October 22, 2008

Thoughts on Rob Bell's new book "Jesus wants to save Christians"

I just finished reading Rob Bell's new book, "Jesus wants to save Christians" (Zondervan) yesterday and thought I'd shoot out a quick blog about it. If you don't know who Rob is, he's the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible church in Grand Rapids and the speaker in the popular NOOMA short films.

When I first picked up the book, I thought it was going to be just another critique of commercialized Christianity from an emergent perspective. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't. Rather, it is an overview of the Biblical concepts of slavery, redemption, oppression, luxury and salvation told in Rob's near stream-of-consciousness style of writing.

The titles of the chapters are such that you have no idea what they're going to be about, but once you've read each chapter, its title makes perfect sense. The chapter titles are:
Intro - Air Puffers and Rubber Gloves
1. - The cry of the oppressed
2. - Get down your harps
3. - David's other son
4. - Genital-free Africans
5. - Swollen-bellied black babies, soccer moms on Prozac, and the Mark of
the Beast
6. Blood on the Doorposts of the Universe
Epilogue - Broken and Poured

Throughout the book, Rob does not hide his distaste for the type of Christianity exemplified by the "God and Country/Let's take back America for God" crowd (i.e. the Religious Right/Moral Majority/etc.). Though he doesn't single out any particular individual or group who fit this category, he does offer compelling examples of how such thinking is often more about establishing worldlyl "Empire" rather than the Kingdom of God. He critiques views of war at the expense of social justice, which epitomizes the Evangelical Christian stereotype in a thoroughly unapologetic, yet non-combatitive way. Perhaps the quote that summarizes his main thrust best is the following from p.161:
"As Paul says, 'We don't fight with those weapoins.' A church's authority
comes from somewhere else - it comes from how we've been broken open and poured out, not from how well we've pursued power andlobbied and organized ourselves to triumph. This is why when Christians organize politically and start flexing that muscle, making threats about how they are going to impose their way on others, so many people turn away from Jesus.

Jesus' followers at that point are claiming to be the voice of God, but they are speaking the language of Caesar and using the methods of Rome, and for
millions of us it has the stench of Solomon."

Some criticism:
Perhaps my main criticism of "Jesus wants to save Christians" is that while Rob thoughtfully addresses current issues of injustice and oppression, casting them in light of Biblical examples of such, he does not say a word about the most horrific oppression going on in our country every day. In his desire to distance himself from the Religious Right, he (perhaps unintentionally) never once mentions the injustice of abortion-on-demand. This is too bad because it would've provided another perfect example of Christians (mostly mainline) buying into and condoning or perpetuating a facet of Biblical social injustice. Just as oppressive financial systems are modern day examples of the "Mark of the Beast", the institutional injustice of abortion-on-demand is a modern equivalent to the ancient worhsip of the Canaanite gods through infanticide and child sacrifice. It's surprising Rob never mentions this, especially since one of his influential mentors, Ray Vanderlaan, is quite passionate about pointing out such injustice.

[Note: While there are many Christians, particularly of the Westminster persuasion (i.e. Reformed/Calvinist/etc.) who have critiqued Rob's (and Ray's) overall system of hermeneutics, use of later Jewish sources and his "postmodern" views of Biblical authority, I find myself in agreement with Ben Witherington's conclusions regarding this and direct the reader to his more comprehensive review for more discussion.]

I also felt like some of the presentation of the facts/stats were somewhat superficial. Comparing the amount spent on military budgets with the number of social ills in the world is too simplistic. The counter arguments are never addressed (i.e. without this amount spent on the military, there would be exponentially higher number of social ills, etc.). While I don't disagree with much of Rob's overall argument, I think a more thoughtful engagement (or at least an awareness of the differing views) is needed.

Another minor criticism of the book is that the endnotes where skimpier than I would have liked. I'm a big advocate of careful background research, particularly when discussing ancient texts or events and while the book isn't aimed at a technical audience, it would be nice if the notes reflected the amount of study that Rob puts in.

What I liked:
The edges of the puzzle [those of you who've taken Bible for the Rest of Us with me know what I'm referring to by that phrase!] - I think that the best part of "Jesus wants to save Christians" is that it gives a wonderful overview of the big picture of the Biblical narrative. He weaves events in Israel's history--some well known, some obscure--into a tapestry that often brings an "Ah-ha!" moment to the reader as stories are connected in ways they have likely never thought about.

Exposing the pseudo-gospel of America as God's favored nation - I found myself in agreement with Rob about the way in which many within Evangelical Christian circles (particularly those with the most media/political influence!) have merged patriotism with faith in a dangerous way. The comparison of the Pax Romana with many Christians' view of America's role in the world was a well-needed challenge to all of us who claim the name of Christ. There is a constant need among God's people to do some serious self-evaluation...particularly at this time in our nation's history!--when we find ourselves to be in a position of power or secular influence.

Overall conclusion:
I wholeheartedly recommend "Jesus wants to save Christians" to every follower of Christ. Even if the outworkings of our faith in the realm of the political or social sphere differs in the end from Rob Bell's, his Biblical overview is both fascinating and thought-provoking. The book was much more "Biblical Theology" than "Social Ethics" in its scope and challenges all of us in our views of God, wealth, oppression, power and salvation. I found it much better overall than either of his previous books (Velvet Elvis and Sex God), particularly because of its presentation of the overall story of God's people found in both Testaments of Scripture.

And for those of you who hate reading...it comes in audiobook format too! :)

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