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Book Review – Velvet Elvis

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In his basement Rob Bell has a Velvet Elvis. A genuine, bought-by-the-side-of-the-road Velvet Elvis. Bell uses this image of a work of art stashed in the basement behind suitcases and boxes as a metaphor for churches that are out of date.

For thousands of years followers of Jesus, like artists, have understood that we have to keep going, exploring what it means to live in harmony with God and each other. The Christian faith tradition is filled with change and growth and transformation. Jesus took part in this process by calling people to rethink faith and the Bible and hope and love and everything else, and by inviting them into the endless process of working out how to live as God created us to live.

The challenge for Christians then is to live with great passion and conviction, remaining open and flexible, aware that this life is not the last painting.

Times change. God doesn’t, but times do. We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.

Times change and God doesn’t. It is clear that the church has changed in her history – major doctrines have been disputed and finally decided. Bell seems to want us to believe that many cardinal doctrines of the faith might just need to be changed at some point in the future. We need to have a fluid faith, he might say, that allows us to change accordingly when a particular doctrine is proven wrong. This is dangerous ground to tread. While we have to acknowledge human limitations in our understanding of Scripture, we also have to acknowledge the Spirit’s help in gradually uncovering doctrine and providing it to the church. There are some beliefs, some doctrines, that are non-negotiable. The Bible teaches them clearly and the Spirit has confirmed them through the testimony of the church.

I documented a few other concerns with the book. One that I found particularly troubling is Bell’s obsession with ancient Judaism. He constantly explains biblical events and personalities through his understanding of Judaism. While I affirm that it is important and helpful to understand the political, cultural and religious setting for Jesus’ life, I believe we can take this too far. For example, Bell states as fact that the first three miracles in one of the gospels (and you’ll have to forgive me for being vague as I lost my notes on the book) were listed specifically to refute three pagan deities. That may be the case, but we do not know that as a fact. At best it is mere speculation. Bell often interprets what is clear in Scripture through his understanding of Judaism. His understanding of the “binding and loosening” spoken of in Scripture is also informed by his understanding of Judaism rather than Scripture and common sense.

When I closed the cover of this book I realized that it had been just a big “nothing” for me. It was 172 pages (though through less “contemporary” typesetting and better editing it could have been compressed to about 80) that had little to say that has not already been said before. In some ways Bell says a lot, yet in many ways it seems that he says just about nothing. Some of it is good and some of it is bad. But little of it is really worth reading.

I recently read a review of this book and the reviewer lavished it with praise. “It is one of those books that you will refer to, when your kids grow up and ask you what made your faith and love in God so strong!” If the book meant that much to you, I would respectfully suggest that perhaps you should do more reading. There are many, many books that are far better, far more scriptural and far more challenging than this. Velvet Elvis is not a particularly bad book – it’s just not very good. So why waste your time and money?

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