Book Reviews | September 15, 2008 | Comments ()
I think it was tamatha who asked about whether or not I have devised a list of my 100 books, and to answer, I don’t have one. I’m going to go where the wind takes me with regards to what I read from one book to the next. I ain’t got no map with which to navigate these waters. My pool to draw from includes a lot of gifts and as well those I’ve been so graciously loaned. My second book kind of fell into my lap under interesting circumstances.
Normally, I don’t read religious books because I find a lot of them overly sentimental and treacly or overly preachy and way off from my beliefs. Another resident of LeukemiaTown recently told me about these spiritual short films out on the ‘net, called NOOMA. This guy swears by them and encouraged me to watch them. I cannot attest to the quality or power of these films because I am ashamed to admit I haven’t seen a single one. Yeah, slackah.
The next day, after our conversation, I was in the bookstore looking for a gift to bring him. I thought, being that he is a churchin’ dude, I’d see about finding him something with a more spiritual, devotional slant. As I glanced through the titles, this book caught my eye. Go check out the “Christian” shelves of your local book purveyor’s religious section to see why a book spine with the words VELVET ELVIS in light mint against black is a standout. Intrigued, I pulled it out and flipped it over and sure enough, there’s the author, Rob Bell, who also happens to be one of the individuals behind NOOMA. It was too weird not to pass up.
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, a megachurch in Michigan that meets in a converted shopping mall. Rob also plays in a punk band. And he wears black nerd glasses. Awesome, I thought, a hipster Joel Osteen. Gak. Immediately, I was prepared to be annoyed by Bell just as I am annoyed by all those McChurches and their veneered, shuck-and-jive preachers.
Yeah, so totally wrong.
Rob Bell is not an irritating faux-hipster preacher shilling God at the skate park, but a thoughtful, intelligent guy who also happens to give sermons in what used to be a JCPenney. He sees himself as merely taking part in the examination of what it means to be a Christian that has been woven through the faith for centuries. In his opening chapter, he compares the followers of Jesus to artists. Just as art is always moving forward and artists are constantly exploring and challenging the definition of art, so Christians must also do with their faith. Just imagine, Bell posits, if the guy who painted a Velvet Elvis had stood up before the world and declared his painting the ultimate work of art and there would be no further need for any more paintings to be made. Silly rabbit, you say. So why is it acceptable, Bell then asks, that Christians should get stuck on one version of the faith and insist it’s the only version worthy?
The rest of the book is Bell’s musings on Christian identity and his rolling these concepts around like marbles in his mouth. It reads very much like a transcription of a lecture or a lesson, except with an easier tone, as if this was a conversation taking place in your backyard over a couple of beers. There’s no denying that Bell is passionate about his faith, but he can also discourse about it with sound reasoning and intelligent arguments. He is a big fan of endnotes, and just skimming through them, you’ll see he’s also pretty well read dude. His sources range from the historical to theological to fiction. What I came to appreciate most about Bell was his insistence on contextualizing the Bible, not allowing it to be treated like some self-contained piece of literature just floating in space. He spends an entire chapter exploring the ancient traditions of rabbinical teaching then shows their significance within the ministry of Jesus and how this relates to modern Christians. How I love a man who does his homework.
Velvet Elvis covers a lot of ground, divided by chapters (called Movements) covering a variety of topics relevant to Christianity. Bell has something to say about doctrine, the Bible, success, healing, the truth, service, and well frankly a whole heck of a lot more. This isn’t a very long book, barely meeting the 200 page minimum, what with the endnotes and all (so out of guilt I am reading it twice), but it’s dense and gives you a lot to chew on, like one of those energy bars my dad takes with him hiking. But as Bell points out in his opening chapter, he’s not looking to provide answers but add to the discussion. And I’m glad he’s here to put in those two cents.