Review: Jesus Wants to Save Christians

Jesus Wants to Save ChristiansA review of Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile, Zondervan, 2008. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

What you make of Jesus Wants To Save Christians depends a lot on what you think it is trying to do.

Read it from the beginning and it reads like an attempt at an engaging introduction to biblical theology. It starts by claiming, ‘This is a book about a book.’ Judged along these lines and it seriously falls short. For one thing Abraham is missing. An introduction to biblical theology without the defining promises to Abraham. Bizarre. Second, it presents a very inadequate treatment of the cross. The cross is seen an act which subverts the myth of redemptive violence and offers a model of renouncing power in favour of solidarity and self-giving. This may be true, but clearly it misses so much – probably because the theme of God’s judgment is also underplayed.

But what happens when you read the back cover first? ‘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.’ Now we have a book about how Christians should respond to poverty and violence, a book which approaches these topics through biblical theology. Read in this way, the book is full of powerful allusions and helpful insights. (And it may well enrich your biblical theology along the way.)

The focus is on the theme of slavery and exodus. Israel’s history is assessed with this is mind, making Solomon the low point because of his recourse to slave labour and armaments. If you assess Israel’s history from the perspective of their calling to be a light to the nations then Solomon becomes the high point as the writer of Kings makes clear in 1 Kings 10. Both perspectives, I suspect, are valid, reflecting the complexity of the biblical narrative. Interestingly Bell and Golden miss the opportunity to draw out the exodus theme further with Jeroboam who appears to be a new Moses, liberating the people from the slavery of Rehoboam, but ends up being the new Aaron as he erects two golden calves.

So don’t read Jesus Wants to Save Christians as an introduction to the Bible story (I would recommend my own From Creation to New Creation purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US or Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US). But read it as book on the Christian response to poverty and injustice. Even here I’m not sure it will convince those who reject the idea that the Bible offers a critique of American (or Western) way of life. The move in the first chapter, for example, from things being all out of joint east of Eden to American imperialism is made without justification and will not persuade the skeptics.

Finally, the style of writing requires some comment. There are a lot of one page sentences. Quite a few one sentence paragraphs. I guess you would describe the style as playful. It forces you to ask questions, sometimes questions you, rather than presenting information in a straight-forward manner. Sometimes this works to good effect; sometimes it’s just irritating.

One of my maxims is to avoid footnotes except for citations. Footnotes are a sign of lazy writing – the writer cannot take the time to work out whether and how to put the material in the main text. Bell and Golden go mad with footnotes – including one which is simply an explanation mark (another feature of lazy writing, by the way). Ah well, rant over.

13 thoughts on “Review: Jesus Wants to Save Christians

  1. “including one which is simply an explanation mark (another feature of lazy writing, by the way)”

    “Well!” he exclaimed. ;)

  2. Well for what’s worth, I’m against footnotes and endnotes – they are after all the same thing, just placed in different places. As I said in the post, the exception is citations. But interesting asides? A writer should make up his or her mind: are they worthy of inclusion or not? Don’t just dump stuff in the footnotes. Lazy. My first book had zillions of footnotes. After that I saw the light and repented. I think there are only two footnotes (except for citations) in all my dozen or so subsequent books – and one of those contains some explanatory words for a poem I’m citing so it was impossible to put it in the main text because that would have meant inserting it into the middle of someone else’s poem. There’s not even one in the book version of my PhD thesis.

  3. That is indeed true repentance. I’ve been wrestling with the issue for a project myself and have decided to just have citations. Thanks for the advice.

  4. I’d never really got beyond ‘if you must have them, have footnotes not endnotes’ but now I think about it I’m kinda persuaded that they can be a mark of lazy writing… one to ponder.

  5. Interesting critique Tim – will have to read it as several friends here have, though none are particularly strong on biblical theology.

    BTW – “The Lazy Christian Writer’s Guide to Laziness” – your next book perhaps?

  6. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the review – I’ve listened to a couple of these as talks on the web and read Velvet Elvis, which for me has the same frustrating mix of occasional pointed biblical application and overly postmodern – emergent church – pseudo-liberal blind spots (and terrible footnoting).

    Any tips on where you might start with members of your church who were very keen on this stuff, completely with you on most aspects of mission and church and so on, but trying to take people a different way when it comes to doctrine, sin and the cross?

  7. Hi Dave

    It depends what you means by ‘this stuff’. If you mean biblical theology then I would point them to the two books I mentioned in the post – my From Creation to New Creation and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture (see the links above). If you means socio-economic issues then I would recommend my book Good News to the Poor (for more details see the book page with a link of the top menu of my blog). This argues for social involvement, but also for the centrality of proclamation. It doesn’t address head on a deficient doctrine of sin and the cross, but those truths are implicit. If you want to address deficient doctrines of sin and the cross then I would recommend Mark Meynell’s Cross Examined or (a slightly higher, but still very accessible, level) John Stott’s The Cross of Christ.

    I do think the central plot-line of the Bible is the story of God restoring his rule. This the good news that Jesus declares. And it is good news because God’s rule is rule of freedom, joy, peace and justice in contrast to the lie of Satan in the Eden (which portrays God as a tyrant) and in contrast to the slavery, misery, conflict and oppression of human self-rule. The problem is that when the God of justice comes he will come down my street (Malachi 2:17-3:5). The defeat of injustice by God must involve the defeat (judgment) of me because I am not only a victim, but a perpetrator. I am a rebel against God’s rule so the restoration of his rule must mean my judgment. But God is gracious. This is why the kingdom comes in two stages. When the king comes judgment does not fall or rather it falls on the king, on the cross, in the place of his people. As a result all who take refuge in him can look forward to final re-establishment of God’s rule with hope.

  8. Hey Tim,

    I’ve found myself in several conversations about the theology of Rob Bell. I’ve seen several of the devotional videos from the popular “Nooma” video series, and I’ve casually browsed through a few of his books. One of the videos that comes to mind is one in which the thrust of the message is: let go of the “better” to take hold of the “best.” There was some sort of starfish and sea shell analogy used to illustrate the point.

    Nonetheless, my issue is that I don’t explicitly find or hear things from Rob Bell that seem overtly contradictory to Scripture; but at the same time, it doesn’t seem like it’s effectively centered. I almost see it like utilizing a boat as a blender. Rather than using the boat in all of its glory on the water, Bell’s messages tend to almost glaze over the magnificence of adoption through propitiation (terminology from J.I. Packer), only to focus on the pragmatics of how the propeller makes a great blender. I realize that’s a silly analogy, but hopefully you can see my train of thought.

    Can you help me define what I am feeling and seeing about Rob Bell’s theology? Am I off-base in my observations? I have no intention of assailing Bell’s character, but I know several people who really like his literary works. However, I sense that it could be dangerous. Any help?

  9. In defense of footnotes: My favourite author David Foster Wallace is a huge and entertaining user of footnotes – http://www.charlierose.com/view/clip/9540 – because “there is a way that reality is fractured; but text is very linear and unified – and I am looking for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorientating”

  10. Hi Tim

    I’d have to agree with the 9Marks site insofar as the radical nature of the gospel is that God justifies the ungodly – the God of perpetrators not simply victims – so Rob Bell needs to think that through a little more, especially if he is making any claims about offering a totalising Biblical Theology. Having said that I get a little ticked off with evangelical blogs created by establishment evangelical churches that live up the street from the White House putting sluglines on their blog “Is your church reflecting the culture or shaping it?” Given the ecclesiology of the vast majority of confessional evangelicalism in the West today you’d have to ask “Is THAT all is there is to it?” of them as much as of Bell. Oh well, enough of my rant.

  11. I’ve read all Bell’s other stuff, and seen the Noomas etc and his writing style is conversational and creative. He rarely sets out to produce a systematic theology, which leaves nothing unsaid. Instead I find here that the book (which i have yet to read admittedly) is being judged for what it doesn’t say. If Bell had intended to write a comprehensive work of atonement theology I guess he could have done it. Instead perhaps he is attempting to draw out one facet of the atonement as it pertains to the matter being discussed.

    As for the book being dotted with footnotes and written in short paragraphs – not sure why the reviewer here feels the need to be so vocal about this. it’s just a style thing.

    Maybe there is just hint of Bell-Bashing going on here? I hope not. The 9Marks article does have a distinct aroma of Bell-Bashing about it – it reads like someone who would feel better by finding fault with Bell, rather than someone engaging in genuine dialogue.

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