The most important thing that will come of Rob Bell’s newest book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, is that Christians will be given an approach to reading the Bible that both makes sense of the Bible and makes sense of the world in which the earliest Christians lived. I’ll sum it up with five “E”s. But I will stake a claim on this: this is Rob Bell’s best book to date.
If you’ve read any of Rob’s books or heard him speak, what do you think are his most importance insights and contributions?
First, Rob suggests the “first” book in the Bible — and here he is not talking about the first book in pages — is Exodus and the big idea of that book, the “Exodus,” is the Bible’s own presentation of what God is up to in this world: hearing the cry of the oppressed and liberating them through an “exodus.” He traces this theme through the whole Bible, and of course he finds important echoes in the opening of each Gospel: the way made straight for the Lord. This image from Isa 40 is the new exodus theme of Isaiah.
Second, those who are liberated, because they are fallen sinners, turn their situation into power and oppression and become once again like Egypt (another “e”). Egypt stands for bricks and power and money and oppression and turning away from God. Rob, swiping a generative idea of Walter Brueggemann’s (The Prophetic Imagination), sees the return to Egypt or the rise of Egypt in Israel in Solomon’s aggrandizing of power and money and military might. So, Egypt dwells in each of us and it is the prospect that fidelity alone can avoid.
Third, the discipline of God for Egypt is Exile: Exile is what happens when God sends his people away from the Land, away from God’s presence, away from the Temple, away from where they are destined to be.
Fourth, the solution to Exile, rooted in God’s grace, is the Eucharist — but here I’m jumping ahead a bit. It is Passover that becomes Eucharist, it is the blood on the door. This meal is the night of Jesus’ meal; it is the night of death; the way to return to Blessing is the way of death and dying with Jesus on the cross. It is the death of Jesus for us. It is a death that unites Jews and Gentiles into one new humanity; Eucharist is for others — as we die for others. Bell has a good section on the Stranger who talks to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, showing how significant resurrection was to the gospel message of Jesus. And resurrection leads to Pentecost where the new humanity is formed.
Finally, this message addresses Empire. Here Rob plays the politics card, and I don’t think he does this as carefully as needs to be done. But, let’s begin with America as Empire: war, money, power, and the empire whose power creates poverty elsewhere. OK, I can live with critique of America. But there’s more to Empire than America: Is not Iraq empire? Is not Saudi Arabia empire? Is not Sudan empire? Is not South Africa empire? In other words, we take the blame that is ours but ours is not the blame of the world. I read this week that Sudan has enough supplies to care for its own, but it is shipping food supplies to other countries … and we need not get into all of where the money is going. The point is this: yes, oppression deserves to be denounced, but let’s be fair — if we want to use “empire” as an ideology to be denounced, let’s denounce wherever empire oppresses.
Comparing Empire then and Empire now must be done with care. We are dealing with a pagan powerful nation — Rome — and a post-Christian nation whose constitution embodies ideals hammered out through a Christian history. Is the problem for Paul or Jesus Rome? All secular kingdoms and governments are Empire to me; now what? Some who critique the USA as Empire are expecting a Constantinian reality from the State. I don’t. I expect all governments to be Empire-ish; my hope is in the God of the gospel and in the God of the church, local and global. My hope is that the Church will embody that countercultural and counter imperial gospel.
Now, some quibbles: this book, like two others of his I’ve read, reflects Bell’s oral style and that means way too much white space for my liking. More importantly, a New Exodus reading of the Bible deserves some more bibliography and some suggestions for exploration. There’s lots out there, some of it academic — like the good stuff of Rikk Watts and Tom Wright — but there are so many texts to consider and so much good stuff on this, I think Rob should give some pointers to readers of where to follow this up.
The cover is clever, and I’ll let you figure it out.