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


Unknown said...

I appreciate your thoughtful, well-organized, review of Bell's work. Cited, no less. The knee-jerk conservative response to Bell all too often is careless rejection. He clearly has points worth considering, perhaps even ones which might refresh our perception of God.

Liz said...

I wrote a thoughtful comment with 50-cent words and stuff, and Blogger proceeded to eat it. (TWICE.) So, I'll try again, more succinctly: what's the story behind the title?

luaphacim said...

Liz - sorry to hear Blogger ate your 50-cent words. It is a harsh mistress, and a ravenous one.

I had originally started my review with an explanation of the title, but I couldn't make it short and interesting enough, so I ended up cutting that out.

Basically, Bell writes about how he has a velvet painting of Elvis Presley in his basement. He talks about how all velvet Elvis paintings share some common features, but they are still distinct from each other.

Bell likens modern American Christianity to a specific painting of Elvis. He argues that, all too often, Christians defend their own velvet Elvis, proclaiming it to be the only valid one, even though it is really just a painting of something bigger. Bell's view is that there is room for other velvet Elvises and that these other "re-paintings" of Christianity help provide a better view of who God is and how Christians ought to follow Him.

He ends the first section of the book by saying something to the effect of "This is my velvet Elvis" -- essentially, a less threatening and "loaded" version of "This is my creed."

The brilliant thing about Bell's approach is that in the very definition of the argument, he demystifies theology and brings it to the level of something everyone can -- and should -- discuss, re-examine, and question. In so doing, he removes some of the home-court advantage of the seminary-trained "religious professionals" who hold such a large share of formulating theological ideas and deciding their orthodoxy or non-orthodoxy.

Liz said...

Interesting! I like that. I had sort of guessed at some of it (figuring velvet Elvis : the man himself :: various Christian sects : Christ himself), but the personal relationship aspect to it is particularly... not sure what word I want. Appealing, I suppose...

BeltaneTREX said...

Hi,luaphacim. With it now being a few years on from your original post on "Velvet Elvis," I'm curious what your take is on Bell after his post-Velvet book, "Love Wins" as well as his (as of yesterday-March 18, 2013)decision to endorse homosexual marriage? His direct quote on the latter is as follows: “I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”

Regarding "Love Wins," you will hear many critics of Bell refer to him as a "Universalist"-to which Rob would always deny in roundabout ways during interviews (see the Martin Bashir one for instance). I say "roundabout" because for a long time, before Rob left Mars Hill, he wouldn't 100% clarify what he meant in these public interviews, only that "no I am not a Universalist" and "God loves you and wants to meet you where you are...etc."

Though somewhat true in his "rejection" of the pure Universalist meaning of "all religious paths lead to God," he was and is playing with the strictest interpretation of that word. He is (when Love Wins is read carefully), what is referred to as a "Universal Reconciliationist."

There is a slick but glaringly important difference between the two (though both are ultimately heretical) because though "UnRec" still affirms that Jesus is the only way to God, and still champions the necessity of Jesus' death on the cross for human justification and still proclaims the existence of hell, what it ALSO states is that ultimately, everyone in the world's history will eventually be saved no matter what they did or believed on earth with the proviso that humanity's salvation will be through EVENTUALLY knowing and accepting Jesus/Yah'shua/Yah'weh as their savior after a "purification/teaching/reconciliation" period in hell (thus Bell is rendering hell into a pseudo purgatorial ideal).

Bell does this by cherry picking scripture and toying with the Bible's use of the Greek word/words "aion" and "ainos" which have the linguistic binary ability to either mean "eternal" or "a period of time." The word/words are used in well known passages like "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son..that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have [aion] life."

More specifically, in hell-related passages, Bell chooses to interpret aion as "a period of time" instead of "eternity" when looking at selected passages about the duration and nature of hell, so that it becomes a place of "pruning" and "correction" for the non-Christian souls. This of course, side steps many of the key verses in The Bible which speak of the eternal state of those who are saved and the misery and torment of those who are damned (i.e. Mathew 25:46 and Daniel 12: 2-3 for two examples).

Rob seems to be choosing the interpretation of the orignal languages but without framing the words in the context of what is being said around it...let alone turning away from the Biblical narrative's words on the world's Consummation.

It just seems to me that yes, indeed, "Velvet Elvis" was more ambiguous and seemingly God-glorifying in its expanded and re-vitalized notion of God's message and applicability to modern times and that it only hinted at a potentially slippery slope if Rob poked his feet a little bit too far out from where he was into the realm of "changing the Bible's core teachings and truths," but as of now, it appears he has proudly shirked the head-scratching suppositions of critics by diving straight in the the pool of heresy. That is my opinion and belief at this point anyways. But again, I would be curious to hear your assessment these 2 years or so after this post.

luaphacim said...

BeltaneTREX - Thanks for asking. The short answer is that I'm not sure how I feel about Bell now.

I haven't read all of Love Wins, mostly because I don't have the time right now. I also hesitate to pass judgment on work I haven't read, so my assessment of that book would really have to wait until it makes its way to the top of my reading list.

From what I have heard from Bell himself in various interviews and excerpts, I will say that he seems very close to leaving orthodoxy behind. That saddens me, because I think that new ideas within the pale of orthodoxy make the Church stronger.

Nonetheless, I don't think I would quite break fellowship with him over disagreement on the point of Universal Reconciliation. I don't find this doctrine any more offensive than some extreme brands of Calvinism. To my way of thinking, it would be hypocritical to reject Bell while still tolerating others whose soteriology I find erroneous. If anything, I would rather allow for the possibility that the love of Christ is more powerful than I believe, and not less.

As for homosexual marriage: I know good-hearted, genuine believers in Christ who interpret the Bible's proscription of homosexuality differently than I do, and I respect their right to do so. This doesn't mean I am an advocate of gay marriage, but I'm not going to brand someone as a heretic for thinking it might be compatible with Christianity.

An aside: I feel that Evangelical Christianity has been tolerating heterosexual divorce, infidelity, and immorality for so long that it doesn't really have much moral ground to oppose homosexual marriage at this point. I think if the Church ever manages to deal with the log in its own eye, then it might have more success with the speck in the world's eye.