Time magazine recently called Rob Bell “The Hipper-Than-Thou-Pastor” (Thursday, Dec. 06, 2007). This, along with the fact that his influence seems to only be growing, led me to read his book Velvet Elvis. Since it has been done, there seems to be little need for a comprehensive book review. But as I read Velvet Elvis I became personally motivated to do my part and duty as a pastor and expose some of the dangerous content lurking behind Bell’s hip veneer.
Based upon what I read in Bell’s book, he is both funny and hip. I say this because he made me laugh and because he does cool things like play in a punk band and surf (even the infamous Trestles!).
Continuing on with the positives, Bell seems sincere and appropriately calls for Christians to love those in need (not just fellow Christians) as is called for in the second greatest commandment. This is a great point and something that needs to be said and re-said before being said once more.
So with a hip rock dude writing a book addressing the need for Christians to act more like Jesus, why the anger on my part? Here are some of the reasons:
Rob Bell makes me mad because he preaches an anti-gospel. He craftily does this by portraying the essence of Christianity as following Jesus and treating people the way Jesus did. While this is important, living the “Jesus life” is not the essence of Christianity and neither is obeying the commands of Jesus (as important as that is). The essence of Christianity centers upon the work of Christ on behalf of sinners (i.e. substitutionary atonement). This is the matter of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3) that was the prioritized message of Jesus’ apostles (e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:2). Missing this is no small oversight by Bell. It is missing that which is of first importance! Over and over again he talks about living the way of Jesus and being like Jesus, but without the essence of the gospel, which is Jesus’ work! This is scandalous.
Rob Bell makes me mad because he writes off the virgin birth of Jesus as non-essential (pp. 26-27). You heard right, he writes off the virgin birth of Jesus as not essential! To state the obvious, this is entirely out of step with the Bible. Sure, one can redress and then mimic once-trendy quasi arguments by unbelievers about the word used for virgin in Isaiah 7:14 possibly meaning young woman. But the New Testament leaves no wiggle-room on the intent and therefore meaning of the word. We know this because the Isaiah text is quoted and essentially interpreted in the New Testament. In Matthew 1:23-25 the word virgin is used twice and shown by the context to mean virgin in the classic sense of the term. To ignore this is to show gross negligence which seems to depend upon an assumed biblical illiteracy by his readers. Far from being not essential, the biblical reality of Christ’s virgin birth is vital to His unique status as the sinless God-Man. As troubling as this unorthodox teaching by Bell is, he commits a more dangerous foul. Bell continues with arguments against the virgin birth of Jesus followed by an attempt to defuse would-be critics by slipping in a token affirmation. Bell professes to be a Christian. But given his disregard for Christian doctrine, the name “poser” comes to mind (borrowing an old title from the punk rock scene).
Rob Bell makes me mad because he downplays the vital role of conversion. In a horrible overreaction against professing Christians wrongly not being compassionate, Bell says “the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people…” (p. 167). He then proceeds to establish a supporting argument that would surely set well with most anyone who is either ignorant of or ignoring what Jesus says in John 3—unless someone is converted, they will not see the light of day in the kingdom! Bell’s tactic is entirely unacceptable and irresponsible, but dare I say, fits with his mimicking the likes of the quintessential theological liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). Certainly Christians must love those in need if they are going to truly follow Christ. But such love is to augment the need to proclaim a gospel of repentance which calls for conversion according to Jesus.
Rob Bell makes me mad because he does violence to the clear words of Jesus. On page 21 for example, when he talks about Jesus’ claims of exclusivity in John 14:6, he spins them to mean something other than what they clearly say and have been recognized as saying by Christians throughout the ages. At first I was surprised at how much Bell sounded like a radical theological liberal like Marcus Borg, but then I saw that the very first endnote in the book was an unqualified recommendation of a book by Borg! Bell’s recommended reading on his church’s web site promotes reading by John Dominic Crossan, the former co-director of the Jesus Seminar, so endorsing Borg is not a matter of isolation. Such men have a reputation for shamelessly doing violence to Jesus and His gospel.
Rob Bell makes me mad because he is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. I am not suggesting that churches with “Bible Church” in the name are anything special per se, but historically they have not been places where things like the virgin birth is considered non-essential. In my estimation this is downright deceptive.
A New Dress
Simply put, Rob Bell is a theological liberal resembling the mainline denominations of the early 1900s. The difference is that Bell is sporting a fashionable new dress or in his case, a new pair of geek-chic glasses.
If J. Gresham Machen were alive today, I suspect he would do what he did with Bell’s theological predecessors. Machen would remind him that while he has the freedom to start a new religion, he really should call it something other than Christian given that his religion does not resemble what Christ actually established as recorded in the Christian book, the Bible.
In my opinion, the reason this book is resonating with so many is because we have seen the evangelical church abandon the Evangel Himself. Yes, much of evangelicalism is empty because the Evangel of our evangelicalism is gone or as David Wells so aptly put it: He has been dislodged from its center. Couple this with a general ignorance of the Bible and church history and you have a book like Velvet Elvis actually seen as publishable by a “Christian” publisher and selling as if it were something novel and good.
Because I love the Evangel of the Bible and therefore historic Christianity, I guess it is off to anger management class for me.