Bell, Rob and Don Golden.
Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. Pp. 224. Paper. $19.99.
With thanks to Chris Fann at Zondervan for this review copy!
This will be the final installment in my review of Jesus Wants to Save Christians. This one will be more critical though and not just the random thoughts that I’ve shared in my first two posts.
I want to begin by saying that after reading this book I’m still not sure what it was about. I think it’s supposed to be about the Church not being oppressive and helping the poor, but it seems to me that Bell and Golden could have communicated this better. It’s also a frustrating book, not so much because I disagree with a lot of what it says, but rather because there’s a lot of assertion without argument. For example, Bell and Golden assert that when Paul speaks of the “body of sin” and “body of flesh” that it is “anywhere that power is misused.” [p. 104] But what comes before this i.e., their insistence that Paul uses the terms in a “communal Jewish sense to refer to the sinful mode of existence” doesn’t bare out the interpretation that follows. It’s simply one piece of a larger picture.
Or there’s the claim that:
God’s judgment, then, on the firstborn of Egypt is a declaration that the gods behind Pharaoh’s brutal and oppressive rule are powerless and will be allowed to tyrannize humanity no longer. [p. 147]
Maybe, maybe not; there’s simply no argument for this interpretation so how is the reader to judge the value of it? Perhaps the judgment on the firstborn of Egypt was retribution for Egypt’s slaughter of Israel’s sons (Ex. 1:15-16). This is as seemingly valid an assertion as theirs, what’s to keep one from rejecting it? Obviously you can see how such things would be frustrating. They’re also inconsistent in how they want to apply the Scriptures. On p. 135 they ask the question of whether or not the original readers of Revelation would think that the book would be helpful for Christians 2000 years later who didn’t want to be left behind. Their point was that it meant something in its original context and should be viewed as such. But a few pages earlier on p. 128 they assert that “if you’re a citizen of an empire that has the most powerful army in the history of humanity [i.e. America]…passages in the Bible about those who accumulate chariots and horses from Egypt are passages about you and your people.” To put it mildly, I’d qualify their hermeneutic as “suspect” at best.
I was also disappointed by what seemed to be moments of anti-American sentiment. They pay lip service to the good that America as a nation does, but in the next breath compare it to the oppressive empires throughout the world’s history. But the connection between “power” and “oppression” while easy to make in the case of empires such as the Babylonian, Medio-Persian, and Greco-Roman empires is not nearly as easy to make in the case of the United States of America. No one is defending stealing land from the natives or slavery, but Bell and Golden are speaking of current events, America as it presently exists. They make mention of a US government official saying that the US must have free access to the Persian Gulf’s resources (i.e., oil) [p. 127] as if to say that America has been over there taking what we want. Anyone living here and paying the extremely high prices for gas knows that this isn’t what’s been happening at all.
World War II era America is criticized for dropping nuclear bombs saying that “we didn’t have to. The Japanese were already defeated.” [p. 130] But the fact remains that Japan didn’t surrender until AFTER the bombs were dropped, regardless of the speculation that they MIGHT HAVE surrendered soon if they had not been bombed. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with criticism where you feel it’s necessary, but Bell and Golden skew the facts in order to support their position, and that in my opinion is less than admirable.
Golden and Bell at times say things and appeal to experience, but my experience of those things is contrary to their assertion. For instance, in talking about Paul’s saying that he became Jew to the Jew, one as under the law to those under the law, weak to the weak, etc., their point is to stress that Paul only says that he became weak and not strong. They say:
If you’ve ever been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you know exactly what this is like. An AA meeting is a room full of people who are done pretending. There are no facades. There is no acting. And it’s overwhelmingly powerful. Everybody in that room is in recovery from addiction, and they all know each other’s games, masks, and manipulations. A whole world of posturing and pretending is simply absent. You’re there because you have hit bottom, at least most of the time, and you need others who know how it feels. [p. 153-54]
But this is so far from the truth as to be ridiculous! I’ve been to many AA and NA meetings and everything that Bell and Golden assert is absent from the meetings is actually there in abundance! I don’t wish to speculate about the authors’ life experience, but I have to question if they’ve ever been on the addiction side of the meetings they’ve been to (assuming they’ve been to any at all).
This is a small point but I didn’t particularly care for some of the chapter titles such as: “Genital-Free Africans” (ch. 4); “Swollen-Bellied Black Babies, Soccer Moms on Prozac, and the Mark of the Beast” (ch. 5). I suppose that they’re intended to be intentionally provocative, but I can see how some readers might perceive them to be somewhat offensive. Another small point, well, actually not so small, is their appropriation of the word “Eucharist” to refer to members of the Church. The reasoning is that because Christ’s body and blood is the Eucharist, and we’re members of the body of Christ, then we also are the Eucharist, and as such are to have our bodies broken and our blood poured out for the healing of the world. [p. 153] This turns into an obscene overuse of the term as a theological buzz word, and I found it extremely annoying.
To be honest I could rant about this book so much that it would amount to more material than is in the book itself, but I’ll end on a positive note. Bell and Golden do help the reader to see some patterns in Scripture that they otherwise might have missed. They do seem to express a genuine concern for the disenfranchised of the world. But I think that there are better ways of going about voicing such concerns and calling people to action. I don’t think we need to engage in the type of interpretation and rhetoric that Golden and Bell do to accomplish the mission that they are seeking to accomplish. And it is with this that I give this book a two star rating.I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read.