Sunday, September 5, 2010

Review - Velvet Elvis

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith is the first book by Rob Bell, pastor of the rapidly growing Mars Hill Church. (Published by Zondervan in 2006). Previously I had seen the Nooma series which he taught, and found it to give a very fresh perspective on the Christian faith. We definitely view some things pretty differently, but I found Nooma to be thought provoking and had a lot of important things to say to Christians and seekers alike. Yet Bell seems to be a bit of a controversial figure. What light would Velvet Elvis shed on Bell's beliefs, and on mine?

Even the title is interesting - what on earth is a Velvet Elvis? Apparently it's a painting of Presley on velvet. The point of the title is that no painting of Elvis could ever claim to be the 'ultimate rendition', so perfectly capturing his essence that no other painting need ever be done. Bell suggests our faith is like that - there is no 'perfect' once-and-for-all time snapshot the perfectly captures who God is or how we relate to Him. A key discussion point in the book is that the Bible - while a reliable source of truth - must always be interpreted. As we are not perfect readers, we'll not always get the right picture. Bell suggests that fresh painting of the faith are helpful conversations that can draw us closer to Christ and help us live the way He wants us to.

As I didn't know what to expect before reading this, I kept an eye out for crazy out-in-left-field stuff, and for powerful thoughts that encouraged me to think deeply about my faith. By the end, the latter far outnumbered the former. In fact, early on he wants to be clear that he affirms an orthodox position:
"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."
I'm glad he did this, because in a few places his discussion of Jesus as the way and similar themes was rather fuzzy. At other points he raised interesting points about the trinity and the effectiveness (or danger) of some forms of gospel invitations which push hard for mental assent to get your ticket punched. I really thought several discussions were extremely thought provoking and useful - on calling, on relentlessly pursuing all the God has made you to be, Sabbath rest, and the Bible's teaching on the Kingdom of God. I also loved how Bell shared some interesting background on customs prevalent in the Old Testament and in the early church, on what it meant to be a rabbi and/or a disciple.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend that a seeker or a Christian seeking a fresh perspective on the faith read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. At the same time, I would echo Bell's explicit instructions to the reader: Test it, probe it, don't swallow it uncritically. Think about it. Wrestle with it. Great advice, as the Bereans, Paul and Luke would agree (Acts 17:11). Pastor Bell know he hasn't "nailed it." In some ways the strength of the book is in raising good questions, not trying to give unique teaching or change your mind. It might make you a bit uncomfortable, or it may help revive passion and joy in following Christ.

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