Repainting the Christian Faith
Category: Emerging Church & Postmodern Faith
Velvet Elvis? What kind of title is that for a book? More to the point, what kind of book has a title like that? I'm no Elvis fan (there goes my street cred then) and I'd never heard of Rob Bell, so to say I was sceptical when I picked it up is putting it mildly — but the publisher's rep had been raving about it. OK, I thought: give it a go.
He was right. I was wrong — never more so. Roger, I'm in your debt (again). Mind blowing, stunning, revolutionary: words like these barely begin to say it. If you're a Christian, you need to read this book. And when you do, you'll either be sucked in or blown out, probably thrown out if you're a hardliner who changes your attitude after reading it. One thing you won't be is indifferent. Your church leaders ain't gonna like this stuff.
If you're an ex-Christian, someone who's been driven away from church and faith by all the lies and hypocrisy and the church's history of violence, if you're a complete outsider who simply can't handle the idea of believing twelve impossible things before breakfast: this book is for you, too — if you can hack it.
Hack's the word because that's what Rob Bell does here. Not with an axe but with an IT consultant's skill for debugging dodgy software. This is my analogy, not his, but think of Christianity like a computer: you've got hardware, an OS, and third party software. Most of us can handle the hardware and we've got our favourite OS. Then we bring in some extra software and everything goes down: all that stuff you thought you'd saved, bye bye. In Christianity we've got doctrines and dogmas and dozens of preconceived notions of truth that are in serious need of debugging.
Here's one: Virgin Birth. If you're anything like me you'll have thought, vergin' on the ridiculous — but probably never said it. Rob Bell says it, though not in those exact words (p.26). He doesn't throw it out completely but gets damned close. Damned. Because that's likely to be the response of the hardliners I mentioned earlier. Dare to ask the questions because that's what this book is about, but don't be surprised when the minders wade in, fists raised in defence of their truth. Your choice: keep your head down or take it on the chin. Similarly, it's farewell to the Bible-as-owner's-manual metaphor, p.62: we're not toasters in need of rewiring, we're people and the Bible was written by people wrestling with God in the mud of human experience — and the Bible contains all the mess you'd expect from that.
Rob's basic thesis is simple: faith emerges in community, open ended community. You can't nail the truth down because it comes back to life three days later and the people who thought they knew it can't recognise it (read John's Gospel if you don't understand the allusion). No dogma, no doctrine is too sacred to question because every idea that has evolved in the church — even the decision about which books constitute the Bible — has emerged out of community consensus, and that consensus is still emerging.
Which brings us back to that ludicrous title: it's a reference to a painting in Rob's basement. Faith, Rob says, is like art: that painting, for all its excellence, isn't the final work of art, its artist wasn't the final artist — artists are still painting, some pictures are better than others. Some we display, some end up in the basement.
Velvet Elvis. Love it, hate it, be liberated by it. Laugh at the sheer folly of it. Burn it or believe it — but whatever you do, read it.
Phil Groom, September 2005
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.
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