Every now and then I read a book that not only makes me see God in a new light, but also helps me fall in love with Jesus just a little more and further resolve to stick with this Christianity thing. Christianity is filled with a lot of fluff that just dissipates into nothing when tragedies hit or life becomes difficult, and so it is refreshing to read a book that shovels the fluff aside in favor of solid teaching and the experience of Jesus.
And so I present Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis. It’s been out for a few years now, but I recently picked it up at a book sale.
It’s easy to read a book with a critical eye, and my first impressions of this book were primarily critical. People jumped all over Bell because he supposedly called the virgin birth into question and screwed up his rabbinic interpretations. Having just read his book I would like to confront these two criticisms and than I’ll move on to the reasons why this may be one of the best books you’ll read this year if you haven’t read it already.
The Virgin Birth
First of all, Bell addresses the virgin birth in the context of discussing the various doctrines of the Christian faith. If I’m reading him correctly, his point in this section is that Christianity is about God, God revealed in Jesus and now in the Holy Spirit and that our faith in God is far larger than one doctrine. Instead of thinking of Christianity as a wall of beliefs that depend completely on each other, he sees our doctrines as springs on a trampoline that bend a flex with use, sometimes changing over the years, but not falling apart if one string ends up being particularly weak.
Bell says it like this:
I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. I’m a part of it, and I want to pass it on to the next generation. I believe that God created everything and that Jesus is Lord and that God has plans to restore everything. But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it? … God is bigger than any religion. God is bigger than any worldview. God is bigger than the Christian faith. (27)
That sounds alright with me. Bell is trying to hammer home the point that Christianity is a faith about God, kept alive by God, and ends with God, not merely a collection of doctrines. The doctrines are very, very important, but he wants us to keep each part in perspective.
Bell has also been criticized for his liberal sprinkling of rabbinic teaching that isn’t always quite right. I’m not an NT scholar at a university, but I’ve paid my seminary dues, got my MDiv, and done my fair share of reading, so I’ll weigh in here with a few thoughts. First of all, if Bell was claiming to be the last word on Biblical interpretation, I would be extremely worried to hear that he may have gotten things wrong. Instead, he presents his own views as interpretations that we must test and work out on our own. He says as much on the back of the book and consistently throughout.
With that in mind, Bell digs into the world of the New Testament with footnotes documenting any claim that appears to be out of the ordinary. I repeatedly followed his endnotes and was pleased to see that he carefully backed up his claims with sources. Whether or not those sources are valid can be debated, but all the same he is helping the reader along. In addition, by attempting to shed new light on the world of Jesus and using some rabbinic references, Bell pushes the limits of our current interpretations. He blows open a fresh world of meanings in texts that we long considered settled or may have misunderstood completely.
Therefore, even if Bell isn’t always on the mark, he is pushing us deeper into the text, challenging us to enter the world of Jesus, to reinterpret our readings, to look at Jesus with fresh eyes, and to commit to deeper study of scripture. If he’s wrong in a few places, then that’s all the more reason for us to pick up the Bible for ourselves. Christians should not expect to be spoon-fed the right interpretation from our scholars. If we aren’t willing to pick up the Bible for ourselves and to wrestle with the text, then we’re just lazy and deserve to be misled. What I found Bell doing was challenging my apathy and laziness, showing new angles of Jesus, and inspiring me to find out if his (Bell’s) interpretations really are true. I like to be spoon-fed just as much as the next guy, but when it comes right down to it, we need to read our Bibles with our fellow believers think through whatever our teachers are telling us, whether we trust them or not.
Why You Should Read This Book
Bell touches on the intersection of Christianity and culture, a topic that is near and dear to my heart and the subject of my own book that’s coming out in the fall. Whether or not he’s always spot on with his interpretation, he will make you excited about studying the Bible and living in the reality painted in the words of scripture. He models one way of carefully distinguishing between the lessons of the ancient world and the application of scripture today–an application that comes from interpretations that are always changing and shifting.
Bell is a master communicator who plants his biblical teaching in real life with excellent metaphors, stories, and a style of writing that I can only compare to a genuine one on one conversation. Though his book felt more like a meandering through his brain than a clear step-by-step journey into repainting the Christian faith, he supplies more than enough food for thought, even if it’s not arranged into neat courses with each portion carefully arranged on separate parts of the plate.
It’s easy to read Bell with a critical eye and pick apart portions that may strike some as pushing the bounds on the accepted ways of interpreting the Bible. It’s true that he is on the more progressive, pioneering end of Evangelical theology, but we need people like Bell. If everyone was concerned with simply preserving one way of looking at the Bible our theology would grow stale and lose its relevance. The strength of Christianity is its ability to change over time, adapting its interpretive methods, while holding to central doctrines. Bell is safely within the fold so far as I can see on that account.
Better yet, I think you’ll find this book encouraging, challenging, and enlightening. It’s the kind of book that will drive you into the Bible to figure things out for yourself. After reading Velvet Elvis I thought to myself, “I think I really like Jesus.”
It’s not every day a book makes you think something like that.