Friday, March 9, 2012

Thoughts on Reading Velvet Elvis

I've heard a lot of buzz about Rob Bell, much of it negative and critical. Recently a video, whose link was sent out by a person I respect, denounced Bell in quite strong terms. Ironically this denunciation actually spurred me to go to the source myself. I had already read Bell's book Love Wins, but the video in question spoke more about his book Velvet Elvis, so I checked it out from the library and have been reading it over the last several days. (In general I think this is a good principle when you hear someone being criticized: go to the source and see for yourself. Even Bell advocates that you read his books critically, not accepting what he says without thought.)

Far from turning me off from Bell's thinking, reading his book has actually captivated me with it. I resonate with much of what he has to say. For today I want to focus on one particular aspect. In Velvet Elvis Bell writes:

God has an incredibly high view of people. God believes that people are capable of amazing things.”

This really resonated with me, largely because I have grown up in Christian circles where the primary message is in fact quite the opposite. In our efforts to help people understand the seriousness of their sin, I fear we have successfully communicated that humans are worthless and that God can hardly stand us. We are repulsive, loathsome beings. Despite all our words to the contrary about God's love for us, what we more often communicate is God's hatred and disgust for us. Sure, we couch it in terms of his loathing of sin, but in real terms I think many people end up understanding that God loathes us as people and as individuals.

I am not denying the seriousness or reality of sin. I am not denying that we as humans are inherently sinful and in need of grace. I am not denying the efficacy of God's redemption through Jesus Christ. But I really like Bell reminding us that God sees us quite differently, that he has redeemed us and when he looks upon us he sees us as righteous. Despite our assurances that God's grace is a free gift that cannot be earned, I think that we often indicate to people quite the opposite. We speak and act in such a way that those who have not experienced God's grace feel they must first get their act together and then they can be “worthy” of his grace. What's more, I think that most of us carry this feeling with us even after we have “received salvation.”

I think that I resonate so much with what Bell writes because, even after years of life as a follower of Jesus Christ, I still struggle with this basic identity issue: I don't think God really likes me. Because of this I constantly struggle with the feeling that I have to earn his favor. I have to please him in order for him to like, much less love me. Yes, I've read all the passages in the Bible about God's love. But the message about my worthlessness, failures, shortcomings and sinfulness have rooted themselves deep in my psyche and I am still, through the Holy Spirit, working to remove them and replace them with the truth of my identity in Christ.

Some would accuse Bell of compromising the Gospel. They might say that he ignores or denies the sinfulness of humanity. That's simply not true. He clearly acknowledges this reality. But he also strongly emphasizes an ever greater reality: that in Jesus Christ this sinfulness has been eradicated and we are made new people, here and now. Use the fancy term “justified” if you must, but Bell does a great job of getting beyond this legal terminology and arguing for a transformed existence, a transformed identity.

I don't need to hear more sermons about how I need to be more holy. I don't need to be told how I'm failing as a father or as a man of God. I don't need to be given still more high ideals to strive for, because I'm painfully aware of my failure to reach the ones I'm already aware of. But I sure wouldn't mind being reminded of who I already am in Christ. Bell writes:

The issue then isn't beating myself up over all of the things I am not doing or the things I am doing poorly; the issue is my learning who this person is who God keeps insisting I already am.” (emphasis Bell's)

Jesus came to set us free. Too often I think that what we call the Good News actually comes across more as bad news, as a message that enslaves rather than setting free. We strive so hard to convict people of their sin that we may in fact hinder people from realizing God's love for them. I think that Bell is trying hard to communicate the core truths of the Gospel to a society that has changed significantly over the past twenty years. For some people the traditional methods of evangelism and the traditional emphases on sin, guilt and justification may communicate the good news of life in Jesus. But to many these ideas do not resonate, so we need to explore new avenues and methods of communicating with them. Bell's style and his emphases may, for this reason, not sit well with some people, but I think he's on to something good and profound and fundamentally true.

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