Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. 194 pages.
Velvet Elvis invites us to the pathos of the Christian faith. It
reminds us that faith is about life, about redemption, about
forgiveness. The book, if nothing else, is refreshing.
It is a story for people who are exhausted by their own efforts
and want to be renewed by something beyond themselves. It is
theologically merciful, meaning that the book asks next to nothing of
us, while it relates to the fact that we've spent all we had getting to
where we are. One more requirement would be too many, so Bell is nice
It is the voice of the age. It is environmentalist, appealing to
the systematically-college-educated, and tired of Boomers. It is
spiritual and even Christian while decrying the preachy and
inauthentic. Bell at one point asks us, "Are you smoking what you're
selling?" You sense he could probably be more crass if he didn't have
an editor and an audience.
The unique appeal of Rob Bell is his curiosity with first century
Judaism and its effects on the New Testament letters. Despite the
weakness that vastly different strands of Jewish thought are attributed
to the anonymous, "ancient rabbis," he taps into the American
fascination with "secrets" behind the Bible. The same urge that made us
read the Da Vinci Code makes us listen to Rob Bell-he seems to know
something that 2000 years of history have missed. He at one point
overstates his point, saying that reading the Bible without a knowledge
of the first century is "lethal," apparently a tragedy for those third
world readers who don't have access to Bell's education. Nonetheless,
we can't help but be engaged with his studies. This is his mysticism.
The weaknesses of the book all derive from this mysticism. Bell
doesn't want to take too many stands, and seems unaware of the fact
that the culture around him is going to require some definitive answers
of him. He insists that any reading of the Bible is only an
interpretation and not the objective truth. But he seems naïve to the
overused observation that you cannot make such definitive statements
without depending on some kind of objective truth. Clearly he thinks he
is objectively correct in saying so.
His core theology seems to consist of the epistemically unfounded
doctrines: Jesus is cool, God is awesome, Jewish history is cool. It's
not really clear why I should be interested in Jesus or believe the
Bible to be anything more than complex myth-making. He cites the
example of a woman in his congregation who had been practicing
witchcraft but can't stop coming to his church. This is about as much
credit as Bell gives us. We're assumed to be too stupid to ask the
question, "So how do you know?" He even undermines himself here,
showing how any rational person could believe that the virgin birth is
a myth, and then arbitrarily affirms the doctrine. I don't think most
of us will follow him down the path of blind theology. It's going to
become even harder for him to stay where he is when we ask some simple,
common questions like: "Can the pastor be gay? Is the church that
refuses women pastors wrong?" etc.
His theology is pleasantly free from blame. He says that he can't
find any place in the Bible where we are to identify ourselves first
and foremost as sinners (though that in fact is the whole foundation of
the book of Romans). Sin, generally, falls to the wayside in Bell's
theology. Perhaps the most sad example of this (p 92) is Bell's
willingness to do a wedding for people who don't want him to talk about
God or Jesus but just make the wedding spiritual. One could analogize
this to a doctor who is willing to forego medicine to make his patients
The high points of the book are two. First, there is a
whole-hearted rejection of the boomer churches that gave Bell birth. He
overturns the tables of the seeker-sensitive, numbers-oriented churches
(p 99). And yet, he never seems to hold to his affirmations. He says he
hates marketing for churches, and he hates numbers. Then he goes on to
tell us how many people come to his church, and he hides the true
marketing that got his church started. To read VE, it seems that Bell
just started a church without telling anyone, and 1000 people came the
first Sunday to find a staff already in place. He never mentions Ed
Dobson's influence on him. Somehow I think he's not telling the whole
story. It reads like the calling of the disciples, where Jesus just
says, "Follow me," and they go. Nonetheless, the story concludes with
Bell's own exhaustion and his exhortation that we kill the
superwhatever that drives us to success. Bell says he had to take
superpastor out back and kill it (p 116). May all readers cheer.
The second high point is that God's presence is so strong in
creation that missionaries need only have better eyesight than others.
Missionaries simply see God whether other people have missed him (p
I have a feeling this book may sell the way Bell's church grew.
Everyone knew him beforehand through his speaking engagements at Willow
Creek and the National Youth Workers' Conventions, but in the end, he
can say it just sold like crazy with no advertising. It's so
mysterious, he will tell us.
First off, I am somewhere between a 4 and a 5 (call it 9 of 10) on Velvet Elvis, though my tilt moved it up to a 5.
From reading this book, I see that Rob is really trying to
"jump-start" the conversation about what faith is and is not, and to
help those of us in Gens Y&X - inheritors of the post-modern
worldview which incubated in the 60's - see how the Jesus is just as
relevant today as he was in His own time.
My favorite quote: Christian is a great noun but a poor
adjective.Too often, the church of the previous generation has been too
accepting of mediocrity in a plethora of areas because the label
"Christian" has been slapped on the package (whether it's music, media,
or day-to-day programs/initiatives).
While I do not agree with him on everything (I think he could have
expanded on many of his ideas to give them clarity and to cut down on
misunderstanding. Granted, from reading many of the other reviews, it
seems some people deliberately misunderstand and take Mr. Bell's
positions to illogical extremes), I believe that he is on the mark with
what is required for the church to remain relevant and resonant with
today's Western culture.
From reading VE, I don't think he was saying that the Bible isn't
100% true - I think he was suggesting that it is pretty arrogant of any
one person to assume that they know what "100% true" is. Western
thinkers, who see things in literal definitions and bullet points, have
a difficult time reconciling this concept - particularly when it deals
with a book (actually a collection of books) written primarily to an
Eastern audience, whose world-view is shaped by experiential learning,
based on what can be seen, heard and touched.
For example, Westerners look at Genesis and many will insist that
the story of creation HAD TO BE a literal 7-day process. The contextual
view stresses the importance of "God created..." with the rest being a
story of how it came about - in an experiential manner. Do I think the
world was created in 7 days or that it came about via a gradual process
over billions of years? I don't know, but all that matters is that God
created it, and the story we have about that creation can be
interpreted many ways. So, if I am inclined to believe that God may
have created the world in something other than 7 literal days, and you
are inclined to believe it happened in 7 literal days, does that mean
that one of us doesn't believe that the Bible is 100% true? From my
reading of Rob's thesis, the answer is no. Now, if taken to extremes, I
agree that his thesis can be misused (and should have been more clear)
if you were to say that God created it in 7 days whereas I said that
Allah created it per the story in the Koran and that neither of us
could know what is true - because Allah and YHWH are not one in the
same and my view would say that the Bible is not true, since I would be
denying the point of the Genesis story (i.e. "God created").
One of the earlier posters seemed to sum up most of the criticisms of Velvet Elvis as:
1. Is anti-orthodoxy:
2. Is light on biblical content
3. Seems to promote Rob Bell and his church more than Jesus
4. Causes people to doubt their faith
5. Divides Christians against one another
6. Is so "hip" and "cool" that even non-Christians love it
7. Ridicules people who hold a solid view of Scripture and who seek
to defend it; such people are guilty of "brickianity" in Bell-speak 8. Allows contemporary culture to interpret and set the standards
for the Bible rather than letting the Bible interpret and set the
standards for contemporary culture 9. Promotes (and even rewards!) a lack of critical thinking; instead it praises emotion and feelings above all else
While I'm not a Rob Bell "junkie" by any means, I have to say that
I disagree wholeheartedly with almost every one of these arguments, as
they don't really mesh with the reality of what is written, unless what
Rob wrote is purposely misconstrued.
"1. Is anti-orthodoxy"
It is only anti-orthodoxy if you view traditions or traditional
teachings not contained in the text of the Bible as "orthodox".
"Binding and Loosing" is a concept that was present in the first
century, and is to be done communally based on the yoke of the accepted
Rabbi. This isn't unorthodox - even the first century church in
Jerusalem practiced this when making their suggestions on what parts of
the Torah must be obeyed by Gentiles.
"2. Is light on biblical content"
It is light on QUOTED Biblical content, but his endnotes are rife
with scripture, and his arguments are sound based upon his
interpretation of scripture (which I, in reading his references, tend
to agree with).
"3. Seems to promote Rob Bell and his church more than Jesus"
This seems to be a really twisted argument. Some critics say that
he didn't really write enough about Mars Hill & how it started
(charging false humility), whereas others say it was all about Mars
Hill. From both of my readings of VE, I would say that he was pretty
effective at minimizing his own "importance" and that when he used
himself or Mars Hill, it was only for the purpose of laying a
foundation for his stories, not to boast.
The Purpose-driven Church and PDL are both widely used resources
which I have found valuable, and I think that Rick Warren and
Saddleback are showcased in these books far more than Rob Bell and Mars
Hill in VE. If he is going to write from his heart, you can't say he
can't talk about himself or his experience, or you're robbing him of
the stories he needs to be able to write.
"4. Causes people to doubt their faith"
I don't think "doubt" is the right word. I think "question" would
be better, and that if you changed that word, that this would be OK. As
he argues, questioning in Jesus time - and now - is a good thing,
because it makes both the questioner and the questionee stronger. It is
only if the "questioning" is done on the personal level and the
questions are never asked that this is a problem.
5. Divides Christians against one another
Christians have been doing a fine enough job of this for centuries.
If you take a stand on any issue within the church, you're pretty much
guaranteeing that someone will disagree with you. Should we "be all
things to all people" or should we insist that the Velvet Elvis - that
is, the church of the past generation - is the only Way? Rob Bell's
interpretation of scripture (100% true, though we may not know exactly
what the "truth" was to the writer at the time it was written) seems
much more in line with Jesus teaching than the rigid interpretation of
"100% truth" many arrogant churches seem to push. It seems that Rob's
interpretation should logically lead to more Christians agreeing to
disagree and to debate where those disagreements occur than a rigid set
of beliefs that insist their Way is the true way and all others are off
"6. Is so "hip" and "cool" that even non-Christians love it"
Isn't the Gospel supposed to be "Good news", or was I taught wrong
all those years ago? Shouldn't Jesus be as relevant to people today as
he was 20 years, 200 years or 2000 years ago?
"7. Ridicules people who hold a solid view of Scripture and who
seek to defend it; such people are guilty of "brickianity" in
See my comments under #5 - I don't see him as ridiculing the
"brickians" as much as he is warning against this way of thought, as it
seeks to put limits on God. C.S. Lewis makes this same allegorical
observation in The Last Battle (book 7 of the Chronicles of Narnia)
with the dwarves who can't see anyone else in "heaven" because of their
The word "ridiculing" here is only applicable in that is it being
used to attempt to "ridicule" Rob's view. His view is much more
inclusive and in line with his Rabbis' yoke than the "brickian" view,
which is to be pitied - not ridiculed.
"8. Allows contemporary culture to interpret and set the standards
for the Bible rather than letting the Bible interpret and set the
standards for contemporary culture."
I will totally agree with the argument that contemporary culture
should NOT set standards for the Bible, but the Bible should set
standards for those living in that culture. However, I don't think Rob
Bell goes this far in Velvet Elvis, though as I stated earlier in this
review, I think he could have been more clear on this point.
From both of my readings of VE, my take on Bell's view is that he
sees Paul's admonishment of "being all things to all people" as being a
reason we need to evaluate the culture and separate that which is sin
from that which is just different, and not to equate that which is
different with that which is sinful (the very heart of legalism). It is
the legalism of the church and the hiprocisy of those in church
leadership who don't meet up to their own legalistic standards which
seem most often to drive people away from the church. What Bell
suggests, though, requires a great deal of discernment to avoid
throwing the baby out with the bathwater - to use an applicable cliche.
"9. Promotes (and even rewards!) a lack of critical thinking; instead it praises emotion and feelings above all else"
Once again, the books that make up the Bible were written primarily
to an Hebrew audience, whose learning style was one of experience and
emotion, and not to a Greek audience, which values logic over emotion
and concept over experience. In Velvet Elvis, Bell stresses the Hebrew
roots of Christianity, and this is one of those places where he could
have talked more about a need for balancing both the Hebrew
(experiential) and Greek (logical) views of our walk.
All in all, this is one of the most thought-provoking books I've
read in the past year (with Gladwell's "Blink" being the other).
Christianity is at a crossroads--internally
and in how it deals with the "rest of the world." The world has moved
on. One age is ending, a new one beginning to form.
A Church that has mistaken the customs and thought patterns of the
dying age (Modernity: from the "enlightenment" till roughly now) as
"absolute truth" (a very modern, scientific concept itself) must now
either move bravely ahead as missionaries into the open fields before
us (the postmodern world) or turn inward--making ever more sound and
FURY that will ultimately signify nothing.
I speak from experience here. All around me, I see Christ-followers
living out creative, God-honoring, relational, inspiring lives. Just as
often, I see people in bondage to the ways of the past--viciously
tearing people down over issues of as much relevance as how many angels
could fit on the head of a pin, or--God forbid--a stupid book review.
It is time Christ-followers follow their Savior. Christ is the good
news, not Christianity. Christ alone can save, not a set of beliefs
that is open to interpretation (though beliefs are of importance,
joining "The Story" is perhaps of more importance and consequence).
Most of all, we are to be known by our love for each other--not by our
hate filed "discussions" and "debates."
Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis lasers in on this Jesus that we follow. It
casts off the thought patterns (sin) that cling so easily to our
picture of God and the Church. It calls us higher up and deeper in.
This is not a new Christ, or a new Church. This is the savior that
always has been and will be forever--now only seen slighty
clearer--given time and the Holy Spirit's leading.
Let me end with a recommendation and two warnings:
I recommend this book as highly as I can. It has helped me to see more clearly and (through God's power) grow spiritually.
Warning 1--This book is one man's painting. Test it. Rely on God
for your growth. Most of all, use your life to paint your own
Warning 2--If you open yourself up to God in this way, you will not
remain unchanged. And, if you're at all like me, this is a very good
are two works of genius that I have recently read which peel the
historical layers back and preview things from the right lens. This
work and Frank Viola's Untold Story of the Church both throw us back
into time to give us a new paradigm for comprehending culture,
Scripture, and theological insights.
friend of mine gave me his copy of this book. Though the typeface
struck me as predictably "bottom-shelf" (Christians are not known for
carrying much between their ears besides vague notions and anger), this
book actually has some depth.
It manages to pretty nearly represent Christ and not the
culture-phobia of his typically Ostrich-like self-proclaimed
As I have often told my friend, doctirnes and beliefs are only as
good as the actions they lead us to take in this life. Rob Bell seems
to run counter to most of what passes for Christianity. He speaks hope
instead of fear, encourages creativity and action rather than criticism
If you are someone who finds value (perhaps even what you might
call "salvation") in Jesus Christ, let me encourage you to read this
book. And remember: Christianity is the worst religion in the world--in
as much as it moves away from its founder.
True life comes from Jesus not from Christianity.
(It is, however, refreshing to read of people actually attempting
"the best possible way to live." Here's hoping this experiment lasts.)
I read it , reread it, and then read it
again. There isn't enough space or time to list all the issues
Christians should have with Rob Bell's repainting of Christianity. Many
reviewers have done an excellent job detailing many of these in
One only needs to google some Rob Bell's contemporaries in his
endnotes to realize he is far more reaching than most people realize.
The most glaring example is endnote #143. "For a mind blowing
introduction to emergence theory and divine creativity, set aside three
months and read Ken Wilber's 'A Brief History of Everything'." Ken
Wilber is the foremost Buddhist philosopher of our time who refers to
evangelical Christians in the forward of one of his books as 'fascist
nazis'. Pastor Bell wants us to spend 3 months reading his 300 page
It doesn't surprise then that in a November 2004 interview in
Christianity Today that Bell states "We are rediscovering Christianity
as an Eastern religion." Read this book with his 'Eastern religion'
comment in mind and it will be obvious his repainting lacks a firm
foundation and, possibly, may no longer be Christian.
I do not recommend this book to anyone who isn't firmly grounded in
their Christian faith and challege all to pray the Holy Spirit convicts
Rob Bell of his error and protects those who are under his teaching
during his present journey away from Christ.
"An interesting trend... "The Purpose Driven Life" is..."
Nov 21, 2005 1:52 PM PST
An interesting trend... "The Purpose Driven Life" is the top selling
book among Baby Boomer pastors (according to Barna). If everything I'm
reading about Velvet Elvis is true in the publishing world, it is the
top selling book among next gen leaders. I wonder what the contrast of
values is that each generation is digesting.
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