There's been a lot of talk about "Velvet Elvis" and this put me off for quite a while, I feared it would be another 'form over substance' book. And when I bought it this morning I wondered still. It's written in a trendy font with trendy coloured pages between the chapters, trendy blue highlight print colours, that kind of thing; the cover is the sort of shiny matte effect which shows your fingerprints instantly and a trendy spot varnish on the front. It was also a surprisingly short book for that much fuss (177 pages of text, extensive endnotes). But anyway I started reading and was instantly completely hooked. I read the entire book in one sitting and am writing this review now.
So what was so good about it? Well it reminded me a little in thought (although was completely different in execution) to Brian MacLaren's "A New Kind of Christian." The two books are approaching a similar subject from a completely different angle and with success in completely different ways. So what is that subject? It's how to relate to the gospel of Jesus in our postmodern world. I'm not sure Rob Bell ever actually uses the word "postmodern" in his book and in fact his is a far easier read on the braincells than MacLaren's (which required several days' thought between chapters). But that is not to denigrate this book in any way, I believe it's another very important addition to the discussion of the 21st century church.
On the last page Rob Bell sums up what he's been saying: "I am like you. I have seen plenty done in the name of God that I'm sure God doesn't want anything to do with. I have lots of reasons for bailing on the whole thing... But... I am not going to stop dreaming of a new kind of faith for the millions of us who need it. I am not going to stop dreaming of new kinds of communities that put the love of God and the brilliance of Jesus on display in honest, compelling ways. I am not going to stop dreaming of new ways to live lives of faith and creativity and meaning and significance."
The book is a fascinating meander through various parts of Christian belief and thought with a lot of reference to Jewish teaching and thought with many new insights to me (and I am a Biblical scholar). He writes in such a lighthearted style and yet presents some very deep thoughts and fascinating ideas about faith, Jesus' teaching and the nature of community and being a neighbour. I particularly appreciated his comparison of the church as trampoline or brick wall and his likening a lot of modern Christian teaching to a brick wall was incredibly aposite (i.e. there are a number of bricks you have to believe in to get in; if any brick is doubted then the whole edifice falls down, thus huge overreliance on doctrinal positions and the necessity of believing them to be a 'proper' Christian, one of my real betes-noirs about modern day evangelicalism). Bell highlights the real 'them and us' mentality that the label 'Christian' can cause as we force people to jump through particular doctrinal hoops which may well cause them to step away forever. He says, "being a Christian is about engaging the mind and heart more and more, not shutting them off or letting someone else think for you," and he explains a great deal about truth being from God, wherever we may find it.
I am sure there is a huge swathe of people from the more conservative fundamentalist wing of the church who hate this book and hate everything that Bell says. However for someone like me, teetering on the edge of giving the whole thing up as a bad job that clashes wildly with what I see as reality in the world in which I am living, "Velvet Elvis" is a reminder of the real meat of the gospel, of Jesus' mission, of his divinity and humanity and of our purpose here on earth, to bring heaven here to those around us by our deeds and our witness. Go and read it!