Wednesday, August 27, 2008
THE NEW ROB BELL BOOK--- A PREVIEW OF COMING ATTRACTIONS
Jesus Wants to Save Christians, by Rob Bell and Don Golden, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), $19.99 (224 pages) Due out in October.
I thoroughly enjoy the creative material that comes out of Rob Bell’s grace-filled and artistic brain. Even when I disagree with him, there is no denying he is tapping into a deep well of truth and riding the wave of a new movement of the Holy Spirit which the church, especially in America, so desperately needs. Rob Bell, and until recently, Don Golden have been doing this together at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, and undoubtedly this book comes out of some of their ministry together. This third of the Bell books, this time with collaboration from a partner in ministry has the same bite and passion as the first two, but mostly missing are the personal stories and anecdotes which peppered Velvet Elvis, and Sex God. This book is all business, and it is God’s business the writers are about. Whether the Evangelical world wants to hear this or not, these authors feel it needs to do so desperately. This book deserves a thorough review.
It is thus with some excitement that I recently discovered that my friends at Zondervan had sent me a pre-pub copy of Jesus Wants to Save Christians (and boy do many of them need it!), which as it turns out, is a good faith attempt to articulate a specific theology for our post-modern situation, articulating what the author’s call a New Exodus perspective. New Exodus theology is of course not totally new, though it will be new to many in the blogosphere, and in the Introduction our authors acknowledge right off the bat an indebtedness especially to the work of Professor Tom Holland who teaches Biblical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and has focused in his writings on the Pauline corpus (e.g see his Contours of Pauline Theology). Thus we could say that Bell and Golden are attempting to turn some of that Welsh grape juice into vintage wine in this little book, or perhaps we should envisage the process the other way around, since Holland’s is the more technical scholarly work, and this book more the distillation and clarification. But let the buyer beware--- anyone brave enough to take on and milk the All American sacred cows of greed and sex are bound to get to some other nice little non-controversial golden calves like ‘Christians and politics, or Christians and war’, or Christians and social justice, or Christians and the oppressed and the poor-- right? Right.
One of the things I immediately resonate with about this book is its attempt to do theology out of the Grand Narrative or meta-narrative of the Bible. This is precisely what I have been arguing for, for a long time even when it comes to more didactic material such as Paul’s letters (see e.g. my Paul’s Narrative Thought World). What we discover pretty quickly in the first chapter is that this book is more than just a theological exercise by young theologians (to borrow a phrase from Helmut Thielicke’s classic little guide), it is something of a social manifesto, a probing of the necessary socio-political implications of the Gospel. Writing this is of course either a brave or a foolhardy thing to do in schizophrenic America which actually thinks you can keep religion and politics (and church and state) in hermetically sealed off comports in one’s brain, ones town, and one’s nation, and never the twain should meet. In short, this book comes at precisely the right time (due out October) in the latest political cycle of things.
The book begins with a retelling of the tragic tale of Cain and Abel which gives the authors the opportunity to suggest that this story is about all of us—somewhere East of Eden, trying to build a city and a civilization outside of Paradise and in a fallen world. Ain’t it the truth. But this book is especially about the indigenization of human falleness in America particularly, and how our behavior as an Empire, in some ways much like the Roman Empire, is a particular manifestation of what is deeply wrong with human society, something which is more like the behavior of Cain, than Abel.
One of the roots of the problem in America is pointed out at the very outset of the book is put in these terms—“A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the cross start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage”(p. 18). Indeed, if pushed far enough it becomes a form of idolatry, the ultimate fallen behavior. And of course Bell and Golden are right. When you are spending a trillion dollars in Iraq and untold billions here in America for Homeland In-Security, and invest 50 billion in one plane with helicopter features as a ‘better weapon of mass destruction’ and of course it still is not making us safe, indeed it makes us feel less secure in many cases not more, isn’t it time to ask—Is fear or faith dictating our dominant national behavior in such matters? What’s wrong with this picture from a Christian point of view? At least Bell and Golden are brave enough to ask the right questions about all of this, even though doubtless they are going to be slammed as unpatriotic, rather like Jews were by the Roman Empire when they refused to worship at the altars of the Emperor cult.
And interestingly, quoting Colin Powell no less they put their finger on it early on: “The only thing that can destroy us is us. We shouldn’t do it to ourselves, and we shouldn’t use fear for political purposes—scaring people to death so they will vote for you, or scaring people to death so that we create a terror-industrial complex”
(Colin Powell in interview in GQ October 2007 http://men.style.com/gq/features/landing?id=content_5900).
I knew I liked that Colin Powell. With this opening salvo, Bell and Golden turn to a retelling of our story, our meta-narrative, the story of salvation history.
CHAPTER ONE In the first major chapter of the book, the authors turn to Exodus and isolate a particular key motif. If we ask what it is that gets the ball rolling, the juices flowing, and more to the point what sets God into motion and into action, it is the cry of the oppressed. Whether it’s the blood of Abel crying out, or the oppressed Israelites laboring under Pharaoh’s hard yoke, it is the cry of the oppressed for help that sets the Biblical story in motion in regard to God’s divine intervention and redemption activity. God doesn’t just hear, he is a crisis intervention specialist. But not like an EMT team. More like someone who is rescuing his own bride to be, and longs to have a permanent binding covenantal relationship with them. And God has a mission for this bride, to become a priest, a mediator between God and humankind, a light-bearer to the nations.
Much is made by Bell and Golden of the word sa’aq which Walter Bruegemann has referred to as the primal scream of a wronged people. Not a lament or a cry of resignation but the strong voice of a person badly wrong crying out and believing it will be heard and remedied. God responds to the primal scream of humanity for liberation, freedom, rescue. The cry for release from injustice and oppression.
Egypt is viewed as the epitome of anti-kingdom. It is seen as what happens when sin becomes structured into society itself and its laws. “Egypt shows us how easily human nature bends towards using power to preserve privilege at the expense of the weak.” (p. 27). Pharaoh is “part of a larger system, a complex web of power and violence and industry and technology that exploits people for its expansion and profit.” (p. 26). Bell and Golden are enunciating a certain kind of non-Marxist liberation theology, but they have indeed drunk from the well of Horsley and Crossan as they trek across the desert towards the oasis they are looking for.
One of the more interesting points in this chapter is that God deliberately calls his people away from the city away from fallen civilization to a place where he can speak to them “And it happens in the wilderness, which has global implications. Because the Sinai event happened in the wilderness and not in the midst of a nation or city or province where someone could make ownership claims, it was for all the people of the world.” (p. 29).
This first chapter could be called a tale of going from Exodus to Exile. And there are many helpful and key points along the way. What does God do when his oppressed people, once they begin to prosper, turn around and oppress others? Does God stand idly by when that happens? No, he sends his very own people off into exile. There is both a helpful exposition of the ten commandments in this chapter and then an eye opening exposition on Solomon and how he became like Pharaoh, an oppressor.
In regard to the ten commandments the authors stress that this is an exegesis and a reminder of the Israelite experience in Egypt and thereafter. So for example, it reminded them they lived in Egypt in a polytheistic environment which was an insult to the one true God, as he was about the only God not honored there! The Sabbath commandment is said to remind the Israelites that Pharaoh made them work every day without rest, that is it reminds them of their life as slaves not allow shalom or restoration or a time to honor their God.
The ten commandments then are seen as a new way of being human, getting one’s life in proper order in relationship to God and others. God’s people are to go and hear the cry of other oppressed peoples—the widow, the orphan, the stranger in the land, the foreigner. “They’re commanded: Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan… Do not deny justice to your poor people….It is as if God is saying, ‘The thing that has happened to you—go make it happen for others….God measures their faith by how they treat the widows, orphans, strangers—the weak—among them God’s desire is that they would bring exodus to the weak, in the same way that God brought them exodus in their weakness.” (p. 35). And later when they speak about the perfidies of Solomon they remind us that it was the Queen of Sheba who said “Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.” (p. 37). But in fact Solomon failed in this enterprise and became a king like unto Pharaoh. The authors then chronicle not only the buildings based on slave labor, but the building up of homeland security at Megiddo and elsewhere. And Solomon becomes an arms merchant, buying chariots and horses from Egypt and selling weapons of war to the Hittites and the Aramaens. (p. 41). Solomon creates an anti-kingdom for his own pleasure and protection and honor, in direct violation of Deut. 17.16-17 telling a Israelite ruler what he must not do.
One of the gems of insight is that “The Bible is full of stories in which the ‘pagan’ characters seem to have better insight into the ways of God than the people who are supposed to have that insight. See Jethro in Exodus 18, Rahab in Joshua 2, the magi in the Gospels, and Numbers 22, we’re not sure about Balaam’s donkey” (p. 198). To this they add the telling example of the Queen of Sheba who reminds Solomon that his job as ruler is to uphold justice and righteousness, not build a glam temple on the backs of slave labor, and set up military bases in Megiddo, Hazor and elsewhere in the Holy Land, or have loads of concubines and wives, and thereby one’s heart is turned away from the Lord. The one oppressed has become the oppressor, and where this leads is straight to exile, do not pass go, do not collect any more shekelim (see 1 Kngs 11). What’s the point here? “God doesn’t have a problem with eating and drinking and owning things. Its when those things come at the expense of others having their basic needs met—that’s when the passionate rants of the prophets really kick in.” (p. 46). They are right on the money about this.
Another of the major themes of this chapter is that God wants or needs a body on earth. No, this is not Mormon theology coming out of the mouths of Bell and Golden. By body they mean a tangible people, a real people of flesh and blood to carry out God’s will and plan on earth. Herein we see the deep impact that Jewish scholars like Abraham Joshua Heschel have had on their theologizing (see p.200). God gives power and blessing so that justice and righteousness will be upheld for those who are denied it (p. 44).
CHAPTER TWO The second major chapter in this book is entitled ‘Get Down Your Harps’ and chronicles what it means to be in exile. One of the major leitmotivs in the first two chapters is that it seems that for a fallen people “take away the comforts of kingdom, deprive a person of the structures and institutions of empire, and they just might find the spine to envision a new tomorrow. Push a person to the limits of suffering, and they just might become a revolutionary.” (p. 54). No not a Che Guevara kind of revolutionary. A non-violent sort who is sold out for God, and whose bread is God’s Word, and whose hope is in the Lord, not in empire, or military protection or the like. As this chapter goes on to show, one Exodus was not enough. There needed to be an Exodus from Exile as well, and vision borne in exile that was big enough to include all of humanity—a cry for all of humanity to come home to their God.
‘The kings of the Babylonians, the prophets concluded wasn’t the real problem any more than Pharaoh the king of the Egyptians was the real problem for their ancestors…The real problem, the ultimate oppressor, is something that resides deep in every human heart. The real reason for their oppression is the human slavery to violence, sin, and death.” (p. 57). It is the Cain in all of us that is the real problem.
One of the stresses in both the first two chapters is the conditional nature of God’s promises in some respects—God had told Moses that if his people would be faithful and obey fully then they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And on the other hand, if they did not. If they forgot their true identity and story, there would be consequences, called covenant curses (p. 59). Penalties happen when you break a contract. Exile is a consequence of a nation’s infidelity.
But the vision of return, the vision of remarriage would involve a new sort of marriage covenant, according to Jeremiah, one where truth was buried deep in the inward parts of the believing people. And they would not go back to the Solomonic days, they would go forward, according to Isaiah into a place of beating swords into plowshare—exchanging destruction for food production. Turning spears into pruning hooks—exchanging the implements of killing for the implements of rescuing the least the last and the lost. And then there is the word about one’s worst enemies coming to love the Lord and be one’s brothers.
Jerusalem would become a city without walls, Israel a country without borders, and human beings people without racial bias, ethnocentricity, or national bias. “In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria a blessing on the earth. The Lord almighty will bless them, saying ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” Is. 19.24-25). Hmm…. This doesn’t sound anything like some TV preachers’ visions of the future.
Salvation to the ends of the earth, which Isaiah also forsees means no more partiality. God is the God of all people, he loves them all, and desires to redeem them all. The lion is going to lie down with the lamb and not dream of lambchops. The wolf is going to den with the sheep and not wolf him down. And we will study war no more…… “For the prophets in exile, no vision was too large, no dream too big, no hope too beyond what would happen in the new exodus….A movement bigger than any one nation, bigger than any one ethnic group, bigger than one religion” (pp. 67-68).
To their credit, Bell and Golden point out that when Isaiah talks about this new leader, they see that he was to be like Solomon, only wiser and better. One who would use power purely to help the oppressed and the poor. One who would in fact be a servant—a suffering servant. A righteous and just servant. The authors see the promises in Isaiah 7,9,11 pointing to a leader that not only has a miraculous conception but can rule forever, some sort of interesting servant who is both truly human and yet truly divine. A prince of peace who will bring shalom forever.
What if David had another son, like but much greater than Solomon? “What started as a promise of hope for a particular group of people beside a particular river turned into a universal hope for all of humanity, whatever river they find themselves beside.” (p. 71). But these dreams were deferred for a long time. These hopes were left hanging in air, and even the moment of Macabbean glory did not fulfill these dreams. What or who could? The Old Testament leaves us hanging like the last episode in season 4 of Lost.
CHAPTER THREE Bell and Golden subscribe to the theory that Jews of the first century in Israel saw themselves as still in a sort of exile since the Roman oppressors were in their land, and they were not free, since even their temple was abutted by a taller Roman installation like the Antonia Fortress. I would call this occupation which involved some oppression to be sure. But not exile. The portrayal of Jesus as the true Son of David, like Solomon was supposed to be, is poignant and accurate, beginning on p. 78. There is also a stress on how much the story of Jesus is seen in light of Isaiah 40ff. and further there is a stress on how the ministry of Jesus is seen as not just one more return from exile, one more exodus, but in fact a new genesis—the beginning of the kingdom on earth leading to the new heavens and the new earth. There is a stress on the universal intent and scope of Jesus’ ministry—“this new son of David isn’t just leading a new exodus for a specific group of people; he’s bringing liberation for everybody everywhere and ultimately for everything everywhere for all time.” (p. 83).
There is a helpful discussion, beginning on p. 85 of the Emmaus road story. The authors remind us that Jesus’ frustration with the two fellow travelers is not because they believed the prophets and Jesus’ death had dashed such hopes. It is because they had not believed the prophets that spoke of the servant suffering. “For the fellow traveler, Jesus’ death isn’t the end of hope; its actually the beginning of hope.” (p. 86). Jesus was not going to change the world by killing, but rather by dying. “If evil always takes some form of violence, then more violence isn’t going to solve anything.” Jesus came to change the paradigm for “those addicted to the myth of redemptive violence.” (p. 87, and here an indebtedness to Walter Wink is acknowledged). Instead there is the truth of redemptive suffering and death. Violence cannot bring peace, the death of the prince of peace can, for only by absorbing the world’s attempt to be Cain over and over again, can the paradigm be changed, and the world be changed, and even God’s people be changed.
CHAPTER FOUR This chapter begins with a bit of a historical problem. Apparently the authors think that Philip the Evangelist is the same person as the Philip mentioned in the Gospels. This is probably incorrect. The Philip of Acts 6-8 is not one of the apostles, but someone picked to relieve the apostles of their table waiting duties, and their duties to care for the widows. And a picture is painted of this Philip that he comes from an ultra orthodox region of northern Galilee including Bethsaida. This idea they got from Ray Van der Laan, and it is likely wrong as well as it is based on what that region was like long after A.D. 70 when it became a haven for Jews after the debacle and destruction of Jews in Jerusalem. Bethsaida was not known as part of the orthodox triangle in Jesus’ day. Indeed, it was known as a border town dangerously close to pagan influences from Gerasa and elsewhere.
In their retelling of the story of Pentecost they connect it with the Mt. Sinai experience of Moses, and the Jewish tradition that Moses got the Big Ten and these truths were then spoken in the languages of all nations. This story is more likely to be alluded to in Acts 2 than the usual suggestion that Babel is alluded to, for Acts 2 is quite specifically not about the return to one world, one language. It is about how the Good News can be indigenized in all languages and cultures.
One of the features of Bell’s approach to Scripture is to look for small correspondences between Biblical stories and then connect them—for example the mention of 3,000 killed at Sinai, and 3,000 added at Pentecost. Some of these connections are far more plausible than others and this one is just barely possible. The danger of course is to read too much into the use of specific numbers that were not particularly symbolic for Jews (though there were perhaps a dozen or so numbers that were symbolic) or specific terms, like the word ‘east’, as in east of Eden.
Another example occurs in this same chapter where the reference to too much wine is taken as an allusion to weddings and marriages, and then we are told that Pentecost is about the beginning of the new marriage with God. This is something Luke does not even remotely suggest, and indeed what is said by Peter rules it out--- the taverns are not open this early in the morning. He’s not thinking weddings, he’s thinking happy hour. Or again in this same chapter the fact that the Ethiopian eunuch is riding in a chariot is used to connect this story to the chariots of Pharaoh, never mind this eunuch is already a God-fearer reading an Isaiah scroll! Is the chariot seen here as a symbol of oppression and baptism a liberation from that sort of oppression? Luke does not say or imply that is his message here. He is concerned about Good News traveling to the ends of earth, by means of folk like the Ethiopian (see my Acts commentary).
We are then given the picture of ultra-orthodox Philip who would have qualms about baptizing a eunuch. But nothing in the story indicates this was an issue for Philip at all. And indeed, we are not given a scenario where Philip has a crisis of conscience before baptizing the eunuch. This is reading too much into the story, on the basis of dubious background info. Context is great when it’s the right contextual info, to illuminate the text.
There are however better connections made later in the chapter for example between Paul in Rom. 1 seeing himself as a servant and sort of priest to the nations, thus fulfilling what is said in Exod. 19 and elsewhere. Bell and Golden are right, that the new covenant did want to emphasize the more universalizable aspects of the prophets words, and indeed of the words of Moses.
If we wonder where the title of this book comes from it comes from insights like the following: “Paul is gathering with the religious leaders, trying to persuade them about Jesus. He doesn’t first go to the Gentiles, he goes to the religious faithful, he attends their gatherings, he speaks to them in their language. Paul does this because he knows that if the church gets converted, the whole world will follow.” (p. 115, emphasis added). Of course in Acts 28 Paul is talking to Jewish leaders, not Christians, and of course they are synagogue leaders, not church leaders, and it is not clear whether the whole world’s following is meant to be an allusion to Rom. 11.25 and context where the full number of the Gentiles and all Israel being saved are connected. This is the weakest chapter in this book in terms of sound exegesis at various points, but it does manage to stay on message and rightly emphasis the new creation theme and the new covenant character promised in Isaiah and Jeremiah. The early Christians did believe they already lived in the age of fulfillment. Indeed every conversion was already a new creation, at least in that life.
CHAPTER FIVE This chapter begins with a bang, the big bang of the bombing that began Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. As is reported here while we were busily lauding the precision of our new weapons, in fact the hospitals nearby were reporting almost entirely civilian casualties—women, children, the elderly, and men. Not soldiers, not a one, and not Saddam Hussein. The accurate report from that day of one Iraqi trying to overcome the disaster is given. He said “Due to this [inhuman] behavior. America will fail. She will fail completely among the countries. And another nation will rise and take America’s place. America will lose because her behavior is not the behavior of a great nation.” (p. 118). The bombs you see fell in the wrong place, and any one who calls innocent people killed ‘collateral damage’ has certainly forfeited the right to think they stand on the moral high ground.
Now Bell and Golden are well aware of all the good that Americans have done in so many corners of the globe. They are well aware of , and agree that the loyal service of someone to their nation, is often to be applauded and honored. They quite agree that those who actually sacrificed their lives so we could live in freedom deserve our respect. That is not the issue. The issue is that Jesus has called Christians to participate not in Empire and ‘military solutions’ but in the Gospel and the attempt to save the world for true freedom in a very different manner. To the questions about the unjust terrorist act called the Crucifixion which happened to Jesus, and how we should respond, Jesus’ suggests “those who live by the sword shall die by it”. In short, Christians are not called to participate in the ‘military solution’.
Jesus has “an entirely different understanding of what just took place in Jerusalem [to himself], an understanding that strikes at the core of their entire worldview [which looked for the military restoration of Israel], and in the process of explaining to them what really just happened [namely the fulfillment of God’s plan—see Lk. 24], he reaches out to save them from perpetuating the very thing he came to save them from.” (p. 121, emphasis added). That is he came to save them from, among other things, the ways of Cain, the ways of violence to try and solve our problems. This stress on the Christian call to non-violence is both welcome, and Biblical. Its what Jesus would do.
Bell and Golden are quite right that it is difficult to read the Bible from the posture of the oppressed when one is part of a nation that is not under oppression in the way ancient Jews were. When one is part of the world’s biggest super power it is hard to read the Bible with the eyes of the original writers of these stories that saw super-powers as the ultimate manifestation of evil, and even severely criticized their own nation when it briefly became a super power under Solomon. While it would be easy to put America on a guilt trip for how much it has and has done to obtain it and how much better we have it than any other country in the world (see pp. 122-23) Bell and Golden take the high road.
They do want to deconstruct the sense of smugness and entitlement, and make us realize we have indeed been blessed to be a blessing, and we need to get on with it, not being a curse to other nations. They stress that prosperity brings with it the temptation to forget not only one’s past poverty and exodus from it, but to forget one’s God who did the blessing and rescuing.
They stress that what so often is a telltale sign that you have in fact forgotten God is “you forget the people God cares about…the widow, the orphan, and the refugee.” (p. 124). They are right about this. One measure of the character of country is how it treats the foreigners and strangers in the land. They stress “Entitlement leads to becoming immune to the suffering of others, because ‘I got what I deserve’ and so, apparently, did they….In the empire of entitlement, when the fundamental awareness is lost that this is all a gift, luxuries can begin to seem like necessities. Excess can become normal. And it can be very easy to lose perspective on just how much we have.” (p. 125).
But Bell and Golden are not just critiquing luxury and excess. They are wanting Americans to see themselves in different places in the Bible than they usually see themselves. “If you are a citizen of an empire that has the most powerful army in the history of humanity and is currently on the way to spending a trillion dollars on a war, passages in the Bible about those who accumulate chariots and horses from Egypt are passages about you and your people.” (p. 128). It is no surprise that the Psalmist contrasts those who trust in chariots and those who trust in God.
One of the more key insights that Bell and Golden emphasize that makes the Bible a different sort of book is that the Bible records how God wanted God’s people to be self-critical. The Bible records both the good points about Solomon, but also the full critique of his attempt to make Israel like the other nations, an accumulating empire. This is a God thing, as not too many empires are self-critical. “This is a warning to us of the powerful impulse within an empire to tell only one version of the story, the version that glosses over the dark side and injustices in order to serve the larger story of continued supremacy and success.” (p. 130). When you begin believing your own rhetoric, you are self-deceived.
Not surprisingly in this chapter considerable time is spent on the book of Revelation, which is rightly seen as a profound critique of empire and the Emperor cult and the tendency of God’s people to compromise with the pagan culture and its values.
The critique of some popular forms of Dispensational interpretation of Revelation is trenchant: “Imagine how dangerous it would be if there were Christians who skipped over the first century meaning of John’s Letter [i.e. Revelation] and focused only on whatever it might be saying about future events, years and years away. There is always the chance that in missing the point, they may in the process be participating in and supporting and funding various kinds of systems that the letter warns against participating in, supporting and funding. That would be tragic. That wouldn’t be what Jesus had in mind. That would be anti-Jesus. That would be anti-Christ. Were the people in John’s church reading his letter for the first time, with Roman soldiers right outside their door thinking, ‘This is going to be really helpful for people two thousand years from now who don’t want to get left behind.”? (p. 135). They ask the pertinent question—how do the children of the empire hear a critique of the fallen tendencies toward and the existence of empires? They spend the final major chapter of this book trying to answer that question.
CHAPTER SIX The title of the final major chapter is striking—Blood on the Doorposts of the Universe. The image of course comes from the original Passover, which is seen as an occasion where the power of the Empire was rendered inert and the Pharaoh powerless to stop the angel of death because the God of the exodus was going to hear his people’s cry and rescue them. An extended comparison is drawn between the original Exodus which involved the sacrifice of a lamb, and its blood on the doorpost in lieu of the loss of the first born son, and the new Exodus in Jesus’ blood on the cross where in fact, by contrast God’s first born did lose his life. The lamb, and more specifically the sacrificed lamb becomes a symbol of freedom, of that which sets a people free. The authors then go on to discuss the Passover meal Jesus celebrated where he reinterpreted two of the elements, bread and wine, in light of himself, and his own coming sacrifice. When you change the referents of the symbols, you are changing the symbol system, and in this case that means new covenant, and not just a renewal of the old one.
On p. 150 much is made of the fact that Christ is called the firstborn of all creation, which is taken to mean that Jesus is the representative of all of creation. In fact Colossians is talking about his being preeminent over all creation, but they are right in general about the point they are making. Christ did die for all. God is reconciling all things unto himself through the blood of the cross. This is the language of estrangement overcome, not liberation from bondage, but it is said to be for all of creation. Probably preeminent over creation and preeminent and first in the new creation of resurrection is what Col. 1 is about, a statement about Christology, not so much about new exodus. In fact “making peace thru the blood of the cross” is more about cessation of hostilities between God and humankind, not about liberation from Egypt like oppression and bondage. The problem with paradigms is that when you try to read new Exodus into too many things, some texts get distorted like Col. 1.
The authors go on to stress that Paul apparently saw himself as, like Christ, a thank offering poured out for the world. They argue (see pp. 152-53) that we are all supposed to be offering ourselves as sacrifices and servants, for the world. One striking remark comes while they are discussing 1 Cor. 9, and notice that Paul does not say “to the strong I became strong” whereas he does say to the weak I became weak”. The reason this is notable is because of the previous antinomies (I became a Jew to the Jew, a Gentile to the Gentile etc.). Why not? Because a Eucharist is not about self-strengthening or identifying with the strong. “For someone to receive, someone has to give. For someone to be fed, someone has to provide the food. …if someone somewhere benefits, then someone somewhere has paid something” (p. 152). Eucharist is about self-giving, not self-aggrandizement or self-enhancement.
One of the things that is strongly critiqued in this last chapter is a consumer approach to church, especially when that makes a church an exercise in niche marketing for a specific subculture or cultural group. As Bell and Golden stress that doesn’t look like the new humanity talked about in Ephes. 2 that Christ died to create. They put it this way-- “A church is not a center for religious goods and services, where people pay a fee and receive a product in return. A church is not an organization that surveys its demographic to find out what the market is demanding at this particular moment and then adjusts its strategy to meet that consumer need.” (p. 161). The question is what does it look like to break ourselves open and pour ourselves out for the world, as Jesus did. A church’s authority in the world comes from its Christ’likeness is in essence what they are saying.
At this juncture, lest we think that Bell and Golden might be suggesting something ‘liberal’ about politics they make clear that is not their intent--- “This is why when Christians organize politically and start flexing their muscle, making threats about how they are going to impose their way on others, so many people turn away from Jesus. Jesus’ followers at that point are claiming to be the voice of God. But they are speaking the language of Caesar and using the methods of Rome, and for millions of us it has the stench of Solomon, its not the path of descent.” (p. 164).
In other words, they are all for Christians living out the radical demands of the Gospel, but they do not see this as a political program by which a Christian group weds itself to a particular political party or movement, and uses the world’s tactics to try and accomplish God’s ends. This would not be taking the way of the servant, the way of sacrifice, the way of eucharist. Giving unconditionally to others is different from demanding things of others, manipulating others, brow-beating others, and the like. Working for justice in the world does not just help the oppressed, it rescues us from becoming oppressors and forgetting we were once slaves who were set free by God. “The Eucharist is about people with the power empowering the powerless to make a better life for themselves.” (p. 168). The church is said to be an organization that exists for the sake of non-members.
”The church is the living, breathing, life-giving, system-confronting, empire-subverting picture of the new humanity.” (p. 172). Or at least it is supposed to be, but have you seen an American church much like this? I hope so.
EPILOGUE Perhaps the strongest plea from the end of this little book is that we are all indeed our brother’s keeper. And so “Jesus wants to save our church from the exile of irrelevance. If we have any resources, any power, any voice, any influence, any energy, we must convert them into blessing for those who have no power, no voice, no influence.” (p. 179). In other words, like God we are to hear the cry of those in need of help, relief, food, medicine, rescue, redemption because in fact all of this is the social outworking of salvation, and the spiritual and social dimensions of salvation should not be severed. God wants to save the whole person, body and soul, life and situation.
These two rather young men believe passionately in the whole Gospel for the whole person in the whole world. Listen to how they put it in the end, because indeed Jesus needs to and wants to save the American church from irrelevance—
“Jesus wants to save us from making the good news about another world and not this one. Jesus wants to save us from preaching a Gospel that is only about individuals and not about the systems that enslave them. 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. Jesus wants to save us from religiously sanctioned despair, the kind that doesn’t believe the world can be made better, the kind that either blatantly or subtly teaches people to just be quiet and behave and wait for something big to happen ‘someday’.” (p. 185). In other words, “do not ask for whom this Golden Bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”