theology

Much at the behest of my roommate, Wes Ellis, I have been reading Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis. I have not yet finished the book but I already have much to say. Bell is an articulate theologian attempting to bring theology to the masses. Theology is not only for the super spiritual or the smart. Everyone does theology and has formed a belief system. Bell, in many ways, tries to show why Christianity is such a good system. He also tries to show some of the leaps in logic the church has made over the years leading to bad theology. The following focuses on Bell’s chapter on truth. We will show that Bell has a good coherent theology but the nature of his book calls us to wrestle with the tough questions ourselves.[1]

Truth and “goodness wherever we find them. Bell notes that even Paul quoted pagans because he was “interested in whether…what they said is true…to be able to quote these prophets and poets, Paul obviously had to read them…I’m sure he came across all kinds of things in their writings that he didn’t agree with. So he sifts…the light from the dark…and quotes the parts that are true.”[2] But, can we sift and sort truth? Is this what Paul was really talking about in this passage? Bell begins the chapter on truth explaining that “something holds this all together…this glue, this force, [is] God.”[3] From here we find Bell’s theology quite overwhelming because “the whole earth is full of the weight and significance of who God is.”[4] Because of this there is no secular or spiritual truth, only God’s truth. Therefore, wherever we find truth and goodness, we find God.

Bell’s book challenges a rational view of scripture. We must, however, also note that Bell does not really define “truth” in his book. He has ideas loosely tied together which he wrestles with interchangeably. But the question remains: Who gets to do the sifting? Who gets to decide what is good? The current generation is being pushed further and further into a non-rational worldview.[5] In his book, Bell suggests “it if is true, if it is honorable, if it is right, then claim it.”[6] But how do we really know what is true and honorable?

Bell does not hit the hard points in his chapter on truth because he wants us to wrestle with the points ourselves. Is truth cultural or universal?[7] Bell does not provide us with a good definition of truth. Bell speaks of “living the way of the Messiah…a person living in tune with ultimate reality, God. A way of life centered around a person who lives.”[8] What exactly is the “way of the messiah?” What is this “ultimate reality” that he speaks of? What does centering our lives on Jesus mean? None of these questions are answered fully in the book. There are a lot of theological ideas in the book—good and well thought out theological ideas—but there is no concrete ways expressed for how to be the church.

How do we live out the way of the Messiah without making Jesus own version of Christianity? How do we decide what truth is? We can follow our Messiah by taking all of his words seriously.[9] When I say all the words of Jesus Christ I mean all the concrete words of Jesus. This means that we must not talk about loving our enemies, we must really love our enemies. Who are the biggest enemies of the Christian church in America? Our biggest enemy in this epoch of history is the church of Islam. So the question becomes more concrete: How can we love the Muslim church in Iraq? In Iran? In Afghanistan? How can we love Muslim Americans?

These concrete questions bring the question close to home but still do not make the questions specific enough. We cannot really love them unless we know them. This would require a number of Christians to take the church to the Middle East. We are required by our faith to move in and get to know Muslims. Loving Muslims concretely should not even be a question of the Christian faith. We would be putting our lives at risk in such situations but this really is the call of Jesus Christ. And is the call of Jesus Christ comfortable or easy? This would require some in the church to leave the comforts of materialistic America and spend years learning a new language, a new culture and adjusting to a new way of life with little ministerial results for a long time.

Jesus calls us to be salt and light. Light is no good in an already lighted room. Suburban cities are so full of light; we do not need more churches in overchurched areas. To be the light to the world we must go to the dark places of the world proclaiming the message of the gospel. We have built big churches in suburban America, but how have we built the Christian church in urban America? How have we done in building the church in the slums and the ghettos? Are these people any less human? This requires some pastors give up comfy office chairs and nice cars to do ministry in the ghettos for no pay. This may mean intense biblical and cultural training where people learn a ghetto culture they are not familiar with.

Jesus says at the end of his famous sermon in Mathew that a tree will be judged by fruit.[10] If we want to read the bible, we must read what the words say! Jesus says if you do not do good, I will not do good to you. If you do not proclaim my name, I will not proclaim your name before my father. If we believe in Jesus Christ and do not produce fruit in our lives, Jesus will not accept us. Let me make this point clear—for it needs to be clear in a murky non-rational west—Jesus Christ did not come primarily so you would stop sinning, he came to show you how you should live your life. This is not a radical or new concept, but the concept seems forgotten in today’s modern protestant world.

Moltmann describes God’s kingdom as “the wide space in which we can unfold and develop, because it is a place without any restrictions. Once we experience God’s kingdom like this, we discover afresh the wealth of our potentialities for living.”[11] If we stay focused on two or three doctrines and on a pet section of the Bible or a pet theologian we miss the picture of the Bible as a whole. There are wide spaces we can travel from prophets to the nation of Israel, from Israel to the New Testament church. We travel over thousands of years of history studying the intertestamental period and the church fathers—Augustine, Aquinas, Iranaeus, Clement—and the hundreds of theologians whom we have in print to really learn. There are many people who have lived before us who have dealt with issues; many of these people have good advice for us.[12]

God, make us a people who seek you through wisdom, love, and our actions. May they know we are Christians by our love. Jesus Christ, may you yourself destroy the church of materialism and comfort. Holy Spirit, infuse our lives that we may not fall backwards to old sins and move forward to love more abundantly, both for God and for others. Teach us your holiness and make us wholly yours. You are God in heaven; we want to serve you in the best way possible.


[1]As such there will be a short critique of his chapter, but the following is made up mostly of my own thoughts which take some of Bell’s thoughts to their natural conclusion.

[2]Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, 87

[3]Bell, Velvet Elvis, 76

[4]Ibid., 77

[5]We have gotten to the point in our world where post-modern does not really mean anything

[6]Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, 79 Bell here is not saying anything really new; these thoughts are taken verbatim from one of Paul’s letters Philippians 4:8

[7]We do note, however, that Bell, Velvet Elvis, 76 gives away his view on scripture earlier suggesting that “everyone is resting on a set of interpretations, and we need to be honest about it.”

[8]Ibid., 83

[9]For more on taking the words of Jesus seriously see my post “Prepare the way of the Lord with concrete.”

[10] Matthew 7:15ff

[11] Jurgen Moltmann,

[12] Wes’ thoughts on community help us to see that the Christian life is not lived alone. See Wes’ blog for his thoughts on community.

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