Rob BellChances are you haven't heard of Rob Bell. You will. In 1999, he, his wife Kristen, and a group of friends started Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan because they wanted to create a community where God could be experienced in a non-traditional way. They didn't know how to do it or what would happen. They just knew that they wanted to be part of a community where people loved coming, questions were welcomed and love abounded. The church grew from zero to 10,000 in less than two years and Rob Bell has become a phenomenon.

Now, at age 34, Bell is taking the Mars Hill message national with "Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith," his first book. The title is inspired by the actual black velvet painting of Elvis he has tucked away in his basement. Whoever "painted" that picture was creating a work of art for a time and a place. That time and place have now passed. Christianity, Bell says, is a lot like that painting. It is not static and artists paint it afresh for each new generation. "Velvet Elvis" is the work of one man trying to paint his picture of what it means to follow God.

Beliefnet spoke with him on the first day of his vacation, which also happened to be the day after his book was officially published.

As different as the pure white cover with small orange-and-gray lettering may be to book publishing, much of what is inside "Velvet Elvis" seems just as radical. You seem to suggest that Christians need to be open in their understanding of the virgin birth or even praying before meals. What's behind this?

Well, I affirm orthodox Christian faith. I affirm the Nicene Creed. I don't think I'm doing anything terribly new. Central to authentic, historic Christian faith has been the searching and struggling and doubting... the people who are considered the heroes of the Bible have deep, kind of ache-of-the-soul questions before God.

And then talking about things like the virgin birth and prayer-and I actually do pray before meals-but these are discussions we have all the time with each other over theology and faith.

When friends are together generally late at night you get to talking about what you are really wrestling with. I don't think I'm saying anything that people aren't talking about or discussing.

You talk in the book about the "big Jesus." Tell me about the big Jesus that you know and how that differs from "small" or "smaller Jesus" or even "eentsy, beentsy, microscopic, teeny, weeny, little Jesus" out there.

For many people the message of Jesus was presented as an individual message of salvation for their own individual sin: "Jesus died for you." I affirm that wholeheartedly, but in the scriptures, its scope goes in the opposite direction. It begins with the Jesus who dies on the cross and rises from the dead. But as the New Testament progresses, you have writers saying that "by his shed blood he is reconciling everything in heaven and on earth." Peter says in Acts, "He will return to restore everything."

So it is a giant thing that God is doing here and not just the forgiveness of individuals. It is the reconciliation of all things. It is the putting back together of the whole universe how God originally intended it to be. One way to look at it is that the message is an invitation into God's giant, global universal purposes that "I" actually get to be a part of.

I'm trying to get the focus where the first Christians seem to have had the focus. It is easy for it to become a very selfish thing-"look what I've got"-as opposed to "by the grace of God look at this amazing thing that he's been inviting people into for thousands of years." And that is quite an awe-inspiring, amazing thing.

What is at the heart of what you do?

Hope. There is the perspective of the person who pretends that everything is fine-the shiny, happy people perspective, "this it the day God has made," but doesn't seem to acknowledge how bloody and difficult the world is.

Then there is the deconstructionist voice of despair that says, I see how rough it is and how horrible and hard life is-all they have is commiserating with you.
Then there is this third category of voices of people who acknowledge how things really are and still have hope. And those are always the people who inspire me so much.

How fast can you become a mystic?

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