Book Review: Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, by Rob Bell
Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, is in many ways taking the Christian world by storm. His "Everything is Spiritual" tour sold out 24 of 25 venues in 2006, and his series of short videos, called NOOMA, are selling thousands of copies each.
Apparently, Bell has a message that is resonating with vast numbers of people, and he’s presenting that message in a way that’s obviously connecting.
On its surface, Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis, might seem rather innocuous. His stated goal is to rethink the Christian faith in terms that will "strip it down to the bare bones" and get it back to "the most basic elements." For the most part, he pursues that goal in a style that is reasonable and to-the-point. He talks about humility, about asking questions, about wrestling with the biblical text—phrases that many evangelicals use daily.
But I am convinced that when Bell brings all these things together, the result is something far more revolutionary than what appears on the surface. In fact, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bell actually ends up throwing the entire Christian gospel up for grabs. God is made so mysterious, doctrine is deemed so questionable, and biblical interpretations are so relativized that in the end, Bell leaves us wondering if anything can be known for sure, or if any understanding of the Christian faith and gospel is any better than any other.
For example, take Bell’s reconception of the idea of doctrine. Bell argues that the doctrines of Christianity should be thought of as the "springs" that hold up the trampoline on which we jump and live in Christ. The springs are not the main point; they merely facilitate the greater goal of "us finding our lives in God" (25). Now that analogy has some truth to it. But it’s also more dangerous than it might first appear. Conceiving of Christian doctrines as springs allows Bell to say that getting the doctrines right is not really that important. If you don’t like one or two of the springs, you can just take them out of the trampoline and keep on jumping.
Here is Bell’s take on the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance: "It is a spring, and people jumped for thousands of years without it. It was added later. We can take it out and examine it. Discuss it, probe it, question it. It flexes, and it stretches" (22). And what about Christ’s birth to a virgin? Bell asks, "What if that spring was seriously questioned? Could a person keep jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?" (26).
Bell affirms his belief in both the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, but he also says he wants to carve out some room to "question" those doctrines.
But what does he mean by that? Is he saying that one can study them, ask questions of them, learn from them? I wish he was. Yet why does Bell even pose the question? Why does he ask, "Could a person keep jumping?" and then not answer it? I can only conclude that Bell is saying that it wouldn’t matter very much if someone stopped affirming them. "Yes, of course you can keep jumping, even if you stop believing in the Trinity or the Virgin Birth."
Bell’s "questions" are not as innocuous as they first sound. They are the means by which he permits one to disconnect and throw away the springs one doesn’t like.
The same relativizing tendency is present in Bell’s handling of Scripture as well. Bell likes to say that the Bible has to be interpreted, a point with which very few people would disagree. But Bell’s point is broader. He wants his readers to understand that they have as much right to interpret the Bible as anyone else (50). Even more, no one’s interpretation is any better than any one else’s.
When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true. They are telling you what they think it means. They are giving their opinions about the Bible" (54).
Everybody’s interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. Nobody is objective" (53).
In other words, some person or group of people simply made a decision that the text means this, not that. So the fact that we worship on Sunday, and not Saturday? "At one point in church history, a group of Christians decided that the Sabbath is not Saturday, but Sunday." (56) The fact that we do not sell all our possessions for the poor, or make women wear head coverings? Or even more to the point, the fact that we say a wife’s role is to submit to her husband? "This is because someone somewhere made a decision about those texts . . . Somebody in your history decided certain Bible verses still apply and others don’t" (55-56).
The effect of all this is to say that you can safely ignore just about any Christian doctrine or practice that doesn’t sit well with you. That’s the logical outcome of calling every interpretation a mere opinion.
Now of course there is some truth in Bell’s statement that every Christian can interpret Scripture for himself or herself. That is what we mean by the "priesthood of all believers." But the point is to determine as accurately as possible what the author meant, and there are rules and systems and tools for determining that meaning. Bell is right to say that no one can come to the Bible entirely objectively. But even recognizing that, the fact remains that some interpretations are better than others. They make more sense of the words and the context. Bell seems to have no appreciation for that at all. By making all understandings of Scripture mere "opinions," and all traditions mere "decisions," he drives the priesthood of all believers to absurd, post-modern conclusions. The interpreter is now authoritative, not the text! Readers are invited to shape the Christian faith as they see fit.
There are other questions to be asked about this book as well. For instance, Bell’s reinterpretation of hell—that it is full of forgiven people who simply have chosen to live in their own version of their story, rather than in God’s version of it—is open to serious scrutiny (146). So is his assertion that Peter’s problem was that he lost faith in himself, rather than in Christ (133). Neither of these ideas enjoys any support in Scripture. But as Bell understands Christianity, they have as much right to be believed as anyone else’s "opinions."
That’s what happens when one relativizes Christianity in this way. Bell can so unashamedly offer up such novel ideas because he is convinced that the traditional body of Christian doctrine and the traditional interpretations of Scripture are just opinions. Thus they can be dismissed without a second thought, and replaced with doctrines and interpretations more to his liking. At bottom, Bell seems to have no patience with a well-defined, systematic Christianity. On the contrary, he appears to be on a mission to shove away anything which threatens to give the gospel hard edges or clear boundaries.
So what happens to doctrine? It’s demoted. Scripture? Relativized. Hell? Redefined. Faith? Redirected. And what Bell erects in the old gospel’s place is a new gospel heavy on openness, mystery, questions and rawness, but inexcusably light on biblical Christianity.