Book Notes: Velvet Elvis


Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, wrote a popular and controversial book two years ago called Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. The cutesy pop-culture title, like Bell’s friendly conversational writing style, might lead you to dismiss it as a lightweight inspirational book to sell the gospel to Gen-X’ers. Don’t make that mistake. Velvet Elvis may just be the emergent church’s Mere Christianity.

Taking his cue from N.T. Wright and other scholars of the “New Perspective on Paul”, Bell wants to restore our sense of the Bible as a living narrative, an ever-evolving interpretive tradition in which we are called to participate, and he does this first of all by situating Jesus within his Jewish rabbinic heritage. Modernism has entrapped Christians into basing Biblical authority on a shared pretense that the text’s meaning is objective and transparent — as if we were saved by the correctness of our propositions, and not by reliance on God’s grace. Interpretation is inevitable, and only our fear of being wrong (the essence of legalism) makes us unwilling to take responsibility for our reading of the Bible.

Bell’s genius lies in showing that the rabbinic hermeneutic is much closer to the postmodernist vision of open-ended, polyphonic interpretive communities than to the modernist dead end of “inerrancy”. Although he makes these points much more humbly and winsomely than I just did, he’s caught flack from evangelical critics because of this. Mystery makes some Protestants itch.

But enough of me, let’s go to the videotape. Here’s Rob on why interpretation is not a dirty word:


Could there be a more basic verse? “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Who could possibly have any sort of problem with this verse?

And how could someone mess this up?

What could be complicated about loving your neighbor?

Even people who don’t believe in God and don’t read the Bible would say that loving your neighbor is a good thing to do.

A couple of questions this verse raises: How do we live this verse out? What does it mean to love? What isn’t love? Who decides what is love and what isn’t love?

And what about your neighbor? Who is your neighbor? Is your neighbor only the person next door, or is it anyone you have contact with? Or is it every single human being on the face of the planet?…

So even a verse as basic as this raises more questions than it answers.

In order to live it out and not just talk about it, someone somewhere has to make decisions about this verse. Someone has to decide what it actually looks like to put flesh and blood on this command.

And that’s because the Bible is open-ended.

It has to be interpreted. And if it isn’t interpreted, then it can’t be put into action. So if we are serious about following God, then we have to interpret the Bible. It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says. We must first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place, for this people. (pp.45-46)

…Now the ancient rabbis understood that the Bible is open-ended and has to be interpreted. And they understood that their role in the community was to study and meditate and discuss and pray and then make those decisions….

Take for example the Sabbath command in Exodus. A rabbi would essentially put actions in two categories: things the rabbi permitted on the Sabbath and things the rabbi forbade on the Sabbath. The rabbi was driven by a desire to get as close as possible to what God originally intended in the command at hand. One rabbi might say that you could walk so far on the Sabbath, but if you went farther, that would be work and you would be violating the Sabbath. Another might permit you to walk farther but forbid you to do certain actions another rabbi might permit.

Different rabbis had different sets of rules, which were really different lists of what they forbade and what they permitted. A rabbi’s set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi’s interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called that rabbi’s yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that rabbi’s set of interpretations were the closest to what God intended through the scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke.

One rabbi even said his yoke was easy.

The intent then of a rabbi having a yoke wasn’t just to interpret the words correctly; it was to live them out. In the Jewish context, action was always the goal. It still is.

Rabbis would spend hours discussing with their students what it meant to live out a certain text. If a student made a suggestion about what a certain text meant and the rabbi thought the student had totally missed the point, the rabbi would say, “You have abolished the Torah,” which meant that in the rabbi’s opinion, the student wasn’t anywhere near what God wanted. But if the student got it right, if the rabbi thought the student had grasped God’s intention in the text, the rabbi would say, “You have fulfilled Torah.”

Notice what Jesus says in one of his first messages: “I have not come to abolish [the Torah] but to fulfill it.” He was essentially saying, “I didn’t come to do away with the words of God; I came to show people what it looks like when the Torah is lived out perfectly, right down to the smallest punctuation marks.”

“I’m here to put flesh and blood on the words.” (pp.47-48)

…Now the rabbis had technical terms for this endless process of forbidding and permitting and making interpretations. They called it “binding and loosing”. To “bind” something was to forbid it. To “loose” something was to allow it.

So a rabbi would bind certain practices and loose other practices. And when he gave his disciples the authority to bind and loose, it was called “giving the keys of the kingdom”.

Notice what Jesus says in the book of Matthew: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

What he is doing here is significant. He is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible. He is giving them permission to say, “Hey, we think we missed it before on that verse, and we’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is what it actually means.”

And not only is he giving them authority, but he is saying that when they do debate and discuss and pray and wrestle and then make decisions about the Bible, somehow God in heaven will be involved. (pp.49-50)

Rob has many other inspiring things to say in this book about salvation, grace, and our role in restoring God’s good creation. But don’t just take my word for it, buy a copy.

See also:

Book Notes: Proper Confidence
Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship is a must-read for Christians and others who perceive the sterility of the fundamentalism-relativism debate over the possibility of religious truth, but don’t know where to turn for a third option.

Book Notes: The Fall of Interpretation
The thesis of Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic is simple and revolutionary: The necessity of interpretation — the impossibility of unmediated, perspective-free experience of a text or an event — is not a tragedy nor a barrier to truth, but an acceptable aspect of being a finite creature.

11 comments on “Book Notes: Velvet Elvis

  1. Nathan Hobby says:

    Jen, your post on Velvet Elvis is great. I recently read it and was excited by it. I think the comparison to N.T. Wright is a good one; Bell is the man to make the great theological insights of Wright and others accessible. Thanks.

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