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." "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." The Michigan-based Zondervan is counting on "Velvet Elvis" to resonatewith 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 willfind this book difficult to put down," says Lyn Cryderman, vice presidentand publisher of books.
Cryderman says he has "high expectations" for the book because, unlikemost books about Christianity, it encourages readers to question theirbeliefs and church teachings. "It's refreshing to have somebody say, `Go ahead, test it all you want,'instead of, `There must be something wrong with you because you've got somedoubts."' Indeed, Bell urges readers to test his own text. The Bible itself, hewrites, is a book that constantly must be wrestled with and re-interpreted. He dismisses claims that "Scripture alone" will answer all questions.Bible interpretation is colored by historical context, the reader's bias andcurrent realities, he says. The more you study the Bible, the more questionsit raises. "It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says," Bell writes. "Wemust first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place,for these people." Noting the Bible has been used to defend slavery and mistreat women, hewrites, "sometimes when I hear people quote the Bible, I just want to throwup." In similarly bold language, Bell tackles questions about Jesus,salvation, the institutional church and religious prejudice. Sprinkled throughout are his own spiritual awakenings and struggles,from first feeling in awe of God at a U2 concert to freaking out over thedemands of Mars Hill. The book, one of two Zondervan has contracted him to write, is "just areflection of my own journey," Bell says. "My intent has always been to discover the real Christ and theresurrected Christ, and what (he) is saying to me and to us," says Bell, 34,with the excited intensity of someone equally at home with a Bible or askateboard. He is sitting in the warehouse offices of Flannel, a nonprofit filmcompany that has produced a series of short videos featuring Bell. In each,he delivers a faith-based message in the hip, witty style that has packedworshippers into Mars Hill. Many of them are looking for what Bell says his book offers -- "a freshtake on Jesus." "I think a lot of people are deeply fascinated with Jesus and just can'tdo the Christian packages they've seen. Christianity is a little suspect,but Jesus, right on. So I'm trying to free Jesus from the religion that'sbuilt up around him." Too many churches put Jesus and the Bible into a walled-in worldviewwhere no questions are allowed, Bell says. In this "brickianity," as he calls it, church doctrines are like bricks.Removing one can bring the whole wall tumbling down. "What terrifies me are communities that don't have questions," Bellsays. "If there's any place where you would express your deepest doubts, itwould be church." Doctrines should be more like springs, helping people jump joyfullytoward God, he writes. He compares it to jumping on a trampoline with his sons, Trace andPreston. "I am far more interested in jumping than I am in arguing about whosetrampoline is better," he writes. At Mars Hill and elsewhere, he sees thousands who want to jump on.They're hungry for the infinite mystery of God and the "revolution" Jesuscould make in their lives and the world. He calls for a faith that fightspoverty, injustice and suffering -- to make "this world the kind of placeGod can come to." "We want a faith that demands everything of us," he says. "We want it toshake us up and turn us upside down." Bell also shakes up traditional evangelical beliefs. While callingChrist's way "the best possible way to live," Bell writes Jesus did notclaim one religion is better than another when he said he was "the way, thetruth and the life." Rather, he writes, "his way is the way to the depth ofreality." As a follower of Jesus, Bell says, he is free to claim the truthwherever he finds it.
"One of the lies is that truth only resides in this particular communityor that particular thought system," Bell says. "I affirm the truth anywherein any religious system, in any worldview. If it's true, it belongs to God."