Book Review: Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith

A dream to “do church” differently . . . or better put, “be church” differently. A young, compelling and intriguing pastor with a big dream. A church plant with no advertising or marketing strategy, (“The thought of the word church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick” p. 99), and 1,000 people show up for the first Sunday service. The fire marshal has to step in early on to keep them from assembling unsafely. Undoubtedly, people will take notice of such a story. It is the story of Rob Bell and of the Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids. One of my friends from college is currently attending there with his family and has nothing but great things to say about their commitment to the Bible and to actually doing something.

Velvet Elvis, however, is not the story of the Mars Hill Church. He mentions it, obviously, it is part of his story, but this book is a little difficult to describe. Somewhat of a postmodern C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. It is a difficult book to summarize. There is much here to offer. I’m not overly familiar with the Nooma videos (I know, that makes me so out of the emergent loop), but the clips I’ve seen coincide nicely with, both Bell’s writing style and the message of his writing.

Velvet Elvis is a metaphor for the Christian faith. He begins in the introduction by describing a Velvet painting of Elvis he has in his basement. What if the artist, after painting it, believed he had painted the perfect picture. Announced it to all artists far and wide, there was no use painting any more because perfection had been attained. Obviously, the idea is ridiculous. However, it is exactly what we’ve done with the Christian faith.

And so Bell spends the book painting a new proposal for Christianity. Well, not really new, but a rediscovery of what the first Christians saw.

His first chapter discusses the Bible and looks at the relationship of the church and her “doctrines.” This is a difficult place for many people to go in that it challenges much of what they put at the core. Bell writes, “Doctrine is a wonderful servant and a horrible master.” (p. 25). We must keep doctrine in its place, and often put it back in its place. One of the challenges to this way of thinking is that it welcomes questions, which often puts us in vulnerable positions, but, maybe, just where God wants us.

In my commitment to making these book reviews shorter, I won’t beleaguer an outline of the chapters, but will say the most redeeming quality of this book for me was its continuation of the discussion working toward a more holistic understanding of salvation and of direction/goal/vision for Christians. The climax of the book is an emphasis in putting the faith in action. Good news is good news for the whole world! That’s a simple concept, but yet so dynamic. If the Good News is really Good News it should change our neighborhoods, our cities, our nations, and, eventually, the world. Call it naive or idealistic or whatever you want to call it, but it is the mind of Christ calling for heaven to come down to earth.

“[The most powerful things happen] when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display.” (p. 167). What a great comment on the direction and goal of our life as Christians. There is much to be gained in our rediscovery of the ancient Hebrew concept of shalom, and Bell’s book works closer towards that conversation.

He does make several background points for both Old and New Testament texts that I have never heard before. He makes very interesting and poignant points using them, but seldom footnotes them, so I’m not really sure where some of his information comes from – it makes for good preaching, but I would have been interested to know where some of this background information came from and why it isn’t more widely taught by commentators and expositors.

Overall, I feel as though Bell’s book is a great introductory work into the ongoing conversation revisioning ecclesiology and challenges some core values of many evangelicals. I sensed a great deal of humility in his writings. A sense of, “I don’t have it all figured out, but I do think we could do better. Here are some questions I’ve had, what do you think? Let’s stop and appreciate those who’ve come before us and realize that there as much a part of this as we are” permeates the book.

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One thought on “Book Review: Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith

  1. I’m surprised you’re just now getting to Velvet Elvis.I know that you said the book is not about Mars Hill, and I have not read the book. I have seen most of the Nooma videos…Bell is certainly a gifted communicator and has some interesting thoughts.But I am concerned about how much good that church can really be doing? How much does that church encourage and foster the hallmarks of the early church: meeting with one another daily to break bread, sharing their possessions, being in each other’s lives intimately. I’m not claim that my church gets it right…it’s hard in a city the size of Miami when we all live to far apart. But Julie and I have always and are still trying to develope those types of relationships. But if our church of 400 has a hard time, how can a church of 1,000+ accomplish. Maybe he’s extremely biblical, but if you leave out certain elements of christianity, how is Mars Hill any different than West End was with Bill McInteer? What happens to people’s lives after the dynamic leader leaves? If the proper foundation is not laid, you have a sad, slow atrophy.I agree that church as an institution does not work in today’s society and that we have so many to reach out to in this world. But it’s not enough to get them in the door and dunk them. At its base level, in my opinion, christianity is about one on one relationships based on the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. It does not matter how much you change the message to appeal to the young generation if you are not creating an environment for spiritual growth and an increasing dependence on other christians.

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