Velvet Elvis: A Book Review

Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, one of the leading voices in the “Emergent Church” movement, and the author of the book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. The book draws its title from an actual bought-by-the-side-of-the-road painting of Elvis Presley on a black velvet canvas Bell stores in his basement.

velvetelviscob.jpgThe book attempts to draw a parallel between the velvet Elvis painting in Bell’s basement and the Christian faith. What if, Bell wonders, the artist of his particular Elvis painting had declared his work to be the definitive painting of Elvis and invited other artists to cease working on their own Elvis pictures? According to Bell we’d say that artist was crazy because “we instinctively understand that art has to, in some way, keep going.”

Bell suggests this is like the Church.

“For thousands of years followers of Jesus, like artists, have understood that we have to keep going, exploring what it means to live in harmony with God and each other,” he said. “The Christian faith tradition is filled with change and growth and transformation. Jesus took part in the process by calling people to rethink faith and the Bible and hope and love and everything else, and by inviting them into the endless process of working out how we live as God created us to live.”

Obviously the Church has always been a part of the world around it and has sought to reach people where they live. This has brought about changes. But being relevant to the culture around us is just the tip of the iceberg when Bell mentions “change.”

“I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes like better lights and music, sharper graphics, and new methods with easy-to-follow steps,” he writes. “I mean theology: the beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, the future. We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived, and explained.”

It doesn’t take long to discover just what he means by this. In the course of seven short chapters Bell radically redefines Christianity into something hardly recognizable in Scripture.

He starts by taking a very Zen-like tone with regard to belief. “Everybody is following somebody,” he writes. “Everybody has faith in something and somebody. We are all believers.”

According to Bell Jesus’ real intention was to “call people to live in tune with reality.” All we have to do is recognize that “God is the ultimate reality.” He goes on to caution us that theology and doctrine can get in the way of getting “in tune” with the “ultimate reality” of God. Were a doctrine, like the virgin birth, proven to be untrue, no problem. Just stay in tune.

Bell also criticizes the biblical notion of salvation and is critical of Christians who think you have to “believe” a certain way in order to “get in.” He criticizes Christians who evangelize and, instead, encourages them to “just be a blessing.” Sharing the Gospel is really not that big of a deal. In fact, Bell dances dangerously close to advocating universalism when he suggests that God is likely accepting of others who would not call themselves Christians. He contends that everybody is already forgiven. The only difference is how we choose to live our lives.

All of this is written in a style that is quite vague. Bell makes clear, unbiblical implications about what he believes but leaves just enough wiggle room to allow for a slippery escape should someone call him out. His teachings are subtly laced with humanism, universalism and pantheism. At one point he declares many of our problems are because we don’t have enough faith in ourselves. Which, according to Bell, is ironic when considering how much faith God has in us.

Herein lies the key to understanding Bell’s Velvet Elvis.

Consistent with his analogy of many artists having the freedom to paint their own interpretation of Elvis, Bell suggests Christians have the freedom to paint their own version of Christianity. At one point Bell even says God is “giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible.”

Bell does not seem to understand that while the Bible was written for us it was not written about us. It is about God. He appears to be making the age-old mistake of trying to build a biblical worldview on a humanist foundation.

A better analogy would be to compare the Christian faith to Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel. It is a painting by a master artist. You don’t see too many knock-offs of that painting being sold by the side of the road. In like manner God is the author of the Christian faith, not us. He has made it what He wants it to be. We have neither the right nor the ability to try to “repaint” the Christian faith in a version that better suits us. We don’t reconcile God to us. He reconciles us to Him.

To be fair Bell’s book does contain some redeeming qualities. He challenges believers to have a more “authentic” faith, to live what they believe. This is good. But his paramount failure is not emphasizing the importance of that belief. It appears that Bell’s point is to be true to your beliefs regardless of what those beliefs are.

The bottom line is this: the miniscule nuggets of decent advice found here are not worth having to sift through the mountains of false teachings. Spend your money and your time elsewhere.


Daring to Offend

paine-1.jpgThomas Paine once said, “He who dares not offend cannot be honest.” You may recall that Paine is the author of the pamphlet “Common Sense.” This is the piece that so inflamed the colonists in the mid 1700s so as to hasten their march toward independence. It is people like him who founded our country.

Wait, I take that back.

Ours is a very different country from the one they founded. Pay attention to the news on any given day and you will find the headlines crowded with instances of someone being offended. It has become the newest and most popular “right” of the American citizen, the right to not be offended. In fact, all levels of our government now make a habit of encroaching on actual constitutional rights because the exercise of those rights are often “offensive” to someone else.

The interesting thing is this: The right to not be offended exists nowhere in the United States Constitution. In practice it overshadows the actual rights explicitly protected by the Bill of Rights.

We’ve all seen examples of how this has played out politically. Courts have ordered the removal of monuments referring to the Ten Commandments from “public property.” They’ve ordered the removal of nativity scenes. A few years ago the parents of slain Columbine High School students were invited to place commemorative tiles in the school’s hallways. However, many of the parents had to remove their tiles because they contained the image of a cross. Never mind that many of those students were outspoken Christians and were remembered as such by their peers, a cross displayed in the hallway of the “public” high school might be “offensive” to some and must, therefore, be removed.

In fact, the recently coined term “hate speech” is dangerously close to becoming a legitimate exception to the first amendment’s protection of free speech. To make matters worse, the definition of “hate speech” is so vague as to include pretty much anything that could possibly be offensive to anyone for any reason. Even biblical exposition proclaimed from the pulpit.

In 2002 the Swedish parliament passed a law making it a crime to teach that homosexuality is immoral. And there are many American politicians (with an ever increasing infatuation for “international precedent”) who would just love to apply similar standards in the United States. This kind of legislation holds the potential for serious restrictions on what we can and cannot proclaim from the pulpit. In Sweden, preachers who proclaim the biblical truth about homosexuality can go to prison for up to four years. Many would like to see American preachers similarly silenced.

The real danger, however, is not being denied the legal right to preach against one particular sin, it is in being denied the legal right to proclaim the essence of Scripture, the Gospel itself. Quite frankly I can think of few things as overtly offensive as the Gospel. Just consider…

The Gospel tells the sinner, first of all, that he is a sinner. He is depraved and completely to blame in the eyes of God. That’s offensive. Secondly, the Gospel tells the sinner that he is completely incapable of doing anything about this depraved state. He is helpless. Again, that’s offensive. Thirdly, the Gospel tells the sinner that he stands ready to face God’s righteous judgment and will be punished should he remain in this depraved, sinful state.

This is highly offensive stuff. It flies in the face of a “tolerant” society. It violates the new right to not be offended and because it does it could be labeled as “hate speech.”

Of course the conclusion to the Gospel message is that these depraved sinners are of incredible worth to the previously mentioned righteous God. Just look at the high price He paid for them. He sacrificed His only Son.

The problem is this: In order to get to the wonderful conclusion of the Gospel we must first offend people with the truth. At least we do if, according to Thomas Paine, we want to be honest.

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