September 9, 2011

Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell

I can still clearly remember the moment in high school when one of my classmates confided that she thought heaven and hell were probably just on earth. I was shocked at the heresy. But this is one of the themes of Velvet Elvis that has really caught my imagination. Bell uses a lot of scripture to show that our purpose on earth is to foster goodness (love, peace - all the things that God is) and that these efforts, supported by God, will expand the "kingdom of God" (or the kingdom of good) until eventually the earth is restored to its original state of goodness. I'm saying this awkwardly (you have to read the book!), but that's the rough idea. Bell emphasizes that this "new earth" will still not be perfect or static - it will continue to grow and change but goodness will prevail.

Another idea of Bell's that makes huge sense to me is that Jesus/God is everywhere on earth where good is. He says God would never be so petty as to just appear in one Palestinian place and then depend on that specific event getting out over thousands of years. He says if you are going to be a missionary, don't go to "bring Jesus." He's already there. If anything, go to affirm the good that is God's presence, and give people a name for that, if they need it, and encourage them to do good and resist evil.

One of the insights I enjoyed most was Bell's contention that the Garden of Eden (the earth as it was originally before sin) wasn't perfect either. He points out that God saw it and said that it was "good." Not perfect. Just good. This made me giggle. Along with lots of other things in Velvet Elvis.

The word "eagerly" is old-fashioned, I guess, but it's a great word to describe how I read this book. Usually I read books on spiritual matters somewhat ploddingly, with a sense of duty that this is an important part of life. This book I tore through, enjoying every word, in much the same way as I'd read Bell's more recent book, Love Wins, which I reviewed earlier.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta

This is an amazing book which I couldn't bear to read in its entirety. The author was born in Bombay, then moved to the U.S. as a young man, and makes his career as a journalist mostly writing about India. The book is a portrait of his hometown, Bombay, or Mumbai, as it's now called, although Mehta says there's no reason the name should ever have been changed, as the city was founded by the Portuguese and the name they gave it relates every bit as well to the language as does Mumbai.

Mehta moved his young family to Mumbai for two years while he wrote this book. The city he describes is (to me as a Canadian) unspeakable in its crowdedness, corruption, horror, unviability, poverty and filth. Greater Bombay has a population of 19 million, more than the population of 173 countries in the world. For the millions of these who live in slums and the millions more on the street, sanitation facilities are pretty well non-existent. To say that the city's infrastructure hasn't kept up with the population is the most facile understatement - in fact, keeping up would imply that there ever had been an infrastructure and the evidence for that is slight. The government appears mostly to be ineffective to nonexistent for the day-to-day needs of its citizens; people turn to mobsters for many of their basic needs such as housing, security, and justice, simply because there's no other way to get these things.

What made it impossible for me to read all of this book is the history. I am aware that human beings do unspeakable things to each other in the name of religion and other causes, but Mehta doesn't shrink from describing these things, and it was the recent horrors that shook me the most. One likes to think of such barbarities as belonging to the barbaric past.

Having said all this, I suppose it is a brilliant book. Mehta tells the story firsthand through getting to know residents of Mumbai - a policeman, a mobster, a nightclub cross-dresser, an average family who has moved like millions of others from a rather peaceful rural existence to the chaos of Bombay for economic opportunity and the chance to someday move far enough up the ladder that they can afford to move to the U.S.

Mehta tries to present a balanced picture, but the way it comes out, it doesn't seem as though the positive has much of a leg to stand on in Bombay. Near the end he relates how he asked someone why they stayed in Bombay, and the person said, "Look at the hands." In a train meant to hold a few hundred people, a thousand people were packed so tight most couldn't raise their arms, yet scores of hands reached out of the windows and doors as the train started to move to help a latecomer get on. That wouldn't happen here.

I'm going to be interested to discuss this book with my cousin Marv some day. He's in his final year of a three-year term as Consul-General for Canada to Mumbai. Maybe he'll have a completely different take on it. We had talked to Marv and Shelby about a visit, but now I know I can't - that I simply don't have the nerve to be in a place where so much evil has occurred and where things work so badly. Should have gone when I was younger.