JUMP – Velvet Jesus, Movement One

Rob Bell is more interested in making sure people live the Christian life than making sure their doctrine is exactly right. He is more interested in orthopraxis than orthodoxy.

His overarching metaphor for this in the first chapter of Velvet Elvis is jumping on a trampoline (check out the multiple book covers featuring people jumping in the air). He wants people to jump; he is not as interested in making sure they understand the springs of the trampoline (he refers to Christianity’s doctrines as the “springs”). He is critical of the form of Christianity that emphasizes correct doctrine over everything else.

Not that doctrine is unimportant. Without doctrine, articulated by human words, there would be no springs to catapult us upward. But the springs, in Bell’s words, “aren’t the point.” The point is whether or not we are jumping; whether or not we are living the Christian life. And so Bell goes on these mini-tangents questioning such time-honored doctrines as the Trinity and the Virgin Birth. He says he believes these doctrines, but he wonders if we must insist that people affirm these kinds of things in order to be counted as Christians. And he wonders if so much emphasis on doctrine encumbers a life of vibrantly living for Christ.

I put it this way:
Exactly where do we draw the line around a set of doctrines that one must understand and believe in order for us to say, “Yea, that person is now a follower of Jesus Christ.” And is it even wise to say that one must affirm a certain doctrinal belief structure in order to authentically have a relationship with Christ? Granted, a person must meet the real Christ, not one made up and not one different than the person revealed on the pages of the Bible. And, also granted, a person should have a legitimate desire to know the reality of God that is only revealed on the pages of the Bible. But, and I ask this with great concern, what must a person affirm theologically before evangelical Christians would call that person a Christian? Can they be still learning to accept things like the Trinity or the Virgin Birth or even Penal Substitution? Or must they first articulate beliefs in these doctrines in order to be believers in Christ? In other words, when we say a Christian is a “believer,” do we mean that this person is a believer in sound doctrinal propositions or are we saying that they trust in the person of Jesus Christ?

Bell is critical of what he calls “brickianity.” Instead of flexible springs for doctrine, some Christians believe that faith is built upon theological statements that are more like solid and unyielding bricks. “Often it appears as though you have to agree with all the bricks exactly as they are or you can’t join” (p. 28). “In brickworld, the focus often becomes getting people to believe the right things so they can be ‘in.’ There is often a list of however many doctrines, and the goal is to get people to intellectually assent to these things being true. Once we believe the right things, then we’re in. And once we’re in, the goal often becomes learning how to get others in with us” (pp. 34-35).

This kind of rhetoric is what gets emerging church people in trouble. How dare they call into doubt orthodox doctrine? How dare they call into question the truth that the creeds, confessions, and doctrinal statements have articulated? How dare they say that people do not have to believe certain things in order to become Christians? The thinking is that this postmodern skepticism about understanding and believing truth is not a road that we should travel down. If we lose “truth,” the thinking goes, we lose Christianity, for Christianity is truth.

But what is Bell actually saying? He is saying that the real “truth” is that we are limited in our ability to explain an infinite God with finite words. And since words are so limited, we must constantly be working on articulating God again and again in words that make sense to the present world.

“The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. And if we made him up, then we are in control…This truth about God is why study and discussion and doctrines are so necessary. They help us put into words the realities beyond words. They give us insight and understanding into the experience of God we’re having. Which is why the springs only work when they serve the greater cause: us finding our lives in God. If they ever become the point, something has gone seriously wrong. Doctrine is a wonderful servant and a horrible master.” (p. 25)

Bell is not denying truth. Bell is not denying reality. Instead, he is on a relentless quest for authentic truth and reality. And he is convinced that the Christian quest in the modern era for that truth and reality in mere doctrine missed the mark. The real mark is a vibrant life in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He is convinced that, though we need to articulate what we believe in words and write them down as doctrines, these words and doctrines must be held loosely. We cannot ever be sure that we have arrived at a full and absolutely accurate description of God. We must always question ourselves and question God. We must always allow ourselves to doubt.

“The very nature of orthodox Christian faith is that we never come to the end. It begs for more. More discussion, more inquiry, more debate, more questions” (p. 34).

In making this point, Bell, at times, says things that are harsh to the evangelical ear. The things he says about the Trinity and the Virgin Birth are stated for shock value and, frankly, undermine his bigger point. He should have done better than this.

But that bigger point is valid: Christianity needs to be defined more by who we know than what we know. It needs to be defined more by how we live than what doctrines we agree with. Christianity needs to be more than believing the right things about God and Jesus Christ; it must be a trusting relationship with God that manifests itself in a community that lives as disciples of Christ.

Posts in this series: TRUE – Velvet Jesus
TASSELS - Velvet Jesus
NEW – Velvet Jesus

Is Rob Bell a Godless Man, Condemned by God? Review of John MacArthur's The Truth War

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Ted Gossard said...

Bob, I think you express this very well. And I find myself in agreement.

While I think the main point Rob is getting at is right on valid, what would concern me is where in Scripture I would find things that must be believed, for example like, that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (2 John). A true convert might not have sufficient understanding to say that, but what they end up thinking about that IS important. I'm sure Rob would agree. Otherwise he'd find himself disagreeing with John in that letter which brings out the importance of walking in truth and love.

Thanks for reviewing and critiquing this book for us. If I had time to do justice to reading I'd read it. But I don't.

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-first of all, it is good to see that you are not only still with us, but that you seem to be "back on your feet."

I have only glanced at this book myself, but in several conversations and reviews I have heard things similar to what you are relating about Bell's point. I think there are at least a couple of things to say in response.

One of the things I have always been worried about is that emergent leaders are committing the same mistake they accuse "modernist" leaders of committing. Instead of joining the two--belief and behavior--they are willing to lessen the importance and impact of one in favor of the other.

Secondly, like the other poster noted, I think there are really clear passages in the NT that outline a "nutshell" of orthodoxy.

Bob Robinson said...


You've nailed the tension that a Rob Bell (or any other "emerging church" thinker, including myself!) creates.

In saying that we need to deconstruct the doctrines we have accepted from the church through the years, we sound as if we don't care for them and that we don't care for the Bible. That's not the case, though. Bell is committed to the Bible as the revelation (and to the Jesus in that Bible as the ultimate revelation) of God.

What he wants to do (which we, quite honestly have been doing ever since the first century) is to continue to develop doctrine as we continue to interact with that revelation.

Some presume that Tertullian, Ambrose, or Athanasius or Anselm had doctrine exactly right. Some think Augustine got it right. Others think that Aquinas got it right. Others think Luther or Calvin or Zwingli got it right. Others think Wesley got it right. Others think Jonathan Edwards or CI Scofield got it right. Others think that Schleiermacher or Barth got it right. Etc. Etc. Some now think that NT Wright or Miroslav Volf or Wayne Grudem or Paul Tillich or John Stott or Walter Brueggemann or Jürgen Moltmann got it right.

The truth is that doctrine develops and is meant to. The truth is that not one of those people "got it right, forever and ever, Amen." We must continue to converse with each other and with those who came before us to articulate doctrine that makes sense of God for a postmodern world and is applicable to living in this world.

Bob Robinson said...


I agree with you that authors like Bell, in seeking to make their point, state things in such a way that it appears they are denigrating one thing (say, doctrine) over against another (say, practice). They are making the point that the first has been so overemphasized that the other has been de-emphasized, and in so doing they unwittingly (with this kind of rhetoric) are swinging the pundulum too far the other way.

However, the rhetoric doesn't actually match what Bell is doing in his ministry. He talks a lot in this book about questioning doctrine and having doubts and living the authentic Christian life, but his ministry is all about dealing with those questions and doubts and finding the way of Christian living by means of what the Bible says.. Bell's seeking answers to the hard questions not from some nebulous experiential source but from the revelation of God in Christ and in His Word.

sacred vapor said...

"Exactly where do we draw the line around a set of doctrines that one must understand and believe in order for us to say, “Yea, that person is now a follower of Jesus Christ?"

Bob, that is a great question. What I find myself going back to when I hear this kind of question is the exchange between Jesus and the criminal on the cross.

what exactly did the criminal ascertain? did he think Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity? I doubt that. Is this even a proper dialog to use as the example for entry into paradise? I would think so since Jesus responded as so. If so, where is the sinner's prayer? where is the acknowledgement of Jesus as God? or the virgin birth, or the Trinity?

note, I am not diminishing the importance of these doctrines. I am just wondering what the requirement of following Jesus is?

Bob Robinson said...

sacred vaper,

You're in tune with me. It's not that I am advocating ditching doctrine. I'm not saying that Jesus is not the ultimate revelation of God. I'm also not saying that the Bible is the source of our knowing who God is, what he's done, and how he's redeeming the world. Those are all givens. The question for me is that line that we draw. I've met people who say that the late Pope John Paul II was not a believer in Christ since he didn't believe in "Jusitification by Faith Alone." Wow.

And so we ask, "What doctrines must a person affirm before God accepts them?" We evangelicals have been trumpeting that God saves us by grace through faith and not by works (Eph 2:8-9). Where does doing "mental work" like affirming certain doctrinal propositions come into that? If we are saved "by faith" then faith in what? I'd say faith in the person of Jesus Christ. Others would say faith in the doctrine of Penal Substitution; they draw the line there. Others say faith in the Virgin Birth; they draw the line there. Still others draw the line elsewhere. Where do we draw the line?

Anonymous said...

What I appreciate about Bell's emphasis on orthopraxis is that it helps me better engage the two greatest commands in such a way that (for lack of a better way to put it) "fits." It is a call to come and learn/experience what it is to love the "I am" and all others who bear His image. Doctrine has it place as well, but Bell's approach seems to help me jump into the mysteries of a loving creator whose image is stamped in all who I encounter. I think the orthodoxy gets worked out within loving relationships with God and others, and hammering it out together. If you emphasize orthodoxy without the challenges of these relationships you get (what I see way too often)hard-hearted lone rangers who are quick to critisize and slow to love---just plain mean folk. If love does not draw me to orthodoxy, then I want nothing to do with it. This is what I am hearing in what Bell is writing. I dunno, maybe I just need some prozac! :)



Matt Robinson said...


In your response to Ted (3rd comment) you mentioned:

"Some presume that Tertullian, Ambrose, or Athanasius or Anselm had doctrine exactly right. Some think Augustine got it right.... Others think Luther or Calvin or Zwingli got it right...."

I like what Bell said of Luther in the intro of the book (Welcome to My Velvet Elvis.)

He mentions:

"They (Luther's contemporaries) didn't use the word refored; they used the word reforming....They knew that the things they said and did and wrote and decided would need to be revisted. Rethought. Reworked." (p12)