“Scripture renders a living, breathing, demanding personality, not a set of freestanding, self-evident, abstract, allegedly biblical propositions. Yet then again, a personality with whom we are in relationship obligates us, demands that we take our place in the relationship. In Jesus, salvation and vocation are linked. The pardon and freedom of salvation carries with it a summons. Friendship is inherently demanding, which is one reason why we have so few friends. A proposition asks only our intellectual assent to what makes sense to us. An abstraction or a generality, no matter how noble, will never move us to love or to give half of all we’ve got to the poor” (William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 116)
“Sometimes the will of God is scary because he is asking us to choose between a life that looks successful and a life that is actually significant, between a life that wins the applause of our peers and a life that actually transforms lives through love” (Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, 119)
“The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3, NIV)
Rob Bell and Don Golden continue to insist, in chapter two, Get Down Your Harps, that God is interested in a relationship with his people. In this chapter, relationship is spoken of in terms of a marriage. They also continue to insist that God’s salvation is much bigger than we sometimes want to admit-and that it has always been much bigger than the people Israel wanted to admit-that it is for all. But I wonder if perhaps the authors of Jesus Wants To Save Christians are not hinting at something else in this chapter, something Christians tend to overlook, something we tend to, however inadvertently, neglect and despise. Get Down Your Harps…it does make me wonder if they are getting at something else. I’ll come back to this.
But, and here’s the thing, in my estimation if your mind is not steeped in the New Testament you are not likely to make the connections that Bell and Golden are making subtly and not overtly. I fully grant, they are asking the readers to read between the lines-maybe that’s why they chose such an odd format-and figure out what they are saying. They want us to think about it, they want us to remember the New Testament. They want us to put two and two together and imagine the only way possible for these things the prophets spoke of to happen. They don’t need to come right out and say it because the person whose mind is baptized in the New Testament will have already figured it out before the end of the first page of the chapter. Some may not like this. To me, it is the essence of a great sermon.
I think it is a brilliant strategy. Those who are experienced preachers know all too well that there are times when you build the intensity as you go along. African-American preachers (at least the ones I have had the joy of listening to) excel at this art. The preacher keeps giving hints, clues, adding a piece here and a piece there, stacking words upon words, images upon images; sentences and paragraphs become large canvases upon which to paint other sentences and paragraphs. You tie it in at this point and leave it dangle at that point. You regroup, retrace your steps, go back and repeat it all over again. The intensity builds like the steam in a pressure cooker. You hold the audience on the edge of the precipice until they cannot help but cry out the “Amen!” And then the preacher says, “Gotcha!” And the listener cannot help but draw the intended conclusion without the preacher even saying it. There’s no escape.
Bell and Golden follow the Old Testament in this respect: “And this is how the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Old Testament, end. With all of these suspended promises, hanging there, unfulfilled, undone, waiting” (72). They build the intensity page after page after page and like good preachers leave us dangling, wanting more, hungering for what we already know to be true: “What if David had another son?” they ask. We already know the answer; they need not even say him. But this is no let down. This is no shock. This is no surprise. They have been doing this since the beginning of the chapter. In this regard, they simply follow the Old Testament pattern. The Old Testament left us dangling, sitting on the edge, waiting for the preacher to drop the bomb. The end of the Old Testament makes us want to read the New. It leaves us hungry and with an appetite for more. But it never quite gets us there. It’s that old saying, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” Ah, yes.
The mind steeped in the Scripture-they don’t quote a lot of Scripture verbatim in this chapter-will know exactly what they are getting at. But like good preachers in need of another sermon the next week, they leave us hungry and wanting more. We know the answer is Jesus. I couldn’t help myself as I read this chapter. Page 65, for example: A new exodus, “Jesus!”; a new way, “Jesus!”, a new marriage with a new covenant, “Jesus!”; a new city, “Jesus!”, with a new temple, “Jesus!” Or page 69: a Prince of Peace, “Jesus!”; David’s throne, “Jesus!”; servant, “Jesus!” Or page 68: like Moses, “Jesus!” Or page 70: who would crush all evil once and for all, “Jesus!” Or page 67: a new heavens and new earth, “Jesus!”; wolf and lamb feeding together, “Jesus!”; salvation to the ends of the earth, “Jesus!” As you read this chapter, if you are thinking about anything but Jesus, you have seriously missed the point of the chapter. Seriously.
Now, just a couple of final points in conclusion, and, obviously, I’m not commenting on every single aspect of the chapter. They are unfolding a theology for us, chapter by chapter, and theology takes its time. The other day, I hate to do this, one of the commenters here wrote this: “From what I could discern, there is little emphasis on redemption and a focus on curing the world’s ills. I fear a moving away from the gospel, death, burial, and resurrection, and a moving toward a humanitarian message. Humanitarian expressions are vital to showcase God’s love, but only the gospel message can elicit faith and a genuine conversion.” (Rick) This may well be true, but that is not the entire point of the book. The book is written to those whose faith has already been elicited, and not necessarily to those whose faith needs to be elicited. And to the point, after faith has been elicited (whatever that really means), what are we to do with it, what should God do with it? Leave it sit? Leave it stagnant? Or shouldn’t that faith get involved in the story that God is telling and involved in the work that God is doing?
The book is not even about ‘curing the world’s ills’ as much as it is about curing the church’s ills and reminding us that, in Willimon’s words, ‘salvation and vocation go hand in hand’ (paraphrase). If we suggest this series of theological sermons written to Christians is a move ‘away from the gospel’ (which necessarily includes, death, burial, and resurrection) then of course we are going to object to the content. But that’s just the thing about this book. Even if, and I’m not conceding for a minute they are, but even if the authors have interpreted the Scripture in a way that is not ‘reformed orthodoxy’ they have done no damage to Scripture’s intent. They followed the apostle Paul’s dictum that “these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). They are not interpreting Scripture any differently than Paul did in Galatians when he wrote about Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael and mountains and faith.
On the other hand, it is about redemption. It is about the New Exodus promised by Isaiah, Jeremiah and the prophets, Moses, David, the Psalms, and culminated in Jesus of Nazareth. They do not explore the ‘hows’ and ‘means’ of this yet because the Old Testament only gave hints and clues (1 Peter 1:10-12). But they do explore and explain the necessity of it, and the scope of it. It is this New Exodus that has offended some people, but it is there. Their job in the book is to remind us of the fact of our liberation, of our freedom, of our Exodus. They do a fine job of it, and point two below explores what they mean by this exodus they speak of.
Second, the authors talk about our bondage to sin. They describe this bondage as ‘Egypt’: “There’s an Egypt that we’re all born into, and that’s what we really need an exodus from. So when Isaiah speaks of this new exodus, he doesn’t just speak of liberation from a particular oppressive empire; he speaks of liberation from anything that oppresses anybody anywhere” (57). And they do a fine job of emphasizing the ‘all’. It’s what Karl Barth noted, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (as quoted in Willimon, p 38). This is also what the apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned.” And just to clarify what Bell and Golden mean, “The real problem, the ultimate oppressor, is something that resides deep in every human heart. The real reason for their oppression is human slavery to violence, sin, and death” (57). That sounds strangely orthodox to me.
To go along with this is the emphasis that ‘All peoples will see it together’ (58, quoting Isaiah 40:5). The authors lay heavy emphasis on the fact that if all are held in bondage, all have equal access to freedom as God intended. This is the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12 and announced by Jesus early in his own ministry (Matthew 4:12-16). This chapter goes a long way to undoing any narrow ideas about salvation being limited to a particular nation or tribe: “By the rivers of Babylon, the prophets began to reimagine grace. They started to see what it would look like for Israel’s debt of sins to be paid. And what they saw was a reconciling grace so big, so universal, that it could bind all human beings into a brand-new way for the divine and the human to relate” (60-61, my emphasis). They thus rightly express this as possibility and not certainty. (Their argument is a little more detailed and contains much more Scripture, but I think this is the gist of their point. Some of you may wish to highlight other aspects of what they are saying, but rest assured, I did not personally pick up any hints whatsoever that this was a universal proposition guaranteeing salvation for everyone, everywhere. Thus the ‘could’.)
Finally, I’d like to explore their points about ‘marriage’ between God and man, the ‘forever’ aspect of the rule of the One to come, and what I’ll call the national reconciliation into one body of all all the peoples of the earth (Ephesians), but I don’t want this to be too long and any more cumbersome than it is already is. Their point about an ‘altar being built in Egypt’ is an excellent point and I think properly echoes what the New Testament says about Jesus in Philippians 2 and Revelation 7. Suffice it to say that these were the expectations, written in the prophets, that are easily overlooked and ignored. A fitting conclusion to these is found on pages 70-71, “What started as predictions about an earthly ruler exploded into an expectation of a divinely sent servant who would in some powerful new way rule forever…Israel’s failed marriage to God had never produced that child….The promise is so poignant because from the beginning, from the first moments when our primal ancestors began longing for a way out of this mess we’re in, the ache had centered around the birth of one who would crush evil forever.”
That is a very, very orthodox interpretation of Scripture (and I can point you to the lectures that prove it.)
I will close with this. The title, Get Down Your Harps, indicates that the harps had been hung up, left desolate, forgotten; put on a shelf and silent. “They hung up their harps” (52). “The harp was an instrument of joy and celebration. People played the harp because they had reason to praise God” (52). This chapter begins by reminding us that we have been rescued. “If God freed people once before, couldn’t God do it again?” (54) The implication being, of course, that He already has! He has freed us! We have a reason to be playing our harps! And we are still acting like we are in exile; our harps are still hanging, we are still weeping beside the waters of Babylon.
Or worse, we are like the older brother who refused to go in and rejoice with the family when the younger brother came home. Or we are like Jonah who sat outside Ninevah angry at God for being forgiving. I certainly doubt we are like Jesus who wept over the lost Jerusalem. Whatever the case, I think Bell and Golden’s point in this chapter is to say: “Get down your harps! God has freed us! You know how he did it! You know who did it! Get down your harps, you Christians, and start singing, rejoicing, and worshiping God! Join the party!”
Like good preachers, they don’t say it in so many words. But we know who they are talking about on every single page.