Month: August 2007

Eschatology in Velvet Elvis

One of the things that Rob Bell touches on in Velvet Elvis is eschatology. He does a great job of explaining the ‘new heavens, new earth’ idea, countering the popular misconception that the afterlife involves being sucked off to a disembodied heaven.

One of the most tragic things to ever happen to the gospel was the emergence of the message that Jesus takes us somewhere else if we believe in him. The Bible ends with God coming here. God, in the midst of people who can imagine nothing better, celebrating the life that we all share. (171)

Importantly, he looks to the garden in Genesis 2 and the city in Revelation 21-22 as pictures of our Christian hope.

In Genesis 1 and 2, we are told of a garden, but in Revelation 21 and 22, we are told of a city. A city is more advanced, more complicated than a garden. If a garden is developed and managed and cared for, it is eventually going to turn into a city. If there was no sin or death, creation would still move forward because God doesn’t just want to reclaim things; God wants to seem them move forward. (161)

Maybe, just maybe it’ll catch on! I think a better understanding of our Christian hope will give Christians a better sense of purpose to this life here and now. It’ll help them see why environmental stewardship is so important and why peace and social justice matter. We’re part of the good news! The good news that God is coming back to rule the Earth!

I’d reached a real low point in my faith in 2000. I went to talk to my friend, Ian Packer, about it. I think he must have been inspired, because instead of dealing with all the immediate problems I had with my faith, he asked me what I thought happened when I died. And I made the mistake of saying I hoped to go to heaven!

If you would like to know more on this, N.T. Wright has written some good stuff – especially ‘New Heavens and New Earth’. And then, of course, you can also read Velvet Elvis, which is much easier to get hold of.

Velvet Elvis: repainting the Christian faith by Rob Bell

Image of Velvet Elvis

What is it?

It’s difficult to categorise. The subtitle says it best, probably – an attempt to repaint what Christian faith means for believers in the 21st century. Bell’s perspective is an exciting neo-evangelicalism. He has an orthodox faith, but he’s not hung up on doctrine.  He re-reads the Bible and the Christian faith and finds a God of mercy and love – but not the liberal vagueness of Spong. Instead, his God looks like Jesus, a counter-cultural rabbi wandering around in sandals with a bunch of teenage fishermen. He recaptures the Jewishness of Jesus. He reads the gospels closely and finds things we pass over, because we don’t know the cultural context.

Without feeling at all systematic, he outlines both a basic theology and a Christian spirituality, covering the nature of the gospel, how we should read the Bible (by binding and loosing as a church!), how to be good news to the world and how he started a church.

Disillusioned Christians

The book has the capacity to re-enthuse, re-energise disillusioned evangelicals. To people who have seen too much bad stuff within the church, Rob has this inspiring speech to make:

We can choose to reclaim our innocence together. We can insist that hope is real and that a group of people who love God and others really can change the world. We can reclaim our idealism and our belief and our confidence in the big ideas that stir us deep in our bones. We can commit all the more to being the kinds of people who are learning how to do what Jesus teaches us. (176)



In his excited breathlessness, I feel like Bell’s prone to exaggeration and generalisation. He’s a little too quick to believe great stories about what the Bible really means. So, for example, he argues that DaViD adds up to fourteen in Hebrew, and that the groupings in Luke of fourteen names in the genealogy would have made people instantly think of David, and thus equate Jesus with David…

Rob, it’s a little far-fetched!

But I don’t know that it’s a problem. Every interpretation he makes is consistent with the trajectory of the Gospel. If he’s ever guilty of creative reading, he’s guilty in the same way as Saint Paul, who never cared particularly for the literal sense of a text. (The best treatment I’ve read of this is Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Writings of Paul.)


I’ve written some quotes from the book on othervoices – my quotes blog:

Devouring theology

Earlier this year I fell back into my old trap of devouring theology, and I can sense it happening again. I was hungry for books on house church, mission and emerging church. I read about six books on these topics in six weeks. I had this sense that if I could cram some more into me, it would do me good. Like eating healthy food.

But reading books – and particularly theology – is not like eating food. It doesn’t do you any good if you haven’t understood it fully, engaged it, discussed it with others, started living what insights it brings you to.

Slow reading is the way to go. Slow reading means getting the ideas into your head and into your heart. Praying over it. Writing about it. Talking to others about it. Quoting from it. Thinking of ways to put the good stuff in practice. And then going back to the start of the book and reading it again until you’ve done it all.

I should be selective, though. I don’t want to do that for every book that comes my way. But often a book comes along that seems to have the mark of a prophet about it. Someone who has a message from God for the world… or at least me. That’s the book I should read slowly and appreciate.

Earlier this year when I went on a binge, I suddenly stopped. I’d read all these exciting ideas thinking I was on the cusp of a transformation. But nothing happened. I didn’t manage to start a church which shared the insights of Wolfgang Simpson, Frank Viola and Joel McComiskey. I hadn’t tried to live one before I’d rushed off onto the next.

So anyway, I could feel the temptation returning yesterday when I got excited about a book again – Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis. It was making a lot of sense to me, it was getting me passionate about the gospel… so I wanted to read it quicker… I wanted to get onto his next book… and that’s when I realised I had to fight down my instincts and read slowly.

Tom Wright’s Living Faith – a disappointment 

We bought these DVD talks introducing Christianity thinking it would be a great evangelism tool – an Alpha Course with better theology!

 The problem is in the presentation. With an eye on the US evangelical market, the producers have put in an intro with an American voiceover worthy of a televangelist. It’s awful! So American.  I know I’m being offensive here, but frankly Australians don’t like the way American popular religion is presented.  (Or most of its content.)

Me and my wife thought, just hang in there, once Bishop Wright starts speaking it’ll be okay…

But what we have is production values even worse than Alpha! Tom is sitting at a table with two other guests, all with coffee mugs, reading from his notes! The guests are American and ask him questions in Southern accents.

 I didn’t listen to enough to get an idea of the theology Wright’s putting across, but I’m sure it’s great. Problem is, no-one’s going to listen.

Much better idea – go buy one of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos! I’ve only seen one so far – Breathe – but I was pleasantly surprised. This is no theological lightweight. Here’s a guy who is both relevant and deep. Someone who can make good theology accessible.

N.T. Wright on the church

The Newbigin Group meets at South Perth Church of Christ every couple of months to discuss gospel and culture. This year’s meetings are focused on the work of N.T. Wright. Tonight’s meetings will discuss Wright’s view of the church. The readings come from Scripture and the authority of God, What Paul really said and Simply Christian. As a house-churcher, some things he wrote challenged me:

True, buildings can and do carry memories, and when people have been praying and worshipping and mourning and celebrating in a particular building for many years, the building itself may come to speak powerfully of God’s welcoming presence.
“Believing and Belonging” from Simply Christian

He’s actually speaking against the building’s importance for church, but his by the way comment reminded me of the good side of having a church building. The downside is the constraint to imagination; the move of church from everyday life to a set-apart realm; the cost of maintenance and loans and labour.

Wright also seems to believe strongly in ‘accredited leaders’; I want to find out more of his opinions on this. Here’s Doug Fletcher’s summary from Scripture and the authority of God:

A reading of scripture taught by the church’s accredited leaders. Such teaching is the primary responsibility of church leadership. It’s not that management skills are unimportant, but they cannot be allowed to supplant the primary apostolic responsibility of proclaiming the word in the power of the Spirit.

I wonder how close this is to What Wright Really Said? I don’t see the teaching gift as something tied up to ordination. If we had spirit filled house church meetings as our understanding of church, we wouldn’t be tempted to see Accredited Leadership and Teaching belonging together.

The extract from What Saint Paul Really Said is on “Justification Then and Now” and it is a hard word to the Sydney Anglicans amongst the Newbigin Group.

If you take the old route of putting justification, in its traditional meaning at the centre of your theology, then you will always be in danger of sustaining some sort of individualism. This wasn’t so much of a problem in Augustine’s or even in Luther’s day when society was much more bound together than it is now. But… in contemporary post-modernism individualism has been all the rage…

Justification is itself the ecumenical doctrine, the doctrine that rebukes all our petty and often culture-bound church groupsings, and which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family.

Justification declares that all who believe in Jesus Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their cultural or racial differences.

One is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. One is justified by faith by believing in Jesus.

I hope Sydney Anglicanism comes under the influence of N.T. Wright’s brand of evangelical Anglicanism. That would be great! It might combine some of the vitality of the Sydney Anglican group with a more corporate, social gospel; a less flat hermeneutic; and a nuanced Bible.

Here’s the email the group’s convenor, Ian Barns,  sent out:

 The next session on ‘Tom Wright for everyone’ will be on Monday August 6, from 7.30 to 9.30 in Meeting Area 3, South Perth Church of Christ. Our topic for discussion will be ‘What about the church?’.

Like Newbigin and many of the other theologians we have talked about in recent times, for Tom Wright, ‘the church’ plays a crucial role in the outworking of the story of God’s kingdom in the renewal of creation. Tom Wright is an Anglican. Indeed, he is the current Bishop of Durham and his recent writings have reflected his engagement with the considerable pastoral challenges and opportunities he faces as a bishop. He also gets asked to speak to ’emerging church conferences’ (see his talks to the Faithworks/Christian Aid conference accessible on the NT Wright web page)
Yet we wonder if his account of the shape of the church, as it bears witness to the project of the renewal of creation and Christ’s challenge to Caesar is as clearly developed as, say John Howard Yoder. Is he more interested in giving talks and sermons than developing more ‘organic’ Christian communities? What can we learn from Tom Wright about how God wants the church to be in our present times?Our discussion on August 6 will be introduced by Doug Fletcher. Doug teaches statistics at Murdoch University. He is also completing a PhD in theology, examining the ideas of American theologian George Lindbeck.

The Newbigin group homepage is here: