Velvet Elvis and the Mystery of the Church

In my current research I’m reading Rob Bell. I began with Velvet Elvis. When Rob Bell published Velvet Elvis and was talking about repainting Christianity I was quite literally painting: writing icons.  He was questioning what he had received. He was “repainting”  his understanding of the Christian tradition. I was seeking to receive a tradition that wasn’t mine and to paint it true.    There is something compelling about the answers that Rob Bells comes in his re-visioning of Evangelical Christianity (the tradition he had received), and they reveal so much.

Bell has a brief discussion of the Church in Velvet Elvis. Bell describes church in two very different ways.

One is very human, a collection of individuals, an institution run by those humans and which reflects the attitudes and activities of those human beings.  As such this institution, these groups of people, exist to live out the ideals of the Gospel.  Rob Bell says this of this church or these churches  “…is like a double-edged sword.when it’s good… it’s like nothing on earth.  A group of people committed to selflessly serving and loving the world around them? great but when it ‘s bad all that potential gets turned the other way.”

Then Bell also says this  about the Church: “She’s indestructible. When she dies in one part of the world, she explodes in another. She’s global, She’s universal. She’s everywhere. And while she’s fragile, she’s going to endure…. Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against her. That’s strong language… She will continue to roll across the ages, serving and giving and connecting people with God and each other.  And people will abuse her and manipulate her and try to control her , but they’ll pass on, and she will keep going.”

The connection between these two very different, even contradictory, claims isn’t accounted for.  The first claim certainly seems to be an accurate description of my experience of congregational or parish life, and even of much of the history of Christianity.  The second describes something (or is it someone?) that  transcends the frailty of Christian, individuals, groups, and leadership.

I have some questions though.  By saying that the church is a group of people committed to selflessly serve and love the world around them, seems to make the reality of the church dependent upon the works (and yes I intend the baggage of that word to be heard) of the people that make up the church.  The Evangelical mind wants to call both realities church.  And on some level they are.  However, in the first meaning of church, church is dependent upon the accomplishment of a goal (which contradicts, a description of the church Rob Bell that of  a journey not a destination).  The second though Rob Bell doesn’t come out and say it is dependent upon the work of God, not human beings.  Rob Bell recognizes  that the church transcends a body of believers:  it will survive the vicissitudes of history.  He recognizes this transcendence as part of his  repainting, a reworking of the tradition out of which he comes.  He of course in Velvet Elvis is attempting to creatively stay within that tradition, so the emphasis is on the church as a group of Christians who do certain things, mainly things consistent with Jesus’s teachings, but here at the end of this chapter and near the end of the book, he suggests that something else might be going on.

Not surprisingly I want more than Velvet Elvis’ brief flirtation with the mystery of the Church. I want to sit and listen to those who claim that something else is going on.  I don’t simply want to put a very human view of the church (the church is merely what its members make of it) alongside an assertion that  somehow the church is more than the collective effort of individual Christians, and say no more.

Jacques Maritain articulates this mystery as the difference between the personnel and the person of the Church (note the singularity, “person”).  I don’t know if I agree with Maritain, but it begins to articulate the longing I’m attempting to express here.  If church is just the people and not also something that transcends and binds us together and nurtures in us the mind of Christ, then I despair of this thing we call Christianity. However if the church is more than our collective action and activity and is being, (a being) that can be who we are beyond what we do,then there’s grace and then there is the loving call to be a saint.