Review of Rob Bell’s "Velvet Elvis"
Partially because of my experience, and partially because I now (after researching the topics of Liberalism and Modernity/Postmodernity more thoroughly) feel that I see these issues much more clearly than before, I feel called to engage with and critique the Emergent Movement, which I was formerly a part of.
This book review is a part of that journey. I would also recommend the similar review on Brian MacLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.
Maybe I should preface this with a few small disclaimers. The first is this: unaware that I could simply download this book for free (see here), I purchased the audio version of Rob Bell’s book. Thus, while I tried to get my quotes as close as possible, I don’t have many page numbers noted, and the wording may be off slightly. I had to say, “Rob bell says somewhere…” a lot, unfortunately. The second disclaimer is that it has been nearly a month since I read/listened to this book. I actually think this is somewhat advantageous, however, since I kept good notes and also because the core of Bell’s message has had some time to peculate. The final disclaimer is that since Bell charges $10.00 per sermon (which, I don’t mind telling you, I think is just ridicules!) for his Nooma series, I was in no way willing to either steal or dish out that money to watch it all. Thus, my impressions of Rob Bell are formed almost entirely by his main and most popular book, “Velvet Elvis.” I think this is fair enough, since this really is Bell’s foundational book, in which he lays out his theology. (Similarly, I don’t need to read everything that John Calvin ever wrote to know what he thought – I could just read the Institutes!)
The core of Rob Bell’s message is this: like a painting of Elvis, the Christian faith is a work of art – a product of human imagination, of human self-expression. However, humans of every generation express themselves very differently. Therefore, it is necessary that every generation re-imagine, or repaint the Christian faith for themselves. He clarifies that, “By this I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes like better lights and music, sharper graphics, and new methods with easy-to-follow steps. 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.” (p. 12) In this book, Rob Bell provides the framework for such a re-invention, then constructs a new version of Christianity and, in the epilogue, provides an impassioned plea for conversion to his faith.
“Velvet Elvis” is part systematic theology, part missionary tract. In it, Bell presents a complete, coherent system of theology. Fascinatingly, he proceeds exactly as any theologian would, in laying out their theological works:
Jump – the Prolegomenon, or “how I think you should think about theology”
Yoke – on Hermeneutics, or how to read the Bible (also touching on morality)
True – on what is the essence, or most important thing in theology
(Tassels – the gospel that doesn’t fit or, the reason some people think Bell is orthodox)
Dust: Christology, or “how to think about Christ”
New: Sin, Redemption and Salvation
Good: On Morality
JUMP: ON THEOLOGY
Rob Bell begins his book by discussing a trampoline. What is important about a trampoline, he asserts, is that you can jump on it. It is the springs which allow you to jump. By “jumping” he means that they help people feel close to God, love one another and live moral lives. By “springs,” he means doctrines. The doctrines themselves are more useful than true. He specifically names the Trinity, saying something to the effect of, “People have been using this particular ‘spring’ to jump for years. But does that mean that it is essential? Couldn’t we change it for something else? I am not saying that we should – but certainly we could. If we did so, couldn’t we still love God, live moral lives, etc.?” Famously, he also mentions the virgin birth in another place. If Jesus was actually found to have a human father – say, a man named “Bob,” then nothing significant would change. We could still “jump” on Christianity, whether or not Jesus is born of a virgin (thus, of God), or not.
YOKE: ON HERMENEUTICS
Bell brings three items of evidence to bear, on the topic of hermeneutics. First of all, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) is full of brutality and violence. (Especially named is the slaughtering of the “innocent” people in Jericho). As mentioned in a previous post, Bell also uses such difficult passages as Psalm 137:9 to “prove” that the Bible is a conflicted book, which has no real message of its own. Third, Bell reminds the readers that Scriptures can and indeed have been used to justify slavery and the abuse of women, among other atrocities. Fourth, he states that since every person comes to the Bible with their own perspective, it is impossible for the Bible to have a real voice of its own.
Thus, the perspective that a person, “can simply read the Bible and do what it says – unaffected by any outside influences,” is “warped and toxic, to say the least” (p. 53).
He thus concludes, “It is possible to make the Bible say anything we want to, isn’t it?”
Bell is not, however, saying that the Bible has nothing to say to us, or that just anybody can make it say what they want.
Rather, the idea of “a family story” is very important. Story gives meaning and direction to a community. However, he makes it clear that, “The Bible is open-ended. It has to be interpreted.” Who, then, will make the decisions about interpretation? Here he invokes Jesus’ words “I give you the keys of the kingdom/whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” and the fact the early church made binding decisions on various rules (e.g. circumcision) to prove that the community of Christians has the right to decide what Scriptures to keep, and which to ignore. As he says, “The Bible is a communal book. Most of the ‘yous’ are plural. It was written by people to people, who read it, evaluated it, accepted and rejected parts. We must see oursevles as part of this story, making decisions as a group.” Committing the sin which C.S. Lewis has famously named “chronological snobbery,” Rob Bell’s discussion seems to sweep all of the great saints of old casually aside. Those who are now alive, and who have been welcomed into Bell’s inner circle of friends are all welcome to help him “bind and loose” Scriptures, based on the authority they feel they have received from God through Jesus. As he says, “we must see ourselves and those around us as taking part in a huge discussion which has been going on for thousands of years. Because God has spoken, and everything else is commentary.” Those who have gone on before, who have suffered hard and learned hard lessons about false teaching and truth are – due to their being deceased – excluded from the conversation.
Bell also mentions some of his thoughts on morality here. Because he more fully unpacks this in “New,” I will leave his thoughts on that until then.
TRUE: ON THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY
For those of you who have been reading along in my posts, you will be noticing a very marked similarity between Bell’s theology so far and classical liberalism, (as summarized very briefly here, or written of at length here). On this point, however, Bell becomes almost stereo-typically a follower of Schleiermacher. What is the essence of Christianity?
Two quotes are highly illuminating:
“You have to understand that I started out playing in bands, back when alternative music was ‘alternative’ I understood music to be the raw art form that comes from your guts. Do it yourself. Strip it down. Bare bones. Take away all the fluff and the hype. This ethos heavily shaped my understandings of what church should be like: strip everything away and get down to the most basic elements. (98)”
For Schleiermacher, religion was about the “feeling of absolute dependence:” for Bell, it is about digging deep into the human soul and “keeping it real” – which is just about the same thing.
A second quote is also helpful: “Perhaps a better question than who’s right, is who’s living rightly?” (p. 21.)
In this subtle turn of phrase, Bell underscores his basic theological premise: getting right with God is not about believing something, but about doing something.
Bell’s religion, then, is about looking deep within one’s self for religious feelings, and about doing good things by which to win God’s favor.
TASSELS: THE CHAPTER THAT DOESN’T FIT
I found “Tassels” to be a highly confusing chapter. In it, Bell says something to the effect of, “Yes, of course, I know that Jesus died for my sins, and that I must trust in Him for my salvation…” He then goes on to discuss many very helpful ministry tips on burnout and “shooting your super-whatever” (in context – not taking one’s self too seriously), on taking sabbath rests, and many other helpful points. If this chapter was all that Bell had written, one would certainly not find anything wrong with him. However, in the following chapters, we quickly see how he is able, on the one hand, to affirm that he holds orthodox Christian doctrine and on the other to state that people can be saved outside of Christianity, and that Christianity is all about works.
To me, the most surprising aspect of Bell’s book is that he seems to be rolling back Christianity to a pre-Christian stage, that is, to Judaism. He writes, “Before all the big language and grand claims, the story of Jesus was about a Jewish man, living in a Jewish village, among Jewish people, calling them back to the way of the Jewish God.” He says later, “Remember, Jesus was a Torah-observing Jew who obeys the TANAK (that’s fancy-talk for the Old Testament) word for word…” He says also, “Remember that Jesus said, ‘Everything that I have learned I passed on to you.’ Did Jesus go to school and learn like the other kids his age? [Thus – isn’t he here saying that “all I received” refers only to his instruction in a Jewish synagogue?]” In summary, then, Bell seems to think that Jesus did not “fulfill” (Mat. 5:17) the Old Covenant and in this way make it “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13): rather, he called people back into it.
Here would be a good place to link up with thoughts which were omitted from “Yoke.” Bell explains that Rabbi’s would each produce their own unique commentaries on how to apply the TANAK to their lives. They would themselves live by these lengthy sets of rules, and would eventually amass followers. Those who wished to follow a certain Rabbi would “take on the yoke” of that rabbi. Thus, Jesus was actually teaching a set of rules, a new way of living, just like all the other rabbis were. The mere fact that a rabbi selected a person, however, is highly significant. The rabbi selected people because he really believed those individuals could bear his distinctive yoke. Thus, when Jesus called His disciples – and, by extension, you and I – to follow Him, he was in effect proclaiming “you are able to do everything I will tell you to do, and to live perfectly by my standards.” Bell elsewhere comments on the story of Peter walking on the water. Peter did not fall because he stopped trusting in Jesus – after all, Jesus wasn’t sinking! He fell because he doubted himself.
Jesus has faith in our ability to work our way to perfection, as good Jews: we must have confidence in our abilities too.
In the most famous portion of his book, Bell questions what difference it would have made whether Jesus had really been born of a virgin, or had been begotten by some guy named “Bob.” One wonders why Bell does not just come out and say that he does not think that Jesus is really God, the only begotten of the Father, the Second Member of the Trinity? For one thing, because in Bell’s theological system, it does not really matter whether Jesus was God or not: we are saved by our own efforts, by (in some way) being good Jews, not by anything which Jesus may or may not have done.
NEW: ON SIN, REDEMPTION & SALVATION
In a very Kantian statement, Bell subtly dismisses the idea of original sin by questioning, “Did the story of Adam and Eve happen, or is it happening?” After all, we all feel temptations, and we all sin many times: the story of Adam and the snake is “our story” too.
If there is no such thing as original sin, in which all died, can there be an atonement, in which many were made alive? (See Romans 5)
Utilizing Bartian (that is, based on Karl Barth) theology, Bell writes that when Jesus said, “I will draw all men unto me,” he really meant all men. In other words, His work was effective to save all, whether they have heard of His free gift or not. He uses the analogy of eating supper, and having the waitress come and announce to your table that your tab has been paid for. One can either live in the reality that their supper is paid for, or they can live in the reality that it is not paid for – the choice is yours. How is this decision made? Bell explains that, “Heaven is full of people whom God love and died for. Hell is full of people whom Jesus loved and died for. The difference is how they lived their lives.”
Bell recounts with frustration a counseling session with a new Christian, racked with guilt. Doesn’t he realize, Bell quires, that guilt and self-condemnation is out of place for a Christian or (to be consistent) with any human being? After all – the price has already been paid! We must now live as though we are redeemed people. When we mess up, we must admit it, confess it, make amends when and where we can, and move on to try to live a Godly life. What does this life look like?
As a guiding light, Bell presents the image of God within us all. Bell recounts that a very significant milestone occurred for him in a counseling office, where the counselor told him that his one goal in life was, “the relentless pursuit of who God made him to be. Everything else is sin, which must be repented of.” Not being true to one’s self (that is, to the image of God within, or to what God made a person to be) is sin: being really true to one’s self is righteousness.
This is the essence of Bell’s morality: understanding that all people, everywhere, are made in the image of God. Although there is sin in the world, Jesus died to defeat sin. Therefore, by simply living moral lives, every human may earn their way to God. This begs the question: what is morality for Bell?
GOOD: ON MORALITY
Considering Bell’s insistence on Jesus as a Jew, one would think that he would call people in this chapter to eat kosher, to meet on Saturdays, etc. However, this is not consistent with his evolving model. Those were commands which have relevance for “back then.” Today, we have other pressing needs – specifically, environmentalism, world compassion initiatives, and giving to the poor at home. In Bell’s final chapter, then, he hammers hard on these issues. This is likely a very good way to conclude the book, because his ethics are very relevant and important, and few would disagree with him on what he says in this chapter.
Historic Christianity would only object (and object very strongly) that good works are to be the fruit of a new life, not the grounds of one’s salvation, which is what Bell seems to make it.
Interestingly, though, in another chapter Bell talks about officiating the wedding of a non-Christian couple who were living together and “now wanted to make it official.” He never condemned their sin of fornication, and called their wedding – officiated in the sacred space of nature and followed by a lengthy dance, including much alcohol – “the most sacred event I have ever experienced.” Personal morality, especially on sexual ethics, does not seem to be a priority for Bell – and on this too historic Christianity would strongly disagree with him.
(THE MISSING CHAPTER: ON WHO IS GOD?)
To write a really consistent systematic theology, Bell should have written a chapter on “Theology Proper,” or who is God. Bell’s conception of God is vague partially, I suppose, because he doesn’t think that doctrine is important. Perhaps he is also aware that to clearly and distinctly express his opinions about God would once and for all prove that he is presenting a non-Christian set of beliefs. Whether fairly or not, the image of God which I kept coming up with was “the health-and-wealth-god of the indie-rocker.” Like a health-and-wealth God, the God of Rob Bell is a god who makes no demands, has no vantage-point of absolute truth, and demands no worship or obedience. For that matter, Bell’s God even has trouble with basic communication. Rather than orienting the cosmos around Himself, Bell’s god is a god who lives to serve. He does not bring endless riches in his wings, however, but endless poetic and artistic self-expression: as I said, this is the god of the indie-rocker, not the god of the yuppie.
This may be a caricature – but, to be fair, Bell doesn’t present his views concretely, so the reader is left to piece them together for themselves. This is what I have gotten out of his work.
DOES ROB BELL GRASP THE GOSPEL?
This question seems redundant, but it is always helpful to provide clear statements in communication. No, I do not believe that Rob Bell grasps the gospel. The Gospel – just so that we are not in any way confused – is this:
1. Our first parents sinned, and in so doing doomed the human race (Gen. 1, Rom. 5)
2. Jesus came to die in our place, so that we could have new life through Him (Rom. 6)
3. After receiving this new life, God equips us to live a new life in His strength (the book of James)
4. After death, we are saved by God’s grace and our perseverance in it (see the end of Revelations, 1 Corinthians 15, etc.)
Christianity, rightly understood, is a religion of grace. We get to heaven not because of what we have done, but because of what he has done for us. Because we live in the knowledge of our totally undeserved redemption, we live new lives.
By contrast, all the other religions of the world – as well as false Christianity – relies on legalism.
1. We are not very bad sinners.
2. Jesus came to give us an example of how to live.
3. We must try really hard to follow Jesus’ example
4. Jesus will probably give us a break and let us into heaven.
This approach leads to despair or pride. Pride when we think we are “making it,” despair when we know we are not. There is also no real way of dealing with “really bad sins,” and people tend to super-emphasize one or two “religious works” to try to counter-balance all of their sins. In Pharisaic Judaism, the emphasis was on Kosher: so long as one lived and ate clean, people were free to be full of all sorts of evil thoughts, lusts, etc. in their hearts. For Rob Bell, the emphasis seems to be on environmentalism, and some compassion initiatives. So long as one recycles and gives a bit, it seems, one need not worry about the internal state of their heart, whether their sexual lives are “moral,” or where they will spend eternity.
To put it concretely: This is not the gospel.
WHY IS ROB BELL SO POPULAR?
Like many, I saw a Nooma video by Rob Bell long before I read this book. I thought that the message itself was kind of weak, but the graphics were very flashy. I liked the concept of putting so much visual-arts into a sermon and, since I didn’t find anything really objectionable in the material, I decided that Rob Bell was a decent pastor, who only had one off-video. I figured he was trying to make a real difference in the world by presenting the age-old gospel in a relevant new way (as opposed to presenting a new faith, with the trappings and vocabulary of the old gospel, which is what he actually does). I think this is the experience of a lot of people. They just haven’t bitten dipped deep enough to know that the apple is rotten.
I think Bell is also popular because Evangelical teaching is so very weak. Pastors don’t confront serious issues like the relation of the Old Testament to the new, on cults and why the gospel is so very important, and how to read the Bible accurately. On the other side, individual Christians don’t do any work either, and complain when a sermon goes over twenty minutes, and actually makes them think or (horror or horrors!) gives them some meaty homework. In the words of John Piper, many people never grow beyond a sunday-school faith. When they find their sunday-school faith is unable to come up with answers to their university-level mind, they abandon the faith or listen to someone like Bell who at least has SOME answer to their questions. Even if they are the wrong ones, he is the only one who is speaking on these topics, so who is to say the different?
“My people are destroyed for want of knowledge.”
IS EVERYTHING THAT ROB BELL SAYS BAD?
It is always the half-lies which are hardest to distinguish from the truth: the full-lies are easy.
Many things which Rob Bell says are good, and they fill a void which evangelicals are missing (this is especially true of environmentalism). If you read only TASSELS and GOOD, you would probably actually benefit from this book. There are some helpful tips on pastoral ministry, and some good encouragements to environmentalism and compassion initiatives. It is good to respect what is right in the sight of all men (Rom. 12:17): however, believing that we will be saved from the wrath of God by our own efforts is both foolish and dangerous.
SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT MY FRIEND? I HEARD HE/SHE ACTUALLY LIKES ROB BELL!!
In a conversation related by Mark Driscoll, D.A. Carson mentions why Bell seems to have such an appeal to young evangelicals. It is because (to summarize) many people listen to him without really buying into his system, but only taking his moral exhortations (for example, to be environmentally friendly, etc.) to heart. This has been my experience: I think this is how I would have read Bell’s book a couple years ago, before doing more research on Liberalism. (Note: my research on Liberalism has been exceedingly helpful in understanding Rob Bell. For an overview of my findings and links to more in-depth materials, see here)
I also think that a lot of people listen to one or two sermons, decide they like a person, and then (when that person is said to be a heretic) will defend that person to the death, without ever really looking into what that person believes, or what the charges are. These are people who bring a pail of whiteout to the Bible, and erase every verse which has to do with avoiding false teachers, then highlight and underline “thou shalt not judge” and “love thy neighbor as thyself” – as though not confronting sin in one’s friend was the kindest thing which could be done.
However, I would warn the reader against heretic-hunting anybody who has Bell on their shelf. In my experience, someone who is into Bell has been turned off to normal church: they probably need a loving example of brotherly/sisterly companionship and encouragement in the faith more than they need to be directed to an article such as this.
DOES ROB BELL WORRY YOU?
In the 1920’s a large portion of the church was carved away by Liberalism into what I would now describe as a non-Christian manifestation of the Christian faith. (Read more about that especially in my post, The Man Who Wrote Christianity and Liberalism). Many bitter battles were fought between the “Fundamentalists” and “Liberals” over the essentials of the faith, but in the end the Liberals took over most of the major denominations and seminaries. In the writings and workings of Rob Bell, Brian MacLaren and others like him, I believe that this same spirit of Liberalism is making a deep and bold cut deep into the territory of Evangelicalism. Although Satan could not have their fathers, he is content to steal away the children of Fundamentalism through the words of people like Rob Bell.
I am not sure whether to “worry” or not, since I am only a servant, and God is in charge. However, I definitely think that the issue of Liberal Emergent teaching is far more toxic and dangerous to true faith than many people give it credit for. It is worth some really serious investigation, and worth humble bloggers like myself taking a few minutes aside to review, critique and reject false teachers such as Rob Bell.