Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review: Jesus Wants To Save Christians

Rob Bell is one of the leading characters in the emerging church movement. Alongside his growing library of published books, he also produces the Nooma series of DVDs exploring faith issues geared towards the post-modern generation. While the videos are slick, he has come in for some criticism for his unorthodox theology, shying away from speaking of sin and the cross thus far.

While not endorsing him, I found it interesting to read his latest book, Jesus Wants To Save Christians. It's his attempt at biblical theology, writing an overarching grand narrative which all Scripture fits into. Ironic for a post-modern generation which supposedly rejects grand narratives, but there you go. The approach he adopts is that of the New Exodus perspective, which is basically that what God did for the people of Israel coming out of Egypt, he will do again writ large in Jesus - a new exodus from bondage and captivity into the glorious liberty of salvation.

However, the book is also an attempt at providing a manifesto for the church in exile. To explain this statement, he outlines four positions, four locations which, he argues, are the four places the church can find itself in: Egypt, the place of oppression where the cry goes up to God to save; Sinai, the place of liberation and covenant relationship to God; Jerusalem, the place where power is accumulated so that others are oppressed, and Babylon, the place of exile where God consigns disobedient oppressors.

He argues that the church today is in the place of exile, not because of our sin (for example, in the way Martin Luther would have understood the pre-Reformation church when writing On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church) but because of our acquiescence with the Empire, the wealthy materialistic consumerist war machine of the United States. In several places, he rants about the amount of money spent on security measures and weapons, which could be spent on alleviating the needs of the poor.

On this front, it's hard to see whether the book is a Christian one or a political one, and not immediately relevant to those outside the United States. Indeed, given the separation of Church and State in America, it may not even be relevant there.

There are some useful points. At least he deals with the Bible, and has a go at formulating a Bible overview. He critiques the 'Left Behind' rapture ready reading of Revelation which assumes that the book meant nothing for all those generations until the last generation who would be left behind and asks us to pay close attention to the first meaning for the original readers. He also speaks clearly of the Passover, and how it is the foreshadowing of Jesus' sacrifice, including the substitutionary element of the sacrifice (p. 144).

However, there are major sections I would take issue with. First, a small mistake which may have been easily made. There were three disciples on the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, not two (p. 80). In another place, he controversially tries to claim that Exodus is the first book of the Bible - because it is 'the book in which the central story of redemption begins' (p. 22). Surely the redemption story begins with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, otherwise why bother with the people of Israel when they're numerous in Egypt?

A more major error, which shows lack of research and understanding of the passage he is quoting (partly because it wouldn't otherwise fit into his schema of the four location approach) is when he says the following about the ministry of Amos the prophet:

Through Amos, God delivers the crushing blow: "Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end."

Amos predicts that the oppressors will be the first to be hauled away to a foreign land. How offensive would this be if you were a leader of Israel living in Jerusalem?

Amaziah the king, a descendant of Solomon, says in response to Amos's (sic) rants, "Get out! ... Don't prophesy anymore ... because this is the king's sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom."

Where to start?

1. Amos is prophesying in Samaria, not Jersualem. Samaria was the captial of (ten tribe) Israel after it had broken away from the kingdom of Judah during the reign of Rehoboam, who was Solomon's son. So, offensive as it would be to hear a word of exile (as it later was through the ministry of Jeremiah, for example) in Jerusalem, this word was not preached in Jersualem.

2. Amaziah is not the king of Jersualem, Judah, Israel, Samaria or anywhere else. There was a King Amaziah (2 Kings 14), but this is not the person Amos was addressing, nor the person who speaks here to Amos. After all, the very text Bell quotes tells us that Amaziah is 'the priest of Bethel' (Amos 7:10).

3. Amaziah (this one, not that one) is therefore not a descendant of Solomon. He's a priest, but not from the priestly family of the Aaronic priesthood, nor is he a Levite. The Israel Samaria sanctuaries were served by non-Levitical priests.

4. The reason Amaziah tells Amos to clear off is because he's seen as a 'foreigner' from Judah. It would be like a southerner prophesying at Stormont - he would be told to clear off... Yet Amos is God's messenger to the fallen rebellious people of Israel.

5. With this episode happening at Samaria and not Jerusalem, Bell's whole scheme seems to flounder. Jersualem was not the only place of luxurious oppression of the poor - Samaria was probably worse as it had the infamous cows of Bashan, rather than Jerusalem!

With such a major misunderstanding of the Scriptures which are used to back up one of his key points, it doesn't look like his handling of the Bible is actually legitimate - could other sections also be questioned?

Another gripe would be his attitude to the Scriptures. Earlier we looked at his claim that Exodus was the first book of the Bible. This seemed to be because the Genesis story was only told later as an introduction to everything else that had existed. So, "This Genesis account [of Cain and Abel] reflects the transition that was occuring in the time and place in which this story was first told." (p. 13). So Cain and Abel were made up to explain societal changes? The story wasn't passed down through their ancestors but merely made up later on? Yet fast forward a few pages, and an imagined Israelite slave's daughter is "being told the Genesis story of how they became slaves." You really can't have it both ways!

I really can't recommend this book, when there are better Bible overviews out there: Vaughan Roberts' God's Big Picture, for one. My advice is to steer clear of Rob Bell and stick to more orthodox books.

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