2016-06-30
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. Cryderman says he has "high expectations" for the book because, unlike most books about Christianity, it encourages readers to question their beliefs 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 some doubts."' Indeed, Bell urges readers to test his own text. The Bible itself, he writes, 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 and current realities, he says. The more you study the Bible, the more questions it raises. "It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says," Bell writes. "We must 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, he writes, "sometimes when I hear people quote the Bible, I just want to throw up." 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 the demands of Mars Hill. The book, one of two Zondervan has contracted him to write, is "just a reflection of my own journey," Bell says. "My intent has always been to discover the real Christ and the resurrected 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 a skateboard. He is sitting in the warehouse offices of Flannel, a nonprofit film company 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 packed worshippers into Mars Hill. Many of them are looking for what Bell says his book offers -- "a fresh
take on Jesus." "I think a lot of people are deeply fascinated with Jesus and just can't do 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's built up around him." Too many churches put Jesus and the Bible into a walled-in worldview where 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," Bell says. "If there's any place where you would express your deepest doubts, it would be church." Doctrines should be more like springs, helping people jump joyfully toward God, he writes. He compares it to jumping on a trampoline with his sons, Trace and Preston. "I am far more interested in jumping than I am in arguing about whose trampoline 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" Jesus could make in their lives and the world. He calls for a faith that fights poverty, injustice and suffering -- to make "this world the kind of place God can come to." "We want a faith that demands everything of us," he says. "We want it to shake us up and turn us upside down." Bell also shakes up traditional evangelical beliefs. While calling Christ's way "the best possible way to live," Bell writes Jesus did not claim one religion is better than another when he said he was "the way, the truth and the life." Rather, he writes, "his way is the way to the depth of reality." As a follower of Jesus, Bell says, he is free to claim the truth wherever he finds it.

"One of the lies is that truth only resides in this particular community or that particular thought system," Bell says. "I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it's true, it belongs to God."

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