a very thoughtful review of Rob Bell's new book. From what I can tell, the book is methodologically similar to Velvet Elvis. Rob Bell tells stories about things that happened in his own life while growing up in evangelicalism. He very accurately describes the dated and inaccurate portrait of Jesus that modern evangelicalism gives us and then presents us with his own portrait of Jesus, life, the universe, and everything. (Everyone knows that the real answer is 42.) The problem with Bell (like Plato) is not so much his criticisms--they are often spot on--the problem is the portrait that Bell presents as the solution.
But the purpose of this post is not to criticize Rob Bell--the purpose of this post in this penitential season of Lent is to call us all to repentance. I believe that the real failure of the churches that Rob Bell is reacting against is what makes the popularity of Rob Bell possible as well as the real failure on our own part as individual Christians.
But unfortunately, I must start with Rob Bell. Rob Bell's teachings are actually far worse than most of his critics realize. Unfortunately most of his critics have no knowledge of historic Christian teaching and are only able to respond to buzz words like "universalism." And Bell can easily respond to such people. When somebody gives him a definition of universalism and then asks if he is one, he redefines what the term means and then denies he is a "universalism" without ever responding to what the first person meant when asking if he believes in universalism. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you read Velvet Elvis, you will find that in the footnotes he recommends some New Age authors. And if you read Bell carefully you will find that Bell's god resembles the impersonal force of New Age Spirituality more than the God of historic Christianity. Sure, Bell will quote one of the church fathers or a Scriptural passage from time to time, but he always does so out of context--looking for passages that he can twist through the lens of New Age Spirituality. I'm told that in Love Wins Bell compares God to the force in Star Wars and George Lucas intended to promote New Age Spirituality in the Star Wars movies. For Rob Bell, Jesus is the incarnate postmodern paradox. He purposefully ignores some of the rather direct statements of Jesus about God's wrath, sin, and hell and says that Jesus was both very inclusive and very exclusive. If someone teaches that God is an impersonal force, I don't think it really matters very much if the person teaches universalism. Rob Bell is already operating outside of the bounds of historic Christianity and simply attaching a Christian label to New Age Spirituality. Rob Bell has traded in Velvet Jesus for New Age Jesus, or if you prefer, Star Wars Jesus. Rob Bell claims to be orthodox but defines the term "orthodox" in a way that removes all meaning from the word.
But we shouldn't forget that Star Wars Jesus would never exist if not for Velvet Jesus--or at least he would not be as popular. Velvet Jesus is manifested in different ways. Some churches prefer the young and lean Velvet Jesus and other prefer the older and overweight Velvet Jesus but it is still Velvet Jesus. This can be seen in the worship wars. Young Velvet Jesus wants to sing praise choruses and old Velvet Jesus wants to sing revival era hymns. Old Velvet Jesus considers himself to be traditional but the tradition that he follows is a rather new one that has no ties to the ancient church. Velvet Jesus tends to view the Scriptures primarily as an instructional manual for life. Inference is built upon inference and Velvet Jesus will tell you what to wear or how to be a good parent or who to have a successful relationship or if you need to send your kids to a Christian school, or a public school, or homeschool them. Velvet Jesus has an even longer list of unspoken rules that you are expected to follow--Velvet Jesus can't really come up with any Scriptural passages to label your deviance from these rules as sins but breaking any of Velvet Jesus' rules will put you outside of real fellowship with Velvet Jesus. Having a different ethnic identity from Velvet Jesus will often make you a second-class citizen of Velvet Jesus' church. Velvet Jesus has tunnel vision when it comes to the Scriptures. Depending upon which Velvet Jesus you run into, Velvet Jesus might think that the Bible is all about the rapture or Israel or the covenant or predestination or evangelism or having purpose or being successful. Velvet Jesus is comfortable with certain sins but will not tolerate those who struggle with others. Velvet Jesus is afraid of questions because Velvet Jesus is too limited to engage in thoughtful conversation.
Velvet Jesus does not know how to respond when he sees others suffering. Velvet Jesus often assumes that the suffering are suffering because of something that the suffering have done. At the very least, Velvet Jesus thinks that the suffering need to have a more positive attitude because Velvet Jesus knows that if you turn your life over to Velvet Jesus and have a positive attitude that your football team will win all of their games and your potatoes will start growing and your marriage will be restored (and your boss will probably buy you a new car). In this respect we have all bought into the lies of Velvet Jesus--we all tend to believe that those who are suffering have brought it upon themselves because the alternative is too scary. If they did not bring it upon themselves then we could suffer in the same way.
Unfortunately, Velvet Jesus is self-deceptive and most of the time will not admit to doing any of these things. He will confidently engage in his battle with Star Wars Jesus but will not stop to think about what is attractive about Star Wars Jesus. Many are raised within the fellowship of Velvet Jesus. Some are abused by Velvet Jesus. Some attend colleges run by Velvet Jesus where Velvet Jesus teaches them to doubt core teachings of the Christian faith. The professors of course at Velvet Jesus University have learned to avoid certain buzzwords to avoid being fired. But Velvet Jesus University teaches them to doubt. And when they are filled with doubt and start asking questions of their Velvet Jesus pastor, they quickly discover the pastor has no real answers and will not tolerate questions. Some of course fall into sins in college that Velvet Jesus will not tolerate. So where are they to go as sinners and doubters? Star Wars Jesus welcomes them in with the message that God is love and that they have a safe place to doubt. And Star Wars' Jesus' thinking about God is only a couple steps away from Velvet Jesus' language of "what does this passage mean to you?" and "the Lord laid it upon my heart that..."
What is the answer to all this? Repentance. What does the true painting of Jesus look like? Crucified Jesus! Velvet Jesus and Star Wars Jesus both want to avoid even looking at the Crucified Jesus. Star Wars Jesus ignores Him and Velvet Jesus says that he worships the resurrected Christ (despite the fact that Paul said he preached nothing but Christ crucified). Crucified Jesus does not turn away from your suffering, He bears your suffering! Crucified Jesus is not afraid of questions and doubt, nor does He leave you in your doubt. Crucified Jesus brings you Truth because He is the Truth. The Lutheran Confessions say that true worship is "faith struggling against despair." Crucified Jesus does not hang there on the cross to be served by you but to serve you. Crucified Jesus give you forgiveness for your sins and feeds you His body and gives you His blood to drink.
The historic liturgy of the Church is still the best way to deliver Crucified Jesus because the liturgy is centered upon Crucified Jesus. We need not engage in worship wars and market ourselves to a certain segment of the population. Rather we join in the prayers that have been going on since the ancient church. We receive the Crucified Jesus and we join in the heavenly worship--we worship with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. There is a real mystery in the worship of the Crucified Jesus that has existed since the foundation of the Church--not one that has to be invented by some postmodern paradox. There is a mystery in the Mysteries. We receive the crucified Jesus' very body and blood but we are not told how. We can know with certainty that what the Crucified Jesus' tell us is true because He rose again. We need not debate or speculate as to what our resurrected bodies will look like but we can know that our bodies will be resurrected. Why we suffer in every instance is not explained but we can look to the Crucified Jesus and know that God loves us more than we could ever imagine.
The Crucified Jesus provides a real place for real joy and real suffering because both are found in the Crucified Jesus. When we worship the Crucified Jesus we are united by the Crucified Jesus and not by a common emotional experience. Because we are united to the Crucified Jesus we can be little christs to one another and bear one another's burdens--recognizing our own failure to do so when we see the failure of others to do so for us. The Crucified Jesus has always been true picture given to us in the Scriptures and still will be when the Star Wars Jesus is replaced by an iPad Jesus.