Rob Bell & "Velvet Elvis" (I)
I was doing a radio show recently and the host commented that she had just read Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis and that when she read it she thought it was a joke. Funny, I thought, that was the same impression I had. Unfortunately, both of us were wrong. So the short answer to the question posed in this heading is: when a supposedly reputable Christian publishing house decides to publish nonsense. Don’t get me wrong: Zondervan has published some excellent material over the years, but they really blew it with this one!
Zondervan jumped at the opportunity to publish a book by the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Rob Bell. Allow me a few moments to give you some background on Mr. Bell and his church. In November 2004, Christianity Today (or Astray) carried an article on the Emergent Church Movement. The author, Andy Crouch, focuses the article on the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids and Brian McLaren. For our purposes, we’re only going to focus on MHBC.
Crouch describes the ECM as “Frequently urban, disproportionately young, overwhelmingly white, and very new…” The worship style is “startlingly improvisational” affecting “everything from worship to leadership to preaching to prayer.” What struck me as odd in Crouch’s article was his comment that Rob Bell, the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, is the only pastor to have begun a mega-church-planting career with a sermon series from the book of Leviticus. That’s not odd; Leviticus is part of the canon of Scripture and our Lord reminds us that he is to be found in the entire Old Testament (cf. Luke 24:25, 27, 44-45). In Crouch’s article, he describes his experience at Bell’s worship service as “more conventional” since Bell was preaching on “the story of Jesus rebuking Peter for drawing his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane.” How could a writer for CT find preaching from the Old Testament “unconventional?” The implication is clear.
Bell told Crouch that “after launching Mars Hill in 1999, they (Bob and his wife Kristen) found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with church.” At this point I must admit that I don’t have the foggiest clue what the word “uncomfortable: means in that context. What possible significance can it have that I am “uncomfortable” with church? One scenario could be that the pastor is preaching sermons that convict me of my sin and therefore I rightly feel uncomfortable. That’s a good thing; a very good thing. In keeping with the ECM mode of talking, wife Kristen remains vague about her feelings of being uncomfortable. Here is her description: “Life in the church had become so small. It had worked for me for a long time. Then it stopped working.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? It worked? You got a good feeling, high, or your self-esteemed skyrocketed off the charts? How did it work? This is one of those modern terms that smacks of pragmatism. At best, the term as used by Kristen Bell is vague; at worst, it’s useless. What happened to church? Did it go on strike?
Whatever happened, the Bells did the unthinkable: They “started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself.” Uh-oh. This is like playing the Sesame Street game of “What Happens Next?” The Bells began looking at “the Bible as a human product…rather than the product of divine fiat.” Surprise! Surprise! Rob explains, “The Bible is still the center for us, but it’s a different kind of center.” No further explanation? That’s it? A “different kind of center” is like a square circle. The Bible is in the center, but it isn’t. It’s the sound of one hand clapping—in the center that’s the center except that it isn’t the center. Got it?
Continuing to equivocate Pastor Rob says, “We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it.” I’m guessing that he means the mystery of the Trinity or predestination. Yeah, right. In the ECM a lot is made out of the concept of “mystery.” Granted, there are things in Scripture that remain mysterious and defy absolute definition. Nonetheless, as Deuteronomy 29:29 reminds us, the revealed things of God are sufficiently clear that we can comprehend what is being said. Moreover, Scripture makes it clear in Deuteronomy 30:11 that a number of truths in God’s Word are crystal clear (comp. Deut. 30:14; Rom. 10:8; Ps. 119:1-2; John 14:21, 23; 15:10).
Bell has set up a false dilemma: either we embrace mystery or attempt to conquer it. What if “conquer” is not part of the equation? We can and should embrace the mysterious as it comes to us and when it comes to us in Scripture, but we should also embrace what God has clearly revealed. (Please read the preceding footnote because it is important!) What is equally disconcerting to me are the comments made by Bell’s wife in the CT interview.
Kristen had a “lucid interval” in her thought processes and gives us this profound thought of the day: “I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible, that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again—like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.” What a helpful statement for a pastor’s wife to make! One can only imagine what pearls of wisdom she’ll be rolling down the floor to the younger women once she’s older. Try this scenario: Our guest speaker this morning is Mrs. Kristen Bell, our beloved pastor’s wife. She’ll be addressing us on the topic: We Have No Idea What Most of the Bible Means. The NBC peacock shows up (I’m dating myself. Most postmoderns have no idea what the NBC peacock is!) and announces that the talk will be given in living color. Enough of this, let’s move on to a brief description of the contents of Bell’s “book.”
Bell’s “book” is divided into seven “movements.” Quaint. I placed the word book in quotation marks because part of my disbelief about Zondervan publishing this thing has to do with the waste of paper and triple spacing. If the editor had taken the time to excise the blank orange pages containing only a small white “+” sign in the top left-hand corner and had used normal spacing the book would have been less that one hundred pages. They could have also foregone the pages at the back of the book reserved for notes. Notes? You’ve got to be kidding me! I laughed myself silly when I saw that.
The seven “movements” are entitled Jump, Yoke, True, Tassels, Dust, New, and Good. The four-page Epilogue contains two blank orange pages and two pages of whining. Bell confides, “I am like you. I have seen plenty done in the name of God that I’m sure God doesn’t want anything to do with.” I wonder: did it ever cross Bell’s mind that God might not want to have anything to do with someone who questions his Word or who just throws theological spitballs at things he doesn’t like of feels uncomfortable with?
I shall critique Bell’s book under the following heads, refusing to delve into depth on each silly chapter like I did with Anne Lamott and Brian McLaren. You can only take so much of this stuff! In order, I’ll discuss Bell’s apologetic and epistemology (how do you know?), his hermeneutic (method of interpretation), and his view of Hell. There could be much more regarding his theology at large, but that would take far too long.
Apologetic & Epistemology
The name of Bell’s congregation suggests that he is undertaking an effort to defend the faith, since this is the place that Paul argued with the Greek philosophers in Acts 17. Rather than defending the faith, however, Bell is more of a critic. Typically—and I don’t want to get into the debate concerning either the so-called “classical” or presuppositional method of defending the faith, though I’m a presuppositionalist—those engaged in the apologetic enterprise have spent a great deal of time clearing up distortions to and answering questions about the Christian faith.
Apologists throughout the history of the Church have taken that approach. It’s understandable that people have questions about Christianity. That has pretty much been the case since day one. Allow me to illustrate Bell’s lack of apologetic from his “book.”
My first example is taken from his explanation of God’s command to Joshua to eradicate men, women, children, and livestock in Jericho. Bell asks, “God was with Joshua when he killed all those women and children?” but never answers his own question. You’d think an apologist would be prepared to give a good answer to the question. Bell, however, believes that the narrative concerns the “slaughter of the innocent.” That speaks volumes about his theology, but let’s continue. Bell asks, but again doesn’t answer, “Is God really like that? What does a thinking, honest person do with a story like this?” And the answers are: Yes, God was really with Joshua when he put those people to death under God’s command (cf. Josh. 6:27); yes, God is really like that; and a thinking, honest person should tremble at all of God’s Word (Isa. 66:2b).
Bell gives us another example from 1 Corinthians. You have to go to the footnote to find out it’s 1 Corinthians 7:12. Helpful. It’s a big book you know. What are we to derive from Paul’s statement, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)…?” Bell actually seems to believe that Paul is writing to a group of Christians and he’s just giving his (non-authoritative) opinion—kind of like Bell and Lamott do. Of course, this would alter—severely—what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, but that seems to matter little. Rather than answering what’s going on there, Bell asks another question: “So when a writer of the Bible makes it clear that what he is writing comes straight from him, how is that still the word of God?” No answer. Great apologetic for the Christian faith. With this kind of approach to Scripture Bell, being the pastor of a rapidly growing congregation, is more of a liability than he is an asset.
He could have pointed out that in that same chapter (7:10) Paul wrote, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord)…” This is an important key to understanding the flow of what the Church is being told. The apparent dilemma can be answered this way: in the 7:10 passage, we have a clear indication that the teaching Paul is about to give is fully grounded in the Old Testament. It has been a perpetual piece of doctrine since antiquity. In light of the current situation in Corinth and answering matters that the congregation there raised to Paul, the 7:12 passage can mean that we’re dealing with a teaching that is has no precedent in Scripture, but because the apostle Paul is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this word is on an authoritative par with the other writing of Scripture (cf. 2 Pet. 3:15-17).
Rather than answer any of the questions he’s raised Bell simply comments in his inimitable apologetic style, “…sometimes when I hear people quote the Bible, I just want to throw up. Can I just say that? Can I get that off my chest? Several hundred years ago people used Bible verses to defend their right to own slaves.” The slave issue is a crucial one for the ECM. Some of the non-leader leaders seem to have forgotten that we actually fought a war about that. I’m not trying to defend the people that misinterpreted the Bible on that point. I do suggest two things, however:
First, take a few moments and read Thomas Sowell’s chapter “The Real History of Slavery.”
Second, it will be interesting for someone eventually to write a critique on modern evangelical pastors who have basically kept their mouths shut about abortion for fear of losing their non-profit status. History will judge the modern Church on her lack of scholarly critique as well as her unwillingness to put herself on the line regarding abortion. In short, all people at all times have their shortcomings, Rob.
I understand that there have been misuses of “proof-texting.” That misuse does not, however, disqualify a proper use of various texts of Scripture to support a particular viewpoint. What else would you really want to use? The key is usually the text properly. This will come as a surprise to Bell and his ECM cohorts, but there was a history of the Church prior to the ECM and the Christian scholars got a lot of things right. Sometimes when I hear people who are pastors criticize the Bible and God’s people I want to throw up too.
Bell also—and this comes as no surprise—has major problems with the biblical concepts of female submission. I’ll forego his non-exegetical argument, for it doesn’t exist. Ready for a straw man? Bell reminds us of this little known factoid: “Nazis, cult leaders, televangelists who promise that God will bless you if you just get our your checkbook, racists, people who oppress minorities and the poor and anyone not like them—they all can find verses in the Bible to back their agendas.” Thanks, Rob, but I think we already knew that.
Finally, Bell gives us yet another story to make the point of how narrow-minded the moderns are and how open and tolerant the postmoderns are. Someone recently told him, “As long as you teach the Bible, I have no problem with you.” As a pastor, I would take that as a compliment. My response would be, “I understand—totally.” Bell, however, is offended by such a statement. He reads into the person’s words the worst case scenario. This “person” sound very much to me like a concerned Christian, desiring his or her pastor to preach the Bible. Here is what he ascribes to his interlocutor: “What that person was really saying is, ‘As long as you teach my version of the Bible, I’ll have no problem with you.’ And the more people insist that they are just taking the Bible for what it says, the more skeptical I get.” What is ironic/funny is that throughout the “book” Bell is precisely telling us what he thinks the Bible says. Touché.
What really cheeses me off is when Mr. Bell asks, “Is the Bible the best God can do?” He upbraids someone for saying that as long as Bell preaches and teaches the Bible there will be no problems, and this asks this crass, blasphemous question. Ostensibly, matters have begun to emerge more clearly when Bell began “to understand what Jesus believed about the Scriptures.” This is one of the oldest liberal tricks in the book, as if what Jesus taught is different from what Yahweh taught in the Old Testament, what Peter, Paul, John, Isaiah, Ezekiel or anyone else in the Bible taught. This is yet another ECM ploy attempting to pit Jesus against the rest of the human authors of the Word of God. In addition, when it comes to two key recurring issues—hell and homosexuality—ECM non-leader leaders don’t want to hear what Jesus view of the scriptures was. Why? The answer is: according to Bell, “the Bible is open-ended.”
From what we’ve seen thus far, it’s evident that Bell is walking in lock-step with the rest of the ECM non-leader leaders. This means, among other things, that he embraces the notion that man cannot know anything with certainty. Of course, the caveat is that Bell has to employ the dictates of reasonable, rational sentence structure (certainty) to convince us that we cannot possess certainty. In addition, this type of epistemology leads to the conclusion that man can never know anything with certainty because what is required—to their mind—is omniscient certainty for certainty to the valid. This means that man can never know anything because he cannot know like God. This notion is patently absurd. We can know adequately and sufficiently without knowing omnisciently Moreover, the Bible speaks repeatedly about man’s ability to know and comprehend what God has revealed, but the ECM constantly turns a deaf ear and a blind eye to this truth. This is a glaring deficiency that, to this point, no one in the ECM has addressed sufficiently. Next, we’ll look at Bell’s hermeneutic.
 See http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/011/12.36.html.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 3. Italics mine.
 Both Scripture and key confessional statements make this clear. See, for example, Romans 3:9-10; 1 John 1:10 and Q/A 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 See Heinrich Bornkamm, μυστήριον, in Gerhard Kittel (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Geoffrey Bromily (trans. & ed.), Vol. IV, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 802-829. Bornkamm makes the repeated point that when the word μυστήριον (mustérion) is used in the New Testament it almost invariably refers to something that was hidden before, but now has been revealed, made known to us by God. Moreover, you could get the impression from the ECM authors that virtually everything in the Bible is a mystery. That simply is not the case. In the ECM it’s simply a cop-out for learning the content of Scripture. In point of fact, the word μυστήριον is used quite infrequently in the Bible in comparison to other words.
 http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/011/12.36.html, 3. Emphasis mine.
 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 176.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 42-43.
 Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005), pp. 111-169.
 A case in point is found in Bell, VE, 43: “Recently a woman told me that she has the absolute Word of God (the Bible) and that the ‘opinions of men’ don’t mean a thing to her. But this same woman would also tell you that she has a personal relationship with God through Jesus. In fact, she spends a great deal of time telling people they need a personal relationship with God through Jesus. What is interesting to me is that the phrase ‘personal relationship’ isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. Someone made up this phrase and then said you could have one with God. Apparently the ‘opinions of men’ do mean something to her.” This is trite, ridiculous, and thoroughly non-pastoral. Giving this woman the benefit of the doubt, we understand what she means. I’d love to see Bell hold his cohorts in the non-movement ECM to the same standard! Confessions throughout the history of the Church have used similar language and we all understand. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith 1:10 states, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. We also understand the terms Trinity and sacrament, neither of which is found in Scripture. Bell needs to be less tendentious and more forgiving/understanding with “traditional” people who use language that we all comprehend.
 Bell, VE, 44.
 Ibid., 46.