Some False Teaching Never Gets Old: Repainting Velvet Elvis (A)

November 9, 2009 — 3 Comments

Honestly, at this point, another review of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith might not be needed. I’ve seen several myself, and heard Mark Driscoll address some issues both in a sermon and in his book Vintage Jesus. That being said, the reason for what you are about to read is more or less that I got tired of people asking me what I thought about Rob Bell, so I’ve started reading what I can get my hands on and this seemed to be foundational to his thought.

The book itself serves as a kind of primer on the Christian faith, mainly highlighting some of Bell’s personal journey as well as unpacking ideas central to his understanding of Christianity is, and what it should and shouldn’t be.

One thing that is helpful to keep in mind while critiquing an author’s work is that something Rob Bell wrote 4 years ago might not be true of his thought today. I would say though in this case, most of it is probably still in tact, as streams of thought from this book show up in his latest Drops Like Stars (see review here).

I will in that case try to avoid labeling Bell as a “heretic” or categorize him in a sort of way that negatively frames him as a person. For every Rob Bell out there who writes things that can well deserve the classification “heretical” there are far more “Christians” who live their life in a heretical fashion (a survey of the student population of a school like Liberty University should validate this rather quickly). “Heretic” is a fluid category, and a person can drift in and out of it, both in word and deed.

False teaching though, applies to what is written, and since the text of Velvet Elvis is now static and can’t change, we can go ahead and classify it as false teaching, and leave the option open to Bell whether or not he wants to solidify himself personally as a false teacher.

So here we go.

Other reviews can offer you an overview of the book as a whole and break down the parts in a more systematic fashion, but I’m going to try to get at the heart of why evangelicals typically either love or hate this book, and what its ultimate fatal flaw is.

Ultimately, I think evangelicals are made uncomfortable by Bell’s questioning of the traditional ideas of the role of doctrine (mainly in Movement One: Jump). I think what he is getting at that makes them uncomfortable is an espousal of a different theory of how truth relates to reality than what we would normally hold.

Typically, we would hold a correspondence view of truth, that is, something is true if it corresponds to aspects of some kind of mind independent world. Bell, on the other hand seems to take the observation that we all have our own particular view of reality to equal a more subjective theory of truth (this starts to develop in Movement Two: Yoke). I wouldn’t say he completely holds this view, but he veers towards it. This is a particularly Eastern way of viewing things, and this should come as no surprise if you realize Bell has absorbed ideas from Ken Wilbur, and a heavily Buddist influenced pagan philosopher (see note 143 from pg 157).

What then essentially happens is that Bell un-tethers objective truth from being anchored in the revealed world of God and places it into the way God wired the world to be. “Truth” then can be found everywhere (as he sees Paul demonstrating see pgs 81ff). This is similar to a coherence view of truth, but is not quite the same. It is also a half truth, which is something Bell is very adept at sharing.

The clearest statement of this kind of idea is when Bell refers to the story of Adam and Eve as not necessarily being true because it happened, but because it happens. In other words, the story isn’t true because is told as a historical account in the Bible, it is true because it coheres with our subjective experience (see pg 58). If one is thinking historically here, you should see influences of Schleiermacher in this, but that is a bit off topic, comment if you want to explore this idea further.

When this idea is applied to hermeneutics, it essentially undermines the rest of Bell’s book. Bell rightly points out that the Bible is not self-interpreting (although Scripture interprets Scripture, but that is another point he passes over). Right on, but for Bell the first step is to determine what a text means at this time. In other words, “what does this text mean to me today,” not what did it mean in its original context.

If we were to say, apply this Bell’s book itself, I could make it say virtually anything I wanted, since my primary goal is to determine what Bell’s book means for me now in this place and for my review of his book on my blog. I don’t have to take into account what Bell may have actually meant by his writings, what points he considered central to his book, I can just pick and choose chapters and then read it and interpret it.

And so, in regards to false teaching, it’s not so much that it happened, but that it happens. If I want to lampoon Bell on undermining the authority of Scripture and making hermeneutics purely subjective (instead of the partial subjectivity that all competent Bible interpreters are aware of), he can’t well object to me doing so, even if I do so in a fallacious manner. After all, what is true of interpreting and applying the Bible is also going to be true of the process of interpreting and applying other writings as well.

By Bell’s own account of hermeneutics, I have no reason to endeavor to objectively interpret what he is saying. That of course is out of my reach and is not actually something to pursue anyway. I should just decipher for myself what his book means to me now and how I can then apply that in my situation.

By his own account, Bell is just one subjective interpretation of the Christian faith among many, he does not claim to offer a definitive account of Christianity. As such, anything he says that don’t like, on his own account, can be ignored and discredited as not failing in line with how I view the world.

But Bell doesn’t honestly believe that, or he wouldn’t have written a book, and wouldn’t continue writing books. In other words, Bell seems to actually want you to see things in the way that he is articulating them. He is very much trying to get you to see things differently. But the paradigm he is offering is not making any claims to be a definitive objective view of things, and instead is arguing that such a view cannot be obtained.

That unfortunately is a self-defeating claim. The claim itself is an objective definitive view of things, namely the objective view that “there is no objective view.” So in a certain sense, if Rob Bell is correct in his understanding of hermeneutics and Bible interpretation, then he has undermined his own book. If he’s wrong in his claim, which I would suspect is the case, then he is wrong about most else that he says in his book.

And of course, I mean “wrong” in the sense of “not corresponding to a mind-independent reality.” I can make the claim that someone is interpreting the Bible incorrectly, Bell on his view cannot, so long as they are subjective and pragmatic (it means this to me now and help me do this).

In the end, this seems to be Bell’s root problem in Velvet Elvis. He seems to be making good points in order to reform the way we view the faith, but instead undermines the Bible’s authority and plunges everything into subjectivity. For Bell, everything is spiritual, but it does not seem that he has realized in writing that not all spirituality originates in the way God wired things to be.

The Fall is true because it happened, and as a result, some of the ways things are now in the world are because Satan is alive and well and is a spiritual being orchestrating other spiritual beings. Conforming to the way the world is wired now is not necessarily living in line with what is true as transcendentally revealed in God’s word.

Everything is spiritual, but spiritual is not always a good thing.

Just ask Emily Rose for instance.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

3 responses to Some False Teaching Never Gets Old: Repainting Velvet Elvis (A)

  1. I enjoyed your thoughts. I think you have a great way of communicating them both clearly and fairly. Usually. However, I wonder if your language of ‘false teaching’ seems to be too strong of language for Bell. I read both posts (a as well as b) and it seems there is more you agree with in his book than you particularly disagreed with. You pointed out paradigmatically where you differed from Bell’s hermeneutics and his overall theological playing field. But you only specifically pointed out a couple of things you didn’t like while specifically pointing out more you enjoyed. Judging by your strong language of not recommending him I found this odd. Further, to call Velvet Elvis as a whole “false teaching” seems even stranger due to your agreeing and enjoying certain parts of this work. Perhaps a more constructive way to view Bell is that he has holes (large ones say you) but that as a whole he is not producing consistent false teaching. He comes from a different tradition than conservative evangelicals and surrounds himself even further with those who are also outside of this camp. I find it funny that those within a conservative tradition almost shun him as if he is one their own acting out. I don’t think Rob would identify himself along these lines and I think its time we start treating him like that. There is a tendency among conservative evangelicalism to vilify people who do not belong in the realm of 1950’s-1990’s conservative American evangelicalism (Barth, Nieburhs, etc). This attempt is made upon the heels of fundamentalism and fear. We have larger issues and bigger giants to fight than the Rob Bells of Christianity. I would have to disagree as well in your assurance that people will not be reading Bell in the years to come. That is simply unknowable and judging by the wake of controversy occurring now because of his provocative writing I would say Bell is not only a fad but one who will be around for quite some time. I agree with you that we ought to be reading The Fathers, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Barth. But we should also engage with those prophetic minds of today honestly and with due respect. I know I struggle with this. Its much easier to criticize Bell than it is to love him. Maybe that’s what I love about him so much that I would recommend him to any and every Christian living in the 21st century.

    • Jon, I appreciate your comments, I think we have the ability to disagree respectfully, which may hopefully help sharpen both of our thinking on things like this. Part of the illusion of it seeming like there was more I liked in VE than what I didn’t like was that I was trying to give a balanced view, and I was much nicer in the blog than I was in the notes in my book. I just picked the one thing that I thought had not been touched on by others that undermined most of what he said, although I generally disagreed with most of his thoughts either because they were errors in theological reasoning, or they were errors in reconstructing the background (particularly the ANE) but some 2nd temple stuff as well. He tends to flatten the backgrounds, that is, make them more monolithic than they actually were.

      Some of the emphasis with false teaching, I’ll admit is a little strong, but part of the point was that Bell can’t actually object given his understanding of how you unpack a text. I would say large portions though of VE would constitute false teaching, or I guess we could say a presentation of false doctrine, although I don’t think it is mallicious. Maybe we could come up with a less offensive way to describe books with large portions that are theologically incorrect.

      I agree it is unknowable whether people will be reading Bell in the years to come, I was just offering a forecast, and you are right, they are bigger giants to fight than the Rob Bell’s. I think you and I should engage with people like Bell because we are leaders in ministry, but I wouldn’t recommend someone who does not read a lot to bother with reading Rob Bell, simply because I would disagree with most of his thoughts and do not find them helpful or illuminating to Christian doctrine or practice.

      I like that we can agree to disagree, on NT Wright and now Rob Bell, thanks again for commenting, I appreciate your thoughts.

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