Friday, January 27, 2006

Velvet Elvis: A Book Review

Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, one of the leading voices in the “Emergent Church” movement, and the author of the book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. The book draws its title from an actual bought-by-the-side-of-the-road painting of Elvis Presley on a black velvet canvas Bell stores in his basement.

The book attempts to draw a parallel between the velvet Elvis painting in Bell’s basement and the Christian faith. What if, Bell wonders, the artist of his particular Elvis painting had declared his work to be the definitive painting of Elvis and invited other artists to cease working on their own Elvis pictures? According to Bell we’d say that artist was crazy because “we instinctively understand that art has to, in some way, keep going.”

Bell suggests this is like the Church.

“For thousands of years followers of Jesus, like artists, have understood that we have to keep going, exploring what it means to live in harmony with God and each other,” he said. “The Christian faith tradition is filled with change and growth and transformation. Jesus took part in the process by calling people to rethink faith and the Bible and hope and love and everything else, and by inviting them into the endless process of working out how we live as God created us to live.”

Obviously the Church has always been a part of the world around it and has sought to reach people where they live. This has brought about changes. But being relevant to the culture around us is just the tip of the iceberg when Bell mentions “change.”

“I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes like better lights and music, sharper graphics, and new methods with easy-to-follow steps,” he writes. “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.”

It doesn’t take long to discover just what he means by this. In the course of seven short chapters Bell radically redefines Christianity into something hardly recognizable in Scripture.

He starts by taking a very Zen-like tone with regard to belief. “Everybody is following somebody,” he writes. “Everybody has faith in something and somebody. We are all believers.”

According to Bell Jesus’ real intention was to “call people to live in tune with reality.” All we have to do is recognize that “God is the ultimate reality.” He goes on to caution us that theology and doctrine can get in the way of getting “in tune” with the “ultimate reality” of God. Were a doctrine, like the virgin birth, proven to be untrue, no problem. Just stay in tune.

Bell also criticizes the biblical notion of salvation and is critical of Christians who think you have to “believe” a certain way in order to “get in.” He criticizes Christians who evangelize and, instead, encourages them to “just be a blessing.” Sharing the Gospel is really not that big of a deal. In fact, Bell dances dangerously close to advocating universalism when he suggests that God is likely accepting of others who would not call themselves Christians. He contends that everybody is already forgiven. The only difference is how we choose to live our lives.

All of this is written in a style that is quite vague. Bell makes clear, unbiblical implications about what he believes but leaves just enough wiggle room to allow for a slippery escape should someone call him out. His teachings are subtly laced with humanism, universalism and pantheism. At one point he declares many of our problems are because we don’t have enough faith in ourselves. Which, according to Bell, is ironic when considering how much faith God has in us.

Herein lies the key to understanding Bell’s Velvet Elvis.

Consistent with his analogy of many artists having the freedom to paint their own interpretation of Elvis, Bell suggests Christians have the freedom to paint their own version of Christianity. At one point Bell even says God is “giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible.”

Bell does not seem to understand that while the Bible was written for us it was not written about us. It is about God. He appears to be making the age-old mistake of trying to build a biblical worldview on a humanist foundation.

A better analogy would be to compare the Christian faith to Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel. It is a painting by a master artist. You don’t see too many knock-offs of that painting being sold by the side of the road. In like manner God is the author of the Christian faith, not us. He has made it what He wants it to be. We have neither the right nor the ability to try to “repaint” the Christian faith in a version that better suits us. We don’t reconcile God to us. He reconciles us to Him.

To be fair Bell’s book does contain some redeeming qualities. He challenges believers to have a more “authentic” faith, to live what they believe. This is good. But his paramount failure is not emphasizing the importance of that belief. It appears that Bell’s point is to be true to your beliefs regardless of what those beliefs are.

The bottom line is this: the miniscule nuggets of decent advice found here are not worth having to sift through the mountains of false teachings. Spend your money and your time elsewhere.


At 7:23 AM, Anonymous Carla Marks said...

It seems to me that Rob Bell is advocating a more tolerant Christianity and I, for one, am glad to see it. It's about time someone from inside the Christian camp stood up against the typical intolerant claims of exclusivity by the Christian church.

I've not read the book, but from your review it seems that Bell recognizes that God is bigger than Christianity. God loves all people and won't reject anyone who honestly seeks Him and does their very best.

Jesus is certainly a way to God. But who's to say He is the best way? Or the only way? Christians who claim that He is are intolerant and narrow-minded.

My God isn't like that.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Virgil Vaduva said...

"It doesn’t take long to discover just what he means by this. In the course of seven short chapters Bell radically redefines Christianity into something hardly recognizable in Scripture."

Perhaps the Christianity we have been exposed to for so long is hardly recognized from the Scriptures. Whatever happened to "love God, and love your neighbor as yourself" being the sum of all Christ's teachings? Complicating the Gospel is what brings us to the terrible place we find ourselves in today as Christians.

At 6:45 AM, Anonymous Frank Speach said...

virgil -- I don't think this review tries to draw a distinction between Bell's notion of Christianity and "the Christianity we have been exposed to for so long," as you put it. Chip's statement here is that Bell's version of Christianity is something "hardly recognizable in Scripture." The distinction is being made between Bell's version of Christianity and the Bible (which IS the authority on authentic Christianity).

If you read other entries at thideology I think you will find that the writer here would not disagree with you that there is something wrong with the Christianity "we have been exposed to for so long." I have seen a number of articles here that point out serious problems in the modern church. The difference is this: when trying to reform the modern church we should look to Scripture for guidance, NOT some post-modern, feel-good philosophy cooked up by the mind of man.

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That review was very accurate.

There are too many people these days that think Christianity is a feel-good practice. Scripture tell us it is a two edged sword. It cuts away the evil and hurts when it strikes.

It is the same ideology of the rebellion of Korach in Numbers 16. Their declaration loosely translated was "You (Moses) are narrow minded and bigotted. We are all influenced by God and can find our own way to 'Zion.' Why should you declare to have the only way?" The ground the opened and swallowed them up. I live next to Rob Bell and "his" church and there is a reason I stay 2 miles away from it.

Anyone who will dismiss the truth of scripture to get to God will not find Him! He is the truth of scripture. You cannot re-interpret the bible to make is say what you want and have it still be right. "The ways of a man seem right to him, but they lead to death"

Rick Warren, Rob Bell, the Emerging Church is not the Church of God, it is the practice of Buddhism taking on Christianity as a disguise. People who will dismiss the truth of God to find what they want to see.

Matthew 7: 22-23 "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'"

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In a reply that Carla made

Actually Jesus himself said that he is the only way. Jesus said "I am the way the truth and the light, nobody gets to the father except through me.

At 9:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post...I just heard about Mars Hill last week and I just thought to let you know that Rob Bell's beleif website states that they beleive in salvation...please read below:
We believe that God wants to bring about a new humanity by redeeming every part of us. We embrace the salvation Jesus offers as the only hope for the healing of our relationships with God, each other, ourselves, and creation. We believe that all of life is spiritual, and that all of our fears, failures, and brokenness can be restored and made whole. We value the inner journey, because we want to be fully integrated people-mind, body, and soul, emotions and experiences all offered together to God.

At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in responce to carla, your god isnt like that.. correct... your god also doesnt exist..

and he wont exist just because you really really want to belive he does.. truth is truth and it wont change just because you dont like it.

i could say i dont belive in gravity.. thats not going to change what happeneds when i jump off a building..

i suggest you go and search the bible for truth instead of deciding what is truth for yourself..

At 9:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"At one point Bell even says God is 'giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible.'"

Yes! And I'm so glad Bell has the courage and wisdom to say this.

I've got to tell you that I was raised in the Christian Church, tried my best to open myself up and believe in the teachings of the church, yet I never totally agreed with the interpretation of scripture as I was taught. In school (private, Christian school), which was of a different denomination than the church my family attended, their take was often a bit different than what I learned at home and at church. But still, it didn't ring true to me.

Now, 20 years since I withdrew my membership from my church, my parent's church, any church... I stumbled, quite accidentally, upon Bell's book, Velvet Elvis. And all I could say, as I read it in 4 hours straight, was yes, Yes, YES! This is what I believed as a child. This is what I tried to explain to my parents, my teachers, my pastors... only to be told how wrong I was, how misguided I was. But I knew, in the core of me, that my interpretation of scripture, my view of God, my take on Christianity was no more or no less "right" or "correct" than their interpretation.

I'm sorry to say that your review of the book comes across exactly like all I rejected these last 20 years..."I'm right and therefore you must be wrong... and not only that, because you have chosen to share your 'incorrect' belief, you are a danger to impressionable minds." That is what I read between the lines in your review.

And all I know is that when I read Velvet Elvis, for the first time in over 20 years I am open and willing to take another look at the Christian faith... because finally, I hear what I know in my spirit, deep in my soul, to be the Truth that so many squashed in me in the name of Christianity and dogma and doctrine, and in the name of God.


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