'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.

BY: Charles Honey
Religion News Service


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since its founding under Bell in 1999, Mars Hill has mushroomed to about 10,000 people worshipping in a former Grandville shopping mall.

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

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

That kind of honesty is part of the reason Bell has been such a popular pastor, 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 exhibit installer at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. "It just reaffirms everything I've ever learned about him, and encourages me that he's not backing down."

The Michigan-based Zondervan is counting on "Velvet Elvis" to resonate with plenty of young adults like Van De Steeg, as well as older age groups.

"Anybody who's ever found a disconnect between church and real life will find this book difficult to put down," says Lyn Cryderman, vice president and publisher of books.

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