Friday, February 09, 2007

review of "velvet elvis" by rob bell

as a christian in america in 2007, i find myself often on the edges a bit. i mean, it's not like i am being persecuted or fed to the lions or anything, but, more often, i feel like my marginilization comes from the center of the faith itself. that is, i often feel like i don't fit in with the world, exactly, but i also don't fit in with christianity in america. i just don't usually feel at home with the sort of chubby-in-the-middle faith that modern american evangelicalism has come to represent. i grew up in the christian ghetto (christian t-shirts, christian music, bible-belt worldview, actual bible belt [i still wear it!]), so i have a certain sentimental connection to all of that. i still have this deep relationship with the Christian music industry. and i love the Church, of course. i am, after all, mainline in denomination.

and yet, despite all that, i often don't feel at home here. i often feel like i might fit in better with the bonos of the world. the nouwens and the crowders. the detweilers and the donald millers. after reading this book, 'velvet elvis,' i feel like i would be right at home with rob bell.

rob bell is the nooma guy. if you don't know what nooma is, it is a series of short teaching dvd's that have a kind of postmodern slant and an indie feel to them. i really have enjoyed them in the past, and have been inspired by them in my faith. so, i was excited to see that bell had written a book. i picked it up in hardcover for like $2.99 at an ollie's (God bless Ollie's!), and found myself right at home in its pages.
the book is relatively all over the place, in that it isn't particularly unified in its discourse, but if there were a theme or thesis to the work, its that we have to keep going, keep asking, keep seeking, keep living out our faith. its that jesus was and is challenging us "to rethink faith and the bible and hope and love and everything else" (pg. 11). we are in this "endless" process of learning to live the way God created us to live. that, in short, is bell's whole objective in writing the book, that he might help us shed some baggage as we journey on towards this kind of rethinking and repainting and learning anew.

bell has received some criticism (as you can read if you look him up on wikipedia) for some of his statements about doctrine in the first chapter of his book. he compares doctrine to the springs on a trampoline, holding us and moving us as we live out our faith. he wants to point out that the springs are flexible and ought to be examined on their own. they are crucial to the operation of the trampoline, but they are not God. he cites a preacher he heard who was basically arguing that if you don't believe in a literal 6-day creation, then you can't believe in the cross and resurrection of Christ, either. bell argues that for this preacher, faith isn't a trampoline, but a wall of bricks. if you pull out one brick and examine it, the whole wall falls down.

as if to prove his point, evangelicals have sounded out against this section, questioning bell's belief in the trinity and the virgin birth. its exactly my problem with the whole thing: close-mindedness. i am an explorer when it comes to the tenets of my faith. i want to wrestle. i want to ask. i want to be like that 5 year old who asks why a million times. that's just who i am. and i believe God is big enough to handle that. sometimes i can't know all the answers, but i won't stop asking. and i'm okay with that.

i think that some people aren't okay with that. they need answers that make some sort of sense to them. so, they substitute cheap answers for difficult questions. and they build walls out of these cheap answers. and, if you let them go long enough, they will build walls that say things like, "if you don't believe in a literal 6-day creation, then you can't really believe in Jesus at all."

it's like we are modern day Babel-builders, trying to build our own little towers to God, rather then being content to live in the places where answers don't come easy, but where God simply says, "I am."

so, rob bell has written a book that resonates with my spirit. it is full of both personal stories of his ministry in michigan, mars hill, which has grown exponentially and helped him to see his own brokeness and need for healing, and commentary and exposition. it is very quotable with lines like, "if the Gospel isn't good news for everybody, then it isn't good news for anybody" (page 167).

what was good news to me, anyway, in this book is that i found someone who is saying what i am trying to say. he says it so well on page 28:

"A Christian doesn't avoid the questions; a Christian embraces them. in fact, to truly pursue the living God, we have to see the need for questions. Questions are not scary. What is scary is when people don't have any. What is tragic is faith that has no room for them."


monica said...

i have heard of that book, it is good to hear of people wrestling with the questions that so many are forgetting to ask. I think the fat in the middle (great word image!) protestantism that i grew up with really made us hunger for something deeper, something more. by moving to romania and learning about the Orthodox church, i was introduced to a whole history of great men and women who wrestled with the issues, and ultimately found answers we can learn from. I have found great comfort and inspiration in the fact that my struggles in my faith arent unique, they have been walked through by others for centuries before, and just as these brothers and sisters of faith found light, i too will find it. I dont know if a trampoline is the metaphor i would use, as i dont think a trampoline takes you anywhere, really. but neither does a brick wall. Maybe a boat. It wasnt built by us, but we ride on it and add our part. and though it is stronger than one board, messing with some parts of it could lead to a lot of water getting in. but, as you said, the doctrines serve to take us somewhere. home.

greg. said...

thank you, monica, for that thoughtful comment. i am sure that rob would agree with you that a trampoline metaphor misses the whole 'journey' aspect, but i think if you would read the whole chapter i was discussing you would see why he uses that metaphor. in other words, i think he would agree with what you just said.

secondly, i so agree with you about those who have walked and wrestled before. we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, aren't we? and that is awesome. but for those who think that faith is all about answers, i would use all of this as exhibit A in my argument: if it were just about answers, then we could simply inherit the answers of our mothers and fathers in faith, and be done with it. but it doesn't work that way. we wrestle with the same questions as they did! and i think the reason why is that the faith is in the actual wrestling and searching and seeking and calling out in the darkness. not so much in the acquiring of answers. even when i have settled on answers in my faith journey so far, i have found that they are often only useful for a time. they may need to be reexamined in the next season on of my life.

i'm not suggesting that our faith be wishy-washy and have no real substance. but i am suggesting that we don't act like we've got it all figured out, either. there's an honesty and integrity to admitting "lord i believe, help my unbelief!"

Emoly said...

I just remembered, a couple of the girls who went on the Chicago trip go to his church. So if you ever feel like coming to hear him in person, there's a place for you to stay!

greg. said...

well, i think his church is in grand rapids, no? actually, that's not a bad idea. i would LOVE to go to his church and see what's going on there. i am reading his newest book, and i feel like he is a kindred spirit.
so, we'll have to come out and visit sometime.


J. K. Jones said...

Good post. I like Bell's approach to questions myself. We have to start our conversation somewhere, and there's nothing better to talk about than God.

Bell's view of the Bible's main message, and this view is not unique to Bell by any means, bothers me.

Rob says, “…this is why the Bible loses its power for so many communities. They fall into the trap of thinking that the Bible is just about things that happened a long time ago. / But the Bible is about today. / These stories are our stories. They are alive and active and teaching us about our lives in our world, today.” These words express a very dangerous perspective on salvation, our right standing before God. Let me clarify.

Jesus was clear in saying that the entire Bible was about Him (Luke 24:25-26). The intent is for us to know certain facts about things that have happened in the past and their bearing on us today. There is a reason for this. Our salvation; our right standing before God, eternal life, fellowship with God, and everything else that goes with it; was earned for us in the past.

Martin Luther was right when he said that our salvation was extra nos, outside of us. Earned by Christ. Accomplished 2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem. We add nothing to this work. We through our faith are credited with what Christ did, and He is credited with our sin to suffer for (2 Cor. 5:21, Romans 3:21-4:8). If the Bible is not primarily about what happened in the past, then it is not about what Christ did for us in the past. If the Bible is about our here and now, it is not about those things which earn our salvation.

Hope you keep reading and thinking and posting.

J. K.

greg. said...

J.K. -

i would totally agree with you that our salvation is indeed outside ourselves; that there is nothing we can do to EARN our salvation. but i am failing to see how this reduces the scriptures to mere history. Hebrews tells us that the word of God is "living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joint and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."

notice that the verbs 'penetrates' and 'judges' are in the present tense, indicating continuing activity, which fits with the words 'living' and active.'

i would interpret this to mean that the Scriptures are not merely history. they are not only a biography of Jesus. they are words that are truly living and active, if we indeed meditate on them and chew on them and cherish them and study them and question them and weigh them and live them the way the psalmist writes about in the 119th psalm.

if i read tolkien's lord of the rings trilogy, i am inspired to change my life, to find hope even in the darkest parts of my life, and to believe that good can conquor all the evil in the world. that collection of words has power for me today. if tolkien can do that with a work of fiction, HOW MUCH MORE is the bible powerful for us as Christ-followers?