Rob Bell & "Velvet Elvis" (II)
We are constantly busy with interpretation. Day in and day out we interpret a wide variety of differing impulses, facts, and things that present themselves to us as facts, but which aren’t. In this section of this article I want to give you some more insights into Rob Bell’s method of interpretation—and the ECM as well. Granted not everyone in the ECM is exactly the same, but there is a definite “family resemblance.” In this issue, then, we’re asking the question: when Rob Bell looks at Scripture, how does he interpret it? It’s essential for us to know this since the science of interpretation (hermeneutics) has been in the forefront for quite some time now.
To begin, it’s more than just a little odd that Mr. Bell has rejected “proof-texting” as a viable way of speaking to people about the Bible. We need to remember, however, that once an ECM member makes such a statement he’s more than likely to either forget it or ignore it as it applies to him/her, or both. I’ll illustrate what I mean by a few examples.
In John 11, the Bible relates the narrative of the resurrection of Lazarus. Mr. Bell particularly likes the KJV’s rendering, “He stinketh.” He applies this verse is a profoundly exemplaristic manner. Totally disregarding what Jesus was doing in terms of manifesting himself to be the Messiah of God and displaying his power over death, Mr. Bell takes us on this excursion: “And this phrase continues to swirl around in my mind and my heart. Where is there death in my life? Where am I dying because of decisions I’ve made? Where do I ‘stinketh’?”
Is he “proof-texting?” Clearly he is without telling us that he is. In addition, notice how Bell carefully avoids the “s” word: sin. There’s death in his life and he’s dying because of decision he’s made, but he never tells us why. Those who are conversant with Scripture know the reason, but Bell avoids using the “s” word in such an egregious fashion.
In addition, Bell also has a very low view of what the Bible says about marriage. He informs us that some friends of his asked him to officiate at their wedding ceremony. In his words, “They had been together for a while and decided to make it official.” In my words, they were shacking up (fornicating is the biblical term) and had no clue what marriage meant, let alone what Christian marriage meant. They decided to make it official? Please! Give me a break! Good afternoon, sports fans, today we’re going o discuss official sex, as opposed to the non-official variety. Why can’t he be up front and simply tell us that they were living in sin—oops! Bad word. Why does he feel the necessity to sugar coat what they were doing?
Anyway, what they envisioned was a huge weekend party (read: bash; party hardy, dude!). Their stipulation was that they didn’t want “any Jesus or God or Bible or religion to be talked about.” That seems perfectly fair and reasonable. And it’s very easy to accommodate that request. Simply refuse to do the wedding. They did, however, want Mr. Bell to do that thing he does and make it “really profound and deep and spiritual.” Right.
On the day of the ceremony—he actually agreed to do it—Bell informs us that the wind “was blowing the tops of the trees way up above us, the sun was coming through in yellow-and-white beams, and at one point an eagle flew overhead.” Where is John Denver when you need him? Well, we actually have a good idea where Mr. Denver might be. The country roads have, indeed, taken him home. Bell comments, “Something holds this all together.” Good job. Yet another profound thought of the day. I don’t know how we can keep up with these profound insights!
Bell’s hermeneutic also leads him to conclude that the Bible teaches that “to be a Christian is to do whatever it is that you do with great passion and devotion.” So as long as we shack up with great passion and devotion, we’re good to go? I would have kind of thought that he might have cited 1 Corinthians 10:31 where we’re told that whatever we do we are to do it to the glory of God or Colossians 3:17 that says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Whatever. To Bell’s mind, “Music is already worship.” All music? He doesn’t tell us, but simply makes a blanket statement (“Music is praise. Music is sacred. Music is good.”).
The quantum leap that Bell makes is to jump from music to Jesus blessing food. Don’t ask me how he gets there, he just does. This is fairly typical for the ECM tribe. Reading Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy follows a similar pattern. McLaren will cite texts that have nothing to do with what he’s talking about. It’s a postmodern thing. Anne Lamott is in a league of her own, although Bell admits that she’s one of his favorite writers. Bell “proof-texts” Paul—again without mentioning that he’s proof-texting—, “For everything God created is good,” to make the point that “This is why Jesus wouldn’t have blessed the food before he ate. He blessed God for providing the earth, which provides the food. The food is already blessed…” How helpful. How would Pastor Bell explain Luke 24:30 in this context? It was precisely because Jesus was in such intimate communion with the Father that he would have blessed and did bless the food.
The Hermeneutic of Straw Men
A “false dilemma” hermeneutic appears when Bell states, “If we only have a legal-transaction understanding of salvation in which we are forgiven of our sins so we can go to heaven, then salvation essentially becomes a ticket to somewhere else.” Bell is referring to justification by faith, which is a legal term in Scripture. Maybe I’m missing something here, but who in the world teaches what Bell just described? Again I ask: What Christian denomination has ever taught such a one-dimensional concept of salvation? We might disagree about which comes first regeneration or faith (it is regeneration, by the way), or the nature of adoption, union with Christ, and glorification, but I’m not aware of any Christian fellowship that teaches only justification; a legal-transaction understanding of salvation. In fact, they all teach the truth that justification (legal) and sanctification (moral) must be joined. Yet another straw man.
This type of (non)-thinking led to Dr. David Wells writing these words rather recently: “Regardless of whether evangelicals want to see it, this emptiness is a growing reality and with this emptiness has come a loss of boundaries, both theologically and morally.” This sentence, in a nutshell, captures the dilemma that evangelicalism faces today both in its mega-church as well as in it ECM form. What is historically known as evangelicalism has given in to novelty, “creative” innovation in worship, experimentation, and an obsession with cultural awareness. Again Well is right on the mark when he comments, “It is surely a great irony that what evangelicals have most surrendered in the hope of becoming culturally relevant is what , in fact, now makes them culturally irrelevant.” Reminiscent of Goethe’s Faust, a deal has been cut by the modern Church with the culture and Christians have all but lost every intention to be countercultural. The next result of this approach is that “The church is therefore awash in strategies borrowed from psychology and business that, it is hoped, will make up for the apparent insufficiency of the Word and ensure more success in this postmodern culture.”
With that last quotation Wells has pinpointed one of the (many) egregious faults of 21st evangelicalism: while formally holding to the authority and infallibility of Scripture, the real weak link in the chain is at the point of the total sufficiency of the revealed will of God for all of life and doctrine. And without the Church’s countercultural influence (cf. Matt. 5:13-16) our immoral, relativistic, narcissistic, and nihilistic culture will continue to rush headlong into the destruction. As if that were not tragic enough, without the Church’s clear concept of antithesis vis-à-vis the culture, she will be left with nothing to say—and she’s almost already there. But now let’s return to Bell’s hermeneutic.
Possibly one of the most egregious errors—showing how bankrupt ECM theology is—in Bell’s book—and they are legion—is when he says, “Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for.” This might play for a group of biblically illiterate postmoderns, but Mr. Bell should be a little more concerned about theological precision and truth. The consequences of such statements about Hell and God are overwhelming for any thinking person.
What kind of God would send a forgiven person to Hell? Certainly not the God of Scripture. In addition, it’s clear that Mr. Bell doesn’t have the foggiest clue about one of the key doctrines of the Bible: justification by faith. A biblically ignorant audience will just nod the mind-numbed nod, but those conversant with Scripture will realize just how bad this stuff is. Is God’s forgiveness conditional? Are we saved today and destined for Hell tomorrow? What does all this say about God’s covenant promises? About the work of the Holy Spirit? Does God finish what he begins (cf. Phil. 1:6)? But the point here is that Rob and the ECM ostensibly care little for tradition, traditional orthodoxy, or theology, but they teach very clear doctrine and theology on every day of everything they write. The example I just gave you is a classic case in point.
If Bell believes that Hell is full of forgiven people, he has fallen into basic Arminian theology, which he and the ECM have been in all along, so this is really nothing new. If man is sovereign and can choose for God today, he can just as well choose against him tomorrow. This might be entertaining and acceptable to the second generation of untaught Christians, but it verges on being a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:8-9). Of course, this has been a real danger in both the mega-church and Emergent Church movements. It’s time we woke up, recognized it, and acknowledged it.
Another area of life that intrigues Bell—and the ECM—is social justice. I applaud them for their concern. It’s legitimate. Christians, above all others, should be concerned with biblical justice across the board. It is also an area in the Christian Church that, in my estimation, has not received the attention it deserves. My concern, however, is the manner in which people like McLaren, Lamott, Bell, and Wallis go about trying to effectuate it.
For example, Bell’s hermeneutic persuades him that Rwanda, poverty, injustice, and suffering are all hells on earth. As much as I agree that Rwanda was horrific and that poverty, injustice, and suffering all need biblical answers—and they are available—they are not hells on earth. There are other apt words to describe them. Biblically, it is Jesus who speaks the most often about hell. His descriptions and observations mean substantially more to me than those of Mr. Bell, especially since the Bible makes it patently clear that hell is comprised of unforgiven sinners in the presence of the true, holy, and living God of Scripture eternally. As bad as Rwanda, Katrina, rape and torture chambers, hunger, and other difficult circumstances, there is still opportunity to repent and believe.
Of course, it doesn’t help that people like Rick Warren and Tony Campolo want to remove God from any and every disaster. Not once have I heard either one of them cite Amos 3:6 in their explanation. Warren is as eclectic as they come, hanging around with New Age and ECM gurus, while Campolo has just gone over the deep end accepting almost everything. It part, Campolo’s theological demise was due, in part, to his association with Open Theism proponents. God cannot possibly foreknow anything because that, to his mind, would strip man of his sovereignty. So when disasters strike—9/11, Katrina, etc.—God cannot foreknow that these things will happen. All he can do is—impotently—sit in heaven wringing his hands trying to decide how to remedy these disasters. A God like this makes FEMA’s inabilities during Katrina look like a minor inconvenience. In fact, this looks very much like no God at all.
Mr. Bell is also concerned about our responsibility as a 21st century Church. He explains, “It is our turn to step up and take responsibility for who the church is going to be for a new generation. It is our turn to redefine and reshape and dream it all up again.” Again, just a few comments are in order. We have already been given the responsibility by virtue of our redemption in Christ. “Who the church is going to be” for this or any other generation is already defined for us in the Bible. As was mentioned earlier, the Word of God is sufficient (cf. Rom. 1:16-17). In my particular tradition we call this the regulative principle of worship. Our Lord did not leave it up to our imaginations or creativity, but prescribed how he will be worshipped. Those who want to be innovative would do well to consult Leviticus 10:1-3. Didn’t Bell preach through Leviticus? Surely, he pointed out the death of Aaron’s sons to his congregation—didn’t he? The point is: it is not our turn to redefine, reshape, or dream it all up again. It is our responsibility to do think God’s thoughts after him, to worship him in the manner he has prescribed, and to walk in obedience to his Word.
In closing, I must admit that I am growing weary with the whole ECM topic. Much has been written on the subject and, no doubt, much more will be written. To my knowledge McLaren and his lieutenants (read: non-leader tribe members) continue to refuse to answer simple, crucial questions that are put to them about their core biblical beliefs. To my mind, that speaks volumes. More books will be published in the name of the Church of Jesus Christ being culturally aware and relevant, innovative, creative, and dreaming up new nonsense.
Whether we writing about a velvet portrait of Elvis, plastic pink flamingos in the front yard, or singing redneck fish on the wall we have but one rule so that we can glorify God and enjoy him forever: the Word of God, contained in the Old and New Testaments. If I could give any advice to the ECM non-leader, egalitarian leaders it would be to spend more time in exegesis of the scriptures and to study the history of Christianity more carefully. Are there challenges facing us in the 21st century? Absolutely. Our relevance is in the Word, however, and from there we must preach, teach, and witness.
It seems like a long time ago now that I promised to finished writing my analysis and criticism of Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy and I will. I will also continue to put Anne Lamott’s drivel on one or another blog site. But the time has come to take on a substantially more important task. Evangelicalism is in free fall. Both the mega-church and ECM are part and parcel of that free fall, but there are other components that must be looked at honestly and—here comes the creativity—prescribe a better way; a scriptural way of dealing with what evangelicalism has refused to deal with or has dealt with in a hugely superficial manner.We shall deal with the Church in the 21st century from the standpoints of theology, ethics (morality), and worldview. Evangelical theology is in the toilet. Its demise began around the time of the Second Great Awakening and it’s been downhill since then. Statistic after statistic makes it clear that morality among those who call themselves Christians. My aim is to redefine, reshape, and dream up evangelicalism into what it used to be. As I undertake this, all molding, defining, and shaping of the theology, ethics, and worldview of the Christian will be according to the authoritative and sufficient Word of God.
 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 61.
 Ibid., 75. Italics mine.
 Ibid. 76.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 108.
 David F. Wells, “Foreword,” in Gary Johnson & R. Fowler White (eds.), Whatever Happened to the Reformation? (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2001), p. xvi.
 Ibid., xviii.
 Ibid., xix.
 Bell, VE, 146.
 Ibid., 148.
 Ibid., 164.