February 8, 2006

Velvet Elvis

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

Last week, I read Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, which is one of the fastest growing churches in North America (as the blurb on the back of the book tells me). Bell himself, however, cautions against regarding himself as a superpastor. Indeed, he used to be and it nearly did him in (see chapter four).

Several aspects of the book are helpful. Bell compares doctrines to the springs on the trampoline and insists that, while it’s not wrong to talk about the springs, the point of the springs is to enable us to jump. For those of us who tend to identify being well-versed theologically with being mature as a Christian, that image may be disturbing but it may also be a good corrective.

Early in my pastorate, I probably tended to think that a desire to do in-depth Bible study and to read books on theology was a mark of spiritual maturity, and I had to learn that there are people who are very mature as Christians, very committed to following Jesus, who just don’t know a lot of theology and aren’t gifted in that way, but who can put many theologians to shame in terms of showing Christ-like love. To use Bell’s metaphor, they didn’t know a lot about springs, but they knew how to jump and they jumped well and joyfully.

Furthermore, Bell asserts, “I can jump and still have questions and doubts.” You don’t have to have everything figured out in order to jump, in order to follow Christ. It’s possible for the church to make it seem as if questions are out of place, but questions generally flow out of humility:

A question by its very nature acknowledges that the person asking the question does not have all of the answers. And because the person does not have all of the answers, they are looking outside of themselves for guidance (p. 30). 

And when we read the Bible — the Psalms, in particular — we find people asking God all kinds of questions. On the cross, Jesus Himself asks God a question (“Why have you forsaken me?”), all the while trusting Him. As Bell says,

Central to the Christian experience is the art of questioning God. Not belligerent, arrogant questions that have no respect for our maker, but naked, honest, vulnerable, raw questions, arising out of the awe that comes from engaging the living God (p. 31). 

And so, in order to make room for people to ask questions, Bell’s church held a Doubt Night, in which people wrote down the questions or doubts they had about God and Jesus and the Bible and the church and so forth, and collected them in a large box, leaving Bell in the end with pages and pages of questions that the people who attended that event were troubled by. That may sound strange, but wouldn’t it also be helpful for pastors to know, not just that their members show up on Sunday morning looking nice, but that their members struggle — and what they struggle with?

Other helpful moments in this book include Bell’s comments on art and the liturgy:

Somebody asked me the other day why our church doesn’t support the arts because we don’t have dramas and short-act plays in the services. I realized the question, as with almost every question, goes back to creation. I don’t believe something has to be in a church service to be “for God.” As if the only acting that is “for God” is acting in a church service…. If you are an actor, the goal isn’t for you to do your work in a church building in a church service. Please go wherever it is the world that people act and do it well. Really well. Throw yourself into it and give it everything you have (pp. 85-86). 

I also appreciated Bell’s insistence that we should not define ourselves as sinners when the Bible tells us that the old man has died and identifies us now as saints, sons of God, new creatures in Christ (pp. 138ff.). We need to let God define us and let what He “says about us shape what we believe about ourselves” (p. 142). I’m puzzled, though, as to why Bell would say, in the midst of this discussion, “This is why shame has no place whatsoever in the Christian experience” (p. 142). Why not? True, we who are in Christ and who confess our sins are forgiven. But when we fall into sin, shouldn’t we be ashamed of it and therefore repent of it, not least because our sin doesn’t accurately reflect who we are in Christ?

I am also appreciative of Bell’s openness to a Christological and typological reading of Scripture. For instance, he rightly sees the significance of Mary’s mistaking Jesus for “the gardener” in John 20: Jesus is a new Adam in the Garden, reversing the curse of death (pp. 156-157).

Mixed in with the good stuff, however, was a lot of stuff that wasn’t so good, stuff that struck me as strange or iffy or just plain wrong. I said above that there may be some value to Bell’s description of doctrine as the springs on the trampoline, not the point of the whole trampoline. But at times, I wasn’t clear which springs Bell thinks are non-negotiables (certainly not six-day creation and perhaps not the virgin birth either, p. 26).

Bell’s description of the origins of the doctrine of the Trinity (p. 22) is particularly weak (“God is one, but God has also revealed himself to us as Spirit and then as Jesus”). In one passage, it sounds as if he’s saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection has accomplished forgiveness and reconciliation for everyone:

Heaven is full of forgiven people. 

Hell is full of forgiven people.

Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.

Ours or God’s (p. 146).

What does it mean to say that the people in hell are forgiven, especially given that forgiveness (as Bell has been insisting) implies reconciliation? Suppose my daughter sins and I tell her that I forgive her, but then I tell her she has to leave the house, can’t sit at my dinner table, won’t ever be hugged by me again, and so forth. Would you believe that I had really forgiven her? Would you still say that our relationship has been restored? Bell’s statements here are equally puzzling to me.

I also have lots of questions about Bell’s use of rabbinical and other extra-textual sources in interpreting the Bible. First, let me say that deciding to start your church plant with a series of sermons on Leviticus, as Bell did (p. 102), is a bold move, and one that I quite appreciate. And I do appreciate Bell’s desire to preach the Word. But several times, he makes questionable assertions about the meaning of passages of the Bible.

For instance, Bell asserts that “the end of the book of Mark is arranged according to the coronation ceremonies of the Roman emperor” (p. 64). Maybe that’s true, and it would be cool if it is, but Bell doesn’t cite any source for this assertion. Likewise, he asserts that

The first three miracles in the book of John are directly related to the three major gods of Asia Minor, the region John writes his gospel to. Dionysus was the god who turned water into wine, Asclepius was the god of healing, and Demeter was the goddess of bread. So how does John begin his story? With Jesus turning water into wine, healing, and then feeding thousands of people. John has an agenda. He wants these people in this place and this time to know that Jesus is better than their gods (p. 64). 

“Hmm….,” says I. “Maybe.” But Bell doesn’t provide any source for this assertion, including the claim that John is writing to Asia Minor.

On the same page and the next, Bell claims that “saved in childbirth” in Timothy relates to the goddess Artemis who had a temple in Ephesus, where Timothy was, and who kept women from dying in childbirth, though one out of two women in that city died in childbirth. (Here, at least, Bell does cite a source.) Then he claims that the “first chapters of the book of Revelation follow the sequence of events of the Domitian games, held in honor of the caesar who was in power at the time Revelation was written” (p. 65). I don’t, in fact, believe Revelation was written in the time of Domitian, and I wonder whether it’s really true that “Domitian would address the leaders of the various provinces, then his choir of twenty-four would sing worship songs to him, and then there would be a horse race” (p. 65). And I’m not sure what the horse race would correspond to in Revelation, anyway.

Later, Bell claims that when Jesus, at Caesarea Philippi, said that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his church, he was referring to a feature of the geography of that region:

Caesarea Philippi was the world center of the goat god, Pan. People came from all over the world to worship this god. There is a cliff with a giant crack in it that the followers of Pan believed was the place where the spirits from hell would come and go from the earth. The crack was called the Gates of Hell. They built a temple for Pan there and then a court next to it where people would engage in sexual acts with goats during the Pan worship festivals (p. 132). 

It’s on this rock, Bell claims, following (I believe) Ray VanderLaan, that Christ would build his church and the people who are now serving the goat god won’t be able to stop the church but will actually join it. To which I say, “Oh, really?”

Now maybe that stuff is true and maybe knowing it can add something to our understanding of the significance of a passage of Scripture. But I question whether the main point of a passage of Scripture ever depends on extrascriptural information.

More than that, I do wonder whether some of these claims are true or whether they’re as spurious as the other allegedly historical claims that I’ve heard (e.g., that “the Eye of the Needle” was a gate in Jerusalem’s wall and that a camel could actually get through it if it didn’t have any baggage on it, and so a rich man can get into heaven if he gets rid of his baggage, which is all a pack of non-historical hogwash and not all the point that Jesus was making or that the disciples got from what Jesus said).

Similarly, I have concerns with Bell’s use of the rabbis. Perhaps it’s true that the rabbis spoke of their teachings as a “yoke” which their disciples took upon themselves (p. 47) or spoke of their interpretations of Scripture as “binding and loosing” (p. 49), but I’d have to see more evidence that this is really the source of Jesus’ call to take His yoke upon ourselves and His statements about binding and loosing, which (in context) appear to have more to do with community boundaries than with interpretations of Scripture. Similarly, I question whether the fact that Peter and his friends were fishermen means that they weren’t good enough students to become rabbis (p. 131).

I grant that there are things that Christians can learn from the rabbis and from Jewish scholars, but I’m afraid that Bell values these sources too highly. It isn’t clear, for instance, if the things in the Talmud are early enough that Jesus would have known about them (let alone the readers of the Gospels, some of whom need to have extrabiblical Jewish traditions explained to them [cf. Mark 7:4]) or if they are later inventions of the rabbis. Furthermore, we have to recognize that Jesus Himself thought that the oral law code was often in opposition to God’s Word (Mark 7:8ff.) and falls into the category of “evil thoughts” that proceed out of man’s heart (Mark 7:21). Did the rabbis correctly understand the Scriptures? Not according to Jesus! Can we learn from the rabbis? Sometimes, yes. Do we need them in order to understand Scripture? No.

On the whole, then, while I did learn some things from Bell and was sometimes challenged by what he said, his use of Scripture and the questionable things Bell said, sometimes in the midst of a good discussion, diminished my appreciation of this book. (I must also admit that Bell’s writing style drove me nuts. Full of sentence fragments. Like these.



Over paragraph breaks.

Very annoying.)

In the end, it wasn’t a particularly profitable read, I’m afraid.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:08 pm | Discuss (0)

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