BEFORE YOU READ: This post will not make sense to you unless you have read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell.
Regular readers of Army Renewal blog will know that I’m not particularly a fan of Rob Bell. I recognise too that the moment I offer any thought on his writings that people will have to restrain themselves not to a)brand me as a narrow fundamentalist or b)feel a sense of duty to defend his writings at all cost because….well, for whatever reason.
Yet, Rob, in his book Velvet Elvis does encourage readers not to take everything he is saying at face value. Moreover, he encourages critical engagement. The more time passes, the more people I am aware of who are being blown away by the message in the book. With all the honesty and thought I can muster, I still must confess that the message of the book worries me. But before I mention those again, I just want to say that there are a few things I agree with in his book (I’m trying to be dimplomatic here!!!). I’ve spent more time with the book and just want to comment.
Where we agree
– He talks about salvation going beyond just salvation of the soul. As a Salvationist I’m comfortable with that…of course I am. He goes on to talk about restoration, and whilst I don’t follow his escatalogical conclusions in that area, I believe the gospel is restorative.
– I do agree that we are always interpreting scripture, of course we are. I believe that there are right and wrong ways to do that, but of course, every time we read scripture we interpret it. I also agree with him when he says we must do this in the context of community, working out together how to live out Christian faith.
– I agree with him in that the war cry of the Reformation is not ‘reformed’ but ‘always reforming.’ The principle of ‘always reforming’ or ‘semper reformanda’ is key to the heart of orthodox Christian faith. The sad thing is that many reformed churches are not longer reforming, but are simply reformed…something that has happened instead of happening.
– I agree with his persective on ministry that we must kill superpastor or superofficer or superwhatever. It is biblically unnatural, unhelpful and unsustainable. Its enough to send a person insane, the perpetual demand to be super-Christian in the sense of ‘professional ministry’ or clergy centred ministry.
– I agree too that we too often create a sacred secular divide. We as Salvationist belief all life is a sacrament, it can all be holy if it is not unholy. So yes, I love to listen to some ‘secular music’ and hear spiritual messages resonate like the next person. ‘Where the streets have no name’ by U2, for example.
So, those are some areas where as I was reading again I found an ‘amen.’
Let me write again (for my sake if not yours) where I depart company from Rob.
– the ‘velvet elvis’ analogy is misleading. He talks about a picture of Elvis he has in his basement…its there because its a static peice of art…the creator has stopped painting and the painting never becomes a greater piece of art. He relates this to the Christian faith, saying that Christianity and the teaching of Jesus needs to be repainted, suggesting that folks perhaps a bit like myself who are not as fast and loose with their theology have simple stopped creating.
I just want to say that my study, theology and understanding of God is not something that I’ve completely uncovered and mastered. I view God and faith as an immense masterpiece, pre-created by The Creator. It is all in place, its beautiful, awesome and captivating but one which is uncovered piece by piece as we seek God, explore who he is, understand and meet with him. Its not that I need to repaint it, its that I need to discover more of who he is.
This is not simply semantics, I hope you can see the fundamental difference. I don’t need to recreate God or Christianity…what God has done and who God is is perfect…my joy is to find him. The trampoline for me too is teaching, ideas, which allow me to discover more of who God is, discover the plan (or the wall, as he describes it.)
– I don’t believe it is enough just to affirm God where he is, or point him out, and give truth applause where it turns up. Of course love, truth, goodness and all those things have their source in God, we are made in his image. But those things are not enought to produce righteousness in us. Like Bell said, Adams experience is our experience, we’ve falled, we’ve eated the fruit and that needs rectified. Adam, even in his lost state, knew God at work, because his conscience was still alive, he was still able to perceive God at work. But seeing God at work is not the same as having God do his continuing work in our lives in response to regeneration. I can watch a tap running with water all day and recognise its properties, benefits and potential for keep me alive, but its only when I drink it and keep drinking it that I remain alive.
The other aspect of this is that he talks about affirming truth wherever it is found in other religions. Yes, there are parts of God’s truth, simply fundamental truths about the world that will be inherent in all schools of thought, but I reject his notion that we can call those notions ‘God.’ His analogy with the couple about to get married is about humanism, universalism, making god of our own perceptions and experiences and has little to do with actually experiencing the I AM. It is never, never, enough to say that because a Muslim has a good value, or because a couple can love each other, or because non-Christian thinkers sometimes say truth that it ultimately all points to God. This is only a step away from saying there is salvation outside of Jesus Christ.
There are those, according to Jesus, who say ‘Lord Lord, we’ve done this and that in your name’ and he will say ‘depart from me, I never knew you, you worked for the enemy.’ Not everything painted as light is light….it can often be just paint, a poor imitation for light itself
– For Bell, Christian truth is relative. He advocates the view in Velvet Elvis that if one community says such and such a thing is right, it is just as good and valid as a community to who take a different stance. Its equally right in both cases…that is, until someone comes up with something better or a new angle. Through the book he is all about applying the message as people find it to be true, yet, consistently (although subtly) attacks Christians who don’t see it like him. If you think this is a crude summation of this aspect of his teaching, then I have simply offered it in the same tone that he criticises Christians who have clear biblically based moral teachings on certain subjects. He seems to be offended by universal Christian truth. If he says that God is truth, and as he affirms that Jesus is the way truth and life, and that Christian faith and practice is worked out in the context of community, but in the next breath suggests that faith and truth are relative and that there are some sections of community which haven’t earned or don’t deserve to be heard, there is a fundamental error.
– he talks about their being no place where God isn’t. This is true, of course. But we must take into consideration teaching about the Kingdom of God which actually isn’t established every where. Yes, the principles are established for all eternity, but they actually have to be worked out, applied, ushered in, established. Sure, God is there, but we cannot cannot cannot cannot say that the rule of God exists in every place. Its rarely the case of simply pointing out the rule of God, there are many places where hard fighting has to be done for the rule to be established.
These are but reflections from deeply reading the first two thirds of the book. I’ll be back with more when I’ve finished again………..