Book Review: Jesus Wants to Save Christians

Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell and Don Golden. This is the third book published by Rob Bell, the first one with a co-author (Golden was lead pastor of Bell’s church, Mars Hill, 2005-2008), and the second one I have read. In it, Bell and Golden encourage their readers to see the Bible and the church through a particular lens. That lens is “exile” (hence the subtitle).

The first four chapters (“The Cry of the Oppressed,” “Get Down Your Harps,” “David’s Other Son” and “Genital-Free Africans”) give a quick overview of the Bible through this lens. In the first chapter we follow the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to encountering God at Sinai, to living in Jerusalem, to exile in Babylon. The second chapter deals with the hopes of the Israelites while in exile. The “David’s Other Son” of chapter three is Jesus, and Bell and Golden focus on Jesus walking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s gospel. Jesus is the suffering servant referred to by Isaiah, and is also the new leader of a new exodus. The “Genital-Free African” of chapter four is the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8. His baptism by Philip is a sign that the “new exodus” has been extended beyond the Jewish people to everyone, since “Baptism is a picture of exodus” (p. 100).

Chapter five is where the application (for lack of a better word) section of the book kicks in. For the first part of the book, Bell and Golden have been speeding through the Bible, and now they begin to talk about “Swollen-Bellied Black Babies, Soccer Moms on Prozac, and the Mark of the Beast.” (catchy chapter title, no?) In it, Bell and Golden connect the stuff they covered in the first four chapters to our own situation. And one of their most eye-catching assertions is this one:

America is an empire.

And the Bible has a lot to say about empires.

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.

This can make the Bible a very difficult book to understand if you are reading it as a citizen of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Without careful study and reflection, and humility, it may even be possible to miss central themes of the Scriptures. (p. 121)

In the next chapter, “Blood on the Doorposts of the Universe,” Bell and Golden give us a resource for resisting empire, and that resource is the Eucharist. God brought his people out of Egypt during the Exodus, Jesus became the new passover lamb, and the church celebrates this today:

The Eucharist is about the church setting the table for the whole world.

The Eucharist is about the new humanity.

The Eucharist is about God’s dream for the world. (p. 167)

The Epilogue wraps it all up:

Jesus wants to save us from making the good news about another world and not this one.

Jesus wants to save us from preaching a gospel that is only about individuals and not about the systems that enslave them.

Jesus wants to save us from shrinking the gospel down to a transaction about the removal of sin and not about every single particle of creation being reconciled to its maker.

Jesus wants to save us from religiously sanctioned despair, the kind that doesn’t believe that the world can be made better, the kind that either blatantly or subtly teaches people to just be quiet and behave and wait for something big to happen “someday.” (p. 179)

I must say that I liked this book. I have heard critiques of Rob Bell, and I think some of them are valid, but in general I have to honor the guy for trying to make the gospel relevant to our culture. I think that Bell is mainly trying to reach two people groups: those who were raised in the church and are disillusioned by it, and those who don’t have any experience with church at all. It seems to me that some of the people making the loudest criticisms are people who are part of the church and are comfortable with the church the way it is. That doesn’t mean their criticisms are automatically not valid, but it does mean that they are not the audience Bell is shooting for.

The “new exodus” theme was not new to me, especially after having taken a class on the gospel of Mark with Rikk Watts (whose thesis was published under the title Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark). I do wish, though, that Bell and Golden had given their readers a few more resources for following up this line of thinking. The idea that the arc of redemptive history can be seen as a “new exodus” is probably foreign to most of the people who read this book, and nods to a few more scholars besides Tom Holland would be helpful.

I also wish that Bell and Golden had fleshed out their reasons for opposition to violence more. Several times in the book, the way of Jesus is contrasted with the way of violence (p. 87-8 and 133, among others), but no mention is made of the ambiguous passages in the Bible with relation to violence (like the conquest of Canaan) or of the fact that many Christians through the centuries have not been categorically opposed to violence. Entire books could be and have been written on this subject, but perhaps just a nod in the direction of some good ones for the benefit of readers would be good.

Third, I don’t think that America is an empire in exactly the same way as ancient empires were empires. That is not to say that America isn’t empire-ish in some things that it does. But obsession with security and self-preservation can be critiqued biblically without busting out the “E-word.” My concern here is that the word will start to lose its meaning if it is thrown around so much. If what is meant by “empire” is “a state bent on violent means of self-preservation,” or “a state which uses a disproportionately large amount of resources,” then use a different term (maybe “hegemonic state”), because that’s not what “empire” means. I wish the authors had been as specific in this book as Don Golden was when he later wrote an article at God’s Politics that took a different angle on this issue. He wrote,

America is not an empire like Rome; it’s a nation contingent upon a Beast of its own creation.

What is that Beast?

Instead of arguing about empire, we should be talking about Beasts because history has a new one, and it’s not America.

The force that accepts no boundaries to its acquisition of wealth, whose disregard for the poor is matched only by its betrayal of the wealthy, is not a political state at all. The power that rules planet earth in our age is the unrestrained force of raw capitalism.

I really do appreciate the clarification, but it would have been nice for Golden to acknowledge that the reason people are arguing about empire is that he’s the one who brought it up in the first place. If he doesn’t want people to get exercised about whether America is an empire, or if he thinks it distracts from the main issue of unfettered capitalism, then he should be more careful about the words he uses.

Finally, I wish that they would move away from this spaced-out typesetting style. It makes me feel good that I can get through a 218-page book quickly, but it does get a little annoying after a while. I sure hope Zondervan isn’t paying these guys by the page.

Despite my quibbles about the book, I think that this is a book that is needed in 21st-century America. It calls attention to aspects of the gospel that have been ignored for too long. The trick now is to live out a complete gospel, instead of just focusing on different (but still incomplete) aspects.

P.S. – Scot McKnight has written a good review here.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Jesus Wants to Save Christians

  1. Dawn December 30, 2008 / 2:08 pm

    Thanks for your review. I read Velvet Elvis this year, and I only liked a few aspects of it. Mostly, I was distracted and annoyed beyond belief by this unnecessary line spacing and tiny little one-sentence paragraphs. I find that it comes across as arrogant, like every single sentence he writes is this deep nugget of wisdom. At one point, in VE, he says,

    “But sometimes when I hear people quote the Bible, I just want to throw up.

    Can I just say that?

    Can I just get that off my chest?” (p. 42)

    Um, I guess you just did, Rob. Get over yourself!

    Regardless of the point he’s trying to make, I am sooooooo turned off by this holier-than-thou attitude in his writing, and I seemed to come across it again & again throughout the book. And when I finished, I realized that I actually agreed with all of his points – just hated how he presented them. I can’t really watch the nooma videos without thinking these things, either.

    But back to the line spacing – I brought this up with my discipleship group (we read VE together), and I suggested that perhaps Bell writes like this to appeal to the casual, blog-style community of readers he’s addressing. Or perhaps not. I don’t know.

    Your review really did help me decide whether or not to read his new book, and for right now, I think I’ll pass.

  2. mac January 8, 2009 / 8:01 am

    Eliot:

    Thanks for the review. The book sounds like McLaren’s newest work which I recently read. I am disappointed that there seems to be an echo chamber growing up around these writers. Their arguments are becoming more facile and only find error in America and Capitalism. Indeed, this myopia stems from a political persuasion that wants to make the Bible support their assumptions of justice and polity. They need to answer the question: What is unrestrained Capitalism? They fling about terms like ‘disregard for the poor’ without comparing it to anything. This makes it a rhetorical tool. There is never an alternative except for some call to a counter-culture. What really gets me is the deflating of the parousia and then accusing other eschatologies of being purely other-worldly and in doing so questioning their commitment to Christ. I think their eschatology is bordering on nihilism with the Church (but only their form of Church!) being Christ’s second coming.

  3. elliot January 12, 2009 / 6:42 pm

    Dawn:

    Thanks for the comment! Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. I don’t know what’s going on in Bell’s heart when he says things that come across as arrogant. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt… but I also think that if I were in his position, I would try not to talk about myself so much. It can be distracting.

    Mac:

    I do think that an echo chamber seems to be growing up around Bell and McLaren – “emergent” types. But I also think that there is always potential for this within any movement. Just looking at Christians, we can see that Dispensationalists have their own echo chamber, Calvinists and Arminians have their own echo chamber… basically, I’m saying that it’s just easier to read books and speak to people that you already know you will agree with. It takes real discipline for a person to open his or her ears to people who are suspected of not being on the same page.

    And that’s a shame, because as long as we like to stay comfortable, no real dialogue can take place. I suspect that Bell and Golden don’t talk specifically about what unrestrained capitalism is because they don’t talk with people who challenge them to be more specific. Most of us just like to talk with people who will nod their heads when we speak, instead of people who don’t let us get away with being vague.

    It’s human nature to congregate with people who are like you, but I think it is the job of Christians to seek out relationships with people who are unlike us – even other Christians!

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