Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book Review: Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (2008) by Rob Bell and Don Golden.

Philosophy professor Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary critiques tendencies of many modern books:

"Many books today seem afraid to rely on pure text. They seem to be embarrassed to be what they are: books, that is, orderly collections of words formed into sentences and paragraphs.Too many books are filled with one-sentence paragraphs (usually a sign of poor style and impatience), call-outs that repeat what is in smaller print elsewhere on the page (annoying), stand-alone call-outs with little connection to the flow of the text and which I find disorienting. (When do I read them? That is their context?) We also find lists, bullet points (the bane of orderly discourse, but the balm of PowerPoint), and font variations. These books are more like children's books of old." (The Constructive Curmudgeon, April 3, 2010:; emphasis supplied).

I wonder if Dr. Groothuis has read Rob Bell and Don Golden's Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile. As this book is loaded with one-sentence paragraphs and some colorful accoutrements, it might just ruin Dr. Groothuis' day for these reasons alone. (The authors also play games with the endnotes, as they add one [a Bible verse] to each chapter that nowhere appears in the text.) However, it would be hasty to reject it as childish for its stylistic indulgences. The book contains some thought-provoking material about the church today.

First, let me dismantle another potential stumbling block: the book's provocative title. The book does not argue that Christians need to be "saved" in the sense of obtaining reconciliation with God through justification. Rather, a clue unlocking the title's meaning is found in this one-sentence paragraph appearing late in the book: "Jesus wants to save our church from irrelevance." (p. 174.) Bell and Golden expound on their ideas about saving the church: "Jesus wants to save us from shrinking the gospel down to a transaction about the removal of sin and not about every single particle of creation being reconciled to its maker." (179.)

The book somewhat abruptly pivots from an exposition of biblical texts--largely the exodus narrative--into a call for the American church's political or social action. "[L]et's listen with fresh ears to the Bible. Because what's going on here is an ancient phenomenon known as empire [endnote omitted].

"America is an empire.

"And the Bible has a lot to say about empires.

"Most of the Bible is a history told by people living in lands occupied by conquering superpowers. It's a book written from the underside of power. It's an oppression narrative. The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, mighty empires, from the Egypt Empire to the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire to the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire.


"What we see in the Bible is that empires naturally accumulate wealth and resources." (121.)

Then, Bell and Golden explain the ways in which America is an empire that accumulates, which in turn leads to "consequences", including "burdens and curses". (122-23.) They call on the church to be mindful of this tendency towards accumulation, and simultaneously, to understand those who are trampled by empires who need liberation.

Notwithstanding the single-sentence paragraphs and colorful flourishes, Jesus Wants to Save Christians is challenging. It's challenging in its conclusions and its theology. In fact, I'm not sure its theology can withstand careful scrutiny in every respect, as it also occasionally indulges in excesses in its theological expositions.

So, here's an example of not judging a book by its text.

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