Velvet Elvis

I decided to read Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, mainly to see for myself what kind of teaching he lays out.  I wish I could say my review is entirely unbiased, but unfortunately Rob Bell is well known and comes with a reputation.  For someone who values truth and clarity, that reputation is a tarnished reputation.  I’ll do my best to be fair and balanced, point out the good as well as the bad, and not miss the point of the book.

I’m writing this review one chapter at a time as I read the book, so I expect it may be a lengthy review.  Perhaps when I’m done I’ll do a second review that is more of an overall picture instead of an in depth analysis.

INTRO: “Welcome to my Velvet Elvis”

Bell begins the book with the explanation of the title, a Velvet Elvis painting in his basement, representing one artist’s representation of the King.  He explains that the Christian faith is like art, always changing, always a different perspective.  Just like an artist’s attempt to convey something meaningful in a way that connects with his audience, so our faith should adapt and change in order to be relevant to the current generation.

The problem I see with this analogy is that art is subjective.  In speaking about faith, Bell says to “take what was great about the previous paintings and incorporate that into new paintings” (pg 13).  Who decides what elements should be “carried over” into each fresh perspective?  The artist.

Bell claims association with the Protestant Reformers and their desire to be “reforming,” not just “reformed” (pg 12).  He doesn’t cite any particular reformer or a quote from anyone, so I can only assume that he is making a general reference to the motto, “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” frequently translated, “The Church reformed, always reforming.”  I wasn’t able to find the origin of this motto, and apparently others have struggled as well, but I did find a well-written article about it from the PCUSA, one of the denominations perhaps most closely associated with this motto today.  In the article, the author points out that “semper reformanda” is in the passive voice, and is better translated, “always being reformed” or “always to be reformed.”  The author further points out that it is God that does the reforming, not the church, and that the areas where change is needed are areas of sinfulness where the church has gotten away from Scripture, not change for the sake of change.

This is the other main problem I see in the introduction to Velvet Elvis.  Besides making subjective changes to how faith is defined, Bell takes the approach that change is good simply because change is inevitable.  The only real reason I could find for why our theology must change is that it is no longer relevant (pg 13).  In fact, if the “current paintings” of the Christian faith “work” for you, then there is nothing wrong with that (pg 14).  Rather than reworking our faith to make sure it is Biblical, Bell implies that freshness and relevance to culture is the driving force behind “reformation.”

I would say, “whether it ‘works’ for you or not, if it’s wrong, it needs to be changed.  If it’s true (i.e., Biblical), you’d better not change it.”

…this post to be expanded as I continue reading Velvet Elvis…

One thought on “Velvet Elvis

  1. Steve, all human attempts to define the Christian faith, outside of those inspired by the Holy Spirit, are subjective. It's the attempt of a finite being to describe infinite truths – we'll never get it perfectly right.

    Rob is not implying that change must happen for change's sake, but that just as no sane artist suggests he has perfectly captured the human form, therefore no one need ever paint again, no sane theologian would suggest that he has perfectly captured the truth, and no one ever need write another book on- the atonement, for example.

    So Rob says, if your 'painting' of God's truth is working for you – "I thank God for that" – but there are millions of people for whom the predominant 'painting' of the last 100 years is very decidedly not working. Is the Gospel not truly good news, or is our description of it perhaps dated, and even in ways inaccurate, shaped by the times in which those who last described it lived?

    Ergo, a new painting is appropriate. Many are protesting, "Ah, I hate cubism, I just don't understand it! That is not how it has 'always' been painted" That's fine, but don't insist that others enjoy Carravagio, just because you don't appreciate Picaso.

    I would say, "if you're understanding of the Truth is not making sense to a majority of your audience, perhaps you ought to ask yourself if you could describe it better."

    In other words, if Shakespeare were alive today his writing would be equally brilliant but radically different. Similarly, the Truth never changes, but we do; therefore the language we use in our subjective attempts to understand, describe, and communicate about that Truth must also change. Not for the sake of change, but because change has happened.

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