The very title, Velvet Elvis, is a bit of an inversion. On the one hand, this is a book; this is his theology. This is his Letters To A Young Doubter, his Why Christian?And yet he uses a title that brings to mind a kitschy painting you’d find in a yard sale. The title urges the reader not to put the author or his work on a pedestal to be admired and never critiqued. Such a tactic is both disarming and a little annoying at the same time. Disarming, because it puts his ideas in a context, within a tradition—just another stop on the journey. This is not the gospel for every time and place. This is not systematic theology. Yet it’s annoying for the same reason that some people find Jon Stewart annoying. Jon is smart and on-the-nose and when he gets critiqued for something he says, he will often respond, “What do you mean, you’re taking me seriously? I’m on Comedy Central!” It’s a very convenient tightrope to walk (though don’t get me wrong, I love Jon.)
It’s also a little unfortunate as a title because, as a professor told me in seminary, “Don’t ever give someone a reason not to listen to you.” The hip typeface and panoply of cover designs probably make it more marketable and appealing to people who wouldn’t give two hoots about Calvin’s Institutes, but these hip-looking trappings belie that this is a very intelligent and thought-provoking book.
I’m willing to forgive the kitsch and the hipness, though, because fundamentally, this book wasn’t really written for me. It seems to be written for people outside the church—people who may be intrigued by Jesus a great deal, it’s just “his family” that they have a problem with. So in some ways I felt I was eavesdropping a little. Some of the ways Bell “repaints” the faith are things that many of us have already made peace with—the seeming contradictions of the Bible, the question of how an ancient book with human fingerprints all over it can still be God’s Word—but I could see the right person being completely liberated by Bell’s theology. I especially resonated with the analogy of faith as springs on a trampoline, or means through which we have an experience of the living God, as opposed to a rigid, lifeless brick wall of doctrine that must be built structurally sound or the whole thing crumbles. (p. 22)
How Bell “Repaints”
One of Bell’s gifts is to shed light on some pretty orthodox ideas, or at least, ideas that are already present in our Christian tradition, and to do so in a fresh, engaging way. A couple of examples:
- Sin has often been described as separation from God. And Karl Barth said that God has done the work of salvation in Christ, but there are people whose eyes are closed to this fact. They are standing in a room filled with light, but they don't know it. And it's not that God will switch on the light once they open their eyes. The light is already there. God has already defeated sin and death. And when they open their eyes, they will see the light that is already shining, that has been shining, illuminating the darkness, all this time.
But what Bell says is:
“Heaven is full of forgiven people.
Hell is full of forgiven people.
…The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.”
- The doctrine of election is problematic, and I don’t want to get into it here, except to say that if that’s how God works, then at least we need to say that we (whoever we are) are elected to service. God’s grace is at work in our lives, not because “I got mine, you get yours,” but because God has called us to be instruments of that grace for the sake of the world.
But what Bell says is, “If the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, it isn’t good news for anybody,” and talks about a woman who is a Christian, and how this should make a real concrete difference to the people living on her street, and in her neighborhood, and in her city, and in her world. (p. 166-167) I found that to be a very nice way of communicating a pretty old idea.
- Bell also says, “Mission is less about the transportation of God from one place to another and more about the identification of a God who is already there. (p. 87)” That is basic, good old fashioned missional theology!
He’s Talking to Us, Too
Though the primary audience of this book seems to be seekers, there was plenty that spoke to me directly as a pastor. His call story, in which God tells him to “teach this book and I will take care of everything else,” was powerful (p. 40). (Remember when it was that simple, Gals? [and Guys?] Remember when the call was new and exciting and redolent with things that really mattered?)
But it was the chapter on burnout, and on the need to kill Superpastor, when he won my heart. I love that he knew it was time to start a church when he no longer cared whether it was successful. (p. 96) We could find worse ways to discern what is God’s call and what is purely our own ego!
And the quote from his counselor later in that chapter was so on the nose that I put it on my blog this week: “Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God has made you to be. And anything else you do is sin and you need to repent of it.” (p. 114)
He also speaks with such honesty and humor about the joys and challenges of Christian community. His description of the people grousing about the lack of parking at the church was spot on, and he said what many of us would like to say in such situations:
"If you are here and you aren’t a Christian, we are thrilled to have you in our midst. We want you to feel right at home. But if you are here and you’re a Christian and you can’t even be Christian in the parking lot, please don’t go out into the world and tell people you’re a Christian. You’ll screw it up for the rest of us. And by the way, we could use your seat.” (p. 101)
Questions and Quibbles
The chapter “True” was very thought-provoking. He spends quite some time talking about truth, and if something is true, it is from God, even if it’s not word-for-word from the Bible. I would agree with that. However, he goes a step further and says, “Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life…’ [so] to be a Christian is to claim truth wherever you find it.” (p. 81) I’m not sure how “neighborly” this is in a pluralistic society. I think we need to be careful, in a culture in which Christianity was the dominant force for so long, not to simply co-opt anything that we personally find meaningful or even “true,” lest the dignity of the other person be compromised.
I also have an issue with his “first mention” technique when reading the Bible (p. 156). Bell suggests that when a word or idea comes up, say in the gospels, to see where it first appears in the Bible as a means of contextualizing it. But the scripture was not put together in a linear way. Genesis was not the first book written. And I’m sure Bell knows that, so it’s possible I just didn’t understand what he was getting at there.
A Few Other Good Bits
Some things to quote and leave uncommented, at least for now:
Atheism is a belief system—AMEN! (p. 19)
On the mystery and unknowability of God: When God passes by Moses, Moses sees God from the back. Back in this context means where I just was. It’s as if God is saying, that’s as much clarity as you’re going to get: where… I… just… was. Lovely. (p. 25)
On the need for humility in the midst of conviction: in Acts 15, “It seemed good to them…” (p. 57)
Christian is a great noun and a poor adjective. (p. 84)
It is impossible for a Christian to have a secular job. (p. 85)
On discernment: The first thing God does is separate light from dark, and spends the rest of the Bible showing people how to do the same. (p. 86)
The work of the cross is FOR us, but the work of the cross is also IN us. (p. 108)
“You did not choose me, but I chose you”: Jesus thinks we are capable of great things! (p. 134) A nice idea to hold in tension with “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”
And with that… let the discussion begin! Feel free to comment here, or post longer comments at your own blog and link to them, if you wish.