Jesus Wants to Save Christians

I don't usually post book reviews in the main body of this blog, as I generally post them on Virtual Bookshelf which in turn posts them on facebook and in the sidebar here. But this is a long one (not much shorter than the book itself!), so I thought it best to put it here in a slightly amended form.
In our church we have what we call a "Good Book Group" which meets on an irregular basis on a Sunday night after the evening service in various people's homes, to discuss books that we have read (or more often than not partially read). So far we have looked at:
"Simply Christian" by Tom Wright - a good start...
"Jesus: Safe, Tender Extreme" by Adrian Plass - universally regarded by the group as the waste of too many good trees.
"The Shack" By William Young - the group was interested by some of the issues thrown up but generally appalled by it as a work of literature.
"Living the Resurrection" by Eugene Peterson - not a good introduction to Peterson for most of the group...
"Fuelling the Fire" by Dennis Lennon - a genuinely helpful book on prayer.
"Life with God" by Richard Foster: the first book to really get the group excited...
"Intelligent Church" by Steve Chalke - a good introduction to the church as an incarnational community...
"Finding our Way Again" by Brian McLaren - well received...
"Jesus: The Final Days" by Miller et al - a bit dry...
"The Irresistible Revolution" by Shane Claiborne - divided opinion between those who accepted his theo/political analysis and those who didn't... but left many feeling a little impotent and guilty.
"Total Church" by Tim Chester and Steve Timms - felt a little artificial after Claiborne's book... Covering the same ground but from a theologically more conservative perspective.

Then for this month we chose Rob Bell's "Jesus Wants to Save Christians". As someone in the group pointed out last night, somewhere along the line this idea didn't really compute with whoever was doing the announcements in the church bulletin, as the title became transmogrified to "Jesus Wants to Save Sinners" a much more predictable title.

Not sure what I expected in terms of content when I started this, given the title, but was fairly confident as to what the style would be, having read some of Bell's other stuff and watched a number of his NOOMA pieces... And I certainly wasn't off beam on the latter. In my mind it was a little bit of style over substance, but it was generally well received by our book group, probably because he was doing something that many other Christian writers don't do, which is integrating what he had to say within a cogent picture of the whole Biblical story. Having read other theologians such as Breuggeman myself, it all seemed a little bit watered down (but what do you expect in 180 double spaced pages). Also, some of his exegesis was just plain wrong (eg. his explanation of the context and implications of the encounter between Amos and Amaziah).
But most of the comments on various internet forums and online reviews make no mention of such things, but rather, many there criticise Bell for getting too political, but my only response to them would be wise up and read the Biblical narrative, particularly through the lens of the Prince of Peace who came to bring in an alternative Kingdom, to preach good news to the poor (and don't even think of doing the Houdini-act of spiritualising that!) and died the death of a political subversive.
The sub-text of many of these criticisms is "don't dare criticise America and the so-called American dream" but such a response is exactly what Bell himself preempts in saying that such an approach is actually a defense of an empire that is predicated on keeping people impoverished so that a limited number can enjoy unparalleled comfort. A prophet has to critique his own culture (attend to the plank in his own people's eye) first. Had he been writing in Ireland I trust that his critique would have been on an empire founded on economic idolatry, in Northern Ireland, it would have been based on two competing empires founded on idolatrous nationalisms... as well as the all pervading western myth of consumerist capitalism being a permanent rising tide that can float everyone's boat. Bell was not political with a capital P... he was not endorsing any one particular political party in the US... Many have surmised that he would lean towards the Democrats, although frankly, both parties in the US (and indeed most of those in the UK and Ireland) are so wedded to the model of global capitalism that I wouldn't look to any mainstream party for an alternative to the current "empire".
Indeed one final criticism of this book is that it doesn't really offer any answers. I am left, as so often is the case, with the question "Yes, but how?" How do we, as churches and individual Christians live out those alternative kingdom values in a way that really makes a difference? Answers on a postcard please...


Anonymous said…
Been thinking about this post on reading last night as ...
at last I have found someone else who agrees with my sentiments on the 'Shack' Book (more aptly named 'Kaa.. Book')which has been raved about to me by many but also thoughts on Rob Bell..
I haven't read the book (or in fact any of his books but since when did that stop me commenting) but his sentiment on the wealthy maintaining the poor in an impoverished state to guarantee their own wealthy status, echoes the thoughts of Robert Tressell in his iconic Socialist book, (which I'm reading at the moment) 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'.
I'm sure great political minds (of which I am definitely not one)have expanded and debated Robert Bell's ideas but what struck me in all of this was your final question...
' How do we as churches and individuals live out alternative Kingdom values in a way that makes a difference?
Yes the philanthropy of the rich existed 100yrs ago when Robert wrote his famous book and way before that...and it still exists today with the middle classes seeking to take the edge of a laissez -faire capitalism by indulging themselves in 'feel good' gifts and charity cards.
I don't profess to be adhering to Christian doctrine but what has always struck me about the significance of Christ's alternative values was evident at his birth - poverty and vulnerability.
'See within the manger lies He who built the starry skies...' says it all.
Christ didn't come to fill shoeboxes or create a Trade Union movement but in his poverty and humility he brought unconditional love that created worldwide revolution not through rhetoric but (as I see it) by walking alongside and loving all equally.
Hippy like as he was that 'Hugh Fearnly' vicar on BBC2 recently attempted to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, existing for a month without money and relying on the charity of others and reports that what he learnt the most from his experience was the importance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable...
I don't have any answers either but I think it's a great time of year to be asking the question.
Happy Advent!
Thanks... People like Claiborne and John Bell (Iona Community) and others would probably agree wholeheartedly... My only problem is that the huge number of people sitting in the pews of churches with responsibilities to families and wedded to the western capitalist machine, can easily write off such a take as "hippy nonsense". Yet we DO need to get beyond the shoeboxes and buy-a-goat mentality into a real sense of solidarity with the poor and the oppressed of this world, far and near... Not necessarily calling people to give up their jobs in banks etc but actually seeing that as a place they can make a difference... Not just witnessing to their neighbours in words, but through living their lives prophetically... even if it costs... But you're right... this really is the sort of thing we need to be thinking about at advent!

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