Velvet Elvis – Chapter-By-Chapter Review

With the release this past year of Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis in paperback, I’ve decided to do one of my Vanguard Church in-depth reviews. Why? Because:

1. Bell is becoming more and more influential since Velvet Jesus was first released in 2005. His nooma videos are being increasingly used in churches, youth groups, and college ministries (such as our CCO ministries). They resonate with the younger generation in a way few other resources do.

2. Which makes some people nervous – especially parents of kids attending these youth groups and pastors who are suspicious of those “emerging church types.” I recently attended a pastor’s seminar led by D.A. Carson that seriously called into question Rob Bell’s ministry. One of Carson’s colleagues at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Dale Van Dyke, has written a scathing review of the Bell's book. John McArthur’s latest book, The Truth War, attacks Bell as a false teacher. The criticism for Bell is mounting. What is this Rob Bell teaching? Is it heresy and false teaching? Should we stop his false teaching from entering into our churches, youth groups, and college ministries?

Since we have a case of an increasing divide in the church, one that pits the older, wiser generation against the younger, wilder generation, we had better hear what this young pastor is saying. We had better understand him, not presuming anything until we do so. We had better deal squarely with what he is saying.

That’s what we will try to do as I analyze Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith.

Posts in this series:


41% Percent of Your 2006 Taxes Go to War

A report from the Friends Committee on National Legislation:

41% Percent of Your 2006 Taxes Go to War. This figure includes funding for the Defense Department, Energy Department nuclear weapons programs, military-related activities of other agencies, foreign military financing and training, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mandatory spending for military retirement and health care, veterans programs ($69 billion), and the estimated portion of interest paid on the national debt which can be attributed to past wars and military spending ($263 billion).

As a result, 41 cents out of every dollar you're paying in taxes this year is going to the military.

Go to the Friends Committee on National Legislation to find out more

Why Justice is So Important to the Emerging Church

One of the main characteristics of the Emerging Church is that it is seeking to be the missional church in a postmodern context. How do we proclaim Christ to postmoderns?

“It may come as a surprise to learn that in all sorts of ways I believe postmodernity is to be welcomed. It offers an analysis of evil which the mainstream culture…still resists; it deconstructs, in particular, the dangerous ideology of ‘progress.’ I regard the main function of postmodernity under God to be the preaching of the doctrine of the Fall (the truth of a deep and fatal flaw within human nature) to the modernist, post-eighteenth-century arrogance that supposes it has solved the world’s problems.” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, p. 32)

Ministry that is properly situated to reach postmoderns embraces postmodern ideas about evil. We affirm the “will to power” that points out that we human beings (both individually and in our institutions) consistently abuse power in order to oppress others and to further our own agendas. We affirm that we should be careful not to trust others too far. We affirm a skepticism that says that everything is progressing in a wonderful Hegelian dialectical path. We affirm that Auschwitz and brutal World Wars and even current empirical power grabs by the governments of the West prove that our supposed morality is questionable at best. We affirm that even those who are religious are not immune to the bent human need for power (as we have seen throughout the history of the church and most recently in the power-wrangling of the Religious Right).

Wright continues:

“Postmodernity may be correct to say evil is real, powerful, and important, but it gives us no real clue as to what we should do about it. It is therefore vital that we look elsewhere…” (p. 33)

A Christian movement that displays the grace of Jesus Christ in righting injustices speaks to the postmodern heart and mind. It says that God knows that the world is not the way it should be. It says that God is indeed doing something about it. It says that the ultimate solution to these problems is God…God hanging on a cross.

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Gospel Proclamation or Social Justice? Why Not Both?

I am immersed in a church culture that has always been suspicious of those "social gospel" people—those who make the gospel of Jesus only about helping the poor and hungry, fighting injustices, or caring for the needy. Not that my church culture demeans these actions as unimportant; we just insist that the gospel is about personal salvation through believing in the death of Jesus to atone for our sins. If helping the poor, fighting injustice and caring for the needy gives us a platform to share the gospel of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, then that’s great. If it does not have that as its ultimate purpose, then it is no longer gospel work.

Scot McKnight has a continuing series at his blog, Jesus Creed, called “Letters to Emerging Christians” (which I understand may become a book someday). His latest letter deals with this issue, and it got me thinking about my church culture and how it is too truncated in its understanding of the gospel.

Evangelicals have been fearful that if we create too broad a category for evangelism that would include such actions as stopping injustice, then we will lose the importance of proclamation. So we have insisted (especially in light of the social gospel movement of the past century) that there are two categories: “Gospel proclamation” (telling people about Jesus), and “social justice” (doing Kingdom work). Ron Sider, who I deeply respect, even makes this distinction in his very good book, Good News and Good Works.

What we need, however, is a bigger view of Kingdom living. The purpose of living as a Christian is to live authentically as Christ’s disciples in every aspect. We need to rid our lives of the dualist thinking that one thing (gospel proclamation) is what’s really important and everything else is some sort of second-tier Christian living.

Of course, our sinful nature will tend to push us toward thinking that “if all I do is help people, I’m doing gospel work,” and then quote Francis of Assisi (“Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words”) to rationalize our point. Christians can easily fall into the mode of “I’m living my life as a testimony” without ever saying a word about their testimony. That is not the legitimate holistic Christian life - it is not living the fullness of what it means to live as Christ’s disciple.

But the other side of the coin is just as illegitimate. We may think, “if all I do is proclaim Christ to people by explaining the cross, then (and only then) am I doing gospel work.” That separates one part of my gospel-living life in a way that makes it lose its power.

I want to drive home this point:
When everything that we do is seen as gospel work, then evangelism by proclamation becomes a natural part of who we are. It no longer feels forced; it no longer feels like an imposition on others; it flows from the core of who we are. We live it; we share it.

So it is no longer a debate between "Gospel Proclamation" versus "Social Justice." Why can't we live in a way that embraces both as one holistic gospel life?

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Dobson, et. al. Versus the Rest of Evangelicalism

Maybe you caught this in the news the other day: James Dobson headed a list of people who wrote the National Association of Evangelicals seeking the ouster of Richard Cizik as Vice Preident for Governmental Affairs because of his "relentless campaign" against global warming. Christianity Today reports that Leith Anderson, Interim president of the NAE said, “I'm supportive of Rich Cizik. I think that he is highly respected in Washington and is a forthright spokesman for creation care and that's good."

After reading the letter that Dobson and his colleagues sent to the NAE, I have a few observations:

1. The signatories are a who’s who of the current Religious Right establishment, including Don Wildmon, Tony Perkins, James Dobson, Gary Bauer, Paul Weyrich, Gary Cass, and Rick Scarborough.

2. The letter says that the signatories “have observed that [Richard] Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”

The Religious Right’s concern is that their 3 main issues might be lost if evangelicals dared to broaden the scope of their concerns. But, as Jim Wallis astutely says, “I believe the sanctity of life, the integrity and health of marriages, and the teaching of sexual morality to our children are, indeed, among the great moral issues of our time. But I believe they are not the only great moral issues…the enormous challenges of global poverty, climate change, pandemics that wipe out generations and continents, the trafficking of human beings made in God’s image, and the grotesque violations of human rights, even to the point of genocide, are also among the great moral issues that people of faith must be - and already are - addressing.”

3. The letter says that the issue of global warming should be “addressed scientifically and not theologically.” This is a red herring in two ways: First, the majority of scientific experts agree that global warming is indeed a dire problem (so the NAE is indeed reacting to the scientific community), and second, thank God that evangelicals have begun to think theologically about taking care for God’s creation. For years, while the Religious Right has had their sway in evangelical social action, the issue hasn’t even been on the radar screen. The presumption has been that this world is ours to exploit in any way we want. Deeper theological thought has now revealed that God has put humanity in dominion over the earth not to exploit it but to care for it and to cultivate it. We should be cheering that the NAE has placed this issue back into the Christian conscience.

4. The letter’s signatories “oppose the efforts of Mr. Cizik and others to speak in a way that is divisive and dangerous.” They cite as evidence of this divisiveness a quote in which Cizik said, “We [proponents of global warming] are the future, and the old guard…is reaching up to grasp its authority back, like a horror movie where a hand comes out of the grave.” The letter took offense at this, stating, “To paraphrase, Cizik apparently believes ‘the old guard’ which defends traditional values is like a rotting corpse that will not die. Are these the words of a man who seeks to bring unity and understanding within the NAE?” Cizik is not the only one who sees the Religious Right as the “old guard,” that is, a group of people who did not represent the evangelical church as it should be represented. NAE board member Paul de Vries told CNN, “We are tired of being represented by people with a very narrow focus, and we want to have a focus as big as God’s focus.”

I think de Vries has it right—the Religious Right’s focus on what they call “traditional values” has done more to divide evangelicals more than anything that the NAE is doing now. Their emphasis on just a few hot-button issues has shut out many evangelicals who have been fighting for other Justice issues that are just as important (if not more—how is being against gay marriage more important that being against global poverty, disease, human trafficking, or ecological destruction?)

5. The people who signed the letter, by their own admission, are “not members of the National Association of Evangelicals.”

How presumptuous is it, then, for these people to “suggest that he (Richard Cizik) be encouraged to resign his position with the NAE”? Christianity Today reports, “When read the list of the signatories, NAE interim President Leith Anderson said, ‘We would normally look to our own constituency … and not to those who have chosen not to be members of the NAE … for counsel.’” Good for them!

6. This, again, is in the modus operandi of James Dobson. I’ve called Dobson a bully on this blog before, and I’m going to do it again now.

I believe that James Dobson has every right to seek to further his narrow right-wing political agenda. I’d be willing to plead on his behalf against anyone who would want to squelch his voice. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council should be heard; their political views have value.

However, my problem is with Dobson’s abuse of power. He uses his immense influence in the evangelical world to bully anyone who does not follow exactly along his set course. In the recent past, he was successful in ousting Wayne Pederson as President of the National Religious Broadcasters. Peterson’s sin: he suggested that Christian media should be less identified with the Religious Right. Thank God that the NAE has the courage to stand up to Dobson, and not allow him to do the same awful thing to Richard Cizik.

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Embrace or Distance - The Return of the Prodigal Son

Henri J. M. Nouwen (1932-1996) wrote a gripping book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming, based on Rembrandt's painting that was inspired by the great parable.

The painting questioned him: Who are you? Which of the figures do you identify with? He slowly went through the people pictured in the scene, wondering how he was like each person.

And as I reflected on this painting, I wonder, who are we? If we were to place contemporary evangelical Christians in this painting, which one of the characters would we be?

I think a great number of us would identify immediately with the prodigal son. At some point in our lives, we came to know that we are a mess. We realized that when we took control of our own lives and decided to live contrary to the way God our Father would want, we wreaked havoc, not only on our lives, but on the lives of others. We “hired ourselves out” to this world and to the master of this world, and became enslaved to that which is the opposite of what God would want for us. We had become hungry; we had become homesick. At some point in our lives, we “came to our senses” (Luke 15:17). So we made it back to the Father, who welcomed us with open arms. We felt his warm embrace.

Yes, many of us identify with the prodigal son. But I wonder - How many of us are really the older son?

He is pictured to the right in the painting. He looks all proper, almost Pharisaic in his stance. He is distanced from the wonderful love embrace on the left side of the painting. His hands are closed in front of him, not openly embracing the prodigal like his father is. If you remember, he is the one who got angry that the Father would show such grace to one who has been so sinful and so disrespectful of the Father (Luke15:25-31). He is the one who constantly and diligently worked in obedience, all the while fuming that his brother was living a life of immorality that dishonored the name of his father.

Why is it that I think that we are more like him than we are willing to admit? I think that many evangelical leaders are training their followers to battle “culture wars” against those who are living lives that dishonor God. Like the older son, who says to God, “I've been slaving for you,” many are using their power (congregational power, media power, and political power) to do what they think is their duty to God. All the while, just as the older son was, they are revulsed by that prodigal son, out there squandering God’s abundance on immorality.

Why can’t we be more like the father? Why can’t we be, through our personal attitude, our congregational acceptance, and our political mercy, willing and ready to accept anyone into our embrace, no matter what their moral baggage?

The father doesn't force his agenda onto the Prodigal Son. He lets his younger son have what he wants and allows him to squander it on whatever he pleases. He lets him go, lets him find his way back home. Maybe his son will come to his senses. The father waits; he hopes. He doesn’t force his will onto his younger son; he lets the prodigal son decide.

The older son fumes and fusses. He thinks that the younger son should get what's coming to him. He is ready to defend the name of his father in opposition to his brother. And he doesn't accept the prodigal with open arms when he returns.

Which one of the characters in the painting are we?

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DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06

As I stated in my last post, D.A. Carson’s “most important” point that he wished to make was this: He said that much in the Emerging Movement fails to listen very intently to what Scripture says.

Carson sees this sloppy reading of Scripture “without much theological reflection” in many ways: He says that the Emerging Church tends towards Semi-Pelagianism, has an affinity for Open Theism, and emphasizes non-hierarchical ecclesiology.

Now this is a telling sign of Carson’s modus operandi. It is not so much that he is against just the Emerging Church; it is that he is against anyone who does not fully embrace his Reformed theology – including the Arminians, the Open Theists, and non-hierarchical churches like Church of the Brethren.

But the key theological rub for Carson in contemporary debate has to do with the Atonement. As a staunch defender of a Reformed theology, Carson’s main theological work recently has been in the area of Atonement studies. Whereas many are exploring the different nuances of the Atonement (including the various “atonement theories”) and embracing these, Carson (while affirming that there are several ways to see the Atonement) is advocating that the main idea of the Atonement is found in Penal Substitution. Thus, the main reason (besides the issue of epistemology) that Carson feels that the Emerging Church needs to be called out as “heterodox” is that it fails to see the Atonement as he sees it.

He said that there is such an emphasis in the Emerging Church on the love of God that it has become detached from other things, like sin and the wrath of God.

He then explained that the wrath of God is a major theme throughout Scripture. And what makes God so angry? The answer, according to Carson, is idolatry. Carson is very concerned that if we lose the idea that the main problem is our individual or corporate idolatry, then we will lose the gospel.

I found it interesting and telling that Carson demeaned the Emerging Church’s emphasis on justice issues. The Emerging Church says that the divide in the Church over "social gospel" versus "personal salvation" is a false dichotomy, and the two must be reunited into one holistic gospel. The Emerging Church has advocated that we must do God’s will in righting "injustice". Carson said that this is not Scriptural enough for him, explaining that God’s wrath is not "just about injustice" but rather "more about idolatry." He feels that if we define the problem as "injustice," we will miss the real meaning of the gospel.

The key issue, then, is the Atonement. He mentioned some of the varying views of the Atonement: the “exemplary model” (where Christ’s sacrifice is a model for us in how to give our lives for others), “Christus Victor” (where Christ’s death is victory over evil and sin, freeing humanity from their oppression), and “penal substitution” (where Christ died to pay God’s wrath against sin as our substitute).

He said that Brian McLaren and others dismiss “Penal Substitution” as “cosmic child abuse,” which got quite a few heads shaking in indignation.

Carson said that as soon as you choose to dismiss Penal Substitution like this, “you have left the Bible behind.” Instead of doing this, he pleaded that we study the Atonement theories to see "which have biblical warrant and sanction." We need to study how they relate to other themes throughout the Bible. He exhorted us not to "just pick and choose," but to think through the atonement theories as they relate to biblical theology as a whole.

Carson didn’t come right out and say it, but it was evident that he felt that those who would study the Atonement theories in such a way would arrive to the correct conclusion as he has, that Penal Substitution is the primary way to understand it. It is the only Atonement theory that deals with his definition of the real issue - idolatry. He sees it as his calling to warn us that we should be very suspicous of anyone in the Emerging Church that are raising up other articulations of the Atonement as preferable over Penal Substitution in reaching postmoderns, for these people, according to Carson, are not being biblical.

Posts in this series:
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 01

DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 02
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 04
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 05
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06



DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 05

The “most important” point that Carson wished to make is this:
He said that much in the movement fails to listen very intently to what Scripture says.

Carson explains that there are three streams in the Emerging Movement, which he called “Heterodox,” “Confessional,” and a “middle ground.” He praised those in the “Confessional” stream, naming Mark Driscoll, but he made it clear that most in the Emerging Church are not being biblical.

Too many in the Emerging Church are not focused, to Carson’s satisfaction, on expository preaching or on confessionalism.

Carson believes that the whole council of God is not being taught in Emerging Churches. Focusing more on experience, they are not leading their congregants into a catechetic confession of the faith. When the only thing people read are books like Blue Like Jazz or all they watch is Rob Bell’s Nooma videos, then they will never understand the historical redemptive storyline of the Bible. Rob Bell only offers “snippets” that are not connected to the whole counsel of God.

According to Carson, this is not “worldview evangelism.”

The Emerging Church is not passing along to their followers Christian doctrinal orthodoxy; what they are passing along to their followers is simply cultural analysis. “The Emerging Movement is excited about being emerging,” says Carson. And because that is what the leadership is excited about, that is all they can pass on to their followers.

Carson said that the emerging Church is attempting to be prophetic. However, in order to be prophetic, you must do so from the center. “You only sound prophetic from the margins.”

Carson’s main criticism of the Emerging Church's mishandling of Scripture has to do with the EC’s not embracing his understanding of the Atonement. I’ll look at that tomorrow.

Posts in this series:
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 01

DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 02
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 04
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 05
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06



DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 04

Carson’s second critique of the Emerging movement is that it does not handle modernism very well. Why? Because the Emerging Church engages in making false antitheses, that is, setting up as opposites that which are not truly in conflicting categories.

Carson told the pastors in attendance at this seminar that the Emerging Church “says that ‘modernism is bad and postmodernism is good.’” Carson says that this is a false antithesis which launches Christians into a violent pendulum swing which succeeds only to divide brothers and sisters in Christ.

Carson's critique is that since the Emerging Church has embraced postmodernism and has rejected modernism in such a radical way, they exclude anybody who is not postmodern into their ranks, often based on age. If you accept postmodernism, you’re in, if not, you’re out. The Emerging Church’s false antithesis that modernism is bad while postmodernism is good creates a division in the Church.

This is a critique that the Emerging Church’s main voices need to hear. I’ve raised the red flag myself about how we in the EC can be too defensive, too combative, too ready to make a clear distinction between a “new way of doing things” and those “old fuddy-duds of the modern evangelical church.” Sometimes the rhetoric sounds like an adolescent that is trying to stake out her new-found independence from her parents – mom and dad are fools and I’m going to do things differently.

I wish we all could learn to be more careful in the way we try to criticize others. In our efforts to argue for change, the Emerging Church’s critique of the evangelical church of the last 100 years can often cross the line into false anthesis.

I am very aware that it is extremely difficult to nuance all of our arguments in this way. It’s easier to make stark contrasts – like when we say that “the modern church trusted Reason to prove their faith, while the postmodern church will trust faith in God (which may or may not lead to Reason).” That’s a simple, straight-forward statement that clearly dilineates the difference. But in reality, not everyone in the modern church trusted Reason as blatantly or simply as that. So, how do we nuance our rhetoric so that we can make clear the changes that we feel need to be made (in general categories) without creating false antitheses?

Posts in this series:
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 01

DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 02
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 04
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 05
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06



Last Night I Had a Sleep Study Done

They wired me up - electrodes all over my head, on my legs, a thingy stuck under my nose, two bands wrapped around my torso, a microphone taped to my throat.

All nice and comfortable for a restful night of sleep.


DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03

After giving five back-handed compliments to the Emerging Church, Carson dug into his actual critiques.

First, he said that “at the risk of horrible generalizations,” he would deal with the issue of epistemology.

Carson believes that those in the Emerging Movement fail to distinguish between hard and soft postmodernism. Hard postmodernists believe that there can be no knowledge of truth, for we are all looking at things from our individual or group’s perspectivist viewpoint. Soft postmodernists, however, recognize that in spite of perspectivism, we can know some things truly though we cannot know anything absolutely.

Carson used an interesting illustration. In Calculus, as Carson explained it (though I'm not a mathmatician, so I can't assure you that this is right), an asymptotic curve is a line whose distance to an axis tends toward zero, but may never actually intersects zero. We can proximate a lot through calculus (“close enough, in fact to get us on the moon. We could never have landed on the moon without Calculus!” Carson explained), but it is only an approximation, not an absolute.

In the same way, finite human beings can know approximately what truth is, we can get accurate enough to say it is "true" even though we know it is only extremely close.

Soft postmoderns accept this.

However, the Emerging Church, according to D.A. Carson, isn’t interacting with soft postmodernism, but only hard postmodernism. He cites John Franke as a leading Emerging Church theologian, and says that Franke only interacts with hard postmodernism.

At this I scratched my head. I know a lot of emerging church people. I read a lot of emerging church blogs. I’ve read a lot of emerging church books. Very few of them advocate for a hard postmodernism. Most are easily in Carson’s category of soft postmodernism (including myself).

Is this a case of Carson building a straw man (that the Emerging Church is filled with hard postmodernists) so that he can easily burn it down?

Posts in this series:
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 01

DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 02
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 03
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 04
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 05
DA Carson versus the Emerging Church, 06

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