Wednesday, April 18, 2007

First dance with Velvet Elvis

Dancing with Velvet Elvis you inevitably look cool. It's a good looking book to be reading on the train. The cover is cool. The typography is cool. And many of the things that Rob Bell has to say are also cool. Some of them are not cool. Really not cool. I plan to write several posts interacting with this very popular book. I want to be positive about it's strengths but also robust in some of the areas where I think he's made some bad false steps.

Bell is in with the cool kids from the start because he wants to buddy up to Martin Luther. Luther rocks - theologians who love the Bible and love beer are worth hanging around with. We're warned against thinking that our living of Christianity can be set in stone. That's a good point. We shouldn't say we've got it all figured out, we inevitably have errors in our beliefs and our behaviour. Reformation is necessary. Freezing the faith is not clever.

However, Bell seems to think that the point of reforming is to be reforming. Rather than that we reform to get back to what the Bible says - which was Luther's point. He wisely notes that "If it's true, then it isn't new" but you get the feeling he doesn't entirely believe that. The issue here is that God has sort of frozen things. He has spoken definitively and finally. He's still speaking everything in the Bible but the book is sealed (which isn't to say no prophecy today). What there is to know about God is out there - or rather in there (in the Bible). We may not have a definitive grasp of it, but for God to press pause is fine. It would be arrogant for me to claim to write the definitive Systematic Theology but it is not arrogant for God to draw a line under authoritative revelation and say 'that's all you're getting'.

From the painting of Velvet Elvis in the introduction we move to the Trampoline in chapter 1 'JUMP'. Bell like verbal illustrations though he plays fast and loose with the imagery. His writing is very accessible though actually kinda confusing. In what I think is probably one of the core underlying fallacies of Velvet Elvis we get the classic false divide between God and what God has revealed about himself (Doctrine). He says doctrines aren't the point. On some levels they aren't, but on many others they are, they really are. He repeats himself - the springs (doctrines, on the trampoline) aren't God. That's true - but they are God's self-revelation of himself and so they describe who God is as far as we're allowed to know.

We're then asked to consider if a spring can be seriously questioned. Something like the virgin birth or the trinity for example. Could you have a real Christian without one of those things. Bell wants to be clear that he believes both things but then asks: "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?" Listen to Bruce Ware "The doctrine of the Trinity is both central and necessary for the Christian faith to be what it is. Remove the Trinity, and the whole Christian faith disintegrates." (Father, Son & Holy Spirit - p. 16) If we take the Trinity and throw it out, and then Christianity falls apart that doesn't mean that the doctrine or Christianity wasn't that strong. It means that the spring you threw away was really, really, really important.

Flip the image. Not trampolines, but walls - brickianity (which is a clever word). Brickianity has rigid doctrines and so, he says, it's bad. It excludes. And that's true if you want to hold doctrines firmly (as the Bible tells us to) then you will exclude people. But, doctrine is also always inclusive - of those who believe it! You get the feeling with Rob Bell that really he's writing against some theologically constipated people who've never learned to enjoy God, but that in the process he's throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

He wants freedom ask questions. I agree. We should be able to ask any question. Doctrines can take very serious examining. If they can't stand up to careful scrutinising of the Bible then they need changing. But he goes a bit too far "Central to the Christian experience is the art of questioning God" - not quite central, but it's ok to ask humble questions. We ask questions to find answers - and in many case (granted, not all) God has answers for us.

We're warned against mere intellectual faith, and that is a helpful warning, though I have to say I don't see much of that in reality. Feels a bit like he's writing to a straw-man. Bell warns against doctrinal dryness but doesn't seems to have the counter-balance of warning against vacuous anti-doctrinalism. We should, as Bell wants, have a faith of joy and wonder. Studying God's word is meant to be transforming and grow our love of God. Interestingly Bell gives a blanket endorsement of everything John Piper has written - yet you can't help feeling that at least some of Piper's recent Athanasius biography is written as a response to the anti-doctrine undercurrent in the first 36 pages of Velvet Elvis.... Loving Christ includes loving true propositions about Christ... Athanasius would have abominated, with tears, the contemporary call for “depropositionalizing” that you hear among many of the so-called reformists and the emerging church. Our young people in Alexandria die for the truth of propositions about Christ. What do your young people die for?”

Rob Bell's goal for us to amazed that we get to live this life and enjoying God more is one I agree with wholeheartedly. What saddens me is that his approach seems more likely to confuse than bring clarity. Velvet Elvis is thought-provoking for discerning readers, but I don't think I'd want to recommend it to anyone I was discipling. There are better books on living life. There are better books on enjoying God. Books that don't looks so cool, but books that will lead God's people to love God and his word more deeply.

Please note this 'review' is only of the introduction and first chapter. Forthcoming posts will converse with the rest of the book.


  1. Good post Dave. Sounds like it is a collection of those anti-doctrine sound bite phrases that you always hear in studentdom.

  2. Thanks for a refreshing, balanced and honest review. I dislike those who write off everything just because they have some serious differences...we end up never stretching our minds.

  3. Thanks Dave - that was a really helpful reflection. I look forward to the rest.

  4. Dave,

    TBH, I think you're being weird about what he says about doctrine and the value of doctrine.

    Is your relationship with God real if you don't yourself choose to come under the doctrine?


  5. Tom. I think he's a bit wierd about what he says about doctrine. I'm not sure I understand your question - can you rephrase it for me. sorry.

  6. I've just been reading Velvet Elvis, and though I had a somewhat mixed reaction to the first couple of chapters, getting into it further, there's lots that I really appreciate, and I think it throws light on the earlier chapters. While I think that it has its flaws and mistakes (such as the misunderstanding of what "sola scriptura" means), I don't think there's as much that's really not cool as you suggest.

    I think one of the big points of Velvet Elvis is although there is a fixed core to Christianity, the truth of the Gospel, that our faith is a living faith. I think reformation is a two-fold process, both of getting back to the Bible (to the unchanging truth), and of living it out in our time and place (which is always changing and adapting). Both processes are always ongoing. Our understanding can never be absolutely perfect and we always need to be returning to the Bible to check our interpretation of it. And the way in which we express and live out the unchanging Gospel is something that's constantly changing and developing and adapting. And that's good!

    I do think that evangelicals are sometimes prone to the danger of treating the way we live the Gospel as something abstract, timeless and static. We recognise the danger of applying the Old Testament directly, but we often end up treating the New Testament as just static timeless rules. I've often seen Christians just come up with some proof text giving this or that command, without stopping to think about the reason for it, treating a particular application as the universal principle. The application may be the same in our context, of course, and often is, but it isn't necessarily, and treating the Bible as a static rulebook is immature and lazy. We incarnate the eternal principles of Godly living in a myriad of ways, an endless procession of performances in varied styles, of countless individual riffs on the same theme.

    It seems to me that Velvet Elvis more concerned about raising certain important questions than giving definitive answers, and I think that's an approach that lots of people respond to, particularly students. That can both help us think things through more deeply, to not just know the truth, but to really come to accept and appreciate and love it.

    This question-raising approach is, as you say, also open to certain dangers with people who are less mature in discernment. I think that Velvet Elvis sometimes stresses the living nature of our faith without stressing the unchanging heart of the Gospel strongly enough. But I'd recommend it to any reasonably mature and thinking Christian, not because it always gives the right answers, but because it asks a lot of the right questions, and honest questions are vital to the Christian life.

    I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the rest of the book.

  7. There definitely is some good stuff in Velvet Elvis - on balance I think it's generally the right questions asked with the wrong sort of answers... delivered in excellent clothing and readability.