If you aren't familiar with Rob Bell yet, don't worry, you will be. Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the fastest growing churches in America. He launched the church in 1999 by preaching out of the book of Leviticus. A thousand people came the first Sunday. Within a few short months, more than 4,000 attended. Today, there are more than 10,000.
Now this unconventional pastor-teacher-turned-author is making a splashy publishing debut with VELVET ELVIS: Repainting the Christian Faith. If you think the white plain cover with retro-80s, neon-earthy orange is a bit disarming, just wait until you "jump" into the first chapter, or rather "movement," as the book is divided. Bell goes for the fundamentalist jugular by questioning the trinity and the virgin birth in the first 27 pages. Though he embraces both doctrines, his point is that often as Christians we get snared in the small issues, missing the gigantic truth that following Jesus is the best possible way to live.
Through the seven movements that compose VELVET ELVIS, he supports that principle by reflecting on different aspects of faith and the teachings of Jesus. He refracts the light of basic Biblical lessons by looking at them through the lenses of various cultural and historical understandings. For example, what it means to be a follower of Christ is examined in the light of what it meant to follow a rabbi in Jesus' day. From this context, we learn what the invitation to follow Christ really means, according to Bell. Suddenly a faith journey isn't about saying a prayer but becoming like the one who calls. Powerfully deep truths are presented in a simple but surprisingly fresh manner. Bell paints Christianity --- with all its highlights and lowlights --- in a way that at times makes you question, at times makes you doubt, and at times just makes sense. Undoubtedly, this book will create controversy.
But it isn't just the cover of Bell's book or his message that are disarming, it's also his writing style. It's both raw and honest and lacks many of the common Christian clichés. It asks tough questions and wrestles with touchy issues. Bell manages to be bold and vulnerable without being too revealing.
This author is king of the one-word and one-sentence paragraph.
A few of the chapters sound a little too transcribed from his most popular talks and NOOMA DVDs, but Bell is a gifted enough communicator that he's able to pull it off. In the places where his writing style runs flat, his provocative message glosses over.
At one point Bell writes, "This is what we are all dying for --- something that demands we step up and become better, more focused people. Something that calls out the greatness that we hope is somewhere inside of us."
In the end, that is the message Bell delivers. It rings loud and clear. Anyone who has ever looked at or been a part of the church and thought to themselves, "Something has got to give," will be both encouraged and challenged by VELVET ELVIS. Maybe the resounding message is that the something that's got to give most of all...is us.
Reviewed by Margaret Feinberg on July 19, 2005