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.