By nature, I avoid the popular. Jamie and I have had endless discussions about whether or not there is value (or validity) to pop music–Rihanna, Chris Brown, Britney, you name it.
I usually say there’s none, or very little (similar perhaps to eating a stick of candy: pleasurable for a moment, but rotten in the long run), value to these endeavors.
I’m the same way with literature, theology, and every other human pastime that begets, alongside laudable efforts, “B-rate” efforts (and often whole industries devoted to producing B-rate efforts) at the same task.
So I’ve avoided all the popular theological and spiritual books of our generation for as long as I could. For example, it took me three years after it became a buzz to read Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I still haven’t read Shane Claiborne’s Irresistable Revolution. (And, if I’m completely honest, I probably never will.)
Anyway, it’s taken me some time to read this guy Rob Bell, who wrote a book called Velvet Elvis. But I just started. And glad for it.
Bell is a pastor of a church in Grand Rapids called Mars Hill. I know, it can be tricky: Bell’s church shares the name with other Christian institutions, such as Mark Driscoll’s church and a graduate school of theology in Seattle, both unconnected to Bell and to each other. Needless to say–or is it?–“Mars Hill” is less conspicuous, although also less historical, than “Areopagus,” the Roman name for the Athenian forum Paul enters in Acts 17:22.
(Also needless to say–?–is that the presumed intention behind this nomenclature is to imply some sort of engagement with secular culture and philosophy, as [again, presumably] Paul did that day in Athens. Too bad none of them thought of naming their church or seminary “the Fuller’s Field”…)
Back to Rob Bell. He’s good. He’s not saying anything a beginner’s student of theology doesn’t know, but the point is he’s not saying it to students of theology. He’s saying it to the Church at large. And people are listening.
Now, as with any writer or any book, fanfare can obscure the problems therein. (Most often, fanfare obscures nuance. Nuance requires an advanced student of theology, and that’s where I want to fault Bell.) I want to point out one very minor problem that has caught my attention in the first chapter of this book. (I’m only on page 65..)
Bell joins the current evangelical “relationship not religion” battle cry on page 21, offering his own little twist:
Jesus at one point claimed to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ Jesus was not making claims about one religion being better than all other religions… Jesus exposes us to reality at its rawest. So the way of Jesus is not about religion; it’s about reality.
True enough, given certain definitions for “religion.” But Bell also wants to affirm the basic importance–and the necessity–of the material culture of religion, such as texts and their transmission (called by philosophers of religion “tradition”).
Everybody follows somebody. All of us make decisions every day about what is important, how to treat people, and what to do with our lives. These decisions come from what we believe about every aspect of our existence. And we got our beliefs from somewhere. We have been formed, every one of us, by this complicated mix of people and places and things. Parents and teachers and artists and scientists and mentors–we are each taking all of these influences and living our lives according to which teachings we have made our own. (pp. 19-20)
Kudos to Bell for pointing this out. Kudos again for pointing it out again in conjunction with Scriptural interpretation (pp. 44-46). There is no such thing as a self-interpreting text, or an “objective” interpretation of a text, and the interpretations we learn of certain key texts in our church life are part of our church tradition–therefore, they are part of the wider concept “religion.”
And that’s one reason why religion is important. Religion means the material, communal transmission of concepts about God and the spiritual realm. This transmission could occur primarily through ritual (tribal religions) or confirmation classes (Catholicism) or Sunday School lessons (Protestantism). We need religion, because without it, we know nothing about God.
The phrase “faith of our fathers” comes to mind. I hate to hear people say “Oh I’m spiritual–I’m just not religious.” So where did you get your ideas about what it means to be “spiritual”? Buddha? Nietzsche? Both founders of a “religion”! It seems better to me to be aware of the fact that we are practicing the faith of our fathers. This way we can critique and reform our faith with humility and respect, instead of blindly convincing ourselves we are onto something totally new or radical–when in fact, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9).
A second reason that religion is beneficial is that it grants accountability.
Religion means structure. I’ve heard of so many churches that have become “cultish” or idolize the personality of their pastor. And these churches are usually of the non-denominational variety, where there exists virtually no denominational hierarchy or identity to which an individual church may be held accountable. They are simply “Gospel-believing” (which is supposed to be self-explanatory?).
Paul described the Church as a “body” (1 Cor. 12:27-28). What could be more physical? More material? More structural? Religion fleshes out this structure, even if the Spirit gives it life.
Finally, we might dream of the whole world engaging in intensely intellectual, dynamic mind-games and exercising thoroughly independent and creative wills, but the fact is that most of the world lives very narrow, confined lives. Peasants in rural Peru don’t need to be encouraged to “stretch the springs of doctrine”–they need very practical rules for daily living, just the kind Bell so eloquently reminded us Jesus gave the Galilean peasantry in the first century.
So religion is first-order practice of the way of Jesus. Theology is second-order reflection on religion. Not everyone needs to do the latter.
I’m still trying to figure out if I need to.