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Rob Bell: Velvet Elvis

 

Cover image from the 2012 HarperOne reprint.

Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 194 pages, ISBN 9780310263456.

Rob Bell’s book welcomes us to listen in to a dialogue describing what Christianity should look like in a postmodern context. Before addressing Rob Bell’s book specifically, it will be helpful to keep both postmodernism and modernism in perspective. While many may know aspects of postmodernism, it helps to remember postmodernism counters modernism as its antithesis. Today’s scientific community has yet to answer great evils of the world: starvation, poverty, AIDS, pollution, ruthless dictatorships, etc. Christianity is not exempt from this scrutiny. “If God is good, why does he allow evil and suffering?” is there response. Our theological answers fall short to quench their thirst. Postmodernism rejects proven foundations over experiential exuberance. Their methodology, therefore, plainly manifests itself through the arts, philosophy, metaphoric interpretation, and religion (Nietzsche being a postmodern theologian).1 While this may sound horrific to some Evangelical Christians, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has a distinctive advantage in reaching people in the postmodern context. Thankfully, Velvet Elvis allows us to learn more about church in a postmodern context.

Rob Bell invites people to join a movement journeying to discover what it means to be Christian in a postmodern world. Page 176-177 (paperback) recounts an emotional event in Bell’s life that apparently sparked this new journey. During an alter call in a small church, the pastor asked, with heads down and eyes closed, for a show of hands of who said the sinner’s prayer. As the pastor proceeded to acknowledge the responses, Bell’s eyes looked on—no hands were raised. This open hypocrisy showed the method for sharing salvation became the end in itself and not the person of salvation. Instead of bailing out on God, Bell chose to find out what it looked like to have an authentic and fresh love affair with Jesus—in his generational context. Bell believes, true enough, that what worked for previous generations make no sense in today’s world. According to Bell, the methodology of experiencing God is no longer built on fragile brick walls of inflexible doctrine (pg 26), but on flexible springs in which questioning God becomes the central Christian experience (31). For Pentecostal/charismatics, the door is wide open to enjoy authentic God experiences through Spirit Baptism accompanied by signs and wonders as we interact and dialogue with those whom God seeks after. This power experience in witnessing gives the church a distinct advantage in sharing the gospel. Pentecostal/charismatics can wholeheartedly agree that God’s interactive presence should be lived out in Christians and not just rationally experienced. God wants to be active among His people and not a mere cognitive exercise of philosophical deism (149).

Differences quickly surface for fundamentalists as Velvet Elvis dives into Rob Bell’s Jewish hermeneutical approaches to “hidden meanings.” His homiletic style invites more questions by hanging itself on mystery which may leave modern theologians uneasy (156,158). He draws up questionable appeals on what doctrinal statements make or break one’s faith. Is it the virgin birth? Page 26 should bother most Christians, yet, one trusts he uses this hyperbole for effect only.

Bell presents many healthy rebukes concerning church growth strategy in today’s churches. Pastors and boards are more agenda driven and do not have a selfless expression of real love to the community (167). Additionally, many Pentecostal/charismatics fall short in the theology of suffering. Suffering, according to Bell, is part of God’s plan. It exists. We must embrace it and those in pain and not “check out of this broken, fractured world” (169). There are many other rebukes worth the price of this book.

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2008

About the Author: Robert V. Huckleberry is a professor of aerospace studies at Bowling Green State University and is currently preparing a missional church plant targeting college students.

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