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.