Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Velvet Elvis, Introduction

For whatever reason, I've been given a copy of Velvet Elvis to read. I haven't read anything like this for a while, probably not for eight years or so. I thought I'd write some notes about it as I go.

Right from the beginning, the first thing to note about the book is that it's written in the same tone that the author speaks. It's a series of short paragraphs, interspersed with single sentences, or even single words. The pauses in the text are deliberate and paced. If you've ever heard Bell speak, or seen one of his nooma videos, then you get the idea. Or rather, you get



In his introduction, he draws a parallel between theology and art, identifying that in the same way that artists draw inspiration from each other in order to pursue their own artistic endeavours, so too must Christians with doctrines. No doctrine is the final word, just as no art is the final word. In other words, he identifies himself with the Reformed tradition (or "reforming" as he puts it). Perhaps his most interesting statement in this assertion is
Times change. God doesn't, but times do. (11)
Around this axiom he builds an argument to bring an unchanging God into contact with culture. This is an interpretive encounter, an interpretive instruction, as though Christianity is the result of viewing an absolute God through the lens of a changing culture. Christianity will always change, but the reason for a changing Christianity is not a changing God, it's a changing culture, and Christianity remains valid as long as attention is on God.

I began the summary with comments about style, so style will be first here as well. Although the general understanding of a Velvet Elvis is as the quintessential kitsch, Bell attempts to redefine his association with it and I'm not sure he succeeds. We're left with an image of his book as an attempt at art, rather than actual art; or rather, an attempt at theology, rather than actual theology. The book appears to be toying with the notions of the problem of evil, the heterodoxy of the Church, and other familiar themes of theology but without the substance. Bell is painting on velvet, and the result - despite any actual skill he has - is cheapened a little. It feels like the difference between authentic aboriginal art, and the aboriginal art found in a tourist souvenir shop. The ideas are there (check the endnotes to see glimpses at his sources), but it's not satisfying.

This is most evident in the broken paragraphs and the streams of questions. It's a style that seems to have more in common with books of aphorisms, koans and proverbs. The reader might be in a better position to think of Bell, not as a teacher or a writer, but as a guru, a wise man, or a mentor. Velvet Elvis, at its worst, is clever wordplay that sounds thoughtful. At its best, it's a trigger for thoughtful reflection by the reader. Throughout the book it will do both, but with more of the clever wordplay.

Bell is softly bringing his audience around to questions of interpretation, and perhaps towards postmodernity. Although he won't go so far as pluralism or relativism, he wants to step out of the confines of tradition by making some wiggle room for opinion and culture. Such a move views culture as neutral, not as ideology. It allows the values of contemporary society to take the role of lens, or perhaps coloured glass, without accounting for the distortion of that lens or colour. This model appears to be a confusion of the epistemological problem of knowing about a transcendent God, and the inculturation of the Church. It also leaves open the question about knowing an absolute God. How does the viewer know that the lens is pointing at God, when all we know about God was derived from what the previous viewer saw? The metaphor is limited, of course. Nevertheless, the only ingredients appear to be an absolute God, the changing times, and the viewer. There's no mention, as yet, of the transformative power of God, or the interruption of the gospel. These might come later in the book.

It's clear, however, that Bell is right about the need for theology to continue to develop, but not simply because the times change or because culture changes. Theology continues to develop because theology encounters itself and is manifest in the life of the Church as it embodies Christ. Theology is not driven by cultural changes; but the opposite is true, theology must drive the change in the world.

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