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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I met a woman a few weeks ago who is part of our church. She's probably in her mid-50s, and she said when she and her husband were first married they were unable to conceive. So she and her husband went to an adoption agency and said "Give us all of the children that no one else wants. Give us the children with the most severe and psychological emotional trauma. Give us the children with the worst physical challenges, and my husband and I will take them." So she said that it has been 30, 35 years now and her house has been filled over the years.
At the time I was talking with her, she had a woman with her who was in her early 20s who was in a wheelchair, who was about six months old developmentally and apparently will stay that way. And she said to me, "This is my daughter, and she can't communicate with me, but she can smile a little bit, and I can't imagine life without her." She has to take care of this daughter 24/7, and she said, "I just thought you'd find my story interesting."
I'm kind of standing there kind of like, this is holy, sacred ground, this woman. This is counterculture at its finest. That is one of my heroes. So I would say my heroes go from this woman I just met to the British scholar N.T. Wright, who has really taught me a lot. And I have a friend who grew up with me in southern California who decided he was going to do something about AIDS. So this white guy from Long Beach marches into these huge shantytowns in Africa and has become something of a legend in his own time. But has just given his life to alleviating suffering where it is needed most. So I have this whole list of people, some of whom are anonymous. I'm always most inspired by the ones who are anonymous and receive no glory.
Is there something that brought you to this gospel of hope? It seems that you have to have a supreme confidence in Jesus to give yourself the OK to ask really tough questions. Has this been a gradual thing for you, or an evolutionary one?
It has been a gradual realization that at the center of the Christian church for thousands of years has been this risen Christ who invites people to trust him; trust him with life, trust him with death, trust him with sin, trust him with future, trust him with hope, trust him with every day. And that this risen Christ transcends dogma and theological systems and denominations and world views.
If you are desperate to meet this risen Christ, you meet him in a way that destroys any previous categories you had. I keep finding that this Christ, whatever things I've built, destroys them and shows himself to be bigger and wider and deeper and more loving.
Ultimately you enter into a very real mysticism where you realize that there is this risen Christ who changes people's lives and the stuff that emerges around him and attaches itself to him, the institutions and whatever, they aren't it. They don't give life. So over the years I've found that everything but the risen Christ fails. It doesn't deliver.
That is probably where that comes out of. My own journey into wholeness and hope and health. And I think you become a mystic quite fast.
Well...It would be great if the leaders that are telling everyone that they need to trust Jesus actually did it. I have a wonderful opportunity to actually live what I'm talking about.
I've had too many experiences where I was carried through by a strength that was not my own so I'm not worried about that. It is very, very humbling and I'm blown away by the people who are with me on this.
Everywhere I go I meet people who know that there is something more and they know that the Jesus life can be so much more and if I, for whatever reason, get to be a voice for that and tell them all they are not crazy, that is not a bad life. I'll take that.
Do you have a favorite prayer or a favorite mantra that you like?
My favorite and most oft-repeated mantra is probably, "God, what are you telling me now?" When I'm studying or running or just trying to make it through a difficult day or work through criticism or work through praise, whatever it is, "What are you saying to me through this? What is the deeper stream? What are you pointing out? What is the thing going on that is missing?"