This is a Review of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, by Rob Bell, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan publishing, 2005)
Sorry this post has taken so long to get to you, my dear readers. I hope and pray that this will be useful to you, and ultimately glorifying to Jesus Christ.
I do not think that the book I am here reflecting on is a good one, and I believe it to be not useful for believers. Rob Bell here serves as an advocate for the same tired liberalism that ravaged the Church in our forebears’ time, and was found to be a failure in the modern world. I only pray that evangelicals will learn from the experiences of our sisters and brothers in the mainline Churches, and give this seductive but fruitless theology no place in our own lives.
Repainting What, exactly?
The biggest difficulty I have with the book is the particularly slippery dealing with the main thesis of the book; that we are to repaint the Christian faith in a way that is understandable to the modern hearer.
When if comes to making the Gospel understandable, this is not a questionable point. We are, in fact, to express the Gospel in such a way as will be understood by those around us. God has us believers here for particularly that purpose. The problem is that Bell asks us to “repaint” the faith rather than reexpress the Gospel. It is the desire to take what is beautiful about former paintings and incorporate them into the new, to thus “make something beautiful – for today” (p.13).
This is a good idea, as long as we recognize that we are actually painting something. There is a thing that our “painting” is either a good, or a poor representation of. It is here that my largest problem with the book comes in. The thing that is here to be painted seems to be “our experience” rather than the objective thing that we are experiencing.
In a real sense, this seems a semantic difference. I assure you, it is not. As long as the thing to be expressed is a personal experience, it is above questioning. We are not actually talking about the truth of the loving God who came in Christ Jesus to redeem us of sin, but our experience of that God. The question that we need to ask is whether our experience accords with the actual thing we are experiencing. Bell thus performs a seemingly unconscious bait and switch. He starts off talking about how we repaint Christian faith, where readers will assume that he is talking of re-expressing the truth of Jesus Christ, he is actually asking us to better express our experiences. The former is open to correction, the latter is not.
In this move, Bell actually places himself in the tradition of more liberal scholars, while simply lacking their vitriol and simply making different expressional choices about their experience. In his call to repaint the Christian faith, I rather easily see echoes of Bishop John Spong’s call that Christianity Change or die. While Bell keeps the actual beliefs he espouses in the realm of Christianity, his epistemology and program are themselves moving into an area that the Church has tried before, to rather disastrous effect.
In his quixotic quest to repaint something transient, he calls the experience of Luther to his aid, claiming that Luther repainted the faith he had seen. Indeed, but Luther repainted a faith he saw, not by looking at the world around him alone, but by looking to the God revealed in scripture, and seeing that the picture in the world bore little resemblance to the God in scripture (for a good history of the Reformation, read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book). Luther was not repainting his experience of God, He was expressing God through his experience. This distinction is very important, and it is a distinction that Bell seems to miss.
Questions and Answers
I did not find Velvet Elvis a particularly easy read. This was partially due to my own history with the liberal theological method, which haunts the pages of Rob Bell’s book, but also due to the blatant use of rhetorical techniques in the book that serve to effectively seduce a reader into agreement on things that might normally cause them to say, “hang on a minute”.
A perfect example is the much-ballyhooed questioning of the doctrine of the virgin birth. After a passage that clearly places material sciences as more trustworthy than scriptural witness (as liberals do), Bell asks:
“but if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong a faith in the first place, was it?” (p.27)
Now, hang on a second. The flow of the argument to this point had been that there are some people who have strange ideas about what’s non-negotiable in Christian faith, Bell here moves to imply that any facet of theology constituted as non-negotiable is a sign of a weak faith. This is silly on its face.
I would not say that the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult had a “weak” faith because their faith fell apart because the aliens did not in fact come to pick them up. They had an erroneous faith, not a weak one. Similarly, if the virgin birth did not occur, the Christian’s faith is not weak, it is misplaced. Christians have faith in Christ because it’s true, we do not say that it is true because we have faith.
Bell unconsciously agrees with Richard Dawkins in his rather preposterous belief that faith is a form of non-thought, when in fact faith is a resulting response to thought. As such, faith can either be correctly placed or incorrectly placed. Its strength is based in the level of conviction you have for the truth claim, the truth claim is not based in your conviction. Your conviction is a result of the truth claim.
That said, there is a sense in which some claims of the Christian faith are central, and others are not. Whether you believe in a literal six day creation has little bearing on whether or not you think that salvation is through Jesus Christ. Conversely, if you believe that Jesus was actually born with original sin through his lineage through his father, whether or not he could die for your sin is more of a problem (not to mention how this implicitly calls into question the ability of scripture to accurately reflect God as He is).
Bell couches all of this in what he sees as valid questioning. This makes it more difficult for those who read to oppose him. After all, he’s only asking questions, and what’s wrong with that? Considering one of the earliest questions in scripture (Has God really said…?), maybe we should be more careful.
Bell himself actually makes the distinction between good questions and bad questions a mere few pages later (see p.31), though he seems to not take into account his own advice.
The Subject of the Painting?
Quite apart from the epistemological problem, Bell also seems a little confused as to what the Gospel itself actually is. When talking about John 14:6 (Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”) Bell opines that:
“Jesus was not making claims about one religion being better than all other religions. . . Rather, he was telling those who were following him that his way is the way to the depth of reality. This kind of life Jesus was living, perfectly and completely in connection and cooperation with God, is the best possible way for a person to live” (p.21, emphasis mine)
Now, while I agree that Jesus was not about advocating religious structures, nor was he primarily in this passage advocating a way of life. Check the text yourself. Is Bell’s exegesis fitting for the passage? Personally, I think the traditional understanding, that Jesus here was claiming to BE the basis of truth, that HE HIMSELF was the way, is the point of the passage. While we are to emulate Jesus, that was not Jesus’ point here, nor is it to be the basis of good Christian life. Bell seems to be making action the basis of a person’s Christianity, which is of course, pointedly refuted by most Christian theology, and by the Bible itself even in the passage he himself quotes.
Unfortunately, Bell is slippery on this point. He attempts to affirm the doctrine of salvation by grace, but keeps falling back into speaking about Christianity being based in active obedience of lifestyle rather than trust in Jesus Christ with Christian lifestyle emanating from that faith. Bell here is skirting heresy.
This finds fuller expression later in the book where Bell speaks about Hell.
“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 ” (p.146, emphasis mine)
I leave it to you, dear reader, to think about how the place the Bible repeatedly speaks of as a place of punishment (see for example, Matt 25:46, and Jude 7) is full of people who are forgiven. To me it sounds like Bell’s idea of God’s forgiveness is pretty shallow.
The point I most want to draw your attention to, however, is how the difference between the two again seems to be the way we live as opposed to the life of Jesus Christ. Bell here conflates faith and works in a way that most Biblical exegetes (unless they are one of the disciples of E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul) find difficult to derive from scripture. The result is that he again comes dangerously close to advocating a works-righteousness. The only difference Bell has between those in eternal damnation and those in eternal bliss is how they choose to live (not the forgiveness of God, which all have, according to Bell).
This continues on throughout the book. Bell refers to the Gospel as “the way of Jesus” frequently, apparently thinking that this “way” is some form of active obedience.
“It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display.” (p.167, emphasis mine)
The final troubling point I will deal with in the book “Velvet Elvis” is the way in which Bell advocates the same type of tolerance that has been current in universalist circles for decades (or centuries). Namely, that we somehow cannot be loving to someone if we worry about whether they are believers or not, or if we want them to become Christians.
“To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the “un” or “non”, they work against Jesus’ teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbour, and our neighbour can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, “God shows no favoritism.” So we don’t either (p.167)
I can only imagine that such a spurious (and unsupported) reading of James 2:1-13 means that Rob Bell does not expect the readers to check his citations (the passage deals with treatment based on a person’s clothing or riches, not belief). Indeed, James 1 seems to talk a great deal about having the proper focus in your faith.
Indeed, the reasoning above is simply (and obviously) in error. Why is it somehow unloving to treat people differently because of the difference in how they believe? Is it unloving of me not to serve meat to my vegetarian friends, or wrong of me to listen to my atheist friend’s beliefs and in talking to him, take into account what he actually claims to believe? No. In fact, to have no regard for these differences of belief is hateful, and is to ignore the image of God that is at work in each of these people through the common grace of God.
Of course we are not to see people as “primarily” saved or not, but that does not mean that we are to ignore whether they are saved or not. If I honestly believe that Hell is a bad place, and that people who do not follow Jesus go there, I am seriously unloving if I treat people without regard to that. If I love people, their final destination in hell should make me grieve, not become blithely, willfully ignorant of their good. Indeed, to follow Bell’s advice here would be itself evil.
Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis is not a good Christian book. While much of his critique of modern evangelicalism is right on (from the treatment of people as demographics to be transferred rather than people to be loved, to the strange belief that belief without works is a real belief), his responses to those problems are equally flawed, and I would go so far as to say, unloving and anti-Christian.
Bell thus stands as an example of why believers need to be discerning in their reading. Correct critique does not always mean that a person is correct in his understanding.