This review came about because a Rob Bell video was by a guest preacher at my church and a friend of mine had doubts about him due to his connection with the emergent church. So I did some Internet searches on him and found a bunch of people that thought he was heretical, but none of them could really come up with anything except a quote on pg. 27 that seemed to say he was ok if the virgin birth did not happen. To be fair, a few people noted that on the next page he specifically says that he is persuaded that the virgin birth actually did happen. So I decided to skim through the book myself, since apparently it only takes 27 pages to figure out if he’s preaching the right gospel.

Bell starts the book off by saying that the Bible is a book that cannot be used without interpreting. You cannot say “I’m going to do what the Bible tells me,” because, except in some rather limited circumstances relevant directly to the Israelites in Moses’ time, it doesn’t given enough details. Bell even gives an example, of keeping the Sabbath, I think. The Law just says “keep the Sabbath holy.” Ok, well, what is holiness? What does “keep” mean? So we have to interpret it. He says that we cannot just arrive at some orthodox interpretation and leave it unchanged, it just doesn’t work that way. (I suspect that what he is trying to communicate is that, left to ourselves, our interpretations calcify and become mere regulations of the sort Jesus got upset at the Pharisees for.)  So we need to constantly be questioning and challenging our faith and trying to figure out what it means to live like Jesus desires.

He contrasts this way of living the faith in contrast to “brickianity,” a way of approaching the faith where each doctrine is rigid and built on each other, like a brick wall. An extreme example would be a preacher he heard who attempted to demonstrate that if you did not believe that God created the world in six literal days that you then had to deny the deity of Christ. This is the context for his comments about the virgin birth: suppose that we discovered proof that Jesus had a mother and father, and that “born of a virgin” meant someone who was conceived the first time his mother had intercourse. He says that this would not negate the fact that the way of Jesus is still the best way to live, and then goes on to affirm the doctrine of the virgin birth and several related doctrines.

I think Bell could have made his point more effectively with another example, as the virgin birth is usually cited as evidence that Jesus is God. So Bell leaves himself wide open for the attack that he thinks that Jesus is simply a good moral teacher. I suspect that what he meant to communicate was that the point is that Jesus is both man and God, and if we find evidence that God did this in some fashion other than taking Mary’s DNA and supernaturally creating the other half, it does not destroy our faith. Suppose God used Mary and Joseph’s DNA and instead of creating a soul like He does for the rest of us, He used his own soul. Jesus would still be God and still be man.

Just for the record, I personally think that the Bible is very clear on the truth of the traditional understanding of the virgin birth (i.e. Joseph did not have anything to do with Jesus’ conception). And to re-iterate, Bell also affirms this on pg. 28.

He spends much of the book talking about what it means to follow Jesus’ way of life, kind of through illustration of his own life. He started Mars Hill church in Michigan, had 1,000 people show up the first Sunday with a weekly attendance of 10,000 in two years. One Sunday, between services, he found himself wondering how far he could get if he skipped the second service and just started driving. He discovered he was burned out trying to be superpastor. As he went to counseling and started taking Sabbaths, he discovered that he was driven to do and achieve partly because he was trying to prove he had what it took, and partly because he did not have to deal with the emptiness. This is the part of the book where he talks about sin, which I am quoting because other reviewers I saw did not appear to have read this far:

To say that salvation is holistic is to acknowledge that there are many dimensions to living in harmony with God. In one sense, salvation is a legal transaction. Humans are guilty because of our sin, and God is the judge who has to deal with our sin because he is holy and any act of sin goes against his nature. He has to deal with it. Enter Jesus, who dies on the cross in our place. Jesus gets what we deserved; we get what Jesus deserved.

For Jesus, however, salvation is far more. It includes this understanding, but it is far more comprehensive—it is a way of life. To be saved or redeemed or set free is to enter into a totally new way of living in harmony with God. The rabbis called harmony with God alam haba, which translates “life in the world to come”. Salvation is living more and more in harmony with God, a process that will go on forever.

When we understand salvation from a legal transaction perspective, then the point of the cross becomes what it has done for us. There is the once-and-for-all work of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and saying, “It is finished.” Nothing more to be offered and nothing more to be sacrificed. Jesus’ death perfectly satisfies God. We claim this truth as Christians. All have been forgiven. But let’s also use a slightly different phrase: the work of the cross in us. There is Jesus’ death on our behalf once and for all, but there is the ongoing work of the cross in our hearts and minds and souls and lives. There is the ongoing need to return to the cross to be reminded of our brokenness and dependence on God. There is the healing we need from the cross every single day.

Which leads to forgiveness. The point of the cross isn’t forgiveness. Forgiveness leads to something much bigger: restoration. God isn’t just interested in the covering over of our sins. God wants to make us into the people we were originally created to be. It is not just the removal of what’s being held against us. It’s God pulling us into the people he originally had in mind when he made us. The restoration is why Jesus always orients his message around becoming the kind of people who are generous and loving and compassionate. The goal here isn’t simply to not sin. Our purpose is to increase the shalom in this world, which is why approaches to the Christian faith that deal solely with not sinning always fail. They aim at the wrong thing. It is not about what you don’t do. The point is becoming more and more the kind of people God had in mind when we were first created.

It is one thing to be forgiven; it is another thing to become ... more and more the person God made you to be.

Let me take this further. if we only have a legal transaction understanding of salvation in which we are forgiven of our sins so we can go to Heaven, then salvation essentially becomes a ticket to somewhere else. In this understanding, eternity is something that kicks in when we die. (p. 107 - 109)

He then spends a fair amount of time pointing out that the Bible describes God coming to live with man, not man coming to live with God. For instance, God lives on the ark of the covenant, between the cherubim, in the temple in Jerusalem. In Revelation, God comes to the new heaven and new earth.

He continues on to a few other things  One is that church was meant to have joy by giving to others; our joy comes from having acting with God’s generous and loving character, not as some special thing that God gives to the “in” people. If a neighbor becomes a Christian, it should be good news to everyone on the street: God will be transforming that person into someone more loving, just as He is loving. He also notes that the church tends to do best when it is counter-cultural. At some point in the book he notes that just because music or a movie or something is labeled Christian, does not imply that it is safe for Christians to consume. It might be a work of such poor quality that it is an embarrassment to the name of Christ (a friend of mine attempted to watch one such movie recently). It might be a song that is merely a set of cliches and bereft of musical ideas. In fact, labeling it Christian might do more harm than good! At one point, when there was not enough parking at Mars Hill and people were flicking others off in the parking lot due to congestion, he told people that if you are not a Christian, we welcome you, but if you are, and you can’t live like it past the parking lot, please don’t call yourself one.

It seems to me that a lot of the problems people have with Bell is that he does not communicate in the words evangelicals recognize as orthodox. In fact, since he thinks that the church is best when counter-cultural, he is probably deliberately choosing words that evangelicals consider unorthodox. The message of the book seems to be that sin is not being who we were created to be and that being a Christian is living as God intended. This sounds pretty orthodox to me. The description of sin quoted above seems pretty orthodox. Jesus seems to paint repentance as turning from following our own desires to following him and living with his character. The thief on the cross did not express any theological understanding beyond acknowledging that Jesus was the Messiah and that death would not stop him from entering his kingdom. The thief simply acknowledges that he is sinful and expressed a desire to follow Jesus. He was saved. So Bell seems to be firmly within orthodoxy to describe Christianity is living like Jesus did. We evangelicals would prefer a little more precise call to repentance, but since Jesus mostly said “come, follow me,” I guess I am going to chaulk this one up as merely personal preference.

Bell’s wording often sounds new age-y, which probably turns of evangelicals. For instance “living in harmony with God” sounds more Zen than Evangelical. It is certainly a Biblical concept; John 17:26 quotes Jesus as saying that he desires us to know God’s love as he know it. Evangelicals would usually phrase it differently. The book’s subtitle “repainting the faith” suggests that he is creating new doctrine, when what he seems to mean is simply moving from dogma to doctrine, from rigidity to thoughtful contemplation of truths. Defining sin defined as not being who we were created to be sounds like he is advocating self-discovery rather than repentance. Bell never defines “who we were created to be,” but the context suggests that he means that we were created to be people with God’s loving, generous, compassionate character. This would be orthodox.

Velvet Elvis could be seen as a reaction to Evangelicalism. I know many (and attend one) solid, God-loving evangelical churches. But in the world, Evangelicals seem to be associated with lousy music, condemnation of gays and women who get an abortion, and hypocrisy. Bell is advocating the characteristics that the Evangelical church is perceived as lacking. He is saying that Christianity is not about a ticket to heaven, it is about God redeeming us through the death of His Son to pay for our sins, to be people who live like He lives. Which is what 1 John says.

Velvet Elvis does not have a lot to offer the mature Christian, and because the poor choice of words sounds very similar to ideas that are decidedly not Christian, I would hesitate to recommend this book to young Christians. However, he does succeed at showing how Christianity does not need to be the rigid, propositional, Pharisaic, Evangelical Christianity everyone associates with Jesus, so it might be a reasonable read for people considering Christ.
Review: 5
Bell complains about Christians thinking that the Bible is about transfer of information, so perhaps that accounts for the fuzziness in his writing. One of the strengths of writing is the ability to precisely communicate ideas; Velvet Elvis completely fails in that respect. He actually has a fair amount of structure, but this would be a far more effective delivered orally.  I am giving this a 5, because I feel that it is decidedly average.