Jesus Wants to Save Christians, pt 1

rob-bell“My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living ‘in Jesus’ name.’ But the ways that dominate our culture have been developed either in ignorance or in defiance of the ways that Jesus uses to lead us as we walk the streets and alleys, hike the trails, and drive the roads of this God-created, God-saved, God-blessed, God-ruled world in which we find ourselves. They seem to suppose that ‘getting on in the world’ means getting on in the world on the world’s terms, and that the ways of Jesus are useful only in a compartmentalized area of life labeled ‘religious.'” (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 1)

When Eugene Peterson writes, I read. There is scarcely a word he has written in book form that I have not read. He is a respected preacher and pastor whose understanding of Scripture is profound and whose theological perspective holds Jesus in the highest possible position. He has a high view of the Word of God and interprets it within a tangibly orthodox hermeneutic. So when I heard echoes of Peterson in Rob Bell’s book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, I started paying closer attention to both writers.

I will state at the outset that I have not read any of Rob Bell’s other books. Nor have I ever watched a Nooma video. I have listened to exactly 23 minutes of one of his sermons  My point in noting these things is to say that I am coming at this series of posts unbiased. I am neither for nor against Rob Bell. I am interested only in what he has written, along with Don Golden, in this book. The book is only recently published, but I don’t think it is too soon to offer a critique of the work.

That said, my wife bought me Jesus Wants to Save Christians for Christmas. I have desired to read this book since I saw this blurb in a flier for Family Christian Stores, “There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more than $20 million. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty. This is a book about those two numbers.” (This also appears on the back of the book.) I was intrigued and decided that I should read this book and make it my first introduction to the work of Rob Bell. Now I am reading it, and I cannot tell you how thoroughly surprised I am by what I have read.

I was fully prepared to hate this book. I had browsed it at the book store. The silly green pages bothered me. The unorthodox writing style annoyed me: Sentence fragments; sentences that are chopped up and drawn down the page in a column-like structure in an effort to fill the two covers with more and more pages than are necessary. The book is certainly not a DA Carson or David F Wells type of theology. However, if it is true that we should not judge a book by its cover, neither should we judge a book by its particular stylistic format.

I should say a couple of other things about this book before I go too much further. First, there are a scant 218 pages in this book. I think that is probably more than there actually are given the format of the book. Still, I think Bell has said a lot in those 218 pages. This book serves as a fine introduction to the New Exodus perspective.

Second, there are 34 pages of endnotes written in a very traditional, single spaced (double between) format. That’s a total of 326 endnotes. 256 of those 326 notes are direct references to Scripture. If my son did his math correctly, that means 79% of the notes are Scripture references, more detailed explanations of Scripture, Scripture quotes, or more commentary on Scripture. Sometimes, a note contains more than one reference to a passage of Scripture.

What this indicates to me is simple. It means that Rob Bell (and co-author Don Golden) has not written a book that is based on his own idea or his own imagination. This is a book that relies far more on Scripture than it does on anything else. Here is a man who has written a book and allowed that book, and I believe his theology, to be shaped by the Word of God. And when one reads through the book, one discovers that much of what is written is merely (I say that not at all meaning minimally) a retelling of the story of Scripture-from Genesis to Revelation.

In fact, this is what is stated at the outset of the book, “In the Scriptures, ultimate truths about the universe are revealed through the stories of particular people living in particular places…We join you in this tension, believing that the story is ultimately about healing, hope, and reconciliation” (8) He goes on, “This is a book of theology…This book is our attempt to articulate a specific theology, a particular way to read the Bible, referred to by some as a New Exodus perspective” (8) Make no mistake about the intent of this book and the authors: It is designed to make you think about God and about what God’s Word says to its readers about what God is doing in the world. They do this, again, by constantly referring the reader to Scripture.

This further indicates to me that Bell and Golden have a very high view of Scripture. They could tell these things their own way, but they deliberately chose not to. Instead, they quote from Moses, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the New Testament (I thoroughly enjoyed their interpretation of the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch). They don’t challenge the Scripture. Scripture speaks. (I regret that I couldn’t find the page number, but as it is said, “God has spoken; everything else is commentary.”) These are not men who are picking and choosing what ‘fits’ their idea. Their idea is driven along by their high view of Scripture. For someone who has been accused of doing exactly the opposite, this is a great risk for Bell. He might actually be accused of being too orthodox for some readers.

This is my first introduction to Rob Bell’s theological point of view and I have to confess that, intrigued as I was by that blurb in a flier, I was skeptical. Sadly, Rob Bell is held up as a poster child for all that is wrong with the church, with Christianity, with this generation of believers. Yet, as I read the introduction I was struck by this statement: “For a growing number of people in our world, it appears that many Christians support some of the very things Jesus came to set people free from” (18). I was struck by it because I had heard it before: Eugene Peterson wrote a statement very similar to this in his book The Jesus Way. It seems that on the horizon there is more than one person saying that there is something seriously wrong with the way ‘we’ are doing ‘Christianity.’

What does he (Bell) analyze that problem as? Simple: Too many in the church have associated a certain brand of political persuasion and nationalism with the ‘right sort of Christianity.’ “A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage” (18). This is a real problem, as I see it too, because it makes the Scripture ‘mine’ instead of God’s. It makes the Bible no longer God’s Word to us and instead it becomes more a weapon we use to determine who is and is not in the club. This is decidedly the wrong approach for us to have towards Scripture. It slants everything in our favor and becomes a tool for oppression instead of a declaration of emancipation for those held in captivity by the ‘very things Jesus came to set us free from.’ Scripture becomes a handbook for winning elections instead of a declaration of war on the things that keep people prisoners, enslaved to a system that hates them.

Bell and Golden are right: We are east of Eden, but remember, the book is written to Christians. It seems to me that Bell and Golden are saying there is something seriously wrong with the church, with Christians. What they are thus proposing is a solution to our problem. It should be interesting to see what they propose is the solution to our problem.

Next: Part 2, The Cry of the Oppressed

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