“Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith,” by Rob Bell. First published by Zondervan in 2005. This review refers to the HarperCollins paperback edition, published in 2012.
This review is the first post I’ve ever written that I know will cost me some followers. Somebody will take a look at “Rob Bell” in the title and instantly unfollow, or somebody will stumble across it through a link or a search, see “Rob Bell,” and think to themselves, “No way can I follow this guy!”
Rob Bell is perhaps one of the more controversial figures in American Christianity today. I’m not really sure why to be honest. Yeah, he wrote that book about Hell, and some people got mad. I haven’t read that particular book, so I can’t really say if it would make me mad or not. Well, I doubt it would make me mad, but I can’t say whether I would agree with it or not. But it is controversial. Some of us at church kind of mentioned the thought of doing a Rob Bell book in our adult Sunday School class and the reaction was pretty much: “How about….No.” Though interestingly enough our book club that meets during the week did actually read this one!
So yeah, Rob can be controversial. That’s going to make my next statement seem even more wild. I think EVERY CHRISTIAN should read this book. Whew, there, I got it out! Now, I don’t generally say things like that about Christian books. I realize that every Christian author writes a book with his or her own particular spin on the faith. It’s all somebody’s interpretation of things. The cool thing about this book is that Bell admits that this is the case. He admits that what he’s writing is his take, his interpretation. This book is his “Velvet Elvis.” It’s his painting. He compares the Christian faith to a picture that gets repainted over and over by each person or each generation. It’s going to be the same picture with same subject, and each person, each “painter,” is going to see things a little differently.
And that’s ok! How many different “Velvet Elvis” paintings have been produced over the years? Lots. None of them is the “definitive” Velvet Elvis, after which no further Velvet Elvises (Elvi?) can be made.
Is there a definitive view of the Christian faith? Well, look around and the answer to that question is clear. We have Catholics and we have Coptics. We have the Eastern Orthodox faith as well. Then if we try to get into all the different flavors of Protestants, we’ll be here all day! If there really is a definitive version of the Christian faith, we must all be a bunch of dolts because out of all the Christians in the world we rarely seem to be able to get more than a relatively small group of people to agree on it!
Of course we all think our version, our interpretation, our painting is the best, right? I mean of course we do! As Bell notes, if we didn’t think our version of the faith was the best, we’d belong to a different version! And that’s ok too! There are going to be differences.
Where we run into trouble though is when we say our version is the definitive version and everybody else should just put their brushes and pallets down, because we got it perfect. Which brings me to something that happened at my place just the other day.
I was getting ready to walk out the door to work, just gathering a few things before I went out to my car. As I was looking out the living room window, I saw a car that I had never seen before pull up in the driveway. This annoyed me, because I was on my way to work and the car parked behind my car.
Well quickly enough the passenger side door opened, and a man got out and ran to my front door like he was being chased by something. There was a knock at the door, but before I could go down the stairs to get it, I saw the man bolt back to the car, get back in, and then look warily up at my window as the car sped away.
I was wondering seriously what was going on. Did this dude just leave a flaming bag of poo on my porch or what? I went down and kind of cautiously opened the door. There, hanging on the knob was a piece of paper.
That piece of paper was advertising a new church in the area, and hey, I live in suburban Utah, so any church that is not LDS coming into the neighborhood sparks my interest. I knew that this guy wasn’t LDS because he wasn’t wearing the white shirt and tie, and to be honest, I’ve never seen a Mormon Missionary run like that, and I’ve seen plenty of them and count quite a few of them as friends!
Anyway, what was this new church all about? What was the message they were putting out there? Well the first thing the paper did is ask if I was afraid of burning in hell. Not really a great start for me. Then it said that if I prayed a specific prayer (you know the one), then I would be sure I would be going to heaven. Well that’s cool. I just pray that little prayer and then go on about my life in the confidence that I was going to heaven! Sounds awesome!
Oh no, it doesn’t work quite that way. If I prayed that prayer and wanted to go to heaven I should hook myself up with a “Bible believing Church.” This church was not merely a “Bible Believing church,” they are a “Bible Be-LIVING Church,” (Though it did say KJV only, just to be sure).
Yes, the cheese factor was high. I don’t mean to mock someone else’s faith. I believe that most people who look at Christianity this way are honestly concerned about the eternal welfare of others. And that’s fine.
But what about their welfare right here and now?
If I went to that church I’d find some core stuff that I believe in too. I would find that they believe in Jesus, that they believe Jesus died for our sins, that he rose from the dead, and that someday he’s coming back to set everything right. They would believe in One God, expressed in three personages in the Holy Trinity. Those are kind of the basic elements of the painting.
But there would be a lot in their painting that I don’t agree with. There would be a lot of things in their painting that I just can’t deal with anymore. There are things that aren’t in my (Methodist and fairly liberal) painting.
“Velvet Elvis” is Rob Bell’s painting. I quite like it. In his painting God isn’t an ever angry being just waiting to heap tons of shame upon his people. In Bell’s painting God is an ever loving God that wants us to be everything He created us to be. When he gets frustrated with us it’s not because he’s ashamed of us, it’s because he knows how great we can be and he wants us to live up to that. In Bell’s painting God isn’t poised over the world with the threat of hellfire, just waiting to destroy it all and start over, he stands benevolently IN the world through the Spirit working to RENEW it and RECONCILE it. We have a part to play in that as Christians, and just maybe that part isn’t to shame people and hold Hell over their heads. Maybe that part is to tell them how much God loves them and about how he wants them to be able to live life to the fullest, which is something Jesus expressly said he came to do (John 10:10).
For some reason, that particular version of Christianity is off putting to a lot of other Christians, though I’m not sure why. Some of us would rather spend our time standing outside of various establishments screaming, shouting, and telling folks that they’re going to hell. Some of us would rather spend our time playing at being the morality police and heaping judgment and shame upon our fellow human beings who were also made in the image of God. Some of us would rather point out how dark the darkness is rather than try to be a light in that darkness, but as Bell says toward the end of the book:
Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.