Review of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell
By ALEXIS NEAL
Allow me to start by saying that I have a low tolerance for vaguely deep-sounding statements that don’t actually mean anything. The word ‘journey’ gives me hives. I get queasy when I read sentences like ‘Somewhere in you is the you whom you were meant to be.’ (And not just because I can’t help feeling like it should be ‘who’, not ‘whom.’)
I suspect this means I am not Rob Bell’s ideal audience.
Other indications that this book was perhaps not intended for people like me include the following:
I don’t think it is possible for us to ‘bring heaven to earth’, no matter how hard we try. I’m not really sure we’re even supposed to try. Spread the gospel, sure. Act justly, sure. Be good stewards of the earth, absolutely. But I don’t know that global renewal is our job. There seems to be a lot in scripture to support the idea that things are going to get worse before they get better. It is the second coming of Christ, and not my efforts, that brings about the new heaven and the new earth.
I don’t think that my direction in life should be determined by a quest for self-actualization. I most definitely think that ‘being true to oneself’ is a terrible reason to plant a church. I don’t think God chose me because He believed in me, or because He knew I ‘had it in me’. I do not believe God saw my unrealized potential and drafted me to His team. Nor do I believe that my sins are the result of my failure to believe in myself.
So yeah, I’m not really Bell’s kind of reader.
The whole book is filled with non-stop feel-good psychobabble. Sadly, I suspect that the average reader will get swept up in the emotion of the book and will be mislead into believing that the gospel is about people rather than God, that people aren’t that bad, and that actions are more important than faith. I get that Bell is reacting against the shortcomings and failures he’s seen in the evangelical church. Many of his criticisms are valid. I’m just not sure that his solutions aren’t worse than the problems he’s seeking to rectify.
And the worst of it is, most of the wishy-washy, largely meaningless statements Bell makes do, if viewed from the right angle, contain a kernel of truth. The trouble is, I doubt very much that Bell is viewing his statements from that angle. I’m almost certain his readers aren’t. For example, Bell argues that anything ‘true’ can be included in our Christian faith–and he’s right. True things tell us something about God, and He is truth. But the catch comes when you’re deciding what is true and what isn’t. Bell seems perfectly happy to abandon scripture when something ‘true’ is established by science or history (i.e., the virgin birth). It’s a faulty syllogism, and the breakdown comes when you examine the second premise. Yes, God and truth are compatible. But the ultimate arbiter of truth is the Bible.
Bell also explains, at length, that every conclusion drawn from the Bible is merely man’s interpretation. Translation, application–it’s all tainted by the men doing it. Which again, is not wholly wrong. However, Bell seems to be really, really close to saying ‘we can’t know what the Bible really means.’ Yes, there are often multiple possible interpretations for biblical truth. But even when we don’t know exactly what something means, we often know darned well what it doesn’t mean. The fact that we don’t know which meaning is right doesn’t mean that all meanings are permissible, or equally valid. Moreover, God gave the Bible to His church as a means of communicating the truth about Himself to the church, and it will fulfill His purpose–it will not return void. It can’t mean nothing.
Of course, Bell follows this postmodern ‘it’s impossible to really know anything/what you think about the Bible is just your opinion’ discussion with a ‘here’s what it really means’ presentation of his own interpretation of a variety of passages. Which certainly seems at odds with his earlier point about subjectivity. His arguments are largely historical (based on Jewish culture during Christ’s lifetime and the religious beliefs of other cultures) and he rarely if ever identifies his sources. (The book is heavily endnoted, but the endnotes are almost exclusively Bible references.) Not that I think he’s making it up, but if you’re going to offer a fairly novel interpretation of scripture, it would be nice if you’d give your readers a chance to consult your sources for themselves.
That being said, I will admit that the man is not a terrible writer. I’m not really sure he’s saying much of anything, and much of what he says is misleading, but he says it in a conversational and even appealing tone. (I will say, though, that despite the friendly tone of the book, I felt like there was a faint undercurrent of arrogance and contempt in Bell’s writing. Of course, there is an element of arrogance in any attempt to reform or redefine (or re-paint) the status quo–you’re presuming that you know better. And like I said, this isn’t really my kind of book, so I may be reading into it. But there you have it.) His writing is quite readable. And technically, he even includes the gospel–even if it’s just one paragraph, in the context of ‘this is true, but there’s so much more’, and even if the seeds of universalism are mixed in with it. For these reasons, the book gets two out of five stars.
But no more than that.