Book: Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell

A friend of mine used to keep notes on books she had read and films she had seen. I hope to occasionally jot down what I think of books, films, maybe music here. Not reviews, but reminders to me of what the thing was about and what I thought of it.

I’ve just finished reading “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith”, kindly loaned to me by a friend.

It’s a book about…well, I’m not sure what. It’s a general overview of what the author – the “pastor” of a large, fairly liberal church in Michigan – thinks about Christianity I suppose.

It’s a controversial book for some. I agreed with most of it but had problems with some things. I’ll just give a very quick overview of the chapters (or “movements” as he calls them). Forgive any use of church jargon that you don’t understand, it’s hard to talk about these things in a brief way without using words that either mean nothing or are loaded with meaning.

The chapters have names, not numbers, and are as follows:

Jump is about the building blocks of faith. He touches on “creeds” (statements of faith) and explains how they are useful but need to be flexible (like springs, not bricks), and why it’s OK to have questions and why joy is important.

Yoke is about different teachings, truth, and how it’s important to interpret the Bible. By this he means both understanding what the writings would have meant to their original audience 2000 years ago, and in terms of re-applying what is said to our culture today. His biblical, historical and cultural knowledge shines through the whole book and is very interesting.

True. I suspect this is a controversial chapter and I found it difficult myself – especially his notion of finding truth around us. I agree that you can find elements of truth outside of what’s written in the Bible but he seems to think that, if it seems OK to you then you can call it truth. I’m a bit more fundamental in that I think there is an ultimate truth to find, and that you can find things that are “good” outside of that truth, but not all the “good” things are “true”, or indeed helpful. I do agree that we are too inflexible with our beliefs and application of truth and that this is bad, but I found Bell to be too soft with the general notion of truth itself.

Other bits of this chapter were good with stuff about how God is everywhere but we don’t always recognise it, and about taking our faith with us into our whole lives…good stuff!

Tassels is about being real with ourselves and healing of the soul. There’s some of Rob Bell’s story of how he came to lead this huge church and then have a bit of a breakdown and what that all meant for him and how God helped him through it. He explains how we also need to go through a similar process sometimes. Pretty nitty-gritty stuff that’s easy to read and hard to actually be real with, but full of great truth. Includes a great section about the sabbath!

Dust is about “discipleship”; that is, being called by and following in the teachings and life of Jesus. Again, lots of historical and cultural background make some very interesting reading but other then a good feeling about being chosen, I didn’t feel it challenged me much.

New is about grace and the process of being “made new” which happens when we believe in Jesus. Essentially about how we get forgiven for “sin” (the wrong stuff we’ve done)
and how, if we believe in Jesus, this happens by what God has done and not by anything that we do. It’s about being who we were meant to be and making the world more like it was meant to be. There’s a call to action in there somewhere and a challenge to be people who “bring heaven to earth”.

Good continues the theme talking about renewal and how heaven isn’t somewhere that we will be going, but rather somewhere that the earth will one day be. It’s coming here, rather than we’re going there. Rob Bell’s real frustration seems to come out here as he talks about what the “church” should be. This is what it’s all about. Creeds, teachings, truth, healing of the soul, discipleship, grace, all leading to us – people that follow Jesus – being people who lead a life of serving God and serving others in order to bring the goodness of heaven to earth. Phew.

I enjoyed the book. It was a good and easy read. Rob Bell writes in a very conversational style and obviously is a very knowledgeable and wise man. I’d love to read more of his explaining of the Bible and the Jewish culture and traditions.

A few things I didn’t like – aside from where I didn’t necessarily agree with him.

I think he overuses metaphor. Bricks, tassels, velvet Elvises, superpastors, tour guides. It peters out after a while but at the start he really overdoes it, stretching the analogies further than the springs on his trampoline.

And I think he’s not challenging enough. He makes some good points but, as I said before, a warm feeling is about all I got. Maybe it’s the conversational tone? It made me want to think about things, not to actually change them.

The overall feeling I’m left with is that he should be writing a different book. Perhaps if he focussed more on the history and less on the philosophy I’d find him a better read? But then, if he did that he’d be writing a completely different book. And I think I quite liked the book. But I might need a second read to be sure. Martin, can I borrow it a bit longer???

2 thoughts on “Book: Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell

  1. Hey Ross, I’m going through the re-reading process my self. I have to say I love this book and I’m interested in a couple of the comments you made. You said he overuses metaphor. I know you’ve read the gospels and wonder if you’ve ever thought that Jesus uses too many metaphors ;). You also said it makes you think rather than challenges you. For me that is the challenge. What we think about Jesus, doctrine, heaven etc. will have an important effect on our lives. I keep thinking, I intellectually agree with him, but my life doesn’t reflect that.
    One final thought, I think it’s unfair to describe his church as liberal. They are clearly evangelical in position and practice, they’re just not mean which is different!!

  2. Blimey – someone actually reads my ramblings! 🙂

    You mention three things:

    1) When I say that Bell overuses metaphor, I’m not saying that I think Bell uses too many metaphors, rather, he tries to apply the same metaphor to too many different concepts. So with the trampoline he talks about:
    – jumping being like faith
    – jumping together to bounce higher
    – the springs as doctrines
    – the contrast between “solid” bricks and “flexible” springs
    – the fact that we invite people to come and jump with us
    – the joy that comes from “jumping”

    I wouldn’t mind him using one or two of these but I feel he stretches things too far sometimes.

    2) About being made to think and being challenged – I do think these are different. Bell makes me think “mmmm…that’s interesting”, which, yes, might eventually lead to an effect on my life. What he doesn’t do is directly stir me to action and change. Other books I’ve read actually make me want to change something, or alter my beliefs right away!

    3) I’ve just looked up meanings of the word “liberal” and I think I’ll stick to using it. Bell talks about having flexible doctrines and affirming truth wherever you find it. He is “evangelical” in that he holds to the inerrancy of scripture, but he’s very open minded and tolerant in how he applies what scripture says to his life and teaching.

    Can you be both evangelical and liberal at the same time? I guess that whatever words you use for it, the key thing is that we faithfully follow Jesus and that we live in a loving way, and on that I can’t fault Bell at all.

    As a footnote, Sally and I were listening to a sermon that Rob Bell gave at this church (these are downloadable on iTunes), and his knowledge of the history and culture of the early church, and his explanations of what the original Greek text mean really bring to life the stories of the bible that he uses. He’s a great scholar and preacher and well worth a listen to.

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