I first heard of the "Emerging/Emergent Church Movement" several years ago. I had a kind of vague impression of it being some watered-down version of Christian teaching, some weird movement that probably wouldn't last long. As I remember it, the discussion centered around the idea that there was no "close" to the "sale", that potential converts were never told the true message of the Cross and never invited to become Christians. That whole discussion, which probably occurred on a Web site called Christdot (which more or less was reborn later as Theophiles) may be the reason why, when a good friend of mine recommended that I read Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell, the author's name seemed familiar ("rang a bell," as it were... da-dump ching!). Or it may be because a different friend of mine was telling me about the NOOMA videos around the same time. Whatever the reason, I had never actually read any of Rob Bell's books. But when my friend tweeted a Rob Bell quote and I retweeted it, he recommended that I read the book myself.
The book is a great read. Bell says things using regular vocabulary and phrasing that people use in their day-to-day lives. He doesn't use a lot of Theological words like "substitutional atonement," and indeed, Velvet Elvis isn't a textbook of systematic Theology. It's more like a suggestion of a different way of looking at your relationship with God. And it's not a textbook about how to initiate a relationship with God! If you aren't a Christian, the book isn't a good way to find out how to become one. But if you already are a Christian, it might be the kind of thing that inspires you to think anew about what your relationship with God really means.
The title of the book refers to an element of American pop culture that is pretty ubiquitous: paintings of Elvis Presley that are painted on black velvet. Bell apparently has one in his basement. The idea is that no painter would dare say that his own art is the pinnacle of creativity and nobody else need ever paint anything; creativity continues on. Then Bell applies the same concept to Theology; it is the product not only of the specific words written in the Bible, but also of thousands of years of discussion of what those words signify. No generation has Theology sewed up; each generation has to figure out not only what the Scriptures mean, but what they mean right now, to people in the current day and age. It's a quite fluid way of looking at Theology, and that relaxed, accepting attitude is probably what's gotten Bell criticized with such fervor over the past few years.
Bell likes to keep things sort of open-ended. His goal is not to tell you what the truth is, as much as to start and facilitate a conversation about what the truth is, and see what conclusions naturally arise from that discussion. A physical book is pretty much a one-way street, of course, but Bell's writing is such that you do intellectually and emotionally interact with the text. Facts are presented, for sure, but he never seems to come to a place where he says, THIS is what I'm getting at. He makes his points, but he doesn't make them rigid. He explains this in the first "movement" of the book (there are no boring, ordinary "chapters", but there are seven hip, fresh "movements" which look just like chapters if you, like me, are not hip and fresh) where he compares Theology to either a trampoline or a brick wall. If you build your personal Theology like a brick wall, with each component very rigid and with no room for modification and change, and then one brick in your wall comes into question, then your wall is weakened or destroyed. But if you build some elasticity into your Theological outlook, like the springs on a trampoline, not only will your ideas be able to withstand changes better, but discussing them will just be more fun! Like jumping on a trampoline. Not a bad analogy!
But people don't like to hear stuff like that. People like to think that there are always pat, set in stone, easily-understandable answers to every question. Some Theologians like to think that every bit of the Bible can be figured out and understood. I would like to submit that the idea that we can eventually figure out everything about the Bible, get everything pat and straight, is intellectual arrogance. In fact, I'd have to say that the idea that we can ever understand everything about even any one single part of the Bible is laughable. If Jesus is, as the Bible says, the "Word", and if Jesus is also the incarnation of God, then saying we can truly get the Bible all wrapped up intellectually is saying that we think we can wrap our brains around God Himself. I'd say a little humility is called for there.
We read in history that in the early years of the 20th Century, people started to see the incredible discoveries of science, and started to believe that science could figure out everything. Eventually we would know it all, or at least somebody would know it all. Everything has an explanation that can be studied and discovered. People bought into it, and several generations later, it is part of our basic thought processes in the West. No matter how many weird moans the floating ghost makes, Scooby-Doo always pulls off his mask and we find out he was Mr. Smith the Gardener all along.
There is no room for the supernatural in this kind of science, which explains why it sometimes cooks up oddly unlikely theories like the one that says that the universe created itself and all life appeared randomly, instead of the more logical idea that complex systems and living beings were planned and created by an intelligent creator. This isn't science: this is arrogance. Theology that is unwilling to listen to ideas that are not framed in the terms and thought frameworks that have been used before is, likewise, arrogant Theology. (I'm not against Theology and I'm not against science; I enjoy both. But when either excludes facts to arrive at their own version of the truth, they cease being the truth and start being presumptuous.)
Today I was reading this response to the book, and I began to wonder if Pastor Abendroth had read the same book that I read. The article said that Bell said things that I don't see in the book, even when Abendroth gives a page number. I mean, I can find the part he is talking about, but there seems to be a lot of point-missing going on. For example, Abendroth says that Bell "writes off the virgin birth of Jesus as non-essential," but that's not how I read those pages. Bell is making a point about how your Theology can't be so rigid that if one part of it is proven false, the whole thing comes crashing down. Could he have thought of a better example than the virgin birth thing? Maybe. Maybe he could have told the true story about how once upon a time, the Church insisted that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and based that insistence on something in the Scripture. When observational science said that things were actually the other way around and the Earth actually travels around the Sun, people's faith in God was challenged because they had been taught a flawed Theology. Would using that example rather than the virgin birth thing have deflected criticism? Maybe or maybe not, but at least it might have made Bell a tougher target for criticism. Rob Bell wasn't saying that the virgin birth is inessential; in fact, he wasn't actually taking a side on that at all in that passage. He was simply making the point that if you are rigid in your beliefs and unable to consider different ideas, you're setting yourself up for a big fall at some point. It's a hypothetical example that he's using to illustrate his "trampoline springs" analogy, not a statement of his doctrinal position on Hebrew words vs. their Septuagint equivalents.
The "virgin birth thing" I'm talking about is actually an old argument about the word "virgin" in the story of the birth of Jesus. The word in Matthew 1:23 means what we mean when we say "virgin," but the source Scripture in Isaiah 7:14 uses a word which some have said means only "young woman" with no connotation of sexual experience. This has been a point of contention between liberal and conservative Bible scholars for many years, and in fact was one reason that, many years ago, some conservative Theologians rejected the Revised Standard Version translation when it came out. My guess is that when Pastor Abendroth saw the passage about the virgin birth, he automatically snapped into "this person denies the virgin birth" mode, and suddenly turned his listening ears off and assumed a connotation for the words on the page that is not there. After all, there's nothing between the lines when you get a book; you can read in whatever you want and it can be tough to dispute you.
Part of the strength of Bell's thought processes is the fluid, let's-start-from-the-ground-up writing style he has. That is also its weakness, because Bell invites each of us to look at the Bible that way. That's a wonderful approach for someone with a strong background in the Scriptures, and ideally much of his audience would be that sort of person. Bell has quite a lengthy discussion in the book about how Jewish children in Jesus' day memorized huge hunks of Scripture in school; the entire Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and, in the case of the quicker studies, the entire Hebrew Bible, all the way to Malachi. That is the kind of person who is able to figure out that when Bell says that our message will get through to more people if we love them without an agenda (the agenda being to turn them into Christians just like us), he's not saying that people don't need to become Christians; he's saying that if we walk up to them with sales pitch in hand, we will push them away. Anyone who has ever had a street preacher yelling in his ear (like I had a few days ago) will understand this. (Apparently Pastor Abendroth didn't see it that way. According to him, Rob Bell not only thinks that the virgin birth is an unnecessary Theological concept, but that salvation is as well. Again, I don't see it in the black words on the white pages.)
The reason I disagree with Pastor Abendroth on those two points is that the chapter mentioning the virgin birth is not about the virgin birth. The chapter talking about the notches-in-my-belt-style evangelism-with-an-agenda isn't about salvation. But because those things are mentioned, people seem to assume that those chapters should say certain things, and when they say different things, there must be something wrong with the book. It's like reading a book about the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln and then complaining that it's light on information about his years in the White House. That's because it's not what the book is about!
I wonder if the modern Christian, who in most cases hasn't even read every word of the Bible, much less memorized them, has the kind of balance needed to understand those shades of meaning and logic present in books like Bell's. When you're in a physical room having a discussion with someone and the conversation begins to go off track because they misunderstood an illustration you are making, you can correct course and clarify what you were getting at. That luxury isn't present in the printed word. It could be that a weakness of Velvet Elvis is that it is too much like a conversation, except without the option of clarification when necessary.
Several years ago, I read another recent very conversational book about the Christian life, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. I enjoyed it a lot, but I left it feeling vaguely unsettled, and after reading Velvet Elvis, I think I know why. Miller seems intent on getting someone to tell him the answers to his questions about spiritual things. Bell, on the other hand, seems content to leave some things a bit mysterious... ambiguous... mystical. I think there are certain things that the Word of God does leave ambiguous and mysterious. If we Christians were content to leave those kinds of things hwo God left them, we wouldn't almost come to blows whenever a six-literal-days creationist and a thousand-years-are-like-a-day creationist discuss the opening chapters of Genesis. God didn't inspire a history or science textbook; God inspired a spiritual book expressing His love for us. He left the mystery in, and when we take a hard line on issues that God left open, we become divisive.
I grew up in the 70s, during what was called the Charismatic movement (funny, there's that "movement" word again). Charismatics believe things that some mainstream Christians thought were borderline heresy. We prayed for sick people, expecting that God would heal them. We raised our hands to God during worship services. We used brief, catchy, repetitive, pop music-influenced songs in our worship services, and gave hymns a back seat or no seat at all. We spoke in tongues. We didn't mind too much if people dressed casually for church. The Charismatic movement spread rapidly, and since then many of the practices from that time (rock-style worship services, for example, or raising hands during worship, or casual dress for church, etc.) have been adopted by many mainstream churches as well. Those things seemed revolutionary back then, but much of it is commonplace today. In retrospect, it seems obvious. The Christian rock albums that people burned as heresy back then seem tame and boring next to the music you hear on most Christian radio stations today. I just wonder if some of these "emerging" concepts that have caused so much controversy in the past five years might, ten or fifteen years from now, seem glaringly obvious. I've heard that the "emerging" movement has been losing steam lately, faltering because of lack of strong leadership or whatever, but I see some of the concepts of reaching out to people in love present in my own "non-emerging" church. There may be some bathwater there, but I definitely see a baby splashing around, too. Hopefully we as the body of Christ can get rid of the right one and keep the other!