Daily Archives: January 9, 2009

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith

Over Christmas, my cousin asked me if I had ever heard of Rob Bell. At the time, I hadn’t. My cousin told me that he enjoyed Bell’s teachings, especially his NOOMA video series. My cousin found his teachings biblically grounded.

So I decided to research Rob Bell, and I discovered the book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. The title screams “Emerging Church.” I admit that I have little exposure to the Emergent Church. All I know is that they divorce tradition from their reading of Scripture, as if Scripture were written yesterday and for them only. The best definition of the Emerging Church can be found at the excellent Parchment and Pen blog, here. C. Michael Patton doesn’t call the movement heretical, but he has several major critiques of the positions that many emergers take.

Despite all of this, I still find myself in agreement with some of the things that Bell has to say in the first chapter of Velvet Elvis. But, the best poison works when you mix only a little bit with the good stuff. And that is, in my opinion, how the Emerging Church works on orthodoxy. I find myself in agreement with much of what Bell has to say, however, there is just a little bit of poison that creeps in there, and that damages the good work he does.

Bell compares doctrines to the springs of trampolines. The springs are what makes the thing work, and without the springs, the trampoline would be useless. Many people, he thinks, treat doctrines like bricks in a wall instead. If one is damaged, the wall comes tumbling down. That isn’t how Bell views doctrine. While he affirms it as necessary and believes in all of the essential doctrines of the faith, he doesn’t believe that to question any one of them will knock the wall down. In fact, he sees this questioning as necessary for our faith.

Here is where I disagree with what Bell has to say. I see doctrine as the brick wall. If one falls out of place, the wall becomes unstable. Again, I sympathize with Bell’s pleading that treating doctrine in this way leads to beating people over the head with it, and then it becomes a barrier to good relationships rather than an invitation to join Christ’s church. However, as I have defended in the past, sound doctrine is necessary. Would you rather have a spring–pliable and easy to break–as the foundation for your faith, or a brick–firm and solid?

I’m not saying the questions are bad. I view questions as a necessary part of our faith. God isn’t looking for yes-men. He wants questioners. Look at Abraham, Moses, and Job. All of them questioned the grand design of God’s scheme, and God didn’t punish a one of them for it. In fact, he entered into a dynamic, give-and-take relationship with them. That’s what he wants from us today–a dynamic relationship where we aren’t afraid to go to him in prayer with our toughest questions. And I believe that he will answer them in due course.

Like many emergers, Bell is hesitant to place many doctrines of the faith as central and necessary for proper understanding of Christianity. This is, I believe, Bell’s major error and the poison that creeps througout his teaching.

Recently, Bell made an appearance on the blog A Little Leaven, where the writers analyze an appearance he made at an inter-spiritual conference. Supposedly the voice for Christianity, Bell simply promotes love and forgiveness as a better way to live rather than grounding these tenets in Christ. There is nothing distinctly Christian in what Bell says at the conference. That is the same error that he makes in Velvet Elvis–advertising the Christian way as a better way, rather than the only way.

To his credit, Bell isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions, or have the tough questions asked of him. But most of his answers, as he himself states, revolve around this life and the relationships within it. The Bible, however, teaches that this life is fleeting vapor, and that attachment to things herein is not the way to live. The Bible teaches Jesus Christ as the object of our faith, and our hope for the future.

I hope to continue posting more thoughts on Bell’s Velvet Elvis as I read this alternately fascinating, alternately heretical book. That combination amounts to one of the most interesting reads in a long time.