There is deep wisdom among thought leaders from other Christian traditions that can be beneficial to us. Not so much because it is different, but because it is the same.
Rob Bell is one of those thought leaders that I enjoy; he is very practical. Bell’s Velvet Elvis was written out of a sincere desire to help us see the Christian faith in a way that is relevant to our time.
The premise for the title of Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, is that, like a kitschy painting sold on the roadside, the Christian church risks losing relevance unless it is repainted—continually. Bell leads us through this process and develops an open, understanding, and rich Christian perspective.
The following are a few observations from Velvet Elvis.
Whether reformation, renovation, or restoration . . .
Here’s what often happens: Somebody comes along who has a fresh perspective on the Christian faith. People are inspired. A movement starts. Faith that was stale and dying is now alive. But then the pioneer of the movement—the painter—dies and the followers stop exploring. They mistakenly assume that their leader’s words were the last ones on the subject, and they freeze their leader’s words. They forget that as that innovator was doing his or her part to move things along, that person was merely taking part in the discussion that will go on forever. And so in their commitment to what so-and-so said and did, they end up freezing the faith. (pg xi-xii)
This is typically evidenced through the squelching of discussion that doesn’t conform to “the truth.” The irony is that the “heretic” may have more in common with the founder than the bulk of the “faithful.”
From Bell’s perspective:
A Christian doesn’t avoid the questions; a Christian embraces them. In fact to truly pursue the living God, we have to see the need for questions. (pg 15)
Recognizing the need for addressing questions, Bell conducted a “Doubt Night” at church. People put their questions anonymously into a box. These were then pulled out and discussed with the group. (pg 15-16)
What was so powerful [about Doubt Night] for those I spoke with was that they were free to voice what was deepest in their hearts and minds. Questions, doubts, struggles. It wasn’t the information that helped them–it was simply being in an environment in which they were free to voice what was inside. (pg 17)
The allowance for doubt and questions within the context of a faith community is uncomfortable for many people. We often expect answers and certainty in church, bricks not springs.
In brickworld, the focus often becomes getting people to believe the right things so they can be “in.” There is often a list of however many doctrines, and the goal is to get people to intellectually assent to these things being true. Once we believe the right things, then we’re in. (pg 23)
Yet, as a master rabbi, Jesus used questions as a teaching tool.
When a rabbi would ask a student a question, he would seldom give an answer. Have you noticed how rarely Jesus answers questions, but how often he responds with another question?
Rabbis had no interest in having the student spit back information just for information’s sake. They wanted to know if the student understood it, if he had wrestled with it.
In the world of rabbinic education, the focus was on questions, which demonstrated that the student not only understood the information but could then take the subject a step further. (pg 126-127)
The lack of doubts, questions, and uncertainty may be a sign of passivity or arrogance. And, to hold them does not necessarily indicate antagonistic disbelief. Questions, doubts, and struggles motivate learning for both the individual and institution. Ultimately, conformity and comfort are the enemies of growth and development.
Personal growth can be a painful process. While struggling through a particularly difficult time, Bell received the following advice:
“Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God has made you to be. And anything else you do is sin and you need to repent of it.” (pg 113)
This is a wonderful definition of sin because it distills the essence of our responsibility, that of personal transformation.
From the Audience: “Are you saying that there is no real sin and we can do anything we want?”
No, you are missing the point. The commandments, laws of God, or whatever you want to call them, can be seen as recommendations for a good life; guidance to help us become more than we are. They are there, not because God wants to keep us in line, but because God wants us to become more than we are.
God has an incredibly high view of people. God believes that people are capable of amazing things.
I have been told that I need to believe in Jesus. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that Jesus believes in me.
I have been told that I need to have faith in God. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that God has faith in me.
The rabbi thinks we can be like him. (pg 134)
In Bell’s view, institutional religion should be an aid for the individual journey. The value of church breaks down when the institution becomes self-serving.
The most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved no not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the “un” and “non,” they work against Jesus’s teachings about how we are to treat each other. (pg 168)
This is why I expect that LDS missions will transition to a humanitarian focus; it is more in line with the role and values of our current culture. And, it is more in line with the message of Jesus.
We have to surrender our agendas. Because some people aren’t going to become Christians like us no matter how hard we push. They just aren’t. And at some point we have to commit them to God, trusting that God loves them more than we ever could. (pg 168-169)
That may be the best mission of all, loving people, helping people, and treating them as valued children of God wherever they are rather than expecting conformity first.