on December 20, 2005
First off, I am somewhere between a 4 and a 5 (call it 9 of 10) on Velvet Elvis, though my tilt moved it up to a 5.
From reading this book, I see that Rob is really trying to "jump-start" the conversation about what faith is and is not, and to help those of us in Gens Y&X - inheritors of the post-modern worldview which incubated in the 60's - see how the Jesus is just as relevant today as he was in His own time.
My favorite quote: Christian is a great noun but a poor adjective.Too often, the church of the previous generation has been too accepting of mediocrity in a plethora of areas because the label "Christian" has been slapped on the package (whether it's music, media, or day-to-day programs/initiatives).
While I do not agree with him on everything (I think he could have expanded on many of his ideas to give them clarity and to cut down on misunderstanding. Granted, from reading many of the other reviews, it seems some people deliberately misunderstand and take Mr. Bell's positions to illogical extremes), I believe that he is on the mark with what is required for the church to remain relevant and resonant with today's Western culture.
From reading VE, I don't think he was saying that the Bible isn't 100% true - I think he was suggesting that it is pretty arrogant of any one person to assume that they know what "100% true" is. Western thinkers, who see things in literal definitions and bullet points, have a difficult time reconciling this concept - particularly when it deals with a book (actually a collection of books) written primarily to an Eastern audience, whose world-view is shaped by experiential learning, based on what can be seen, heard and touched.
For example, Westerners look at Genesis and many will insist that the story of creation HAD TO BE a literal 7-day process. The contextual view stresses the importance of "God created..." with the rest being a story of how it came about - in an experiential manner. Do I think the world was created in 7 days or that it came about via a gradual process over billions of years? I don't know, but all that matters is that God created it, and the story we have about that creation can be interpreted many ways. So, if I am inclined to believe that God may have created the world in something other than 7 literal days, and you are inclined to believe it happened in 7 literal days, does that mean that one of us doesn't believe that the Bible is 100% true? From my reading of Rob's thesis, the answer is no. Now, if taken to extremes, I agree that his thesis can be misused (and should have been more clear) if you were to say that God created it in 7 days whereas I said that Allah created it per the story in the Koran and that neither of us could know what is true - because Allah and YHWH are not one in the same and my view would say that the Bible is not true, since I would be denying the point of the Genesis story (i.e. "God created").
One of the earlier posters seemed to sum up most of the criticisms of Velvet Elvis as:
1. Is anti-orthodoxy:
2. Is light on biblical content
3. Seems to promote Rob Bell and his church more than Jesus
4. Causes people to doubt their faith
5. Divides Christians against one another
6. Is so "hip" and "cool" that even non-Christians love it
7. Ridicules people who hold a solid view of Scripture and who seek to defend it; such people are guilty of "brickianity" in Bell-speak
8. Allows contemporary culture to interpret and set the standards for the Bible rather than letting the Bible interpret and set the standards for contemporary culture
9. Promotes (and even rewards!) a lack of critical thinking; instead it praises emotion and feelings above all else
While I'm not a Rob Bell "junkie" by any means, I have to say that I disagree wholeheartedly with almost every one of these arguments, as they don't really mesh with the reality of what is written, unless what Rob wrote is purposely misconstrued.
"1. Is anti-orthodoxy"
It is only anti-orthodoxy if you view traditions or traditional teachings not contained in the text of the Bible as "orthodox".
"Binding and Loosing" is a concept that was present in the first century, and is to be done communally based on the yoke of the accepted Rabbi. This isn't unorthodox - even the first century church in Jerusalem practiced this when making their suggestions on what parts of the Torah must be obeyed by Gentiles.
"2. Is light on biblical content"
It is light on QUOTED Biblical content, but his endnotes are rife with scripture, and his arguments are sound based upon his interpretation of scripture (which I, in reading his references, tend to agree with).
"3. Seems to promote Rob Bell and his church more than Jesus"
This seems to be a really twisted argument. Some critics say that he didn't really write enough about Mars Hill & how it started (charging false humility), whereas others say it was all about Mars Hill. From both of my readings of VE, I would say that he was pretty effective at minimizing his own "importance" and that when he used himself or Mars Hill, it was only for the purpose of laying a foundation for his stories, not to boast.
The Purpose-driven Church and PDL are both widely used resources which I have found valuable, and I think that Rick Warren and Saddleback are showcased in these books far more than Rob Bell and Mars Hill in VE. If he is going to write from his heart, you can't say he can't talk about himself or his experience, or you're robbing him of the stories he needs to be able to write.
"4. Causes people to doubt their faith"
I don't think "doubt" is the right word. I think "question" would be better, and that if you changed that word, that this would be OK. As he argues, questioning in Jesus time - and now - is a good thing, because it makes both the questioner and the questionee stronger. It is only if the "questioning" is done on the personal level and the questions are never asked that this is a problem.
5. Divides Christians against one another
Christians have been doing a fine enough job of this for centuries. If you take a stand on any issue within the church, you're pretty much guaranteeing that someone will disagree with you. Should we "be all things to all people" or should we insist that the Velvet Elvis - that is, the church of the past generation - is the only Way? Rob Bell's interpretation of scripture (100% true, though we may not know exactly what the "truth" was to the writer at the time it was written) seems much more in line with Jesus teaching than the rigid interpretation of "100% truth" many arrogant churches seem to push. It seems that Rob's interpretation should logically lead to more Christians agreeing to disagree and to debate where those disagreements occur than a rigid set of beliefs that insist their Way is the true way and all others are off the path.
"6. Is so "hip" and "cool" that even non-Christians love it"
Isn't the Gospel supposed to be "Good news", or was I taught wrong all those years ago? Shouldn't Jesus be as relevant to people today as he was 20 years, 200 years or 2000 years ago?
"7. Ridicules people who hold a solid view of Scripture and who seek to defend it; such people are guilty of "brickianity" in Bell-speak"
See my comments under #5 - I don't see him as ridiculing the "brickians" as much as he is warning against this way of thought, as it seeks to put limits on God. C.S. Lewis makes this same allegorical observation in The Last Battle (book 7 of the Chronicles of Narnia) with the dwarves who can't see anyone else in "heaven" because of their closed-mindedness.
The word "ridiculing" here is only applicable in that is it being used to attempt to "ridicule" Rob's view. His view is much more inclusive and in line with his Rabbis' yoke than the "brickian" view, which is to be pitied - not ridiculed.
"8. Allows contemporary culture to interpret and set the standards for the Bible rather than letting the Bible interpret and set the standards for contemporary culture."
I will totally agree with the argument that contemporary culture should NOT set standards for the Bible, but the Bible should set standards for those living in that culture. However, I don't think Rob Bell goes this far in Velvet Elvis, though as I stated earlier in this review, I think he could have been more clear on this point.
From both of my readings of VE, my take on Bell's view is that he sees Paul's admonishment of "being all things to all people" as being a reason we need to evaluate the culture and separate that which is sin from that which is just different, and not to equate that which is different with that which is sinful (the very heart of legalism). It is the legalism of the church and the hiprocisy of those in church leadership who don't meet up to their own legalistic standards which seem most often to drive people away from the church. What Bell suggests, though, requires a great deal of discernment to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater - to use an applicable cliche.
"9. Promotes (and even rewards!) a lack of critical thinking; instead it praises emotion and feelings above all else"
Once again, the books that make up the Bible were written primarily to an Hebrew audience, whose learning style was one of experience and emotion, and not to a Greek audience, which values logic over emotion and concept over experience. In Velvet Elvis, Bell stresses the Hebrew roots of Christianity, and this is one of those places where he could have talked more about a need for balancing both the Hebrew (experiential) and Greek (logical) views of our walk.
All in all, this is one of the most thought-provoking books I've read in the past year (with Gladwell's "Blink" being the other).
on July 23, 2005
After reading this book - in a day - I knew that if I read the Amazon.com reviews, they would be either 5 stars or 1 stars. R.Bell really goes out on a limb, and will probably be hearing from both reviewers personally. Some will think he is spreading terrible ideas, while others will think he really gets at their heart.
If you read the book, and I do recommend it, you have to be prepared to be challenged. I have sat under Rob's teaching for 4 years, and every chapter's main point I have wrestled with myself already. And I do mean wrestled with. Rob seems to like to walk to the edge of the cliff (metaphorically speaking), look over, and return to safe ground. It's somewhat scary for a dogmatic like myself, but can be freeing.
If you want to knee jerk react, you will have a lot to react to, but if you seek to understand the points, you will be challenged. Just because Rob takes it to the edge, does not mean he does not hold as strongly to True doctrine as Calvin, Luther, or St. Paul himself.
The idea of the book is not to re-prove theological points (that's been done in thousands of other books) but to walk the reader through a movement....the whole Christian movement as well as your own personal movement as lived out in Christ (he uses his own life experiences through out.)
In the end, if you are looking for a strong systematic theology, your looking in the wrong place. If you are looking for how theology lives itself out in every day life, you may have the right book.
You will have to respond, however, and my guess is you will be either a 1 star reader, or a 5....
Rob Bell has challenge me personally to seek answers to some very tough questions. For the past 4 years I have read countless original source material, studied Archeology, learned some Hebrew, read what writers and teachers were teaching that were Jesus' contemporaries to better understand why Jesus said and did certain things. All because of Rob's teaching.
I have a far more complete and real relationship with the Messiah now then ever before. At one point I went up to Rob and said, "I really am upset with you...." "Why?" "Because I had it all figured out before, and then you came a long." "Do you love Jesus more now then before?" (I thought for a second) "Well, yes I do actually, quite a bit more." "Then I guess I'm doing my job."
on August 1, 2005
I grew up in the church, going on mission trips, serving faithfully, and somehow thinking I had to be anti-intellectual if I really wanted to follow Jesus. Then I attended an evengelical Christian college that taught me how to think and have faith at the same time. But after college some of the teachings and practices of the church just didn't seem to add up anymore. I faced this cognitive disonance between what I was practicing and what I was thinking. I knew I loved Jesus and wanted to follow Him at all costs, but I wasn't sure any more what that meant exactly. I had questions, I was struggling, and (except for a small group of very trusted friends), didn't feel I was "allowed" to raise those questions or voice my doubts in the context of the church.
Thank goodness for Christian thinkers like Rob Bell (and a growing list of others) who are changing that. And thank goodness for a book like Velvet Elvis that raises more questions than it gives answers. I want a God that I'm allowed to question (like Job did). I want a God that I'm allowed to wrestle with (like Jacob did, earning the name "Israel" - literally "wrestles with God"). If the God I follow could be summed up in a 400 page book on systematic theology, I'd be a little disappointed by the lack of "greatness" of that God. Velvet Elvis is an invitation to explore a God that is bigger than systematic theology, an invitation to "rediscover wonder and awe" (177).
The author does a superb job at the beginning explaining that his is not the last word on God - any more than a velvet Elvis painting is the last word on art. It is simply his humble and meager attempt (as his own metaphor would suggest) to add to the conversation, to cause people to question, and to lead people to wonder if the "traditional" version of evangelical (and maybe especially fundamentalist) Christianity has been selling God short. Along the way, Bell uses his knowledge of Scripture and the historical context of the Old and New Testaments to prove that his opinion is one informed by careful (and prayerful) reading and study.
I am sure this book will not be for everyone. I'm sure there are some people who will be uncomfortable with the implications of what it would mean to follow Jesus in a new, fresh way. My hope is that those people can read this book and, instead of detracting from it or its author, rejoice that people are reading it and excited about following Jesus because of it. Hopefully, people will be more excited about others discovering the One who called Himself the Truth than they will care about the importance of everyone subscribing to their version of "the truth" (and yes, I use a little "t," believing that, though it exists, only God has the version with the big "T"). I hope that Rob's critics will join with Paul in rejoicing to see Jesus being preached, even if it is not in the way they would do it.
And for everyone else, read and enjoy Velvet Elvis and the invitation to discover Jesus in a fresh and exciting way.
on September 6, 2006
American pastor Rob Bell is a leader in the Emerging Church movement, and this book seeks to apply the principles of postmodernism to the contemporary church. The result is a mixed bag. Much of the book is simply a call to love Jesus more, to rediscover the wonder and mystery of the faith. As such, it is just another book on Christian living, and cannot really be faulted. But it is the over-reliance on the postmodernist framework that is cause for concern.
This comes out most clearly when Bell speaks of our understanding of scripture and truth. Consider statements such as this: "we have to be honest about our interpretations. Everybody's interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. Nobody is objective"
Here the PoMo/DeCon idea that there is only interpretation, never final and knowable truth, is unnecessarily embraced. Yes, it is always true that none of us have the whole picture, that all our views will be slanted to a degree. Given that we are fallen and finite, this must be so. And we did not need postmodernism to tell us that.
Yet what about the other side of the coin? What about the many passages which speak of truth, and our ability to know it, and seek after it, albeit imperfectly? What about where it says that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth? Is there no place for objective truth?
Again, no one has all the truth, and all of us need each other as we seek truth. But the overemphasis on our inability to fully understand God's word, to fully comprehend truth, is simply unbalanced. We acknowledge our need to be humble, to be constantly on our knees, to recognise our limits, yes. But we also have a God who is true, and who seeks to convey truth to us.
Bell also speaks of the need to be content with wonder, with mystery, with uncertainty. Again, in one sense this is quite correct. None of us have God all figured out. None of us have a corner on the truth, and too often we try to rationalise and intellectualise our faith. There is a place for mystery and even mysticism. And whole chunks of the church have long embraced this, such as our Eastern Orthodox brethren.
But this must not be allowed to get out of balance. God has revealed true truth to us, and it is often propositional in format. There is a place for doctrine, for theology, for the use of the mind. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water here, but find the biblical balance.
Unfortunately, it is often just not clear what Bell is getting at in this book. At times, for example, he seems to be making the case that all truth is God's truth. This expression, when rightly understood, is something we can affirm. If something is true, then God is the author of it. But Bell's unwillingness to commit to any propositional forms of truth, and his idea that all interpretation is ultimately relative and subjective, leaves one in a morass of uncertainty as to ever finding any truth. Or it allows any truth claim and experience to go unchecked.
Indeed, he seems to wander here and there, taking pot-shots at orthodox Christianity, our understanding of truth, the place of reason, and the nature of Scripture. One is not quite sure where he actually stands on many of these issues. Often vague and confused statements are made, leaving the reader unclear as to just what is being claimed.
This can be found in various passages throughout the book. At one point Bell makes this startling assertion: "we got the Bible from the church voting on what the Bible even is". This sounds like something found in the Da Vinci Code. It is simplistic at best and mischievous at worst. While the story of canonisation is a complex one, the early church recognised the authority of what became the New Testament documents over a period of time. They did not vote on this, nor arbitrarily pick and choose.
And consider this someway puzzling remark: "Whatever those things are that make you feel fully alive and like the universe is ultimately a good place and you are not alone" He says these moments "are a part of our faith." Taken at face value, we could decipher this to suggest someone experiencing an hallucinogenic drug trip is taking part in biblical faith.
This kind of vague and imprecise meandering runs throughout the book. The reaction often is, Just what is he on about? If by the above remark he means something like what C.S. Lewis wrote about when he spoke of experiences of joy as signposts to God, then this is not problematic. But it is often unclear just what Bell is trying to get at, and so he opens himself up to all kinds of weird and whacky ideas, that seem to veer way off line.
But given his insistence that all forms of interpretation may be equally valid, I suppose if a drug user wants to find comfort in his remarks, he is entitled to do so.
In the end, the reader may be challenged in their faith because of this book. I hope so. But for this reader, the book was simply confusing, imprecise, lacking in direction and ultimately frustrating. Perhaps that is just me. But if I had to suggest a title to give someone to encourage them in their walk with God, I am afraid this would not be it.
on October 9, 2012
I have been studying the book Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell and find there to be very concerning approaches to doctrine that undermine essential Christian doctrine and leave a young Christian with more questions than answers. Several key doctrines are challenged while he gives lip service to orthodoxy.The doctrine of the trinity is challenged as not being biblical and not existing in the bible. He says God as Spirit is a man made idea rather than the teaching of Jesus.
It is Jesus who called God his Father and told us of the coming Comforter who would not come until he returned to the Father. In John 14:16 you have Jesus praying to the Father and saying " I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever- The Spirit of Truth." Now how can Bell say " this three-in-oneness began to emerge several hundred years after the resurrection." In John 1:18 " No one has ever seen God but God the only Son has made Him known to us. Now if Bell thinks that John was written several hundred years after the resurrection then we have a problem. This is faulty exegesis and sloppy theology that leads the young believer to think the Trinity is a man made concept. It only serves Bell to express his own interpretation of scripture. Bell later says God had no intention of sharing his absoluteness with anything and yet we see God sharing his absoluteness with us specifically in time and space. We have seen Jesus in Colossians 1:15 " He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation."This word image is not used lightly. It means exacted likeness, representation of, on account of his moral authority and divine nature. The whole idea of the incarnation is God the Son stepping out of eternity into our realm and living as a man so we can behold the glory of God and be saved by his love at Calvary. All the fullness of God dwelt in bodily form. Col. 1:19 This is the miracle, the wonder, the marvelous that gets our imagination swirling. This is no brick. It is the truth of scripture. Yet, with the truth Bell does not seemed to be concerned. He makes up history and makes false statements about what the bible does and doesn't teach. He is like a bad kid who gets all the attention in the classroom. I think he gets that and sells more books by being provocative.
He also tears down words as being impossible to describe God and yet that is in fact the essence of the bible being God's Word not man's words. We believe the bible to be the word of God given to us by God for our correction, teaching and admonishment. (2Tim 3:16) Bell does not take the time to elevate or distinguish between the two. In John 1:1 John calls Jesus the Logos of God. Words are how ideas become reality. Words are how God expresses his reality. The Father Son and Spirit are Gods expression of reality. By saying words are not absolutes he is leaving the impression words are insufficient and yet God gave us language and words to express ourselves and to worship him. When I say you are a pig when you are not a pig then I have not expressed reality. When I say you are a person I express reality. My expression is enough to describe reality. When I say Jesus is Lord I am expressing enough of God's reality to satisfy God when it comes to faith. God cares deeply about words. Our worship is made up of words set to music. It is the words that exalt and magnify the reality of God. Bell wants us to think of God as beyond all expression which is noble but false. God wants us to see him in the expression of Father Son and Spirit. That is too limiting for Bell. Perhaps Bell should write an entire book in a heavenly language and see how many books he sells.
on March 19, 2008
Time magazine recently called Rob Bell "The Hipper-Than-Thou-Pastor" (Thursday, Dec. 06, 2007). This, along with the fact that his influence seems to only be growing, led me to read his book Velvet Elvis. Since it has been done, there seems to be little need for a comprehensive book review. But as I read Velvet Elvis I became personally motivated to do my part and duty as a pastor and expose some of the dangerous content lurking behind Bell's hip veneer.
Based upon what I read in Bell's book, he is both funny and hip. I say this because he made me laugh and because he does cool things like play in a punk band and surf (even the infamous Trestles!).
Continuing on with the positives, Bell seems sincere and appropriately calls for Christians to love those in need (not just fellow Christians) as is called for in the second greatest commandment. This is a great point and something that needs to be said and re-said before being said once more.
So with a hip rock dude writing a book addressing the need for Christians to act more like Jesus, why the anger on my part? Here are some of the reasons:
Rob Bell makes me mad because he preaches an anti-gospel. He craftily does this by portraying the essence of Christianity as following Jesus and treating people the way Jesus did. While this is important, living the "Jesus life" is not the essence of Christianity and neither is obeying the commands of Jesus (as important as that is). The essence of Christianity centers upon the work of Christ on behalf of sinners (i.e. substitutionary atonement). This is the matter of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3) that was the prioritized message of Jesus' apostles (e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:2). Missing this is no small oversight by Bell. It is missing that which is of first importance! Over and over again he talks about living the way of Jesus and being like Jesus, but without the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus' work! This is scandalous.
Rob Bell makes me mad because he writes off the virgin birth of Jesus as non-essential (pp. 26-27). You heard right, he writes off the virgin birth of Jesus as not essential! To state the obvious, this is entirely out of step with the Bible. Sure, one can redress and then mimic once-trendy quasi arguments by unbelievers about the word used for virgin in Isaiah 7:14 possibly meaning young woman. But the New Testament leaves no wiggle-room on the intent and therefore meaning of the word. We know this because the Isaiah text is quoted and essentially interpreted in the New Testament. In Matthew 1:23-25 the word virgin is used twice and shown by the context to mean virgin in the classic sense of the term. To ignore this is to show gross negligence which seems to depend upon an assumed biblical illiteracy by his readers. Far from being not essential, the biblical reality of Christ's virgin birth is vital to His unique status as the sinless God-Man. As troubling as this unorthodox teaching by Bell is, he commits a more dangerous foul. Bell continues with arguments against the virgin birth of Jesus followed by an attempt to defuse would-be critics by slipping in a token affirmation. Bell professes to be a Christian. But given his disregard for Christian doctrine, the name "poser" comes to mind (borrowing an old title from the punk rock scene).
Rob Bell makes me mad because he downplays the vital role of conversion. In a horrible overreaction against professing Christians wrongly not being compassionate, Bell says "the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people..." (p. 167). He then proceeds to establish a supporting argument that would surely set well with most anyone who is either ignorant of or ignoring what Jesus says in John 3--unless someone is converted, they will not see the light of day in the kingdom! Bell's tactic is entirely unacceptable and irresponsible, but dare I say, fits with his mimicking the likes of the quintessential theological liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). Certainly Christians must love those in need if they are going to truly follow Christ. But such love is to augment the need to proclaim a gospel of repentance which calls for conversion according to Jesus.
Rob Bell makes me mad because he does violence to the clear words of Jesus. On page 21 for example, when he talks about Jesus' claims of exclusivity in John 14:6, he spins them to mean something other than what they clearly say and have been recognized as saying by Christians throughout the ages. At first I was surprised at how much Bell sounded like a radical theological liberal like Marcus Borg, but then I saw that the very first endnote in the book was an unqualified recommendation of a book by Borg! Bell's recommended reading on his church's web site promotes reading by John Dominic Crossan, the former co-director of the Jesus Seminar, so endorsing Borg is not a matter of isolation. Such men have a reputation for shamelessly doing violence to Jesus and His gospel.
Rob Bell makes me mad because he is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. I am not suggesting that churches with "Bible Church" in the name are anything special per se, but historically they have not been places where things like the virgin birth is considered non-essential. In my estimation this is downright deceptive.
A New Dress
Simply put, Rob Bell is a theological liberal resembling the mainline denominations of the early 1900s. The difference is that Bell is sporting a fashionable new dress or in his case, a new pair of geek-chic glasses.
If J. Gresham Machen were alive today, I suspect he would do what he did with Bell's theological predecessors. Machen would remind him that while he has the freedom to start a new religion, he really should call it something other than Christian given that his religion does not resemble what Christ actually established as recorded in the Christian book, the Bible.
In my opinion, the reason this book is resonating with so many is because we have seen the evangelical church abandon the Evangel Himself. Yes, much of evangelicalism is empty because the Evangel of our evangelicalism is gone or as David Wells so aptly put it: He has been dislodged from its center. Couple this with a general ignorance of the Bible and church history and you have a book like Velvet Elvis actually seen as publishable by a "Christian" publisher and selling as if it were something novel and good.
Because I love the Evangel of the Bible and therefore historic Christianity, I guess it is off to anger management class for me.
on December 8, 2007
In "Velvet Elvis" Rob Bell makes a needed call to the Church. He asserts that we need to rethink the implications of Christian truth on the lives of us those who follow Jesus, and on those who are not following Him. With a flair for making history and theology meld together understandably Bell guides the reader through a process of questioning and affirming what Christians believe and hold dear, then applying what he learns to life, friendships, politics, the environment, and an assortment of other issues. This is not a comfortable process, but many will find it useful.
However, a weakness of this book is Bell's penchant to use the poor illustrations of people he disagrees with (like Christian truth being a brick wall in which if you take one piece of truth out, like the virgin birth of Christ, it weakens the entire wall) and replacing them with equally weak illustrations (like Christianity being like a trampoline that will survive even if you take out a spring, like the virgin birth) and building an argument on them. What you get is what seems to be sound observations that can lead to some pretty bad theology if taken to their logical conclusion. Think about it, if you deny the virgin birth you weaken the Church's claims for the divinity of Jesus, and even though that may not weaken the faith of some, it sure would lead to the weakening of the underpinnings of "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Use caution, keep your bible close to hand, and keep your brain turned on while you read this.
As far as presentation goes, if you have heard Rob Bell speak then you will recognize the cadence of his spoken words in the text of this book. It is packaged in an unconventional style that is cool and comfortable, unless you are stickler for grammar and format in which case the physical presentation and writing style of the book will annoy you.
Over all I give this book a three b/c it needs to be read by mature Christians as a wake-up call to re-engage in their questioning of what they believe. However, this is not something I would recommend to seekers or young Christians b/c of the dangerous places this could lead them.
on September 18, 2008
Two things I like about this book are (1) it does a great job of encouraging people to be more like Jesus, to live the way Jesus taught us to live, and (2) it brings some new perspectives and makes the reader think.
Velvet Elvis is difficult to review because it bounces around a lot of topics and it is hard to tell where Rob Bell is going with it. The difficulty starts with the title. There's no Velvet Elvis in the Bible, and there aren't other books about Velvet Elvis. The best clue you can get from the title is that sometimes Bell is not going to just come out and say, directly, what he has to say. The title comes from a painting in Bell's basement that is dated. Bell asserts that a painter can't paint a velvet Elvis, then say "No one can ever paint anything again because I painted the velvet Elvis and there is nothing left to paint." No theologian can write a book on theology, then say "No one can ever come out with a new interpretation of the Bible, because all of the true interpretations have already been written." There are always new painters making new paintings. In the introduction and first chapter, Bell says that from time to time someone comes along and presents new interpretations of the Bible, and now Bell is that someone. In about 30 A.D., Jesus was that someone. His authority was established at His baptism, by John and by God (the Father). Bell bases his authority on Matthew 16:19 (and 18:18), "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."
Velvet Elvis has an introduction, seven chapters (Bell calls them movements) and an epilogue. It is difficult to discern a unifying theme. It is like a bunch of thinly related (sometimes unrelated) essays. In most of the essays, you learn that a lot of Christians have it wrong, or do it wrong, but usually the solution is not clear. The most frequent theme is that we should be more like Jesus, we should want to live our lives according to His teachings, because that is the best way to live. The trouble is that Bell does not teach a high view of the reliability and authority of the Bible, and he injects doubt in theologians that have gone before him, so we are led to doubt what Jesus really taught. For example, "They aren't first and foremost timeless truths" and "When people say that all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true." (Page 62, 68)
Rob Bell is angry with a lot of Christians. Christians whose faith is like bricks - hard and solid. Bell prefers a faith that is like trampoline springs - flexible and able to make us jump higher. Bell says that belief in the virgin birth of Jesus is a brick, and what if it could be proved that Jesus had a human father? Maybe the Bible lies about that, or maybe the word virgin, in the first century, meant a woman who became pregnant the first time she had intercourse. But on page 31, he quotes Mary, from the Bible, saying "But how can this be? I'm a virgin". There can be no doubt about the meaning of the Greek word that is translated as virgin. Mary affirmed that she had never known a man, so she can't see how she be pregnant. This is the low point of the book. I think about the apostles. Didn't they have faith that was more like bricks than trampoline springs? When Paul was beaten and stoned and shipwrecked and imprisoned, yet kept faithful, didn't he have some bricks of faith? If faith is all trampoline springs and no bricks, you can pick and choose what you want to believe, perhaps using some Bible verses as a guide, and you can create your own religion. That is really close to what the Old Testament calls idolatry, something that man creates and worships. I tried to find out what denomination Bell's church is, and it appears to be non-denominational. Which means there is no earthly authority over Bell's teaching, so he has enormous freedom to interpret the Bible. Maybe Bell teaches the truth, but I worry about a pastor who has so much independence.
Maybe you don't think Bell is angry. And maybe he isn't. But he says "sometimes when I hear people quote the Bible, I just want to throw up" and "this view of the Bible is warped and toxic, to say the least" and "it leads to a very destructive reading of the Bible that robs it of its life and energy" and "drop once and for all the Bible-as-owner's-manual metaphor. It's terrible. It really is." (Page 42, 53, 54, 62.) I wonder why it sometimes makes Bell want to throw up when people quote the Bible. He doesn't tell us. There are lots of points he starts to make, and then just doesn't follow through. He leaves it vague enough that the reader can understand it to mean something that he agrees with.
This is a complex book and requires some Christian maturity to sort it out. It is best read by those who have a broad and deep understanding of the Bible and Christian theology. It should not be the first Christian book you read, or it will bewilder you and might lead you to conclusions that even Rob Bell did not intend.
on September 5, 2005
Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. 194 pages.
Velvet Elvis invites us to the pathos of the Christian faith. It reminds us that faith is about life, about redemption, about forgiveness. The book, if nothing else, is refreshing.
It is a story for people who are exhausted by their own efforts and want to be renewed by something beyond themselves. It is theologically merciful, meaning that the book asks next to nothing of us, while it relates to the fact that we've spent all we had getting to where we are. One more requirement would be too many, so Bell is nice to us.
It is the voice of the age. It is environmentalist, appealing to the systematically-college-educated, and tired of Boomers. It is spiritual and even Christian while decrying the preachy and inauthentic. Bell at one point asks us, "Are you smoking what you're selling?" You sense he could probably be more crass if he didn't have an editor and an audience.
The unique appeal of Rob Bell is his curiosity with first century Judaism and its effects on the New Testament letters. Despite the weakness that vastly different strands of Jewish thought are attributed to the anonymous, "ancient rabbis," he taps into the American fascination with "secrets" behind the Bible. The same urge that made us read the Da Vinci Code makes us listen to Rob Bell-he seems to know something that 2000 years of history have missed. He at one point overstates his point, saying that reading the Bible without a knowledge of the first century is "lethal," apparently a tragedy for those third world readers who don't have access to Bell's education. Nonetheless, we can't help but be engaged with his studies. This is his mysticism.
The weaknesses of the book all derive from this mysticism. Bell doesn't want to take too many stands, and seems unaware of the fact that the culture around him is going to require some definitive answers of him. He insists that any reading of the Bible is only an interpretation and not the objective truth. But he seems naïve to the overused observation that you cannot make such definitive statements without depending on some kind of objective truth. Clearly he thinks he is objectively correct in saying so.
His core theology seems to consist of the epistemically unfounded doctrines: Jesus is cool, God is awesome, Jewish history is cool. It's not really clear why I should be interested in Jesus or believe the Bible to be anything more than complex myth-making. He cites the example of a woman in his congregation who had been practicing witchcraft but can't stop coming to his church. This is about as much credit as Bell gives us. We're assumed to be too stupid to ask the question, "So how do you know?" He even undermines himself here, showing how any rational person could believe that the virgin birth is a myth, and then arbitrarily affirms the doctrine. I don't think most of us will follow him down the path of blind theology. It's going to become even harder for him to stay where he is when we ask some simple, common questions like: "Can the pastor be gay? Is the church that refuses women pastors wrong?" etc.
His theology is pleasantly free from blame. He says that he can't find any place in the Bible where we are to identify ourselves first and foremost as sinners (though that in fact is the whole foundation of the book of Romans). Sin, generally, falls to the wayside in Bell's theology. Perhaps the most sad example of this (p 92) is Bell's willingness to do a wedding for people who don't want him to talk about God or Jesus but just make the wedding spiritual. One could analogize this to a doctor who is willing to forego medicine to make his patients more comfortable.
The high points of the book are two. First, there is a whole-hearted rejection of the boomer churches that gave Bell birth. He overturns the tables of the seeker-sensitive, numbers-oriented churches (p 99). And yet, he never seems to hold to his affirmations. He says he hates marketing for churches, and he hates numbers. Then he goes on to tell us how many people come to his church, and he hides the true marketing that got his church started. To read VE, it seems that Bell just started a church without telling anyone, and 1000 people came the first Sunday to find a staff already in place. He never mentions Ed Dobson's influence on him. Somehow I think he's not telling the whole story. It reads like the calling of the disciples, where Jesus just says, "Follow me," and they go. Nonetheless, the story concludes with Bell's own exhaustion and his exhortation that we kill the superwhatever that drives us to success. Bell says he had to take superpastor out back and kill it (p 116). May all readers cheer.
The second high point is that God's presence is so strong in creation that missionaries need only have better eyesight than others. Missionaries simply see God whether other people have missed him (p 88).
I have a feeling this book may sell the way Bell's church grew. Everyone knew him beforehand through his speaking engagements at Willow Creek and the National Youth Workers' Conventions, but in the end, he can say it just sold like crazy with no advertising. It's so mysterious, he will tell us.
on July 18, 2006
The main theme of this book seems to be that of discovery and recognizing how big God really is. While Bell occasionally reminds the reader that he adheres to 'orthodox' Christian faith, he recognizes that these are human concepts to wrap our minds around something that ultimately we can't understand. His first example is the Trinity, a theological concept that appears nowhere by name in the Bible, but emerged from a human experience and understanding of God.
Bell approaches the Bible the same way. He presents his belief that the Bible was written by humans and wanted to make certain points and wrote from certain perspectives. He presents 5-6 literary techniques used by Biblical authors to make their points, such as the sequence of events in Mark's passion narrative as parallel to what happened in a coronation ceremony (of course, one may want to investigate these on their own and come to their own conclusions). Bell begins his chapter on the Bible by questioning how the story of mass slaughter in the story of Jericho could have been God-inspired. While he doesn't explicitly resolve this for the reader, he later presents a rabbinic belief that one does not yet fully understand a particular scripture, but gives thanks that s/he may one day understand. Bell implies that this story of mass murder is inspired somehow, but he doesn't yet understand how. This is, in my experience, a common way to apologize for the text without really committing to saying 'yes' or 'no.' All in all, Bell believes that the Bible is a set of narratives to be experienced rather than a list of proposals. He outright rejects the 'instruction manual' metaphor, stating that you only get out your toaster's instruction manual when the toaster is broken. He wants to suggest that the Bible is more than that, which is probably why he seeks to redeem texts such as Jericho.
Bell presents one other idea that I think is worth mentioning in this limited space. He compares Christian faith to jumping on a trampoline as opposed to building a wall. In the case of the latter, the bricks are fixed in place, to be defended, and to keep out undesirables. If one brick gets chipped the whole thing falls down. In the case of the former, one doesn't defend the trampoline...one invites others to jump with them because it's so wonderful. Plus, jumping on the trampoline is doing and experiencing something rather than sitting and talking about how right you are.
The book is far from perfect. Bell sometimes tries to sound profound, but can veer into pretty phrases that don't mean anything, i.e., 'The mystery is the truth.' At other times, he presents some fairly elaborate theories with minimal information in the footnotes. In one instance, he presents a long explanation of what it meant to follow a rabbi in 1st Century Palestine, and most of his footnotes are from the Gospels, and the one exception can be summed up as follows: 'My friend told me all this. Here's his website.' That doesn't seem like a hard list of resources to me. Finally, Bell seems to want so badly to remain in traditional evangelical claims while attempting a Blue Like Jazz-type critique at the same time. Sometimes it just doesn't work. One example is the Jericho text above. Another is his re-conceptualizing of atonement: he spends almost a whole chapter talking about how much bigger the cross is than a substitutionary ticket to heaven, how it is a symbol of our brokenness and an invitation to die to old habits and move back to who God wants us to be. He then ends the chapter with a story about someone else paying his restaurant bill and saying, 'Grace has already paid our bill.' He spends a whole chapter moving away from substitutionary atonement and then throws in a 'Jesus paid the price' metaphor at the end. Why was that last story necessary?
Bell's book reads like a long stream-of-consciousness blog post. That's not a bad thing. It features short, choppy sentences and paragraphs in block format. The book is only 177 pages long, so these things together make for a quick read (I started it yesterday and finished it this morning). He's mainly concerned with a 'seeker' audience questioning certain Christian beliefs that seem more rigid, more finished. This is light fare for those more experienced in theology. Read it if you've never experienced Bell before, and as he says on the back cover, wrestle with it rather than swallow it whole.