Velvet Elvis: A Review

Posted: January 3, 2010 by Josiah Batten in Book Reviews, Current Issues, Emerging Church
Tags: , , , ,

Imagine if upon completion of the Mona Lisa everyone just decided art was finished. Imagine if we said “this is the best painting ever, so we’re just going to stop here”. Obviously that would be absurd. In the world of art we have to keep creating, keep stroking, keep mixing colors.

So, says Rob Bell, it is with Christianity. As Christians we can’t just stop, we can’t say “this is how Christianity is supposed to look, let’s stop innovating and thinking and imagining”. Bell boldly asserts:

“As a part of this [Christian] tradition, I embrace the need to keep painting, to keep reforming. By this I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes like better lights and music, sharper graphics, and new methods with easy-to-follow steps. 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”. (Bell, Velvet Elvis, Page 12).

I’ll admit when I first read this I thought “Oh great, another Matthew Fox-style nut”. But Bell’s bold claim is tampered by his admission that If it is true, then it isn’t new. (Page 14). That is, Bell believes (as do I) that the essential truths of what we need to know about Christianity were discovered a long time ago by the Biblical authors, and they have been expounded on and wrestled with for thousands of years since that time.

We’re not painting a new Christianity, we’re taking a canvas that has been there for two thousand years and adding a few simple strokes that are built upon the previous strokes. We’re learning what new strokes Jesus wanted us to add, we’re not making a new painting altogether. This calmed me a little bit. The basic teachings of the Bible are the canvas, and as long as we stay on that canvas we’re free to paint and add strokes. Once we leave that canvas we’re not repainting Christianity but making a new painting entirely; one that may be influenced by but is ultimately divorced from the previous one.

Overall I think Rob Bell has it right. He’s made some marvelous assertions about the need for us to really find what it means to live the Christian life at the present time. He doesn’t question the existence of truth, which many of his contemporary pastors do; and admittedly I feared he would join them. But my fears were unfounded, Bell is dead on in asserting that “God is the ultimate reality. There is nothing more beyond God” (Page 21). Honestly I love that Bell takes the time to talk about this. If we get the truth issue wrong we’ll get every subsequent issue wrong. But there is an objective reality rooted in the very nature of the unchanging God revealed to us in Christ.

Now there are a few issues upon which I disagree with Bell. He asserts that many pagan religions also claimed their gods had virgin births. In reality this is not true, most pagan religions copied Christian doctrines like the virgin birth and resurrection, not the other way around. Bell does not understand the Mithra cult which he uses as an example. He carelessly asserts that worshipers of Mithra claimed he had a virgin birth, when in actuality they believed he was born out of stone.

But Bell raises a more important question then some historical oddity. He asks if the virgin birth is really that important, would it matter if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin? Honestly, yes, it would. Bell is wrong to assert that it wouldn’t. First if the virgin birth isn’t true this raises some serious credibility issues with the Gospel authors. Second this raises some questions about Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. Third this has serious implications regarding whether man’s sin nature would have been passed on to Christ through an earthly father (see Romans 5:12).

Bell also seems to be a little off when he talks about Biblical interpretation. Bell says “Everybody’s interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. Nobody is objective.” (Page 53). Now honestly Bell doesn’t really believe that, because he often claims he has been mis-interpreted (just watch some of his youtubes). In fact, throughout the book Bell interprets the Bible and compares his interpretation to others, implying that his interpretation is more objective. In fact, if Bell really believed that interpretations are subjective then he wouldn’t have written a book to convey his ideas.

Let me just give you an example of how absurd this idea is. I interpret Rob Bell’s book to assert we should drown puppies. “Joey, that’s aburd, Bell never says that!” you may say. But if Bell is right no body, not you or I, is objective. So it’s just my subjective opinion that Rob Bell wants me to drown puppies and, according to Bell, your interpretation is no more objective then mine. Do you still believe interpretations are subjective? Do we really want to become relativists in this area? Surely not, it would be insane to do this. Interpretations can be objective, and they can be right or wrong.

On Page 67 Bell talks about the formation of the Bible, and he says that the 66 books of the Bible were not agreed upon until 300 years A.D. This is not true. Even if the 66 books weren’t formally recognized until the 300’s, very early on in the church there was wide-spread agreement about what qualified as Scripture. In fact, the early church fathers quoted what we call the New Testament quite often, and based on their quotations alone we could reconstruct the entire New Testament save a few verses.

Now Bell makes a big deal about everything being sacred. And I understand his primary assertion, after all in I Corinthians 10:31 we are told to do EVERYTHING for the glory of God. And in that sense everything is sacred. At the same time, we can’t use this to justify doing things that are explicitly wrong. Having sex is sacred only to the extent that we obey God’s sexual standards. Eating is sacred only to the extent that we thank God for the blessing of food He has given us and to the extent that we don’t abuse ourselves in eating. Watching television is sacred only to the extent that we don’t watch things God would disapprove of and to the extent that we never place entertainment higher then God in value.

The very last thing I want to take issue with Bell about is his assertion on Page 164 that the early Christians never tried to prove the resurrection and that a resurrection claim wasn’t a big deal in Roman culture. The Gospel authors went to great pains to record in a historically reliable way that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. In I Corinthians 15 Paul, after citing many eyewitnesses of the resurrection, asserts that if there isn’t a resurrection then our faith is in vain.

The Apostles’ teaching centered on the resurrection, the Good News centers on the resurrection, the proof of what Christ said about Himself is the resurrection. Rob Bell, you are a good author, but you can’t just brush something like the resurrection off. It was essential to the early church, and it is essential to us today. Not only did the Apostles attempt to prove Jesus rose from the dead, but they died for that assertion.

In all I have to say Bell brings up many really good points, but there are these big assertions that he just gets totally wrong. On a scale of 1-10 I’d give Velvet Elvis a 7. If you read the book you’ll probably glean some very good points from it. But none that you couldn’t find in a book by an old dead guy with far fewer mistakes in his assertions. If you’re really looking for a spiritually rejuvenating read I’d recommend several books: The Bible (obvious), Man: The Dwelling Place of God by A.W. Tozer, The Radical Cross by A.W. Tozer, Revival God’s Way by Leonard Ravenhill, The Way I was Made by Chris Tomlin, and Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper (BTW, Rob Bell agrees with me on this one, see End Note 24 on page 182; Bell recommends reading everything John Piper has ever written).

I’m not going to go as far as some do and label Bell an emergent. Bell’s zeal for conveying the necessity of a vibrant community of believers who live the way of Christ in the world is commendable. It’s just at times his assertions undermine not only this goal, but his other assertions. Read it, engage it, think about it, but use discernment (as you should with any book).

God bless!

Joey

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Comments
  1. Interesting posts you have, though I think Christianity is dead and will be redeemed and brought to fruition and perfection through Thelema. Check out my blog at http://christianityisdead.wordpress.com/ if you will. Love is the law, love under will. 😉

    • Hello!

      This is the part you have right: Love is the law. Although, I would phrase it a little differently. I would probably put it this way: “Law is an extension of Love.”

      The Bible says that “God is Love (1 John 4:8).” A right understanding of moral/spiritual Law is that it is an extension of God’s character. It tells us about who He is, what He is like, and how things He has created are meant to interact as a result of that. Therefore, in a very real sense the Law is an extension of the God who is Love. In fact, Jesus Himself said that the whole of the Law and the Prophets rest on these two commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

      However, this is where you are wrong: this “Love” I am mentioning is not just any “love.” Jesus also said this: “He who has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me.” Love is represented as many things in this world, and it is painfully obvious that all is not what it is made out to be. A boy uses “love” as a means to seduce an unwilling girl, a pimp uses “love” as a means of control over his entourage, and an adulterous husband uses “love” as an excuse to betray his vows.

      It is clear that “love” must be understood in the light of another important word: Truth.

      There is a kind of Love that stands out in this world from it’s competitors. It is True Love: the Love of God. The Bible says that God demonstrated His love by this: “That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).”

      Do you see the contrast here? Thelema points ever-inward, toward some “will” that must be found within. Christianity does not, and will not ever find its meaning or redemption there. On the contrary, Christianity finds its meaning in the redemptive work of One who was not found within, but came down from Heaven. The One who chose to accomplish not His own will, but the will of the Father.

      Jesus is the answer. There is no other.

  2. Please take the following as friendly discourse:

    I’m somewhat baffled. I sometimes hear a guy on Christian radio who does movie reviews. I hear him say things like “There’s some profanity in this film, and more than a little suggestive language. At least once the protagonist is caught on the wrong side of a moral dilemma, but the main theme is a real winner. Overall, I give this film a 4 out of 5 stars for family friendliness.”

    Four out of five? I shudder to think what would earn a 1 or 2. What are we (Christians) saying about ourselves as a culture with this kind of thinking? I fear that our future will be relevant to men and have no bearing on Heaven.

    Let’s back up a minute…you’re saying Rob Bell relegates all matters of interpretation to a sort of relativism AND asserts that matters such as the virgin birth and the resurrection are not that important, but you say “Overall I think Rob Bell has it right?” Seriously? Maybe you should tell me some more about the “overall.”

    Yes, I have heard the analogy “eat the meat and spit out the bones.” I get that. To a degree, I think I agree. However, I think our Christian charity can become a mask for devilish compromise.

    Sergio Scataglini, in the book The Fire of His Holiness asks whether or not a glass of water with a small amount of sewage mixed in would still be good to drink. Of course, no one wants to drink that. Scataglini’s point was that Jesus says he will spew the lukewarm from his mouth, and that our lives can become like that if we are willing to accept a small percentage of it to be raw sewage. I wonder when we will take a stand against such things.

    So how do we draw the line then? Can we still benefit from books written by fallible men? Absolutely. Can we “eat the meat and spit out the bones?” Perhaps. But it sounds to me more like the meat is poisoned.

    p.s. I wish you would write more. I always read.

  3. sweetswede says:

    Christianityisdead,

    I think we fundamentally and irreconcilably disagree. A lot of people in the past have thought Christianity was dead and they’ve been proved wrong. Christianity isn’t going to be “absorbed” by anything.

    Absolutelynocompromise,

    I must admit when I began reading Velvet Elvis I desired nothing more then to, with great force, bring the hammer down on Rob Bell. But here’s the thing, on things like the resurrection and virgin birth Bell never says he doesn’t believe in them. In fact he affirms his belief in these and in many other orthodox Christian doctrines. Had he denied these I would have, to put it lightly, slammed him.

    With the resurrection he tries to make the point that many supposed Roman gods also had resurrection claims regarding them; so, says Bell, the early church demonstrated the truth of the Gospel not primarily through arguments but through social activism (helping the poor, taking in orphans, etc…). Bell is half right, because the early church did help the poor and take in orphans; but they also claimed and proved the resurrection as a historical event. His point is that Romans, because they heard so many resurrection stories, wouldn’t have been too convinced by a resurrection claim. So while Bell is historically mistaken, he’s not really questioning a major doctrine here.

    The virgin birth is different. Bell believes in it, but he asks what if we’ve misinterpreted it? What if the Hebrew word for virgin which Matthew refers to in his Gospel actually refers to a women who was impregnated the first time she had sex? Bell asks how big of a deal would this be?

    Of course, as I stated above, this would be a big deal. But again, Bell doesn’t say he actually believes the virgin birth didn’t happen; he simply gives us a what-if scenario.

    The reason I say over-all Bell has it right is this:
    All of the things I listed as areas upon which I disagree with Bell take up rather small and mostly insignificant portions of the book. Bell’s main premise is that somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten what following Christ should really look like, and we’ve forgotten what the church should really be. Among Bell’s better (and more primary assertions) are:
    -The idea that salvation is holistic; that is, in salvation we are completely given over to God.
    -The idea that the church has too often measured success in terms of getting more people, or having good marketing schemes, etc…
    -The idea that God created for something more than the American dream.
    -The idea that in the present day we must search out and wrestle with ways to apply the Word of God (and this is where Bell contradicts himself).
    -The idea that too many people wear “masks” in church without ever actually dealing with real issues for fear of what people will think.
    -The idea that the goal of a disciple is to become like the master.

    Granted, like I said in the initial post, you could get these ideas in much better books. But as Christians, especially as Christian leaders, we have to be able to engage this kind of thought. Is Bell’s book poisoned altogether? I don’t think so, though I’ve heard since he wrote the book he’s taken a turn for the worst.

    While I’d certainly recommend Tozer, Piper, and Ravenhill over Bell any day of the week I’d also recommend Bell over guys like John Burke or other more “emergent” fellows.

    Thanks for the comments, God bless!
    Sweetswede

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