“Jesus Wants to Save Christians” – Book Review 4
I have been simultaneously reading two slightly unorthodox Christian books – “Jesus Wants to Save Christians (A Manifesto for the Church in Exile)” by Rob Bell (American), and “How To Be a Bad Christian (and a Better Human Being)” by Dave Tomlinson (British). One of the things these books have in common is provocative and patronising titles and subtitles, titles indeed that border on offensive. I shall leave the Tomlinson book for another time.
On 1st March I reviewed Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”, perhaps too critically, but I hope making clear that it was a book whose thesis about hell we ought to be willing to address.
“Jesus Wants…” is written in a similar style, reminiscent of the inspiring public address rather than the quiet library, and this may annoy. But either I’m getting used to it, or the stylistic quirks are less prominent than in “Love Wins”.
I also complained about the latter that there was a lack of adequate referencing. Admittedly, “Jesus Wants…” is jam-packed with Bible quotes, which a pastor will surely always reference, but Bell does here provide thorough references to support his other comments. (Although one footnote claims that Psalm 137 refers to a hatred of Assyria. Psalm 137 is about Babylon, isn’t it? In the immediate context of what he is saying (pages 59-60), this is a significant but not world-shaking error.)
I liked this book better than “Love Wins”, and I would recommend anyone to read it for its coherent, Bible-based, stimulating and challenging argument about the role of the church in the modern world.
Acknowledging a lot of help from Don Golden (friend and vice-president of World Relief, presumably a relief charity) Bell goes through the Bible from Exodus to Revelation, drawing out his provocative thesis that Israel historically, and the Church (historically and spiritually) pass through a cycle that can be described as Egypt – Sinai – Jerusalem – Babylon.
Egypt is where God’s people are oppressed slaves, they cry out, God hears and rescues.
Sinai is where God makes covenant with them, calling them to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, which means that they should do justice and righteousness for all.
Jerusalem is where the people have been blessed by God, but they forget their calling, and allow themselves to be led astray into accumulating and protecting wealth, and even oppressing rather than blessing the poor. This he calls “anti-kingdom.” (Solomon is the villain of the Bible on this view. The Queen of Sheba understands his calling (1 Kings 10:9), but he does not.)
Babylon is the place of terrible Exile, where the people are led by the prophets into rediscovering their sins and their mission, and realising that the ultimate redemptive blood is that of Christ.
The American nation and church, according to Bell, are in Jerusalem/Babylon, failing to care for the poor, spending their money on new church buildings and supporting foreign wars, instead of promoting clean water and justice in the developing world, and loving the downtrodden everywhere. I think we can take many of his criticisms and challenge as intended for the British church as well.
Bell goes through the Bible and finds a coherent story along the lines above, with many intriguing and confirmatory connections. He claims this is how to read it. The nearest he comes to criticising Scripture is to call the Levites’ slaughter of idolatrous Israelites in Exodus 32 “a bloody murderous act of violence.” But this means he misses out the other parts, the parts where Israel conquers its land with God’s approval, the parts about ultimate victory, and saving yourselves from the wicked age. You have to look quite hard to interpret Kings and Chronicles as condemning Solomon.
Theologically, this leaves me with a few questions. Such as:
Is the Bible as coherent and poor-focussed as Bell claims?
What actually is the meaning of salvation for the individual on this view? Is telling us we all ought to be serving the poor a new gospel of “salvation by works”? (Admittedly, Bell does tell us not to respond to our riches with guilt.)
Is it legitimate to assume Christianity should be pacifist, as Bell seems to, without further justification? (“A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands.”)
And a political worry:
“Jesus Wants…” was first published in 2008, and my edition has a preface from 2011. The American church and nation are being asked to face their enormous blessing and privilege when compared to the poor abroad (and admittedly also the under-privileged and rejected at home.) But what we now see, in both Britain and America, is an electorate that doesn’t see itself as blessed at all, but which intends to act and vote out of an angry sense of victimhood, in some cases understandable. This is scary.
Overall, I think Bell’s approach is a healthy challenge to my view of the world, the church, and the Bible, and I want more people to read it. And to be moved to act, so that the church can be Eucharist, “setting the table for the whole world” – “opening ourselves up to the mystery of resurrection, open for the liberation of others, allowing our bodies to be broken and our blood to be poured, discovering our Eucharist. Listening. And going.”
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