Rob Bell’s best-selling first book “Velvet Elvis” has tapped a remarkably large market of young people ranging from early teens to late thirties who seem wide open to the Gospel, if presented in user-friendly forms. And Rob has a gift at reaching them. One of the things I like most about Rob Bell is his genuineness, his honesty. He may have a funny bone, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have a phony bone in his body. Its very refreshing. And full props should be given to him for presenting a Christocentric worldview. This is of course characteristic of the
Furthermore, Rob writes clearly and well. It was interesting to hear him describe the agony of the writing process for him when he was here in
It is evident, particularly from the way that Rob uses and quotes the Bible that he has a high view of the Bible’s authority, probably a higher one than some other
And let us discuss for a moment how Rob sees the Gospel. He believes that the whole Gospel in all its spiritual and social dimensions needs to be preached and lived out. He has a strong commitment to the poor, the diseased, the hungry, the homeless, not only locally but globally. And he makes this commitment without ever compromising on the spiritual dimensions of salvation as well. He believes that Jesus died for everyone, atoned for everyone’s sin, that God desires that none should perish, and that salvation should be offered to everyone from the least, last and lost, to the first the most and found. He has a profound grasp of sin, guilt, atonement, salvation, God, the afterlife. It is a joy to watch this thirty six year old think and ask questions.
And he has good questions. In some ways questions are his forte. But he does not just use questions to fend off other questions or avoid giving answers when he knows them. He sees himself as following the M.O. of Jesus himself and other early Jews in this. He also has a very good and broad vision of God, not to mention a broad vision of God’s plan for humanity and the earth. As Rob says—escapist theology is not Biblical. Our final destination is not ‘somewhere out there’ its right down here.
The reason ecology and environmental concern is so important is that surely we ought to clean up our room before God comes in the person of Jesus to dwell with us down here forever in the new heaven and new earth. Robb thinks on a cosmic scale, pointing out that God intends to redeem and restore not just you and me, but the earth and all that is in it. Praise God for good holistic visions of salvation that motivate us to be our best selves. It will be clear from all this that I think there is a good reason God has given Rob Bell such a platform—he is a sincere, orthodox communicator of the Gospel with a passion for people and their shalom, their wellbeing. And he is indeed a gifted communicator.
What I am about to say thus must be taken in the larger positive context in which I have framed it. While the following list of concerns should not be seen as minor, they do not by any means outweigh the good that Rob does and which characterizes his ministry. So I would want the following to be seen as a list of desirable upgrades:
1) Rob, since he wants to stress the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers, needs to have a better understanding of early Judaism in a number of ways. In the first place, Jesus was no rabbi. So far as we can tell, there is no archaeological evidence at all for bet Talmud or bet Midrash in Jesus’ day in
Along this same line it needs to be stressed that Jesus was in various ways a radical Jew. He did not simply keep the Mosaic Law, he believed that he came to fulfill it in some respects, and to intensify it in some respects, and yes, to replace it in some respects because the new covenant was being inaugurated through his ministry. Over and over again Jesus healed on the Sabbath—a violation of the work rules in the OT, never mind the more strict ones the Pharisees upheld. Jesus not only dined with sinners and other unclean folks, he famously declared that nothing that enter a person actually defiled them (see Mk. 7). Say what you will, but this makes clear he does not think Leviticus any longer applies in various ways since the Kingdom is breaking in. When Jesus says “you’ve heard it said… but I say” Jesus often contrasts his own teaching with that of Moses, not just contrasting his interpretation of Moses with other interpreters of Moses. Jesus spoke on his own authority, and in this he spoke very differently than rabbis—who were always using footnotes and quoting previous teachers. Jesus never once quotes the great teachers from before or during his era--- Hillel or Shammai or Gamaliel. For the most part Jesus does not spend his days debating Bible passages with people. His occasional debates in
2) Rob needs a better knowledge of Hebrew. One example from ‘Velvet Elvis’ will have to suffice. On p.26 we hear about what “being born of a virgin” means. In the course of this discussion Rob claims that the word ‘virgin’ in Hebrew could mean several things. Well in the first place, we do not have the word ‘virgin’ in Isaiah 7.14 in the Hebrew text we have almah which means a nubile young woman of marriage age. In an honor and shame culture like that, this would certainly imply the virginity of the girl in question, but would not focus exclusively on that trait. There is a word for virgin in Hebrew, but this is not it. It is the Greek OT, not the Hebrew that has the term virgin (parthenos) which Matthew follows in Mt. 1 when he quotes the Isaiah text. In the midst of this discussion Rob throws in a mention of Mithras cults. Now unfortunately he likes to do the comparative religions thing from time to time, but he needs to get his facts straight: 1) the cult of Mithras does not seem to have existed properly speaking before the late first century A.D. It is of no relevance to discussion NT books, and in particular the Jesus tradition; 2) the cults of Mithras and Attis and Dionysius were not religious cults which centered on real historical persons, unlike Christianity. As such they did not talk about actual virgin births any more than they talked about bodily resurrections of a person like Jesus. It is simply not true as well that Julius Caesar or other Emperors were said to be born of virgins. Remarkable births or births signaled by comets are one thing, virgin births another. Rob is however quite right that some of the Greek terminology like euanggelion (Good News) was used by the Emperor cult, and was borrowed by Christians to make their own claims about Jesus. As my friend Tom Wright says—Jesus is the reality of which Caesar was only the parody.
3) The good news is that Rob is committed to contextual exegesis of the NT. The bad news is a fair bit of the time he has not read the commentaries so he will get the context right. When I say he hasn’t read the commentaries, I mean he hasn’t read the standard commentaries on the various books of the NT written by Evangelical or other Orthodox scholars, or at least he never footnotes them or shows any knowledge of them. Instead he has read the Paleo-Jewish commentaries of folks like David Flusser or Brad Young, or the like, whose views represent a tiny minority opinion within the world of NT scholarship. I find this odd since he had a chance to study with folks like Don Hagner and Marianne Meye Thompson at Fuller. How did this happen? In any case, he needs a commentary tune up, as one is only as good a teacher as one’s sources.
Enough with the wish list. There is more, but it can wait. I like Rob’s integration of personal stories with Biblical interpretation. I like his big vision of the truth—that all truth is God’s truth wherever we find it. His insights into forgiveness for example and its connection to the death of Christ are profound (see pp. 107-08) and he is so right that God doesn’t just want to forgive us, God wants to restore us. I like his paradoxes which he explores—for instance “For Jesus the question was not how do we get into heaven? But how do I bring heaven here?” (p. 147).
There is so much more positive I could say, but I will leave it at that. I admire Rob’s courage and commitment and creativity (he's left handed like a few other ministers I know), and it would be a good thing if we all prayed for him and the ministry God is doing through him. Who knows but that God has called him especially to reach our youth in days such as these as we drift in an increasingly non-Christian cultural direction.
Elvis may have left the building a long time ago, but the real King, Jesus is alive and well and Rob is lifting him up.