There seems to be a growing dissatisfaction in the way American Evangelical churches are going these days, and there is emerging a group of spokesmen for this feeling. I’ve taken a look at the likes of Leonard Sweet and Brian McLaren, but another one of those who is looking for a new way of doing and being is Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This is the Rob Bell of NOOMA fame, the series of videos which have enthralled–and enraged–many with his post-modern approach and open-ended teaching style.
Many of the concepts–he actually transcribes some of the sessions–from NOOMA are contained in his book Velvet Elvis which have likewise inspired admiration and enmity. So what’s the big deal? That’s what I wanted to find out for myself.
Before I get into the book itself, I’m going to make a statement that will probably make some people mad. (Having written some edgy stuff myself, I know that’s not difficult.) I’ve just about come to the conclusion that the phrase "Protestant theology" is an oxymoron. Protestants don’t have theology; they have doctrine. They teach it, they make it a litmus test for acceptance and, if they’re really on their game, they live it. But the word "theology" implies that one has to think out the "why"–the mechanics, to use an engineering term–behind something, and Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular seem to be afraid of that. Too many people have the idea that such a quest will end up with an unBiblical result. That’s why I say that Roman Catholic theology, for all of its problems (the biggest of which is the institution of the Roman Catholic Church itself,) is the premier intellectual tradition in Christianity. It also makes me glad that I spent my undergraduate years as an engineering student while ploughing through St. Thomas Aquinas on the side rather than sit in a seminary listening to "doctrine" be pompously exposited.
So how does this apply to Bell? In Velvet Elvis Bell tackles some important and controversial issues in Evangelical circles (and Reformed ones in particular.) His post-modern presentation is engaging and insightful, but the truth is that many of the issues he tackles–especially those relating to the mystery and transcendence of God and the nature of justification going beyond the legal fiction of having your name in the right place–get better treatment in Catholic theology than they do on the Protestant side. It’s tempting to say that his own spiritual journey would have easier had he had more exposure to Catholic thought, but I’ll leave that to him and you.
Having said this, I am of two minds about this book.
One the one hand, Velvet Elvis is a very deep book which is presented in an understandable way. His chapters are entitled "movements" and the subtitle is "Repainting the Christian Faith." His idea is to produce a work of art to express his idea, and he comes very close to doing just that. (The work of art thing is something else that would have benefited from exposure to Roman Catholicism.) From the graphic presentation to his own style, he passes from one profound thought to another easily. His introduction of the concept of the Rabbinic "yoke" is a strong one, because he uses that to examine the concept of Protestant Christianity as a seamless, perfect (and closed-ended) construct. (I do the same thing from another angle here.) It’s probably the best explanation of the variations one finds in Protestantism, although it ignores the opposition in New Testament times of Pharasaical, Rabbinic Judaism from the "back to the book" version the Qumran Essenes were attempting.
And that leads me to my other view: this book does have potential for unorthodox ("reappraiser," to use Kendall Harmon’s terminology) interpretation. The concept of "repainting the Christian faith" opens oneself up to completely redefining it. I don’t think that this is what Bell has in mind, and this is why I don’t see Bell as a classic liberal. Redefinition, of course, is the crux of the whole problem the Anglican Communion faces these days. The central problem with institutions such as the Episcopal Church is that they have fallen under the control of people who are modernist and post-modernist humanists who speak the language of faith but don’t live in the reality of what they profess. But in reading the book I get the impression that Bell is trying to stick to a Biblical world view while exploring new horizons in living and thinking within that view. The basic problem that the boundary between the two can be very thin.
That last point leads me to what is probably the most controversial thing he says in the book:
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples…
This statement and what follows tell me three things. First, it’s hypothetical; he affirms his belief in the virgin birth on the next page. Second, he hasn’t thought the part out about the DNA very well, because to make this stick they would have to find Jesus’ body, which would deny the resurrection. That should be a "deal breaker," even by Rob Bell’s standards! Third, he hasn’t thought about why the virgin birth is important, or if he has he doesn’t articulate it here. For someone who explores issues deeply as Bell does, his treatment of this subject is disappointing. Heretical, probably not, but certainly disappointing.
If there’s one thing in the book that bothered me more than anything else, it’s his idea in "Dust" that the central concept of discipleship (as shown by Jesus and his own disciples) is when we discover God has faith in us. As it comes across in both book and NOOMA video, he seems to put too much emphasis on human agency. Although all of Jesus’ disciples (the first ones and the rest who come after) are God’s creation, and that our characteristics are not there by accident, nevertheless what makes us purposeful followers of God is the presence of God in ourselves–"Christ, alive in us," to use a phrase from Catholic music. But maybe that’s another one of those places where Bell’s Reformed roots have failed him.
Velvet Elvis, in summary, is on the whole a good book. In it’s own way it’s the most profound modern treatment of Christianity that I’ve run across since John McKenzie’s The Power and the Wisdom. And the comparison is apt: McKenzie was an iconoclast in his day, and one can only hope that Evangelical Christianity will fare better in the necessary transformation ahead than Roman Catholicism did after Vatican II. And Bell doesn’t need the likes of Rudolf Bultmann to help him either! It’s a book that will provoke badly-needed thought, and that’s Bell’s objective to start with. Ultimately what Bell is trying to get at may be beyond what he is able to properly articulate, but that problem has come up before:
Like a geometer wholly dedicated
to squaring the circle, but who cannot find,
think as he may, the principle indicated–
so did I study the supernal face.
I yearned to know just how our image merges
into that circle, and how it there finds its place;
but mine were not the wings for such a flight. (Dante, Paradiso)
Let me end this review by deconstructing two of his illustrations.
The first is his discussions of the corners and tassels of the Hebrew prayer garment. He does a fine job with the Hebrew meaning of the word for corner, but if he had peeked into the Greek, he would have discovered that, in Acts 10:11, the Greek word that describes the corners of the sheet is the same one (arche) used in John 1:1 to describe the beginning, where the Word was. (I discuss this in detail in My Lord and My God.) That would have initiated some heavy theology!
The second is his opposition of the "brick" to the "spring." For someone who has studied vibrations, springs and bricks (masses) are both essential elements in any vibrating system. You need them both for such a system, and really need both in the church. Both of these are "conservative" elements in that, in their theoretical state, do not dissipate energy from the system. That takes place when the third element (dampening) is introduced, and that’s what slows down movement to a near-standstill. Surely Bell has, in his pastoral career, run into people who simply take energy out of the system!