Velvet Elvis - Repainting the Christian Faith - a retrospective
Rob Bell’s first book came out in 2005. It quickly became, like Elvis himself, something of a cult - as have the NOOMA dvds, which have been around even longer. The title of the book may seem quirky, but like the book’s quirkiness has nevertheless a serious point to make: that just as the Elvis portrait is only one person’s view of him, so too our understanding of Jesus needs to be subject to interpretation. Each generation needs to ‘repaint’ Jesus for that generation.
Is the book and its message simply a passing fad, or does it merit revisiting? A reference in a review of an item by Mark Driscoll (below) prompted me to make such a visit, and produced the following reassessment.
The Bell brand stands for progressiveness, change, and youth. The book’s design promotes this: font, chapter arrangements, page numbers are non-traditional and quirky. This will either attract or (like me) deter the reader. The written style is, perhaps irritatingly, at times a blend of conversational and media-speak. The flow sometimes breaks up into single line or even single word paragraphs for emphasis. The book is not setting out to be a scholarly manifesto. But it is presenting a manifesto, and on the basis of a highly scholarly, enquiring mind.
In terms of theology, although it may seem surprising to say it, Bell is a traditional evangelical. The death of Jesus on the cross is directly relevant to our lives now. But on almost every level, he takes what evangelical Christianity has made of the faith, critiques it, and provides new forms and ways of expressing it and living it out. In this sense, he is subversive, bringing a political challenge to widely held versions of what it means to be the church, and to where the emphasis of our beliefs should be presented.
The first challenge he brings is perhaps the most well known. The basic doctrines of the faith are likened to springs which help us jump, as opposed to building blocks to brick us in. It is a dynamic versus a static view of belief and beliefs. The springs help us leap towards God; bricks may be solid and foundation-forming, but can confine us to an unproductive, static, rule-bound belief system. This leads to a further recurrent theme of Bell’s reframing of the faith: that faith is measured not so much by what we believe to be true, but in the outward evidence of what we believe, in acts of generosity, compassion and forgiveness.
The ensuing chapters of the book address a variety of themes – though often in an anecdotal, digressive way – so that we do not follow a straightforward argument of a logical case. Nevertheless a target begins to emerge: a faith which is in danger of becoming moribund because of various unhealthy emphases. Bell’s correctives might be summarised thus:
· a view of the bible as a text which comes alive in its own historical context, but also in different historical contexts from its own, and which needs to be interpreted, rather than dogma which is monovalent
· faith as a communal activity – in which biblical interpretation needs also to be communal - as opposed to faith which is individualistic, and biblical interpretation likewise of largely individualistic significance
· truth as something available to and experienced by the world outside the Christian community, as opposed to the separation of biblical truth, and the truth as Christians experience it, from the rest of the world. Perhaps, says Bell, we need to be helping people to know and understand the God already in their midst, rather than importing a God to people as if he did not exist among them
· salvation as God’s shalom for the world, rather than a passage out of the world
· the privilege of being chosen by Jesus the rabbi, and, in consequence, Jesus’s confidence in us, and therefore the confidence he wants us to have in ourselves
· an emphasis on being the new creation, and the new creation God wants to bring into the world, heaven in place of hell on earth, as opposed to an emphasis on our unworthiness as sinners, a future hell we are to avoid and a future heaven to gain
· the enormous potential of creation to develop and grow through its inbuilt mechanisms; the church as an alternative society, based on the productive capacity to bless others, as opposed to a self-serving mentality of personal security and well-being. Bell points out the pivotal significance, in the relationship between creation and church, of Jesus’s resurrection taking place in a garden. The link with the original garden is pursued, the one ending in futility, the other heralding more to come for creation – ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’.
Bell not only argues his case, but provides a model in his own experience. His ‘crisis’ as a ‘super-pastor’ forms the main topic of one of the chapters. His planting of the Mars Hill Bible Church is the demonstration of what he argues for in the book. (At least, it stands in the background as a model; whether the church is in practice any different from any other American mega-church must be judged by those who see it).
Bell annoys the evangelical church establishment because he fails to sign up to the codes and symbols by which the establishment identifies itself, yet at most points his beliefs are as conventional as its own. And as his lengthier presentation tour films show (Everything is spiritual; The gods aren’t angry), he can engage the evangelical church on its own territory and reframe the faith in fresh and arresting ways.
In many ways, Bell takes the faith out of an evangelical cul-de-sac, and opens it up to fresh and productive possibilities. In this he uses the tools of conventional orthodox belief, but applies them in fresh ways, pointing out uses that we had either forgotten, or failed to realise that they possessed. On a polemical level, he presents a subversive challenge to a church which assumes its presentation of the faith to be the sole authentic version, but which is in danger of becoming increasingly marginalised, ineffective and moribund within today’s culture.