Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Fisking of Rob Bell

I don't know if you're allowed to 'fisk' actual books, but I'm going to anyway. As I mentioned days ago, I'm reading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis at the request of a friend, and I'm trying to read it quickly so that I can give it back. However, practically every line cries out for a response. I don't know if I'll have time or inclination to do this for the whole book, but here's what I got through just in the doctor's office yesterday.

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith
The title and layout alone, for me, are a hang up. I was a lit major in college, and I reveled in deconstructionism and gender studies and all that, how shall I call it, c***, and had a marvelous time (really, if you want beautifully written deconstructionism, go to Jonathon Culler, go to Helene Cixous, seek out The Eloquence of Silence, but by no means waste your time on Christians trying to copy it. It just feels like walking into a Christian book shop to find "art". There probably isn't any). However, real life doesn't bear deconstructionism out, and this book seems to me, on its face, as a not very good copy of all that other interesting literature (as well as being ever so completely untrue). In other words, the title and layout alone says to me that Mr. Bell is trying a tad too hard. Let us consider the actual writing.

Mr. Bell first discusses his painting of Elvis and how things become dated and need to be rethought for each generation. Fair enough. I don't like the language but I'll save my quibbling. Then he goes jumping on his trampoline and considers who has faith and who doesn't, concluding, rationally enough, that everyone has faith. And then we come to page 22, entitled Springs.
He writes, "Take, for example, the doctrine-the spring-called the Trinity. This doctrine is central to historic, orthodox Christian faith. While there is only one God, God is somehow present everywhere. People began to call this presence, this power of God, his 'Spirit'. So there is God, and then there is God's Spirit."
Alright. Stop it right there. Just a moment ago, in a part I didn't quote, Mr. Bell made a point of saying that the "springs" are "doctrines", they are not God, they are ways of talking about God. So one of the main "doctrines" or "springs" is the Trinity, which, in one summery paragraph, Mr. Bell manages to completely mangle. Matt could put a couple of labels on all the heresy going on here. So God is "somehow" present everywhere, and we, in our great wisdom and understanding, came to think of that "presence" as "God's Spirit". I know I'm being fast and loose with the scare quotes, but Mr. Bell is being fast and loose with God. Its not that we came to understand God in this way, but Rather that God choose to make himself known, first through Scripture, and then perfectly through his Son, as One in Being and Three in Person.
"People began to call this concept the Trinity. The word trinity is not found anywhere in the Bible. Jesus didn't use the word, and the writers of the rest of the Bible didn't use the word. But over time this belief, this understanding, this doctrine, has become central...It is a spring, and people jumped for thousands of years without it."
Honestly. You believers out there will be able to see plainly what is wrong with this writing. But for anyone else who might be reading, Jesus himself plainly used the Trinitarian Formula, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" when commissioning his disciples before Ascending into Heaven in what is traditionally come to be known as "the Great Commission" (Matthew 28). The church didn't "come to understand" God in this way. They may have later applied the word "trinity" but Jesus himself made it very clear that He was God, that his Father was God and that the Holy Spirit was God. God has always been this way, he just choose to make himself known at a particular moment in history.

Well, obviously, I have a lot more to say, but looking at the clock, I see that it is 10:15 and I have to be up at 5 to finish off things for church. But don't worry, I'll be back on this important subject. In the meantime, pray for the state of the church. Lord knows, it sorely needs it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anne, for this. I began Velvet Elvis over a year ago and just got tired of saying, "OK, I'm not going to quibble. Let's just see what he's saying." If you've seen any of his Nooma videos, you see he has some truth, and maybe an important thing or two to say... but the blows to orthodox thought are simply too costly to bear. I finally gave up.

Don White+

Jane said...

Anne, you are an intelligent woman. One citation at the end of the gospel of Matthew is a slender thread indeed on which to hang a Trinitarian understanding in Jesus' mind. I don't mind Matthew's theologizing, and I embrace and affirm both a trinitarian understanding of God and the divinity of Christ; but it is not honest exegesis to try to put the Trinity in the gospel except as a very late understanding cast backwards into that resurrection appearance. Bell-- whatever his writing may lack, and I am in full agreement with you that he is not a wonderful writer-- is nonetheless absolutely correct on this point.


A local colleague in ministry.

Anne Kennedy said...

Thank you for your comment. I generally (and lazily) assume I'm writing for an orthodox readership, and so I didn't think it was necessary to argue for something as evident as a scriptural warrant for the doctrine of the trinity. I simply made a reference to Matthew 28 alone without taking the time to cite every possible reference. The concept of the Trinity is shot through the Gospels, the Epistles and, indeed, the Old Testament. If you need more teaching on the Trinity from the scriptures, you can check out
the sermon titled 'The Trinity and the Bible' from May 20.

Kerry said...

Good Morning, Anne! Hope you are well.

Thank you for this post. I'm a bit out of it when it comes to contemporary Christian culture (I don't know why - I just don't pay attention or something.) But I've recently been hearing "Rob Bell" all over the place. Having no idea who he is or what he teaches, I'm glad to read this post. Now I know that I won't be seeking out his works. :)

At A Hen's Pace said...

Hi from a fellow lit major!

Having seen a number of the Nooma videos--which are excellent--I'm not surprised to hear that writing isn't his strength. I would have expected better theology, though!


Frair John said...


I must agree with you.
While the only explicitly Trinitarian
formulas in the NT are of mildly dubious authenticity, the Gospels themselves are full of the language of the Trinity. To wit:"the Father and I are one" and "I shall send the Paraclete." The exact formulation of the Trinity may be of the second or third "strata" of tradition, but it is very much a part of the first.
His comment about "thousands of years" is about as disconnected as one can expect from many evangelicals who lack any real education as to the history of the Church.