January 27, 2006 2 Comments
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.
The 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.