Sunday, October 5, 2008

Review of "Velvet Elvis" by Rob Bell

To begin with, I should say that Bell's writing style is very flowery. He uses a lot of pictures, metaphors, questions, and one-liners, so it's sometimes difficult to pin down exactly what he's saying. This is intentional, I'm sure, because Bell wants to communicate post-modern's; he's not attempting to write a theologically precise book.

I'll begin with what I liked about the book:

Bell does a good job of emphasizing that the church ought to function as a community. I think that in a lot of ways our individualistic culture has lost this aspect of the church. We ought to see our church as our family in a very real sense, and we ought to do life together in community. Bell emphasizes this, which is good. Along the same lines, he challenges our contemporary model of church where one person uses their gift of teaching and everyone else listens. If people go to a church meeting and just listen to a sermon and then go home, and this is the extent of their involvement, then I doubt biblically if this could count as being a member of that local body.

I thought Bell's emphasis on the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth is a needed corrective in our culture that tends to see God's kingdom as wholly in the future and somewhere else (in heaven). He does a good job of correcting eschatelogical naivetés by emphasizing that heaven will come to earth in the end. Also, I liked that Bell encouraged people to take a personal sabbath rest. This is much needed in our culture where busyness is seen as a virtue.

One area I particularly thought was good was Bell's treatment of sanctification (he didn't call it this). Bell states that we are not primarily identified as sinners, but as new creatures. He stresses that rather than focusing on sin management, we ought to focus on who we are in Christ, and then we will naturally begin to live as Jesus lived. This, I think, is a very powerful message and a much needed corrective. Along the same lines, he states that transformation in actions occurs when there is a genuine belief/trust in true reality--the reality that is described in the Bible. He ties this in with the idea that 'all truth is God's truth,' and the implications he draws from this for missions, evangelism, and other areas are good and useful.

Now I'll address the negative things about the book, which I'm sad to say, I think outweigh the positive things. I'll organize my thoughts under two headings: Philosophical issues, and exegetical issues.

A. Philosophical-Theological Issues
Bell begins by assuming that God cannot be described in human terms, so all our theology/doctrine are human constructs. This is a very dangerous false idea. It is true that we cannot capture all of who God is with language, but we can speak truly about God. In fact, you can't capture all of any person with language because persons are not static objects. In heaven, I will grow in my relationship with God more and more each day forever--even if I come to understand every Bible passage and theological doctrine with complete understanding--because God is a person. I will also continue to grow in knowing my wife, and every other Christian for all eternity. You can never fully know a person. However, just because I don't fully know my wife, doesn't mean that I don't know a whole lot about her. In the same way, although we may not be able to fully describe every aspect of who God is with language, we can describe Him truly. Dan was absolutely right without even reading the book. Bell is "conflating God's incomprehensibility with His ineffability." Bell also seems to draw a false dichotomy between knowledge and wonder. According to Bell, if you really knew God, then this leaves no room for wonder and awe about God. I would argue that the opposite is true. If you don't know God, then you will be without wonder and awe, and as you come to know Him and see Him as He truly is, you will grow in your wonder and awe of Him. God chose to inspire a book to teach us about Himself, and the words in that book give us true and accurate knowledge about God.

A second philosophical problem with the book is that Bell is relativistic. He seems to assume that all 'paintings' of Christianity are equally valid. According to Bell, the pre-reformation Catholic 'painting' is just different than the Reformer's 'painting.' But these two 'paintings' cannot be equally valid because they are diametrically opposed at important points. Furthermore, this idea is self-refuting because the idea that all 'paintings' of the Christian faith are equally valid, is itself a painting of the Christian faith. Is the 'painting' that says, "there is only one valid way to be a Christian" itself a valid 'painting' of the Christian faith? It seems to me that Bell has been unduly influenced by our culture's views about pluralism and tolerance. He seems to buy that in order to be tolerant, you have to accept other people's ideas as true. The real definition of tolerance is to allow someone to hold a different viewpoint even though you fundamentally disagree with them. Bell's relativism extends to two important areas: doctrine, and Scripture.

With reference to doctrine, Bell argues that we ought to see doctrine as the springs on a trampoline, that we jump on as we live in Christ. The springs are not the main point; they merely facilitate the main goal of "finding our lives in God." Now there is some truth to this analogy, but it is also very dangerous. If we don't like a doctrine or two, we can just take them off the trampoline and keep jumping. Here's Bell's take on the Trinity: "It is a spring, and people jumped for thousands of years without it. It was added later. We can take it out and examine it. Discuss it, probe it, question it. It flexes, and it stretches" (22). And then again, here's Bell's take on the virgin birth: "What if that spring was seriously questioned? Could a person keep jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?" (26). Bell's unspoken conclusion seems to be that we could still be Christians without these fundamental doctrines; we could still keep jumping. But clearly we would consider someone who had rejected the Trinity and the Virgin Birth as being a non-Christian. You simply cannot throw out the core doctrines of the Christian faith and still call yourself a Christian. The idea of progressive revelation is that although a doctrine might be revealed over time, once that doctrine is revealed it is our obligation to believe it. People once did not believe in Jesus, but that's because Jesus had not been revealed. Now that he's been revealed, it is our obligation as Christians to believe in Him. The same goes for the Trinity and the virgin birth. If Bell wants to open up dialog to seriously discuss these doctrines, then that's great. But when he implies that we can do without them, that is unacceptable.

Bell's relativism also extends to the interpretation of Scripture. Bell argues that the Bible has to be interpreted, a point with which very few people would disagree. But Bell goes further than this. He wants his readers to understand that they are entitled to interpret the Bible as much as anyone else (50). Furthermore, no one's interpretation is any better than anyone else's; they are all equally valid. He states, "When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true. They are telling you what they think it means. They are giving their own opinions about the Bible" (54). Earlier he writes, "Everyone's interpretation is essentially his or her own opinion. No one is objective" (53). Bell applies this principle asking why we worship on Sunday rather than Saturday? "At one point in church history, a group of Christians decided that the Sabbath is not Saturday, but Sunday" (56). He goes on to ask why we do not sell all our possessions for the poor, or make women wear head coverings, or why do we say a wife's role is to submit to her husband? Bell answers, "This is because someone somewhere made a decision about those texts...Somebody in your history decided certain Bible verses still apply and others don't" (55-56). The effect of all this is making people feel bewildered at ever really understanding what the Bible says. It's true that every Christian can interpret the Bible for themselves (this is what we call the priesthood of believers), but the point is to get as close as possible to the author's original intended meaning, and some interpretations are flat out wrong, and some are better than others. Furthermore, although it's true that no one comes to the Bible without any pre-understandings, this does not mean that we cannot arrive at valid interpretations of a text. By being aware of our own biases and tendencies, and examining the context and flow of a passage, we can come to an accurate interpretation of a text.

B. Exegetical Issues
In addition to the philosophical problems in the book, there are numerous exegetical problems.

1. Jesus is not a rabbi as Bell indicates. Bell seems to read the Talmud and Mishnah back into Jesus' times, when in fact these books describe Judaism after the two Jewish wars when Judaism was whittled down to Pharisaism and was much more focused on the Torah. You'll notice in the Bible that Jesus never has encounters with Rabbi's... Pharisee's, Sadducee's, Scribe's, and priests, but no rabbi's. The reason for this is that there were no rabbi's hanging out around synagogues in Jesus' day. In fact there is no archaeological evidence that there were any schools anywhere in Galilee. There were some schools in Jerusalem, but this was far from Galilee. There simply were no ordained rabbi's in Jesus day like the one's that Bell describes. These ordained rabbis did not become prevalent until much later. This mistake of using a later rabbinic grid to interpret Jesus leads to a number of errors. One of the most prevalent errors is Bell's usage of Jesus' binding and loosing (Mt 16:19; 18:18). When Jesus speaks of 'binding' and 'loosing,' he's not talking about forbidding and allowing certain interpretations of the Old Testament texts. To 'bind' means to make a ruling that is binding, not to forbid something. To 'loose' means to free someone from the obligation or debt that was once bound upon them. Binding and loosing are mentioned only two times in the New Testament (Matt 16:19; Matt 18:18; see also John 20:23). In Matthew 16, Peter has just made a confession that Jesus is the Christ, and in response Jesus gave him the keys of the kingdom and told him, "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The point here is that Peter (and all disciples of Jesus) have the authority to admit and exclude people to the Kingdom of God. They do this by the proclamation of the gospel (this is why this follows Peter's confession of Jesus' identity). Similarly, in Matthew 18, the context deals with church discipline, and the point is that the church has the authority to admit/exclude people from God's Kingdom by declaring the terms under which sins are forgiven or retained. So contrary to what Bell contends, the Jerusalem council in Acts is not an example of 'binding' and 'loosing.'

2. Bell's Greek/Hebrew and history need some work. First, he seems to treat the biblical languages like they are a magic key that makes the text mean something different than it says in English. Whenever a teacher does this, you can assume (1) they're interpretation is probably wrong, and (2) they probably don't know Greek or Hebrew very well. In Bell's case, both are true. There's numerous examples, but one example is Bell's reference to the word 'virgin' in Matthew (26). He states that the word Matthew uses for virgin actually comes from Isaiah, and that the Hebrew word for virgin means several things. He says this to suggest that the virgin birth may not be a doctrine found in the Bible. In reality, the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 is almah, which means 'young woman.' In an honor/shame culture, this word surely included virginity, but would not focus exclusively on that trait. However, Matthew is not quoting the Hebrew, but the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint), where the word parthenos is used. Parthenos is equivalent to our English word virgin. Further, Bell suggests that the reason that Matthew includes a reference to a virgin birth is that it appealed to the members of the cults of Mithras and Dionysius. The Mithras cult did not exist until well after the writing of Matthew, and the cults of Mithras, Attis, and Dionysius did not focus on real historical persons. The worshipers knew that the gods they worshiped were not historical individuals. They therefore did not talk about actual virgin births. Finally it is simply not true that Julius Caesar or the other Emperors were said to be born of virgin births. Bell is right about the word euangelion (good news) being used by the Emperor cult, and that it was adopted by Christians to make their own claims about Jesus. As N.T. Wright says, "Jesus is the reality of which Caesar was only the parody." In short, it seems that Bell knows just enough Greek, Hebrew, and history to sound knowledgeable and therefore be dangerous.

3. There are numerous other questionable exegetical issues, but it would take too long to examine each of them. Some of the more flagrant one's are as follows:
- When Peter was walking on water, Peter lost faith in himself so it follows that I need to understand that Jesus believes in me, rather than focusing on believing in Jesus.
- The Bible states that all things are reconciled to God. So all people are forgiven--even those in hell.
- Hell is full of forgiven people who simply have chosen to live in their own version of their story, rather than in God's version of it (146).

In conclusion, Bell seems to write from a very relativistic perspective. The book has serious philosophical and exegetical problems. Looking over Bell's sources, it seems that he reads a lot of authors who hold esoteric and minority positions. Finally, Bell seems to lack a focus on the glory of God. In my opinion, Rob Bell should refrain from writing more books until he learns to control his creativity, and learns to answer more questions than he asks. I'm concerned that readers of Bell's book will finish it with a greater sense of relativism, less confidence in their knowledge of the truth, and a cynicism towards contemporary Christianity.

1 comment:

Bryn T. Jones said...

Excellent review and recommendation regarding Rob Bell. Thanks!