Archive for June, 2007

Velvet Elvis: pgs.22-25

June 28, 2007

I like springs.

The metaphor seems beautiful as a whole.  It makes sense.  It seems to jive with our human experience with God and our theological history.  Theology is not something completely carved in stone.  It’s something that lives.  It’s an ongoing effort to have the bestest and rightest relationship with God that we can.  At times, we’re going to get it wrong, and have to go back to the drawing board, or at least erase a few lines and start over again.  We’re human.

But there are a few misleading things as well.  Page 22 – the concept of the Trinity is implicit throughout Scriptures.  People may not have connected the dots right away, but the dots are there.  People ‘got along without’ the concept of the Trinity for ‘thousands of years’ because God hadn’t revealed himself in that way to them yet.  Now that he has revealed himself more fully, it’s not as though we can say that we don’t need the Trinitarian concept of God because the Israelites didn’t have it.  I don’t believe Bell means to imply this, but it’s an idea that some folks can get into their heads rather easily.

And the issue of words on page 23 is a tricky one.  Of course, God is beyond words. 


God has chosen to reveal himself to us through words – among other means (water, bread, wine).  This choice on his part does not limit or demean his absoluteness in any sense.  But it is also a firm part of the Christian faith.  The Bible is the Word of God.  Not simply man’s words *about* God.  But God’s Word to and through man. 

As such, these words are reliable ways of talking about God.  They provide the tension in the springs of our faith.  We can’t do without a spring that is provided in the Bible.  We can’t stretch a spring beyond what the Bible clearly states.  We can’t add springs that the Bible doesn’t clearly provide.  The Bible is  our limit to how far we can jump, and it is the guideline as to what our experience of faith with God is going to be like.  We have to remember that the springs are not all of our own making – God has provided most of them.  We simply are to test them out and see what their capabilities and limitations are. 

Doctrine is important in setting the ground rules for faith, of deciphering and pulling together the Scriptures and pointing out the unity of expression found therein in regards to specific ideas or concepts about God.  Definitely, doctrine is not God.  But lack of doctrine also pretty much guarantees that Satan is going to have an easy time of waylaying someone into ideas about God that are not true, not Biblical. 

Velvet Elvis II

June 26, 2007

I realized that I should probably include page numbers so that you know which section of the book I’m referring to in any given post.  Since I’m moving sequentially through the book, it should be pretty obvious, but I may not comment on something at the beginning or end of a section specifically, leaving you to wonder where I began and ended.

This post deals with pages 18-21.

Bell does a great job of painting pictures with his words.  His simplicity of language is so evocative that I can see in my head exactly what he’s talking about, even though he hasn’t drown me in adjectives.  I like that.  It  makes it easy to read, which is important when you’re dealing with issues like systematic theology!

He’s dead on about the issue of  belief, and the fact that we all have it.  One of the great false dichotomies of the post-Enlightenment period was and remains a distinction between fact and values, truth and belief.  The fatal step in making this distinction is in determining that Aristotelian, empirical scientific methods are the means  for determining truth/fact/reality, while faith and belief exist in other, unrelated realms.  Of course, with this sort of distinction, the endpoint is that science is objective and true, while belief is something that may or may not be true, with the inevitable conclusion being that it is *not* true. 

I’m sure that the first steps into this distinction were not malevolent entirely.  After all, it’s a fact that there are some things you can test in a laboratory, and some you can’t.  The problem is in dividing things into two categories with apparently very little overlap.  In fact, they overlap a lot.  Bell points this out.  Everyone has faith.  Every scientist  bases his or her work on presuppositions of those who trained them.  It determines what their preconceived notions about an outcome might be.  It determines what experiments they choose to engage in and how they go about them, as well as which experiments they don’t do, either because there is no perceived value or the thought just never crossed their mind.  Faith is universal. 

However I disagree with the path that Bell takes this down starting on page 20 and the subsection labeled “Way”. 

His approach is very engaging and makes a lot of sense, but it also completely ignores the deepest levels of truth and reality that Jesus embodied in all of his teachings and actions.  There are plenty of faiths and ideaologies that revolve around concepts of generosity or compassion or peacefulness, to name a few of his examples.  These are not the distinctive marks of a Christian – though it’s interesting to note that in periods when such marks were the norm instead of the exception, Christians made quite an impression on those who observed and interacted with them. 

The ‘Way’ of Jesus is relational, not idealogical.  This is a fundamental error I see Christians making in apologetics.  As though Christianity was just another set of ideas or beliefs or behaviors for people to choose and embody.  It’s not.  The core of Christianity is relationship, rather than regulations.  Jesus often focused on behaviors because by and large he was ministering and teaching people who professed to understand and subscribe to the necessary theological abstracts.  He was preaching and ministering among the Chosen People of God, and so concepts such as monotheism and a creator/creature distinction and a personal God involved in space and time could be left more often to focus on behavior.  After all, if your beliefs never find their way into your behavior, they aren’t really something you believe in, right?

He wraps up on page 21 a little stronger, though.  It is a matter of how you live as well as what you believe.  To separate the two is to fall into the error of the fact/value distinction. 

Velvet Elvis I

June 17, 2007

Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, is a very accessible work that attempts to make some systematic order from the seeming chaos that Christianity finds itself in today.  It’s a good book, worth a good read.  But there are a few small things that I’d like to comment on along the way.  That’s what these posts will be doing.

For instance, the title of the book derives from his opening introduction about a velvet Elvis painting he found.  He uses this as a metaphor for Christianity.  It’s not static.  Nobody has nailed it on the head so that nobody has needed or wanted to add or detract anything since.  The life of faith is necessarily one of movement, growth, adaptation. 

Yet there are key differences in theology and painting, if we want to examine the velvet Elvis analogy a bit further.  Art is by necessity an interpretative pursuit.  There is a reality upon which art draws, but each artist, each genre interprets that reality differently.  They accentuate different things.  One focuses on lighting.  Another on color.  Another on texture.  The artist reserves the right to interpret reality in a deliberately misleading way, in order to make a point. 

Theology is somewhat different.  The goal of theology is not so much personal interpretation – though that is unavoidable – but rather, seeking to better and more accurately understand the reality of God that has been revealed to us through Scripture and tradition.  If I claim to be a Christian, there is only so much interpretation I’m going to be free to do before I remove myself from the historical/traditional/theological confines of Christendom.  If I choose to accentuate one aspect of God, I must recognize that to do so may be distorting what God has revealed about himself – both that one aspect that I wish to distort, and his other aspects as well.  My emphasis may have a purpose, but if I step outside the bounds of what God has said about himself, then I’m not doing the job of a theologian.

Artists have no such constrictions.  The interpretative process is the point. 

Bell draws back to this same point on page 14, when he states that “If it is true, then it isn’t new.”  This is the fundamental difference between art and theology.  Art can be very new and different, while also being more or less ‘true’.  I would argue that theology is more apt to go wrong in what it says about God when it attempts to be new.  Thus, the tendency is to stick to what has already been agreed upon as true, rather than rushing off to embrace what’s new. 

But Bell has a point.  The church can’t simply cling to what has been said, as though they have no role in how that is disseminated, or translated, or applied within the context of here and now.  And certainly, it shouldn’t be assumed that theology has no more to be learned or discovered.  We just have to be careful about what we think we’ve learned or discovered.  As the Teacher once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Picked Grapes…

June 17, 2007

I finished re-reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath last night.  What an amazing book.  So much richer than I remembered, but then again, 20 intervening years can tend to make things pretty fuzzy.

I’m now going to reread a book I read only a year ago – Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell.  Bell has gotten a lot of press in recent years, and has some incredibly good things to say – and even better ways of saying them.  This book impressed the heck out of me a year ago.  But I had the nagging suspicion that as I raced through it, there were little things that didn’t quite seem to make sense and hold water.  My next few posts will be addressing minor issues I have with what Bell says, or how he says it.  My intent is not to minimize what he’s contributing to Christian discussion and systematics, but to clarify where I think he has some rough edges theologically.  No metaphor is perfect, after all.


June 11, 2007

The summer of my freshman year of high school, I was given a reading list. It was one of those ‘100 Books that every educated person should read” lists, designed to encourage and guide young minds such as mine towards worthwhile literary works. Since I couldn’t yet drive, and my family was not exactly rich, my entertainment for the summer was going to the public library with my mother and sister to load up on books.

Every other week, we’d drive the six or seven miles to the nearest public library, and I’d take my list along and try to find the works mentioned. My goal was to read through all of them by the time school started in the fall.  I didn’t make that goal. But I did manage to read at least 20 or 30 really good books that I might otherwise never have heard about. I would cross books off as I finished them, and there was a great sense of satisfaction to that simple process. I would imagine it is as satisfying as beating a video game, though in my experience, I rarely get the same satisfaction and education from beating a video game.

On a recent visit to family in February, I began rereading John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath. I had read it during that summer reading binge many, many, many years ago. But rereading it has been fantastic. Enough time has elapsed since I first read it that it’s really like reading it for the first time. Add to that the fact that quite literally I’m a different person from when I was 14, and the book takes on new dimensions and appreciations that were not possible as a lad with no life experience.

I think that I’ll embark on another reading binge – for the rest of my life. I read a lot in my line of work. There are wonderful reasons to fill my time and mind with theological ponderings and explorations. But there’s something very definite to be argued for spending time in the literary classics. Explorations of the human condition, insights into people and places I’ve never directly experienced, and the joy of connecting myself to a literary tradition that has sustained our culture for hundreds of years.

Or at least connecting myself to the awkward adolescent I was when I read some of these classics for the first time, so long ago.