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 or Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture ). 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.