'Velvet Elvis' Author Encourages Exploration of Doubts

Megachurch pastor Rob Bell says faith in Jesus must be repainted for each generation if it's to avoid the fate of Elvis kitsch.

GRANDVILLE, Mich. -- Yes, the Rev. Rob Bell says with a twinkle in hiseye. He really does own a velvet Elvis painting.



It gathers dust in his basement, a kitschy relic of Bell's days as aguitarist in a college punk-rock band. "It's not just kind of tacky," says the young pastor of Mars Hill BibleChurch in Grandville, Mich. "It's a whole new dimension of tacky."



It's also the title of Bell's first book. In "Velvet Elvis: Repaintingthe Christian Faith," published by Zondervan, Bell presents a fresh pictureof Jesus for those who have trouble with the traditional portrait.

Faith in Jesus, Bell says, must be repainted for each generation if itis to avoid the fate of his velvet Elvis. "What often happens in religion is people freeze the faith at a certainpoint," Bell says. "There's no more need to paint. We've got the ultimatepainting."

On the contrary, he says -- religion, like art, must keep exploring andreforming, or "you end up with a velvet Elvis on your hands."

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"Every generation has to ask difficult questions about what does it meanto follow Jesus. What does the kingdom of God look like as it explodes atthis time, in this place?"

While tackling big questions of faith, God and the church, Bell's bookcandidly unpacks his own inner journey and the challenges of leading WestMichigan's largest congregation.

Since its founding under Bell in 1999, Mars Hill has mushroomed to about10,000 people worshipping in a former Grandville shopping mall.

At one point, Bell writes about a personal crisis three or four yearsago when he felt burned out. He describes sitting in a storage closet whilethousands gathered for the next worship service.

"I was moments away from leaving the whole thing," Bell writes. "Iwasn't even sure I was a Christian anymore."

That kind of honesty is part of the reason Bell has been such a popularpastor, says Dan Van De Steeg, a Mars Hill member who read the book.

"I'm proud of him for admitting that," says Van De Steeg, 31, an exhibitinstaller at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. "It just reaffirms everything I'veever learned about him, and encourages me that he's not backing down."

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