Tag Archives: cultural studies

Reading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis from the Margins

Difference, Subjectivity, & Repainting White MaleStream Protestantism

Cover of "Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Ch...

Cover via Amazon


Last week was spring break, and I decided to take the opportunity to read books from my bookshelves that I had owned for a few years, but had only glanced at a few pages. In my early seminary/grad school years, I had vested interest in reading up on the Emergent/Emerging Church. A number of my peers and acquaintances (of the liberal Wesleyan & conservative Reformed traditions) had read Brian McLaren and challenged me to do the same. It all started with me reading Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight, a fairly influential book on my faith journey. I may get to blogging about influential books, but for now, I turn to Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis.

My Deep Appreciation For This Book

Having been made familiar with Emerging/Emergent Christian literature, I was not surprised by many of the questions that Rob Bell was asking. Contrary to popular summaries of Rob Bell’s work, he is actually very traditionalist in his theology; no where does he states that “tradition” or “orthodoxy” in and of itself is “bad.” He sees himself as part of the tradition of Martin Luther (though not Lutheran) but Protestantism, forever reforming and changing Christianity, repainting it is what he calls it. “Orthodoxy” should lead us on a path in search of mystery; it is paradox left unconquered that is part of the life of faith. Bell even refers to Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation of Exodus 19, that Moses’ encounter with the mystery of God on Sinai means the beginning of a new journey. It is this mystery that draws the community of faith together, and Christians have generally trusted their forebears with providing the appropriate “springs” to talk about the divine.

I was also very impressed with Bell’s mentioning of segregationist Christians’ use of scripture to justify their racist beliefs: “It is possible to make the Bible say whatever we want it to, isn’t it? […] Nazis, cult leaders, televangelists who promise that God will bless you if you just get out your checkbook, racists, people who oppress minorities and the poor and anyone not like them- they can all find verses in the Bible to back up their agendas.” Unlike MacLaren’s earliest works, Bell was honest about racial injustice in the U.S. Really, this is all anti-racist Christians want; a truthful conversation where racial injustice is not hidden. I also enjoyed the comments Bell had to say about the Bible: that the Bible HAD to be interpreted, while fundamentalist (Protestant) Christians claim they are only relying on the word of God, no what they really mean, as Bell and others persuasively argue, is that fundamentalists rely on what other people have said about God’s word given to human beings. Bell stresses that subjectivity is everything, and everything is subjective.

Now that Rob Bell has opened up this conversation, the debate continues, who are the most trustworthy interpreters of Scripture? Whose interpretation is valued? Why is she an authority?

Accepting Bell’s Invitation To Criticize Velvet Elvis

In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell makes it clear that he is open to criticism, and that because this is a conversation, he doesn’t have a final say. I readily accept this invitation, a kind, critical response in dialogue with Womanist Theologians.[1] In Womanist theology, much like Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, subjectivity is highly valued. The moral principle of Radical Subjectivity is described as a defiant posture and audaciousness, that come with habits of serving inquiries about oppression and that aid black women to rise above their circumstances as marginalized; it is the Spirit-filled boldness of black women of all ages to challenge racism, sexism, and classism.[2] Radical Subjectivity then, just is not about freedom, it is about the creation of social spaces that will affirm difference. Difference is something that Rob Bell tends to avoid talking about. In fact, to make Scripture relevant for people of faith today in the here and now, Bell’s choice of hermeneutic is one in which we look for similarities with characters in Scripture over and against difference. “The ancient Jewish prophets had these same kinds of spiritual experiences that we do, and they had the same sense that something holds it all together.” In another work, Sex/God, Rob Bell remarks, “What we often do is reverse the creative process that God initiated. We start with different cultural backgrounds and skin colors and nationalities, and its only when we look past these things that we are able to get to what we have in common- that we are fellow image bearers with the shared task of caring for God’s creation. We get it all backwards. We see all of the differences first, only maybe later, maybe do we begin to see the similarities. The new humanity is about seeing people as God sees them.”

He continues, “Moments when all of the ways that we divide ourselves and rank each other and convince ourselves of how different, better, and unalike we are disappear, and we are faced with the fact that first and foremost, we are humans. In this together. And not that much different from each other.”

Variation in the human experience is vilified in Rob Bell’s texts. He is willing to admit that everything is subjective, but is he being honest about his own white male liberal Protestant subjectivity? Yes, I agree, consenting to the doctrine of the imago Dei means that we affirm the humanity of everyone. But let me ask you something, what does it mean to be human? And this is where the rubber hits the road, where the studies of race and religion collide like electricity to the insides of a light bulb. Similarly, attributing difference between God and humanity does not work for Rob Bell; God’s experience is our experience: “They aren’t two different things: God’s joy over here and our joy over there. They are the same. God takes great pleasure in us living as we were made to live” (Velvet Elvis). Womanist understandings of human subjectivity, from writers like bell hooks and Jacqueline Jones Royster, teach us that acknowledging, affirming, and celebrating difference is essential to embracing the Stranger’s humanity. Trinitarian theologies of creation and the Womanist moral principle of Radical Subjectivity go hand in hand: there is difference- in- unity in the Godhead just as there is a freedom to create space to love the Other, that which transcends our experience.

Jacqueline Jones Royster wrote of her experiences in the classroom, having heard that everything is subjective, that place matters, only to learn that when it came to the final authority on history and everything that matters, white voices were placed above all others. Royster puts it this way, “I have come to recognize, however, when the subject matter is me and the voice is not mine, my sense of order and rightness is disrupted. In metaphoric fashion, these ‘authorities’ let me know, once again, that Columbus has discovered America, and claims it now, claims it still for a European crown.”[3] As I mentioned before, radical subjectivity is about freedom for difference. The recognition of difference is not only difference of skin color, gender, or class, but also one of place. If place remains hidden to the audience, certain voices remain privileged over and against those on the margins. Rob Bell begins Velvet Elvis with “Around 500 years ago, a man named Martin Luther raised a whole series of questions about the painting the church was presenting to the world. He insisted that God’s grace could not be purchased with money or good deeds.” This is all good and true, but without acknowledging where Luther proclaimed “Here I stand,” is not this just another reminder for Christians of racial minority communities that white Christians still own Christianity, that Columbus discovered America?

With this seeming aversion to particularity, Rob Bell denies his own whiteness, his own story as a Gentile Christian in the redemption history of YHWH. But this is how white privilege functions: emerging/emergent Christians can write about the Jewishness of Jesus and a whole host of other rabbis but never once talk about their/ our Gentile place in the story. Without a conversation about the Gentile place in the story, we fail to understand Jesus’ mission in the New Testament, as well as our own places in the story of the Jews. The story of the Gentiles, as Paul puts it in Romans, is engrafted into the story of God’s people, the Judeans. The differences between the Jews & Gentiles are not eradicated, they are reconciled; these differences (these bodies, these histories and these cultures) still exist, but they are made one in the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ.

[1] Womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender.

[2] Taken from the book, Black Church Studies: An Introduction, and the definition may or may not have been written by the author of this post. 😉

[3]Quote taken from Jacqueline Jones Royster’s essay “When The First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.”  I am indebted to blogger JK Gayle for sharing this article with me.



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Introducing The Africana Bible: Not A Commentary, but A Folklore

The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures From Africa and the African Diaspora

Logo for WikiProject African Diaspora at :en.

When I first heard of The Africana Bible, my first reaction was, oh, here we go again. What haven’t black scholars already said about Black Interpretation and The Bible. I’ve already read and own Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, as well as True To Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary. I really didn’t understand the difference until I read Hugh Page Jr.’s essay, “The Africana Bible: A Rationale.” He sees The Africana Bible “as a work produced by those who function as poets and ‘storytellers’ in academic, church, and other settings” (page 5). In Page Jr.’s eyes, The Africana Bible can be used as a tool that “increases awareness of Black lived experience throughout the world” as well as “enables Black experience today to be viewed from a global perspective” (ibid). The Africana Bible is not a commentary, but a product of Africana expressive culture, as it “blurs the lines between literary prose, critical scholarship, and (at points) poetry” (page 8).

Leslie R. James’ piece, “The African Diaspora as Construct and Lived Experience” traces the history of biblical studies with the histories of oppressions of African peoples during European colonization. For example, European Christianities changed with the work of Albert Schweizer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus; while Schweitzer seems to give up looking for Christ as a historical figure (within a particular version of European messianism), Frantz Fanon asks us to look for a New Humanity, one that lied outside the realm of Europe, and made available to all peoples in his Wretched of the Earth. Fanon had transformed the subaltern embodied experience of the colonized into a a gateway for universal truth. No, I did not stutter. The label of Africana is diasporic in nature, and we (I as a reader and the writers of this book) this term metaphorically. The allegory of Diaspora opens up the story of the Hebrew Scriptures to Christianities worldwide, and in the U.S. American context, Black Americans have learned true neighborly love, solidarity with the Other, the Israelites of the Bible through Israel’s stories. James contends, “Diaspora has to be perceived as ontological, epistemological, ecumenical, political, and practical” and may I add THEOLOGICAL as well (16)! We know that YHWH is the God of our ancestors, the God of our weary years through the stories of the First Testament, and in our experiences in Diasporic religions.

The multi-authored essay, “African and African Diasporan Hermeneutics: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Journey, Exile, and Life through My/Your Place contends that “Africana biblical hermeneutics are contextual, particular, and powerful” (19). However, Africana biblical interpretation, assuming it is done by Christians, is not rigidly situated and static, enclosed to our Africana communities. Rather, as I have argued with a Trinitarian and Black reading of the Acts of the Trinity, cultural and theological readings of Scripture are reconcilable because of the Trinitarian existence of our God, the Lord Incarnate Jesus the Messiah. Cheryl A. Kirk Duggan begins her portion of this piece, “A trinitarian God-presence and an awareness of the Bible emerged through my daily experiences of family, church, and culture” (21). Did you catch that? Trinitarianism and the concerns for holistic living (a Womanist theological concern) are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they go hand in hand! The multiplicity of ways people engage the Bible with other texts–“in multiple places and spaces”–embolden communities to work for justice and love (22). Kirk-Duggan continues,

“The Pentateuch, or Torah presents creation, sin, liberation, celebration, regulations, injustice, the mystery of God. and the import of faith. Royal histories warn us about messianism, flawed leaders and seductive failures of empires. Unfortunately prophets for justice often demonize women to show Israel/Judah their errors [me-ahem, like Ezekiel]. Wisdom literature, especially the Psalms, provides a liturgical corpus for confession, petition, and thanksgiving.” (page 22)

Africana theological hermeneutics of the First Testament should then include a reading of JUDGES that challenges the seduction of messianic bishops and pastors building empires. Africana theology and biblical scholarship should eventually become a part of the new black theology movement, and become inclusive of Early Christian writers as well. David Tuesday Adamo, in his “The Bible in Twenty-First Century Africa,” points specifically to the Alexandrian Fathers (Clement, Origen, and Athanasius) as Africans who used the Bible to fight oppression (pages 27).

Next up: The Africana Bible, Women, and the Arts.

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Luke-Acts: The Acts of The Trinity

English: Apostles receive the gift of tongues ...


We have all probably sat either in a classroom or church, and hear the teacher or preacher, so smoothly announce that she believes that the Acts of the Apostles should be renamed the Acts of the Holy Spirit. This is a good observation that has quite frankly worn itself out. Of course, I maintain my continuationism, but a focus on pneumatology in Acts causes exegetes and honest Christians to skip Acts 1 and start with Acts 2. I say that if a person begins with Acts 1, she could find a emphasis more on all three persons of the Godhead and their relations to each other. The Risen Christ maintains the Trinitarian distiction between himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit while acknowledging their equality. Jesus informs the 11 apostles and company that the Father alone knows the time that Israel will be restored (Luke 10:22; Acts 1:7) and to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit that the Father had promised to send in Jesus’ name (Acts 1:4; John 14:16).

Theologically, the mission of the Trinity is important in sending the apostles; the sending of the Son and the Spirit corresponds with the sending of the apostles from Jerusalem and Judah and into the world. In terms of occupying space within the universe, and within the canon itself, one could understand the immanent Trinity to be hidden within the witness of the prophets of Israel and the economic Trinity and its life unfolding (and connected to the mission to the Gentiles) as we see in the pages of the New Testament. This approach, I believe, gives me sufficient reason to avoid so called “Christo-centric” readings of the “Old” Testament, where everything is allegory while the history of the Jewish people is superseded. The Trinity remains the same deity throughout Scripture, just one remains primarily hidden, the other primarily disclosed. At the heart of this possible Trinitarian hermeneutic is an emphasis on the difference between the Economic and Immanent Trinity, something that needs to be maintained contra Karl Rahner and certain conservative evangelical theologians who agree with him.

Now, one space where theological interpretation meets the cultural appropriation of the Acts of the Trinity (the Incarnation) is African American Christian traditions. In early colonial America, Quakers, Baptists and Methodists who were abolitionists tried to teach free blacks Christianity with passages such as Acts 10:34-36–“God is no respecter of persons” and Acts 17:36–“he hath made of one blood all the nations of men [and women].” It was these same passages that [one time] Calvinist 18th century black preacher Lemuel Haynes refuted “the great” Jonathan Edwards’ claims that it was God’s will for blacks to be enslaved. Demetrius K. Williams in his contribution to True To Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, notes that 19th century preachers such as Bishop Reverdy Ransom found their goals for social justice for the Negro Church from the Acts of The Trinity (page 216). The stories such as the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-40) to the Jerusalem Conference (13-14:28) show that there is a movement from the inner life of God to the economic workings of the Trinity to bring the Good News to all of the world. Because of the essential unity of YHWH and the Messiah (the Incarnation, both God and Humanity), the theological can indeed be reconciled with the cultural, without these being mutually exclusive as we have now in biblical studies.

*Edit*: suffice has been changed to sufficient. Thanks for the correction, Joel!

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