12 December 2007

Velvet Elvis = Velvet Theology?

Today I read Rob Bell's book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Rob is pastor of Mars Hill, a church in Grand Rapids (not to be confused with Mars Hill in Seattle, pastored by Mark Driscoll).

I appreciate the book in many respects. His thoughts on living like Christ in a way that is forgiving and loving instead of harsh and judgmental; his realism about suffering; his reflections on the importance of joy in Christianity; and his emphasis on the mystery of God and the way we can never exhaust him or figure him out and bottle him up like a math problem; these are all true and worthy of reflection.

But this book is exactly why I started this blog in the first place, and it's a perfect example of why I've called it "Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology."

Time and again the book trades in our doctrinal birthright as Christians for a mess of theology-taming pottage. Bell talks about joy and about enjoying God. Yes! What a central and needed message for our age; maybe for every age. But the way he does it is by softening and fuzzying the clear contours of divinely revealed truth mercifully given in Scripture. His end is right; his means is wrong.

I'll cite two examples. In his zeal for people to know just how counterintuitive and surprising and deep and wonderful and freeing God's grace and love are--and they are!--Bell writes that "when Jesus died on the cross, he died for everybody. Everybody. Everywhere. . . . This reality then isn't something we make true about ourselves by doing something. It is already true. Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making" (145-46).

We're still scratching our heads with this, wondering if he really means it, when he follows it up with: "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" (146).

I think I understand how Bell can say these kinds of things, unambiguously conflicting with biblical witness, from the second example. Bell is talking about the Christian life being more like a trampoline, which you jump on and call others to join you in enjoying, than it is a wall of bricks, with each doctrine being a brick. His point is that we ought not to worry about a single brick falling out and causing the whole wall to crumble, which is the mode in which he sees some conservative Christian operating (18-28).

Point taken. I want to call others to Christianity by enjoying it, not by battering doctrines over people's heads. Personally, I need to grow in this area.

But my response is: won't the height and enjoyment of our jumping be determined by the well-being and sturdiness of the foundational structure of the trampoline?

My conclusion is simply this. Doctrine exists for delight. Just as you don't bake a strawberry-rhubarb pie to stick it on a petry dish to analyze it, so God is meant to be enjoyed, not analyzed. But we still need to have the right recipe. The trampoline structure still needs to be secure. We won't enjoy the pie without the right recipe. Hence the importance of doctrine. It is the Holy Spirit who ignites joy, but he does it with the kindling of Scripture.

I don't want to be a theology-cop. Let's agree to spend our main energies affirming the good in people, not looking for the weaknesses, remembering how blind we ourselves are to our own errors and weaknesses. I have not a shred of doubt that Rob Bell has done TONS of good in this world. Praise God for him. May the Lord bless his efforts. But if you want your people to enjoy Jesus, Pastor Bell, you're softening the very means God has given for them to do it.

Theology exists for doxology. Doctrine exists for delight. We neither skip the head to get to the heart, nor focus on the head without letting doctrine pour into the heart. Rather we embrace and cultivate and defend doctrine, for the sake of the heart. Strawberry-rhubarb theology.


Adam Mellem said...


I kind of see where you're going with this, but you don't provide any argument. All you've done is quote Bell and then say he has weak theology. Give us some examples or scripture or something to prove why you think he has weak theology.

Tyler said...

Adam, I'm sure Dane will in time. Meanwhile, many have written about Rob Bell and the issues they have with his theology and scholarship.
For what it's worth, here are my own observations:
Velvet Elvis Review - also please note that some of what I've written here, were I to write it today, I would not write as forcefully because I've dialogued with one of his fans and (I think) come to a better understanding of some of his teachings, esp. regarding sin and acceptance.
Giving Him Credit

Eric Ortlund said...

Hi Adam - I don't want to be too harsh here (and, by the by, I really enjoyed your self-description on the blogger page - I think of my self as a "recovering evangelical" as well!!), but I think you're missing what Dane is saying: one could quote any verse from Genesis 1.1 onward to show how, whatever its strength's, Bell's approach renders fuzzy and out-of-focus what the Bible continually puts into sharp focus. It is less particular doctrines and more the whole way of viewing doctrine.


Stacey said...

Adam, thanks for the comment. I hope you enjoy your break and see those beautiful Cal. mountains! There's so much to say on what you've asked but I'll limit it to one or two things. You ask for examples of Bell's weak theology, which is precisely what I already did in the post, with page numbers, so I'm not sure what you mean. You ask for Scripture, too; on Bell's statement that forgiven people will be in hell, see 2 Thess. 1, or Jesus' numerous parables about the sheep and the goats, etc. Robert A. Peterson has written some helpful things on the reality of hell, and does it from a very pastoral perspective that is anything but dry or compassion-less theology.

I truly appreciate Bell's emphasis on how there is in a very real way lots of "hell" here and now on earth, and our mission as Christians is to bring "heaven" here. But he emphasizes this to the exclusion of the even more horrific afterlife, a hell which--if we take Revelation seriously--will make much of the suffering today look quite modest in comparison, and a heaven the joys of which to try to understand would be like a 5-year old trying to understand the joys of sex when the highest joy he knows is chocolate.

I suspect Bell is responding to a tendency in conservative Christian circles esp. over the past 80 years to view salvation as something that gets us an insurance card to get out of hell, but does not then influence how we live here in this life. He has diagnosed a real problem, and I can't say I've done much to help alleviate it. I consider myself rebuked by Bell for this, and rightly so. This was one of the many things I appreciate about the book. But the alternative, the way to deal with this appropriately perceived problem, is not to throw out the importance of the afterlife and inload all of it into this life. Steve Nichols' recent and very short little book *Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards' Vision of Living in Between* explains very well precisely what I would offer as an alternative to Bell's approach: Nichols argues that the degree to which we take heaven and hell as eternal states of being in the next life, to that degree we will be affected in a certain way here in this life. I think that's exactly right.

Ben Witherington on his blog reviewed Velvet Elvis and says some helpful things.

Lots more to say; all I really ought to say is: take Velvet Elvis in one hand and your Bible in the other and see what conclusions you yourself come to.

Stacey said...

that was me, Dane, responding

Adam Mellem said...

Thanks for the response Dane. I've visited the beach a couple times since break. It's quite beautiful. A mid-westerner all my life, its nice to smell the air coming off the ocean. And I can't say I'm jealous of the crazy weather you all have had out there!

I apologize to all if my first comment was too forthcoming. In no means did I intend to offend or be harsh. Let me assure you, I don't write to be a burr or thorn - I imagine these conversations over a nice lager.

When I first read the aforementioned passages from Bell's book - that there are people both in Heaven and Hell that God loves - I was a bit taken back. It really challenged my theology. But the more I thought about it and compared it with scripture, it didn't seem contradictory. Rather, in view of 2 Thes. 2:3-4, it made sense. Theologically, it may be worth arguing over the form of the verb love - maybe Bell would have been more accurate to say "There are people in Heaven God loves, and there are people in Hell that God loved." Of that, I am not sure.

If I may share inoffensively, I struggle with your idea of 'doctrinal birthright' vs 'theology-taming pottage.' I do not know of any biblical mandate that affords a doctrinal birthright to Christians. Maybe if you mean doctrinal birthright in terms of our tradition - but even then this can get sketchy - which tradition?

Furthermore, does 'doctrine exist for delight'? Or was doctrine originally created to protect the unity of the church. I think the latter is far more historical. It may be that delight is a byproduct, but it is certainly not its created purpose.

Bringing it back to Bell, I wonder if this thought isn't worth a small challenge - "But if you want your people to enjoy Jesus, Pastor Bell, you're softening the very means God has given for them to do it." What means - doctrine? Yet, has God given us doctrine? Or is doctrine a construct, or, if you will, a brick that man has created to try to understand a God that will always supersede His own anthropomorphisms? If this is so, we would be foolish not to continually and always challenge our own constructs, knowing that finite beings might make some mistakes. It is a dangerous thing to think that man has arrived at a doctrine that can somehow explain God.

Don't misunderstand me, I don't think that Bell has got it all figured out. But I guess when I read it, I found a profound challenge to why I thought what I thought.

Thanks for the time.

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks for the thoughts Adam. It's good for me to think through these foundational things again. No need to apologize - though I do prefer Blue Moon.

Just a few things that may help us get on the same page; I do think you and I may have fundamental disagreement over the nature and purpose of doctrine.

1)Bell simply doesn't say there are people in hell God loves. He says there are people in hell God has *forgiven*. There's a world of difference there. I think this statement confuses and dishonors the work of Christ.

2) In the account of Jacob and Esau, Esau sells his birthright for a mess of pottage; he gives up something significant and valuable for something small and fleeting. That was the point of that analogy, which I probably should have clarified. Sorry about that.

3) I confess I have no idea what the man of lawlessness passage you mention, 2 Thess 2:3-4, has to do making sense of the claim that God has forgiven people who are in hell. Sorry I'm so dense!

4) Does doctrine exist for delight, theology for doxology? Yes: Psalm 119.

5) Yes, there is certainly mystery and we can barely begin to comprehend the deity. But we must not denigrate the fact that he has mercifully given us an astounding amount of written revelation of himself and his ways in Scripture. This doesn't mean we can know God exhaustively; it does mean we can know him adequately. I follow Vanhoozer on this point if that helps you to place me.

Blessings brother.

Adam Mellem said...

Actually Dane, I agree with most of your last comment.

1. There is a big distinction between 'forgiven' and 'loved'.

2. In view of that, I think that I Thess 2 makes sense specifically in terms of the term 'loved.' If God desires us all to come to the knowledge of Him, and God is love, it is safe to assume that God loves those in heaven and he loves (or maybe better 'loved') everyone in hell. But the term forgiven is very different, I agree with your use and interpretation of this idea.

3. I think the only area I tend to depart from your thought is I don't think that Psalm 119 is referring to doctrine but refers to 'law'. I think there is a arguable difference between 'the law of the lord' being a delight (v 72) vs doctrine being a delight. Law is a divine word from God, doctrine is a creation of man - albeit a good creation, and a useful one, but not infallible.

Blessing brother. I love the chats. You teach me much!

Nate said...

Dane, thanks for the post, well-written and enjoyable. I resonated with those same thoughts about Bell's analogy of the trampoline.

I also am concerned that Bell seems to "think out loud" and explore some of these ideas in a book that young, moldable, trend-savvy readers will soak up. As pastors and teachers we need to do this thinking in our peer group to help sharpen our understanding of doctrine, rather than spouting daydreams like, "is believing in the virgin birth really necessary for salvation?". (no, not explicitly, but without it we clearly have a problem capturing the divinity and perfection of Christ, which compromises the veracity of the atonement.

Thanks, Dane.

Dane Ortlund said...

Nate: thanks for the comment and encouragement. I hope you're feeling better old chappy. Stacey and I are glad for your reminder last Sunday to remember God's wild and free promises. Can't be reminded enough. Please inform how we can more fully support your work as you think of things.