Anyone who has recently entered into a Christian bookstore has come across a white-covered book with a simple and enticing title Velvet Elvis. At least if the younger generation is not enticed by the king’s lyrics, they will be captivated by the eccentricity of the book’s look and certainly the content. With 194 colorful pages with phrases that look like they are each a separate paragraph, Rob Bell articulates a new expression of the Christian faith. In much of the same way that others that preceded him have done (McLaren and others), Bell brings in each page a sense of newness that is certainly appealing to any reader who has experienced the betrayal of traditional church life.
Rob Bell states: “The Christian faith tradition is filled with change and growth and transformation” (p. 011). If the modern world is weary of a dead faith, then Rod Bell will likely succeed in this small treatise (not sure he would like that term). But is it true that Christianity has gone through change and growth and transformation? If anyone denies this process, it is likely that his mind is not in tune with this present world. Good change leads to growth and transformation; bad change leads to regression and sameness. Bell notes that “times change. God doesn’t, but times do.” Again this is certainly an accurate description of history. The God of all creation does not suffer change; He is the same forever and ever. His story, however, must change, must progress (think of the end of the Old Testament ceremonial laws) otherwise it is stagnant and the God of creation cannot demonstrate His greatness.
Rod Bell uses the example of Martin Luther and how he brought change in his generation. He “painted a new picture”, as Bell describes. Indeed Luther changed history and brought about a myriad of questions that still affect us 500 years later. Bell writes, “Luther was taking his place in a long line of people who never stopped rethinking and repainting faith.” This imagery sets up his premise that we must continue to repaint our faith in every generation so that God’s message is always speaking to all peoples at all times. This process he claims “hasn’t stopped. It can’t” (012). If that ever stops then it goes to the basement where Bell’s Velvet Elvis finds itself.
Where I Embrace and Where I Critique
So much of what Rob Bell offers is refreshing, challenging, and dangerous. Perhaps this is what makes it so intriguing. It is refreshing in that it reminds us in a new way of the Reformed motto: “Semper Reformanda,” always reforming. The church cannot stop and say we will stop learning; to do so implies it has reached its ultimate stage in history. Christ is still perfecting the church (Ephesians 5), enabling her to see her faults and blemishes. This means in many ways that the church needs to analyze their cherished beliefs not for the purpose of changing it but for the sake of reiterating its truths in different and more cogent ways. I have come across a host of critiques of Emergent Church leaders from the Reformed camp and many praises from the Reformed camp. If I agree with 99% of the criticism, I still find 1% of it beneficial or at least worthy of consideration. This little teaches me that truth is much more cosmic than our narrow perspectives.
Secondly, it is challenging because it forces us to ask new questions about God and the church. It is possible and probably true that any new question that may arise today may have already been asked sometime in God’s history, but if they have been forgotten it is worthy to bring them back to the forefront. In one sense it helps the pastor who has been preaching expository sermons for 40 years and has covered almost all the issues from Genesis to Revelation to consider a new set of questions he has never addressed. Further, it gives the church a broader understanding of our faith. Our faith exceeds a few doctrines, but it does not diminish them.
Finally, Velvet Elvis is dangerous. It appears that Bell finds little validity in Confessions and Creeds. If to explore the Trinity means having to redefine the Trinity or give it a new twist then I am highly skeptical. If the mere possibility of the Virgin Mary not actually being virgin is an idea that shouldn’t shatter our faith as Bell posits, then our Creeds can no longer claim authority in the Church catholic. To question the virgin birth is different than questioning Supra/Infralapsarianism. I could care less if I found out 10 years from now that I was wrong about the latter, but I would be deeply troubled, in fact skeptical about my faith if I discovered that the virgin birth was an early church hoax. There is a hierarchy of values just as there is a hierarchy of doctrinal values.
Our churches need new fresh applications to face their new fears and challenges. This is no time to begin shaking doctrinal stability; liberalism has already had its share. We need to emphasize loudly what needs to be emphasized and less loudly what is not so emphatic.