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.

The Revelation of God’s Kingship

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon UK

Here’s the next instalment in my series summarising and assessing Oliver Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (CUP, 1996). Click here for other entries in the series.

Chapter Two: The Revelation of God’s Kingship

The reign of God also connects us with the history of Israel. Recently political theology has moved beyond isolated texts (like Romans 13). But it still only draws on eclectic themes (exodus, jubilee, shalom). It lacks an ‘architectonic hermeneutic’ (22) to bring together these themes.

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

Yahweh’s reign does not legitimate certain forms of political order (not even the David king). So can we learn anything useful from Yahweh’s for political theology? ‘We can, if we explore the resonances of a wider range of terms that are used to develop the idea.’ (35) O’Donovan undertakes an exegetical task (although he does not show his workings) to identify these resonances:

We shall take three common Hebrew words as primary points of reference: yeshū’āh (salvation), mishpāt (judgment) and nahalāh (possession). Yhwh’s authority as king is established by the accomplishment of victorious deliverance, by the presence of judicial discrimination and by the continuity of a community-possession. To these three primary terms I add a fourth, which identities the human response and acknowledgement of Yhwh’s reign: tehillāh (praise). (36)

This creates three themes (that tend towards one another):

1. Salvation (mighty acts, victory)

The paradigm for this is the exodus. Salvation is an exercise of Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness (hesed) and righteousness (tsedeq).

2. Judgment (righteousness)

Judgment of Yhwh involves both vindicating the righteousness of Israel in the face of the nations (through military victory) and vindicating the righteousness of God in the face of Israel (judgement against Israel).

3. Possession

This includes both the land (as a national possession, later focused on Jerusalem, and family inheritance) and the law. It also encompasses Yahweh’s possession of Israel.

As the book progresses O’Donovan equates these (without stating this correlation) as follows does this: salvation = power, judgment = right, possession = tradition – thus making them recognisable as concepts in Western thought. (45)

This analysis creates the first of six theorems:

First theorem: ‘Political authority arises where power, the execution of right and the perpetuation of tradition are assured together in one co-ordinated agency.’ (46)

Second theorem: ‘That any regime should actually come to hold authority, and should continue to hold it, is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service.’ (46)

4. Praise

O’Donovan adds a fourth theme: Human beings respond to these three dimensions of the divine rule with praise. ‘We may say that the land was the material case of Yhwh’s kingly rule, as judgment was the formal cause and his victories the efficient cause … praise is the final case of God’s kingdom.’ (41, 48)

Third theorem: ‘In acknowledging political authority, society proves its political identity.’ (47)

The recognition of political authority involves a worship of divine rule explains (49):

—  the persistent connexion between politics and religion

—  why political loyalties can go so badly wrong

—  the moral debilitation of the Western idea of political authority as a human creation to protect individual purposes

The authority of Yhwh (like Yhwh himself) is imageless. But it is mediated through human mediators (in addition to cataclysmic events). But human mediators, especially the king, are idolised because they are relativised by the prophetic movement (65).

Fourth theorem: ‘The authority of a human regime mediates divine authority in a unitary structure, but is subject to the authority of law within the community, which bears independent witness to the divine command.’ (65)

Can law be applied to the other nations? In the Old Testament we see both judgment proclaimed against the nations, and also the prospect of co-operation and co-worship. The same legal expectations are applied to the nations. They are accountable to the same divine court (Psalm 82:3). The great Mesopotamian empires are God’s sword or servant of judgment. There is also a critique of empire – of both its military and cultural hegemony. So the eschatological vision of Israel is of an internationally plural order, free from the unifying constraints of empire (71).

To summarise: the rule of Yhwh was conceived internationally; it secured the relations of the nations and directed them toward peace. But at the international level there was to be no unitary mediator, Israel never entertained the apologia for empire which we find developing in patristic and medieval sources, that the rule of a single world-power represented and mediated the universal rule of Yhwh as high-god. Yhwh’s world order was plurally constituted. World-empire was a bestial deformation. It was in this providential disposition of events that Yhwh’s rule was seen; and it was mediated only through the authority of prophets and the prophetic people. Israel did not speak of a ‘Natural Law’ because it felt no need to go back behind its own prophetic role to explain how Yhwh made his name known; Israel was itself the messenger. But it thought in terms of a law which could and would bind the nations universally. To propose a generalised statement: the appropriate unifying element in international order is law rather than government. (72)

This is O’Donovan’s fifth theorem.

Fifth theorem: ‘The appropriate unifying element in international order is law rather than government.’ (72)

No political structure can claim to encompass all humanity (73). Law can shape relations between nations, but not government. There are always ‘others’ whom we must respect and encounter.

Israel has a fundamental collective identity. But there is an emerging role for the individual. This creates O’Donovan’s sixth theorem:

Sixth theorem: ‘The conscience of the individual members of a community is a repository of the moral understanding which shaped it, and may serve to perpetuate it in a crisis of collapsing morale or institution.’ (80)

When God stepped into the story: reflections on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

I’ve just finished reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. (I’ve not seen the film.) The book is beautifully written with the amazing sustained descriptive passages that are characteristic of McEwan. It’s the story of a teenage , Briony Tallis, whose false accusations lead to a young man, Robbie, being wrongly imprisoned for se xual assault. Robbie and Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, are in love so Briony’s act destroys two lives. By the time Robbie is released, the second world war has begun and he has been conscripted. He and Cecilia, who has forsaken her family to become a nurse, meet only briefly before he is send away to France. As Briony realises what she has done, she endeavours to atone, leaving the privileges of her up-bringing and the pursuit of literature at university to devote herself to nursing during the war.

But she cannot self-atone.

On this first really fine day of May she sweated under her starchy uniform. All she wanted to do was work, then bathe and sleep until it was time for work again. But it was useless, she knew. Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it, whatever illumination in tutorial she had relinquished, or lifetime moment on a college lawn, she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable. (Ian McEwan, Atonement, Jonathan Cape, 2001, 285.)

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Why do you want to force your opinion on me?

On Sundays at the moment we are focusing on and exploring ‘The Questions of Faith that People Ask.’ Here is the first part of the fourth question: ‘Why do you want to force your opinion on me?’

– A friend says it is up them to decide whether it is right for them to s ex outside of marriage.
– A friend says women should be free to choose whether it is right to have an abortion.
– A friend says each of us must develop our own ideas about God.

How do you respond to these statements? Why?

Jesus began his ministry by declaring: ‘The kingdom of God  is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:14-15) But to many people today the kingdom or reign of God doesn’t sound like good news. ‘I want to be free, ‘ they say. ‘Let me decide what I believe and how I live. I don’t want you Christians forcing your opinion on me.’ At that the end of the move, I, Robot (2004), the robot Sonny says, ‘Now that I have fulfilled my purpose, I don’t know what to do.’ Detective Spooner replies: ‘I guess you’ll have to find your way like the rest of us, Sonny … That’s what it means to be free.’

Truth leads to true freedom and community

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