The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith
Rob Bell. (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005). 208 pages.

Rob Bell is the pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church, located in Grandville, Michigan. He is embarking on a speaking tour "everything is spiritual" (sic) in the summer of  2006.

Explaining the title "Velvet Elvis" is helpful in describing the book. Rob Bell speaks of a velvet Elvis Presley painting he has in his basement. It was signed by the artist simply with the letter "R." To the author, this suggests that no further Elvis painting ever need to be undertaken-- the ultimate work is finished. Then Bell likens this Elvis painting to churches that act as though they have arrived and "figured it all out."

Rightly, he discusses how this sort of approach crystallizes itself and eventually ends up in somebody's theological basement-- more or less useless. He thus speaks of the need to "repaint the Christian faith" in this (and every generation). The official on-line summary of the book from the Zondervan "everything is spiritual" website:

Velvet Elvis is for the millions of people who are fascinated by Jesus, but can’t do the standard Christian package. In his debut book, Bell explores a new understanding of the Christian faith.

In this regard, the book succeeds and generally has some great insight and discussion on the topic. It is a thought-provoking book that touches on a great number of topics of interest to Christians today. I think it will especially resonate with Generation-X readers.

But there are a few "huh?" moments in this book. Let me give a few examples. In chapter 1, entitled "Jump," he has a great observation that doctrine is like springs on a trampoline. Springs are necessary, but the object of a trampoline is to jump and have fun. This is nice, but it suggests that all that matters is what you do, not what is true or what you believe. Here's a couple of quotes:

Perhaps a better question than who's right, is who's living rightly? (p. 21.)

I am far more interested in jumping than I am in arguing about whose trampoline is better. You rarely defend the things you love. You enjoy them and tell others about them and invite others to enjoy them with you. (p. 27)

Of course, nobody is perfectly "living rightly." Everybody sins. Everybody does what they think is right, but they also mess up. So what's the point of bringing this up? Not only that, what is right does matter. And pitting right living versus right doctrine is a false dilemma. Doctrine and practice are not mutually exclusive but interrelated. As Paul said, "watch your life and doctrine" (1 Timothy 4:16).

And I couldn't help but notice the irony in the 2nd quote. He says he would rather jump than argue about whose trampoline is better-- yet he writes a book about, uh, ... making a better trampoline.

Chapter 2 is entitled "Yoke" and discusses how biblical interpretation is necessary. I was glad to see him debunk the false notion that certain people have "interpretations" but others (who might consider themselves more spiritual) "just do what the Bible says" (as if there was no bias or interpretation involved). He's got a lot of great insights in here about dealing with context, it's one of the hidden strengths of the book.

But then he goes into a discussion about binding and loosing where he ends up getting all tied up:

Notice what Jesus says in the book of Matthew: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

What he is doing here is significant. He is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible. He is giving them permission to say, "Hey, we think we missed it before on that verse, and we've recently come to the conclusion that this is what it actually means."

And not only is he giving them authority, but he is saying that when they do debate and discuss and pray and wrestle and then make decisions about the Bible, somehow God in heaven will be involved.

Jesus expects his followers to be engaged in the endless process of deciding what is means to actually live in the Scriptures.  (p. 50)

At an exegetical level, he doesn't seem to recognize that these words of Jesus were spoken to Peter and not us. Further, he's not instructing Peter on biblical interpretation. The point of the saying is that in Peter opening the doors of the kingdom, God will lead Peter to bind that which has already been bound in heaven. God will not be rubber stamping whatever clever thing Peter says. For a further discussion of this passage, see the Barnabas Ministry article "The Rock Foundation of Matthew 16:17-20.

Beyond that, there are scores of passages where New Testament writers urge the readers to hold to what was originally passed down to them, not to engage in fanciful explorations of novel or worldly ideas (e.g. Galatians 1:6ff, Jude 3, Colossians 2:6-8).  We just can't toss out what the apostles taught-- it is the core of the faith. However, what might need tossing out are deficient human understandings of these things.

Now to some degree, interpretations (or "binding and loosing") must be done by all of us. But his take on this is inadequate. Anybody can make a sincere and honest interpretation, but that doesn't mean it will be right. Some interpretations are objectively better than others for various reasons (such as fitting the context). Bell seems to suggest that any sincere interpretation will have "God involved." He seems less concerned with quality than with people being free to make the interpretation. Everybody has to start somewhere, but sooner or later quality will matter.

In chapter 3, entitled "True" he is going after truth and "real" things, attempting to reconcile experience with truth. This is necessary discussion and the chapter is good and quite thought-provoking, with excellent insights about missions and bringing the gospel into any culture.

Along the way, he cites a practice in Turkey that people build their houses as they can afford them and don't have mortgages. As a result, many houses are partially finished but people don't have mortgages. But then he says this about it:

Having less debt is a better way to live, I affirm this value of the Muslim people of Turkey because it is true, it is good, and it is a better way to live." (p. 80)

My question is this: Is it better for everybody? What if I think some other way is better? I found it odd that in a chapter seeking truth he is so quick to canonize an opinion as "truth." This is one of the problems with attempting to determine truth from experience alone or in an individual context.

Frequently through Velvet Elvis Bell uses variants of the phrase, "If we're serious about following Jesus/dealing with the Bible, ..."  Is he intending to be judgmental towards those who don't do what he says, or is this just a rhetorical device?

From the outset, Bell seems to be taking shots at some form of Christianity, but he never gets specific enough to be accountable or engage in a dialog. No doubt, he is reacting against forms of Christianity that may be heavy on theory but short on practice, stuck on traditional ways of doing things instead of looking for what God is doing here and now, and robbing people of the "God" in their everyday experiences. In discussing these issues, Velvet Elvis is an outstanding book.

Bell seems to want to take advantage of vague discontent and shortcomings of traditional Christian practice to free up a new generation of relatively young people to dig into the Scriptures "anew" and find what is right. Zondervan presents the book as suitable for those who "can't do the standard Christian package"-- whatever that is. Searching is great, but this whole idea reminded me of a quote attributed to Mark Twain: "When I was fourteen, my father was a complete fool. When I was 21, he was an intelligent man. I was surprised at how much he had learned in seven years."

Now maybe Bell is crazy like a fox and knows that if people engage in these discussions and ask more questions, they'll end up in the right place. Perhaps he says these things to encourage or provoke people who otherwise might not care to get involved. If that's the case, then this book will have served its purpose.

But I've got one more warning. I'd be concerned that people who go through this process of discovery might canonize their findings just as much (if not more) than others who have done the same thing before them. For 23 years I was part of a group that was so convinced that we were true "trampoline jumpers" (to use Bell's metaphor) and couldn't possibly make damaging and harmful mistakes because of our zeal and commitment. Not only did we make incredibly damaging mistakes, our self-identity as "true disciples" and desire to validate our discovery experiences made it extremely difficult for us to see the mistakes and flaws in the paradigm. And how I wished I'd listened more to those I regarded as dinosaurs. I was Twain in the quote above. Is Bell setting his readers up for a similar problem a few years or decades from now? I hope not, but as someone who's been through something like this before I'll sound the warning, just in case.

Copyright © 2006 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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