Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis: A Review

I disagreed with less than I expected in Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. I’ve heard a lot about the bad theology of writers who fall under the “emergent church” label, but I’ve seen as much bad theology in the works of some “mainstream” Christian writers, and presented with more arrogance, than what I see in Bell’s book.

Velvet Elvis was full of thought-provoking ideas, some of which I’ve never heard in my thirty-plus years in the church and some I’ve heard a lot lately. I really enjoyed the sections about ancient Jewish language and traditions, which explained some Bible passages that always seemed odd to me and added dimensions to some other passages. (For example, the woman who wanted to touch Jesus’ clothes to be healed was declaring her belief that He was the Messiah, who was to come “with healing in his wings,” because “wings” was the same word as the one that described the edges of the prayer shawl Jesus would have worn.)

Bell flirts with some unorthodox beliefs, such as universalism, and suggests that the virgin birth might not be essential to the truth of the gospel. (I disagree, but that’s a debate for a different day.) His main message, though, is one with which I am starting to agree more and more: Christians should live in such a way that we are known for our love and service, not for the things we are against.

What did bother me about Velvet Elvis – and maybe it’s because I work as a copy editor – was Bell’s disregard for the rules of grammar. Even after I got used to the abundant sentence fragments, I had to stop and reread several sentences because poor punctuation or the wrong words for the context made me misunderstand them at first. (For example, one woman found that “Jesus had suffered far worse than her,” a grammatical construction that suggests the woman was so annoying that putting up with her might have been worse than death on the cross.) I’m surprised that a writer who cares enough about words to object to using “Christian” as an adjective and referring to the contents of the Bible as “data” would fail to see that violations of the standard rules of grammar and style can carry unintended meanings.

Correction: I believe I misused "emergent church" in the first paragraph. From what I understand, Rob Bell would be considered part of the "emerging church," a group that adheres to orthodox theology but argues for changes in worship style and lifestlye, while the "emergent church" authors advocate a less orthodox theology.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Missions-Minded Students and Christian Colleges

Last week, I interviewed the couple who leads Kaleo, a ministry that hosts short-term missions groups in Dallas and New Orleans. Their first group of students came from non-Christian universities, and some were new Christians. Later in the week, I talked with the director of communication in the Home Office of American Missionary Fellowship (the umbrella organization for Kaleo and my main client as a freelance writer/editor). During our discussion, she mentioned that many of the college students who are interested in missions work do not attend Christian schools.

This mission-mindedness on campuses with no Christian affiliation (or whose Christian affiliation is little more than a nod to the college’s founders) does not surprise me. After all, students at these universities are living on a mission field, while Christian college students are immersed in the Christian subculture. At Christian colleges, students who have not chosen to follow Christ are already exposed to the teaching of the Bible and tend to keep their doubts to themselves. When surrounded by like-minded professors and peers, evangelical students in Christian colleges may have difficulty finding someone to evangelize.

I greatly value the biblical instruction I received at a Christian college, and I do see the need for missionaries to have theological training. But I wonder whether Christian colleges have a tendency to shelter their students from the world a bit too much. I remember feeling disappointed to discover that my graduate school, which I chose partly because of its motto, “Christian leadership to change the world,” was full of students who seemed to be hiding from the world. (A telling incident was when a stranger at the student-housing shuttle stop told my roommate, who was working out her own beliefs, “As a Christian, you should not be wearing that Calvin Klein t-shirt.”)

When surrounded by others who share their beliefs, Christian-college students can easily miss the needs and issues faced by people outside the Christian community. In the words of an old Petra song, they begin “looking through rose-colored stained-glass windows, never allowing the world to come in – seeing no evil and feeling no pain, making the light as it comes from within so dim.”

What’s the solution? Maybe Christian colleges should encourage all students to take a short-term missions trip during their time of study by offering credit for it. At the same time, Christian colleges and churches could work together to offer students from non-Christian colleges theological training to prepare them for missions work without forcing them to prolong their education.

Future missionaries need solid theological training and a deep love for people who are not following Christ. As the church, we should use every opportunity to develop both of these characteristics in our people.