Despite the fact that he lives and preaches in my home town (well, town I was born in anyways) of Grand Rapids, Michigan – and I have always heard good things about him – I was never a big Rob Bell fan. There was something about him that put me off a bit – a little too hip, the religious left type language and attitude, a post-modern sensibility, I am not sure.
But I read Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile for our church’s summer book series and found myself enjoying it (more about that later).
So when the publisher offered Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith for free on Kindle I scooped it up (free is free after all) and started reading it on a recent trip (my Kindle is a lifesaver when I travel). And maybe Bell is winning me over because I really enjoyed this book too.
Here is the Bell’s blurb for his own book from the publisher:
We have to test everything.
I thank God for anybody anywhere who is pointing people to the mysteries of God.
But those people would all tell you to think long and hard about what they are saying and doing and creating.
Test it. Probe it.
Do that to this book.
Don’t swallow it uncritically. Think about it. Wrestle with it.
Just because I’m a Christian and I’m trying to articulate a Christian worldview doesn’t mean I’ve got it nailed. I’m contributing to the discussion.
God has spoken, and the rest is commentary, right?
My take below.
The quote above is a good taste of the style and focus of Bell. His enemy is comfort. If you get too comfortable in your faith and the way you live it out you are in trouble.
The tile comes from the idea of a Velvet Elvis painting. Bell has one in his basement and he compares the idea of painting and art to Christianity. Like art, faith must continue on. It is not something that is put down in stone (to mix metaphors) and remains the same forever.
Here is another passage that lays that thought out:
The challenge for Christians then is to live with great passion and conviction, remaining open and flexible, aware that this life is not the last painting.
Times change. God doesn’t, but times do. We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when listening, morphing, innovating letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people Gog wants us to be.
The rest of the book is Bell discussing how this works itself out in our daily lives and in our churches and communities. He discusses how we approach scripture, doctrine, worship and life not by trying to lock down our beliefs and the rules but by following a way of life – by trying to increasingly match our conception of reality to the ultimate reality that is God through life with Jesus Christ.
This doesn’t mean that we reject truth or believe that everything is OK, etc. But it means an honesty with God, ourselves and others about our finite nature and knowledge; that faith involves interpretation and questions and that we get it wrong.
Bell uses his knowledge of Judaism and the Rabbinical system in the time of Christ to bring insights into the message, actions and cultural context of Jesus and of scripture as a whole. He weaves in these insights into a fresh perspective on issues of faith and Christian living; a style and tone that is conversational and immediate.
Sure, at times it seems almost too colloquial and almost trying too hard to be hip, but it is worth “getting over” any hangups you might have with his style in order to gain the fresh and insightful perspective he brings to faith. His is an orthodox faith that doesn’t feel weighted down or stale – it has a honesty to it that is refreshing. Not that you will agree with everything he says but that he will help you to see things differently and re-think some of your approaches to faith.
As is typical of Bell, Velvet Elvis is a quick and non-intimidating read for people of almost all perspectives. But despite that accessibility – or perhaps because of – it offers some thought provoking and insightful ideas about living out faith in the 21st Century.
So if you haven’t heard of Bell, or harbored doubts as I did, and are looking for a fresh approach to issues of faith and spiritual growth – what it means to be a Christian today – I would encourage you to read Velvet Elvis. You will be glad you did.