Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Review of Rob Bell's 'Velvet Elvis'

This is another book that I didn't have much of an interest in reading at first, but decided to hear more of what Bell has to say. If you're not familiar with Bell, he's the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids (not to be confused with Driscoll's Mars Hill Church in Seattle). My previous experience with Bell comes only from his podcast sermons from his church's website. In fact, the very first podcast of his that I listened to was his Easter sermon from this past year, where he begins by announcing, 'He...is...risen!' and then you hear 10,000 people cheering. Bell is also associated with emerging/emergent types by others, though apparently he doesn't have much interest in calling himself either of those terms. All in all, Bell seemed to me to be less confined to the rigorous defense of a particular theological 'flavor' and a little more likely to weave human experience into his sermons. I like both of those things. So I read his book.

First the explanation of the title: Bell writes that he has a velvet Elvis in his basement, and the only signature from the artist is a simple 'R' in the corner. Bell shares his wonder with the reader: what if 'R' had declared, after he finished this piece of art, that no art would ever have to be produced again? What if we all had taken 'R''s lead and decided that we are done making new art because 'R' has painted this velvet Elvis, thus completing all art forever? You can probably see the tie-in here. Bell eventually makes the connection that we can't declare all theology finished, that there is nothing more to discover about God because someone already finished discovering all that 500, 1000, 2000 years ago. Immediately the UCC member says, 'Oo! Oo! We have a slogan about that!' But Bell, I think, would say that it's more about our discovery and less about God speaking, although he also states that the Spirit is living and active among people today, guiding them as the Biblical writers and early councils were guided.

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. 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.