Friday, September 15, 2006

Velvet Elvis

Today, I read Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill, which according to the back of his book is one of the fastest growing churches in American history. It was suggested to me by the pastor of the Evangelical church we attend when I was explaing to him and the other elders how I ended up attracted to Orthodoxy. My initial thought when I saw the book was--weird format. My second thought was--someone wants this to look postmodern. I don't know if it normally comes with a dust jacket--the library copy doesn't have one. The cover is plain white, with the title rotated 90 degrees (clockwise) and written in Orange. The subtitle is under/next to it in faint gray--the same color as the author's name. Inside, the book is three-color--mostly black and white print, but with a lot of orange highlighting, including fully orange pages between the chapters. The page numbers are also written sideways, and for some reason the chapters are called "movements." It doesn't seem very musical beyond that. There are a lot of one-line or even one-word paragraphs throughout the book, so between the white space and the extra orange pages between chapters, it's actually a much faster read than its nearly 200 pp. (including endnotes) would suggest. Since I brought up the endnotes, I should mention that I find them off-putting. Mostly, the notes are Scripture references, which could easily have been handled in-line. I suppose someone doesn't want the book to look too religious by putting them out there where the casual reader might see them. I tried not to let these elements prejudice my reaction to the book, since it's entirely possible that the publisher had a lot more say in them than the author.

I'm reasonably confident that I know why the book was recommended to me. Early on, it has some positive things to say about tradition and about reading the Bible in community. The author is clearly quite enthusiastic about Jewish tradition in particular, which would seem relevant to my own experience. There are other elements that might have had something to do with the recommendation, but I'm less certain that they were specifically considered. In short, it was probably meant to show that some of the key things I was looking for when I found Orthodoxy can be found in certain types of Evangelicalism that exist right now. It does that, and I'm grateful for it in its way, but as I hope to explain here, it didn't change much about my outlook on much of anything.

I've known for quite some time that there is a subset of Evangelicalism--generally categorized as postmodern or labeled "the emerging Church"--that likes to talk about tradition and reading as part of a community. Personally, I got to those ideas through the literary critic Stanley Fish (among others); I'm not sure these people are coming at it from quite the same angle, but the result is more or less the same. One significant difference, I suspect, is that my hermeneutical journey took me through some more radical methods, many of which are grounded in a completely secularist outlook, so by the time I realized where it was all leading, the picture looked quite a bit more bleak. No, bleak probably isn't the word I want here. What I think I really want to say is that I was more jaded about the whole process of reading for objective meaning. I will freely admit that some of this feeling probably came from the degree to which I had been trained in and accepted the more modernist Evangelical program of mechanistic Bible reading. Although I grew up in a time when I should have been more comfortably postmodern, my friends were adults and conservative Christians, and my favorite reading material was somewhat outdated apologetics (Geisler, McDowell, Lewis, et al.). It was more of a shock to my system when I realized that the approach didn't work, and I quickly progressed through some of the darker levels of postmodern reading.

So in many ways, I would say this book is a sunnier version of my own experience over the past few years. I, too, rediscovered the importance of community in reading the Bible and the inevitable flow of tradition. I, too, was drawn first to Jewish tradition. In my own experience, this attraction had a lot to do with a long-standing affinity for Judaism and a simultaneous intensive study of Semitic languages, mostly Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic. Jewish tradition was also, for me, safer territory than deep Christian traditions. I had no baggage of a Reformation against Judaism, and there was a sense in which Judaism felt like Christianity with some stuff stripped away (as opposed to a lot of extra stuff added that didn't belong). This outlook was willfully simplistic--I knew then, as I know now, that Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament or the parent of Christianity. They are better understood as sister faiths--both picking up where the faith of the Old Testament left off and progressing along their own developmental lines.

I don't know if Bell had any of these feelings that led to his interest in Jewish tradition, but one factor that I suspect we shared in common was the view of Jewish tradition as a free-floating collection of voices--a big, postmodern soup of readings where everyone's comments are valued. Postmodernists love to hold up the Talmud, with its many marginal commentaries, as a prime example of how reading is supposed to work. The only problem is that it never really worked that way. The discussion is meant to have some kind of resolution--some of the voices are meant to be wrong. There is an authoritative structure that has nailed down to a great extent the boundaries of Jewish practice, and the living out of this vision today consists mostly of rabbis quibbling over the pickiest details that somehow their people still need to be told how to think about. Bell might like the postmodern idea of Jewish tradition, but he would not actually want to live by it or by a Christian equivalent. I say this with relative confidence, because he still thinks like a Western Evangelical. He talks about tradition, but he still handles it like a Protestant--at best, he picks out of various traditions what he finds appealing in them and throws the rest away. In my opinion, this misses the point entirely.

The strongest connection I see between Bell's views and my own journey is with what I would call the first of my two options. Once I realized how reading works, I knew there were only two ways I could go--either to find a community that was willing to read with freedom and mutual acceptance and few boundaries, and to somehow muddle along toward a consensus of how we would live, or to plug myself into a community that already had an established and honest tradition. The first option, I decided, could only proceed honestly with a bunch of people who thought like I did. (Even then, I wasn't sure it could be sustained.) Most people feel a need to take seriously their beliefs and balk at constantly changing them. With too many of that kind in the group, it would soon fragment over things that people considered too important to leave fuzzy. And a community that only works for academically minded people just doesn't sound like a good idea for a church. Aside from the contradiction that it appears to be very open-minded but only so long as those who join conform to the type of open-mindedness we want, it would inevitably have problems with children who grew up in the community and ended up rejecting their parents' open-mindedness. Like most forms of Western "liberalism," it would ultimately show itself truly closed to anyone who couldn't adopt the same mindset.

I gave up on the first option before ever trying it in real life, but it looks to me like what Bell is advocating is something like it. He freely admits, however, his superpastor mode in the early days of Mars Hill, and I suspect that the same thing happened here that happens so often in Evangelical churches (particularly megachurches)--people were attracted to him and to his vision, and they signed up because they thought according to similar patterns anyway and willingly conformed their thinking to his. Not that they all thought alike on every detail--I'm talking about the larger framework here, which can often include certain types of openness and flexibility (within boundaries). As he says, the community will keep individuals from going off the deep end in their own understanding (or at least find ways to make them leave if they do), but that presumes that the community has some kind of consensus to begin with. Where a church was started by a charismatic adrenaline junkie, I would be truly surprised if that consensus didn't come mostly from his own thinking and style. And at this point, it's worth bringing up the whole notion of leadership and authority within the community, which probably exists at Mars Hill in some form but is clearly avoided in the book.

And authority is a key, I think, because it means the difference between a postmodern Evangelical who picks and chooses old ideas and practices that he likes, and an Orthodox Jew (or Orthodox Christian) who lives in submission to the Tradition handed down over countless generations. As a glaring example of this point, a quick scan through the endnotes in the book (those that aren't Scripture references) shows that he's consulting a good deal more with Jewish tradition--which in its developed, Rabbinic form has virtually nothing to do with the development of Christianity and therefore can't possibly hold any authority over Christians today--than with Catholic tradition, whether Western or Eastern, or for that matter with Reformed tradition. Authority also means the difference between a free-form gathering of ideas about a text and a received meaning of the text that produces agreement not only within a local congregation but throughout the world. If simply having a tradition is enough, what has prevented the Protestant world from coming together? I would submit that there is no authority in Protestant traditions, so there can never be common thinking across the board. Another thing I would add about authority. He talks about the structure of Jewish discipleship to make his points about Jesus--well taken, I would say--but how does it end there? Where in Christian tradition does this kind of radical submission continue? It is nowhere to be found in his model of community, but it has been central to Orthodoxy.

Having said that, I think he does make a lot of good points in the book. Early on, he makes a good case for negative theology and preserving mystery. Much of what he says in the later chapters (where Tradition seems noticeably absent in the content and the approach) does align pretty well with Orthodox teaching. Salvation is not just about a legal transaction--it is about relationship, about restoring us to the image of God. What's most important is not Scripture--it's God; not what we think, but what we do. We're involved in something bigger than me and Jesus--it's about changed lives that mean a better world for everyone and everything. Nature itself is redeemed in the process, as Christ lives through us. Heaven and hell don't just happen then and there--they start here and now, and we create our own outcome. Evangelism should be primarily about living and welcoming others to live with us, not about looking for just some one-time decision. Amen! I will always rejoice to see Evangelicals coming to such conclusions. And to the extent that this kind of thing gets people thinking in the direction of community and tradition, I'm all for it. May it bring at least some who follow it to where they can see the Church as it was meant to be.

But I'm not convinced that it will. It's still a big leap from recognizing value in tradition to following tradition. It's a desire to have one's cake and eat it too. Let me benefit from tradition, but let me still be the authority. Let me ascribe value to the past, but let me still favor the future. As much as postmodernism seeks to refute modernism, at its root the chronological bias is still the same. Bell's first chapter in the book shows this--it's moving forward, it's creating something new, it's reinventing, it's exploring. Yes, he acknowledges that this often consists of dusting off something old, but the outlook hasn't really changed. Yes, he is comfortable appealing to creeds and councils (in support of Protestant theology), but he still disagrees fundamentally with their mindset--that what is new is suspect, that changing the Tradition is bad, not good. This is not to say that there is no place for creativity in Orthodoxy, or that nothing ever changes. But good change and good creativity is always understood as an outworking of what was already there. There is still an opposition between Bell's approach and the traditional approach of the Church, and the outcome could very well be that this whole movement will be just one more passing fad as Evangelicalism tries to keep up with the secular world.

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