Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile – Rob Bell and Don Golden. (Zondervan)
Yes it’s a strange title. Isn’t a Christian by definition, ‘saved’? Isn’t a manifesto for politicians? Wasn’t the exile in the Old Testament?
The intrigue in the title sets the tone for a cleverly written book that despite its title is about the message of the whole Bible, showing the irony of American Christians supporting the US in its role as the dominant world power, and arguing for mission minded discipleship. It’s mostly successful.
A weakness first. In a breathless style (with many short sentences) the authors, who worked together at Mars Hill Bible Church, Michigan USA where Bell is the teaching pastor, build their argument text by text hoping to convince us that the Bible’s central theme is that of the oppressed v the oppressor. Certainly this is a theme in the Bible, and certainly an undervalued theme but is it really more important than say holiness, kingdom or covenant? And if oppression was the theme why isn’t it stressed more in the New Testament?
But despite overstating this argument, their use of scripture to hammer home other points is excellent. A recurrent motif is what we must learn from God’s activity in Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and Babylon. They draw parallels with Christians today who, like Solomon in the OT, forget they are rescued, fail to live as God intends (Solomon enslaves his own people, becoming like Pharoah!) and end up in an ‘exile of irrelevance’ arguing about superficial things and despairing of things ever changing – hence the subtitle. It is largely successful in applying these lessons to US (and indeed many western) Christians – today’s powerful Empire. The chapter charting how US wealth compares to the rest of the world, shocking though it was, required a more subtle approach: there’s no mention of US contributions to aid or world mission, Arab wealth, or corrupt leadership in poor nations. But the insistence that our concern for the poor and justice issues must be part of the mission of the church was compelling, and many will be driven to hear the cry of the oppressed and consider a new way of reading Scripture.
The books major triumph is its explanation of why Jesus came and how we as his followers should live. He is the new Moses, and David’s other son who in the Eucharist invites us to die with Him and pour out our lives in service to the world, thus exercising a priestly role within the world. So the ironic title is explained: ‘Jesus wants to save Christians from making the good news about another world and not this one,… from preaching a gospel that is only about individuals and not the systems that enslave them, …and from shrinking the gospel down to a transaction about the removal of sin and not about the reconciliation of every single particle of creation being reconciled to its maker.’ These are deliberately provocative words, (of course they also believe in a gospel for the individual, another world, and removal of sin) to shock a complacent church from a worldview that has become cosy behind clichés peddled by tele-evangelists and the like.
This is a scripture heavy book (very few illustrations and stories unlike Bell’s solo books Velvet Elvis and SexGod) but never dull, occasionally amusing, and often illuminating with many ‘oh I see’ moments to excite newcomer and Bible scholar alike. It’s not a rant, but gently convinces the reader, like a good barrister forcing their point home. Although it will annoy some, many will find the book revolutionises what they preach and how they view what they are doing. It is sure to ignite and excite many to return to God, be saved from an ‘exile of irrelevance’ and engage in His glorious mission.