are, or should be, a community-oriented endeavor. (The individualistic founders of the Reformation may now begin barrel-rolling in their respective Papally desecrated graves.)3

Bell goes on to argue that:

  • The world is full of God's truth -- even outside of Scripture and the lives of believers -- wherever there is Good or Right or Beauty (Movement Three)
  • The Bible teaches invaluable lessons for modern life, such as the practice of the Sabbath and the need for leaders to draw strength from the source they point everyone else toward (Movement Four)
  • God has a much higher opinion of people than we do of ourselves or of others (Movement Five)
  • God's work in our lives is to take the old us -- the real, old us, that was made in His image and then fell away -- and remake us. In essence, to repair us (Movement Six)
  • The Church's role is to be an agent of change and a conduit of God's Goodness to the world (Movement Seven)
So, then -- I'll answer the questions I raised earlier, since you're probably getting tired of my rambling and would like me to cut to the chase.

Is Rob Bell a heretic? Does he deny inerrancy, immutability, immaculate conception, and substitutionary atonement? In short, is this book teaching a new gospel?

The answer: no, not that I could see. In some areas, he dances toward the boundaries of orthodoxy, perhaps, but after prayer and close reading, I must say I did not find any false teaching in this book.

So what shocking thing did I find in this book? It was really, really encouraging to me. It made me love God more deeply and think about His word in new ways. In short, it is probably the most invigorating set of new ideas that my spirit has experienced in the past three years. I especially loved the way that Bell tries to reclaim the good things in the world -- the things which, after all, come from the unchanging Father of lights.

I don't agree with everything Bell writes, by any means. I'm not sure I buy his sociohistorical readings of the "yoke" and "binding and loosing" concepts. I'm also a little uncomfortable with the fact that he mentions atonement, sin, judgment, and redemption only in passing. Nonetheless, Bell has a refreshing perspective and a lot of important ideas. If you are a spiritually mature believer in Christ Jesus, read this book. At the very least, it'll give you something to think about.

(P.S.: No, he doesn't eat the souls of small children.)

1 Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2005, p. 12.
2 Ibid., pp. 20-36  
3 Ibid., pp. 66-69

06 July 2010

Writing and WRITING and Insurance, Oh My.

Disclaimer: All situations described in this post are purely hypothetical and/or fictional. They have no bearing on any real person(s), company(ies), or letter(s). Any resemblance to any actual person(s), company(ies), or letter(s) is strictly coincidental.

I read this rather fine essay / blogpost yesterday, and it made me want to write. A lot. So, as I sometimes do, I resolved to write more. And as usually happens, that resolve was crushed into a very fine powder this morning by the inexorable, repetitive pounding of my index finger on the snooze button of my alarm clock.

After getting to work late, I worked like a madman all day because we were a person short and had a killer backlog in the wake of the three-day weekend. I worked through my scheduled shift as well as an hour of thoroughly frustrating unpaid overtime, then returned home and began to mow my jungle of a lawn.

As I mowed, I pondered the question of why my writing resolutions always come to nothing. The following Compelling And Pithy Answer came to me: Those who write for a living have a difficult time writing for the love of it. Like it or not, I am one of the former. Until that changes, I will always have difficulty forcing myself to write for the love of writing.

This line of thought led me to reflect further on my Other Writing -- the Writing I don't normally discuss with others because it is part of my daily capitalistic transactions with The Man. And, quite frankly, writing doesn't get much duller and drier than Life Insurance Letters. My first instinct was to consider this whole written genre inferior, simplistic, and much too common to be worthy of any kind of extended cogitation. Life insurance company employees write things like:

Dear Mr. Smith:

We are sorry to learn of Harriet Smith. Please accept our sincere condolences and extend them to the family.

Our records indicate the policy's beneficiary is Bill Smith, husband of the insured. In order to pay the claim against this life insurance policy, we require the following:

  • An original certified death certificate indicating Ms. Smith's cause and manner of death. The certificate will be returned upon request, as we are unable to accept a photocopy.
  • A Claim Form completed by you as beneficiary.

For your convenience, a self-addressed return envelope has been enclosed. If you have any questions, please contact our claim representatives at 1-800-LIFE-INS.

Life Claims

Pretty prosaic, right? Bulleted, straightforward, written for the Lowest Common Denominator of readers. Certainly nothing my college English teachers would have given gold stars to.

But don't sell Life Insurance Letter-Writers short. They can be pretty suave and even artsy, in their own way, when the situation calls for it. For instance:

Dear Mr. Smith:

We value you as a customer and strive to provide you with exceptional customer service each and every time we do business with you. Please accept our sincere apologies for the problem that occurred with your policy's surrender check.

During a recent audit, it was discovered that you were inadvertently overpaid for the surrender of your policy. On June 1, 2010, a check in the amount of $20,000.00 was issued to you. According to our audit records, the correct surrender amount was $2,000.00.

We ask that the overpayment of $18,000.00 be returned to us. For your convenience, a self-addressed return envelope has been enclosed. If we do not hear from you within 30 days, this matter will be sent to our legal department for additional action.

Again, we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this problem may have caused. We also apologize for any incorrect information you previously may have received regarding this overpayment. If you have any questions, please contact our service representatives at 1-800-LIFE-INS.

Policyholder Services

Pretty straightforward, huh? You'd have to be pretty good at reading between the lines to guess that our hero(ine) is putting a brave face on the following facts:

  • The "audit" was just one of the guys in Finance who finally caught up on his suspense reconciliations and realized that an error had happened
  • The "inadvertent overpayment" occurred when a careless employee who had already given his two-week notice didn't stop to double-check the figures on a check he had requested (what a shock!)
  • The error should have been caught by Finance but never was because the ridiculously Byzantine approval process fosters a fiesta of feverish clicking rather than a rational review of each case
  • The customer had called in two weeks earlier to ask about the check and was assured that "everything is fine"
  • A week after that, a letter was sent informing the customer that he owed $1,800.00 for this overpayment
  • The letter-writer, having just spent an hour sorting out this issue and figuring out what the correct overpayment amount was, is tearing out his/her hair trying to leave his/her emotions out of this communiqué
  • There is no Legal Department, and if there was, they wouldn't touch this issue because they'd be afraid of complaints filed with the state insurance commission
  • The company doesn't utilize a collections agency for any overpayments under $20,000.00, so basically the letter-writer's only weapons are politeness and persistence

I hope you begin to see some of the artfulness and zeal that goes into this type of letter. They may not be pretty, but they can at least be functional.

In closing, I put the question to you, dear reader: With all the effort and emotional energy expended on cases like the one above, is it any wonder that people who have to write for a living have trouble writing simply for the love of it?

I thought not.