Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jesus Wants to Save Christians -- Review

JESUS WANTS TO SAVE CHRISTIANS: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile. By Rob Bell and Don Golden. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. 218 pp.

The title is intriguing: Jesus Wants to Save Christians. It’s intriguing because one would assume that Christians are already saved. After all, aren’t Christians followers of Jesus? And isn’t Jesus the one who saves us? The problem, as Rob Bell and Don Golden suggest, is that we have gone and lost our way.

As with Velvet Elvis, an earlier book by Bell, this book is written in a fast paced and compelling manner. The paragraphs are brief. Often the wording is laid out one sentence or one phrase at a time. The book is packaged so that the reader continues to move forward into the book. While the style and the formatting aids in the reading of the material, the material itself is compelling, challenging, and transformative.

As with any coauthored book one doesn’t know exactly who wrote what, but I’m assuming that Bell is the lead writer in this effort. Bell is a pastor of a large evangelical church on the western side of Michigan, but if one were to rely on stereotypes then what one finds in this book might be surprising. But then again, the title says a lot about what to expect.

The premise of this book is that God is a God who listens to the oppressed and the enslaved, and then reaches out to liberate the oppressed from slavery and from poverty. The biblical story is about a God who is not necessarily fair, that is, this God focuses on those in need not on those who are self-sufficient. It’s that old idea of God’s preferential option for the poor, thought the authors don’t use that phrase. More to the point, is the message of the Cain and Abel story. Beginning in Genesis, we find Cain and Abel, two brothers from a dysfunctional family. The writers of Genesis, they suggest “insist that something has gone terribly wrong with humanity, and that from the very beginning humans are moving in the wrong direction” (p. 13). From the very beginning we have forgotten our calling to be the keeper of our brothers and sisters. That theme carries through the book. God is concerned about the other, and God is listening for their voice.

First in Egypt, God hears the cries of the oppressed. Egypt, the authors tell us, is an “anti-kingdom.” That is, it is symbolic of those forces that stand opposed to God’s kingdom, which is concerned for peace. Egypt, they write, “is what happens when sin becomes structured and embedded in society.” Exodus, on the other hand, “is about a people, a tribe, a nation being rescued from slavery” (p. 27). At Sinai God breaks the silence and begins to speak – for the first time in the Scriptures that God talks to a group since Eden. And by speaking in the wilderness, no one can take ownership of God’s speech. It belongs to everyone, and the message is that of rescue and liberation.

As God first listens and then speaks to the people, we discover that God is in search of a body. That’s why, Bell and Golden say, that the third commandment bans idols and images. These former slaves, whom God has liberated, they are the ones who will carry God’s image. And the Commandments themselves, are the way in which they are to be human, “new way to live and move in the world, in covenant with the God who hears the cry of the oppressed and liberates them” (p. 34). From Sinai we move to Jerusalem, and the story of Solomon.

We’re used to hearing about the wisdom of Solomon, but Bell and Golden remind us of the dark side of his personality. “God,” they note, had been looking for “a body, a nation to show the world just who God is and what God is like.” The Queen of Sheba had come to Jerusalem, seeking understanding and returns believing that he has been made king because he had maintained “justice and righteousness.” She’s impressed with Solomon’s God because God is concerned about oppressed. And yet, in the end, Solomon walks away from that God. Instead of maintaining “justice and righteousness,” he builds temples and palaces on the backs of slave laborers. How ironic that Solomon is building a temple for the God who freed slaves with slave labor (pp. 35-39). But not only that, but Solomon was busy building military bases – like Megiddo. He’s doing this, because he needs to protect his “massive resources and wealth” (p. 40).

By now you should be getting the picture that any stereotypes about evangelical commitments need to be reconsidered. This is a book about a God who listens to the cries of the oppressed, liberates the slaves, and doesn’t take kindly to kings who oppress and enslaves in his name. With Solomon, Israel becomes the new Egypt.

What’s next? Why Babylon and exile. “Exile is when you fail to convert your blessings into blessings for others. Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God” (p. 45). God had been warning the people about such matter through prophets like Amos, who declared that God didn’t care much for their evil assemblies, since they were given to oppression. With the exile and the return, one witness a new exodus – where one hopes that things would be different. The concern expressed by the prophets was that things would return to normal. Jerusalem would be rebuilt with armies, palaces, slaves, and a temple as before.

Upon returning home, they discover that things are what they were. They may not be in Babylon, but this is no return to glory. In time they’ll build a new Temple, but occupation and oppression will be their lot as well. The hope is for a new Son of David. Here Jesus enters the story. Jesus is the one hears the cries of the oppressed. The question is put before him – are you listening or are you like Solomon?

Bell and Golden mix in a number of stories, from Exodus to Solomon to Emmaus. Throughout all of this, we discover new ways of understanding reality – and we learn that violence and oppression are not part of God’s ways. Jesus, they write, ends violence by absorbing it. In resisting violence Jesus becomes the suffering servant of Isaiah. In defining the cross we don’t see any sign of a sacrificial victim placating an angry God. There is a bit of the substitutionary atonement, but it’s not prominent.

The story moves on into the book of Acts, where we meet Philip and the eunuch. I think that the authors mix up the Philips in the biblical story. The one in Acts isn’t the same one as in the gospels. That being said, Philip is portrayed as a conservative Jew who likely would not have welcomed a eunuch, and yet there he is sharing the good news with him, and doing so the good news extends beyond Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. Indeed, if the message of liberation is for all humanity, it can’t stay in Jerusalem.

The message is filtering through the book. Everything in the biblical story is interconnected, Eden, Exodus, Sinai, Jerusalem, Babylon, the Son of David, and Pentecost. God is in search of a body to make his presence known. Finally there is the church, “a body of people putting flesh and blood on the divine” (p. 99). And, then there’s baptism, which takes us back to the Exodus – indeed it’s all related. The point of which, is the freeing of the message of God from “its cultural and religious trappings” so it might be a universal message.

That brings us forward into the present – to an American form of Christianity. The story of the church in America is the story of living in empire. With Iraq in the background, America is what Rome was.

“Most of the Bible is a history told by people living in lands occupied by conquering superpowers. It’s a book written from the underside of power. It’s an oppression narrative. The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, mighty empires, from the Egyptian Empire to the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire to the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire” (p. 121).

Most perceptively, they write that this book can be difficult to understand when read by citizens of the world’s most powerful empire – “Without careful study and reflection, and humility, it may eve be possible to miss central themes of the Scriptures” (p. 121). American Christians, most of whom embrace the idea of American exceptionalism, and affirm the idea that God is blessing America, may find this section of the book discomforting.

Revelation is one of those biblical books that causes problems for interpreters. Bell and Golden recognize this and point out its message – one directed at empire. It is a call to resistance to the corrosive nature of empire that has the “power to oppress people.” It is, they write, “a bold, courageous, political attack” on empire. It presents a choice – Jesus or Caesar – who is Lord? (P. 133). Whose way, they ask, is the way? Violence or peace? Indeed, this does press close to home.

But that’s not the only discomforting thought. He presses even closer to home – what about church structures and institutions – like youth groups that seem unable to catch the drift of Jesus’ message. But in our abundance, how do we hear this message?

How do kids who are surrounded by more abundance than in any other generation in the history of humanity take seriously a Messiah who said, “I have been anointed to preach good news to the poor?” (p. 138).

Indeed, “how do they fathom that half the world is too poor to feed its kids when their church just spent two years raising money to build an addition to their building?” (P. 138).

These are difficult questions to wrestle with. It is hard for us to comprehend the full message of Scripture. We don’t understand fully the meaning of the Exodus, of the lamb of God who is slain. From Passover to Eucharist, we hear the call to remember, to not forget the lamb that was slain for the first born. In both reconciliation takes place, but in the Eucharist all things are reconciled. In death, life is produced. “A Christian,” they write, “is a living Eucharist, allowing her body to be broken and her blood to be poured out for the healing of the world” (p. 150). In the Eucharist, in the broken body and shed blood, peace is made, walls fall down, things are reconciled, and a new humanity emerges. Black and white turn to color. In the Eucharist, the church ceases to be monochromatic.

This is a manifesto to an American church that has become comfortable living in the midst of abundance and empire. It is a call to become the body of Christ, so that it might listen to the cries of the oppressed – as God hears those cries. It is a call for the church to give up pretenses to power – not that it withdraws from the world, but it lives in the world differently, redemptively.

The good news is that God hears us, in our own sinfulness, in our own darkness and slavery. And the word that comes to us is one of rescue, redemption, grace. But, “God doesn’t just want to save us; God is looking for a body, a people to incarnate the divine” (p. 173). That’s the point of the book. God is calling the church to incarnate God’s presence in a way that is redemptive and gracious, so that the oppressed might be liberated – whatever the nature of that oppression. As this happens, then we’ll discover that the good news isn’t about another world, it’s about this one. It is a call to make this world a better place.

This is a compelling book. I don’t know the hearts of the authors. I don’t know everything about their theology. I’m sure there are areas where would disagree. But it is good to be reminded that even the church needs saving, that the church living in empire needs to see things differently. It won’t take long to read through this book, but taking the time to walk with these two authors will be a worthwhile trek – no matter our theology. To read this book is to hear the biblical story in a way that will challenge one’s understanding of God, of Jesus, of the church, of one’s own self. It might not be the message one wishes to hear, especially at a time of great distress, but’s still a message we need to hear.

1 comment:

Jody said...

I haven't read this book yet (your review has me very interested), but another one that may interest you, and one that also explodes stereotypes about evangelical commitments, is Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne. I'm resolutely orthodox in my theology and have found my politics drifting "leftward" over the past few years precisely BECAUSE of, and not in spite of, my theological orthodoxy. So, I found Claiborne's book a breath of fresh air and will probably have a similar opinion about Bell's. Thanks for the review and for recognizing the diversity in contemporary evangelicalism (a recognition I don't often hear in much of today's mainline church).