Thursday, August 28, 2008

America is Babylon--a brief review of Rob Bell and Don Golden's new book

This morning I finished an advanced copy of Rob Bell and Don Golden's new book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile.

You can read it in a couple of ours. It's quick and simple. The cover is the box-game we played in elementary school. Based on the retro-hip cover, I had no idea what to expect inside.

Let me say up front that I know Bell has helped a lot of people. He has many, many fans, largely emergent culture folks and new believers. He inspires. His Nooma videos are ubiquitous. And while I see his bio lists him as founding pastor of Mars Hill (is that past tense? Or is he still a pastor?), he's well connected with the mega-church. For my own part, I've seen probably two Nooma videos, listened to three sermons and only now have read one book. He's a peer and I am not his target audience. So while the people we influence overlap, we don't spend much time influencing each other (yet).

I don't know Don Golden. Maybe one day.

I read this book because I know many I converse with will be asking me questions about it. Better get a head-start. I still need to read The Shack for the same reason (see my wife's review of The Shack).

The exile Christians are in, says the book, is an exile to an empire. And the authors are calling those who follow Jesus to find a way out. Jesus wants to save us from it. This empire is America and Western cultural and the ease by which we get our fundamental needs and oppress others. The authors take 2/3 of the book to lead us to the doorstep of this thesis.

I don't know how much of this book is Bell and how much is Golden. I've seen marketing where a lesser-known will get some input from a well-known and then the book gets made with the well-known, who contributed less, as the lead name. It happens all the time in publishing (just to give you an insider's heads-up). This book could be an exception where both contributed equally.

The book targets conservative evangelicals who equate America with the Kingdom of God and have never challenged the inconsistency of that. Though this topic has grown quite common, Bell and Golden give it a fresh spin.

Tracing through the Old Testament, the authors show how empire wrecks people. It oppresses the poor. It becomes, in a sense, it's own god. From the Fall to Babel to Egypt to Sinai to Jerusalem to Babylon to Jerusalem again to Roman occupation. And in every place, God is calling his people to help the poor and refuse to be an empire. An empire, in essence, is 'anti-kingdom.'

Much of this book I agree with: the reason humans are made, the Jewish story, the exiling of the Jewish people, the point of the commandments, the demise of proud kings, the coming of Jesus, the end of the whole story in a New Earth, the problem of oppression, human conquest, our ugly pathway toward deity. Speaking on the road, I've had folks from time to time approach me informing me that some of the things I share sound like Bell. It's usually a compliment... and the coincidence I chalk up to the Holy Spirit who shines the light of truth from multiple voices for such a time as this.

The authors make tough concepts simpler. There are phrases in this book all along the way that are helpful and good for the uninformed believer to jump in and see the story of Scripture, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures which are easily neglected in conservative evangelicalism. That's not to say evangelicals do not grab truth from the Hebrew Scriptures; rather, they do so usually only to fit it into a disconnected apostolic (New Testament) paradigm.

I appreciate how the authors draw in Jewish thought in the majority of this book and how they spotlight what it means to help the oppressed and repair the world.

Several aspects of this book were nagging and there's no good writing a review that is all clouds and halos.

The writing style is simple (I can't remember reading words over three syllables) and the paragraph style choppy. If you are looking to improve your writing, a book like this one does not help. It relies on rhetorical devices rather than classic structure. From early pages, I thought I was reading Gene Edwards, who makes regular paragraphs out of single sentences, phrases, and even fragmented words. This is all visual effect. It holds the readers hand to aid him in how to pause in the reading.

I tried this writing style once in creative writing class in college. My teacher wrote on my paper: "Tell the story; don't rely on devices." Ouch.

Considering the era we live in, these devices may say more about the modern reader than it does about these authors.

The authors sometimes make too much of symbolism and metaphor, on occasions stretching it potentially beyond the reach of Scripture. One thing that makes me cautious is how neat and tidy all these symbols and metaphors are. If you don't have a knowledge of Scripture and other point of view, you'll find their approach tight and leading you to think only way on some of these things.

The authors follow New Exodus theology. From the best I can make of it, it is the way God is always calling his people out from empire into his kingdom, showing the world what he's like all along the way. The authors demonstrate this well, but once we get to the Messianic Scriptures (the New Testament), the authors hold the view that the Jews no longer have a special place in God's redemptive history. They don't say this explicitly. They just say Jews and Gentiles now form a 'new humanity.' I wanted to see what happened to the Jews in this paradigm.

I also wanted to see what kind of self-rule the authors would set up if we did follow the principle. It's not enough to leave Egypt. You must also establish a new society.

They mention how gentiles were excluded from the Temple, but I'm guessing this is the second temple (and they exclude Jewish history that built the second temple and how God helped the Jews through that time). Jesus criticized the Jews for not allowing all the nations into the temple. So some of the new covenant and the new humanity that the authors speak of was already available in the Hebrew Scriptures. Items like these continues to fertilize the popular idea that the New Testament replaces the Old rather than continues the same story along the same trajectory. I have a hard time saying Jesus reach was broader than Jehovah's... I mean, salvation has come through the Jews, and Jesus, just like Jehovah, called everyone in to reconcile the world to himself. Jesus came as an unfolding part of that story, spilling Jewish blood to save the world. I don't see a changed message but a more complete one.

Also, the authors' view of Revelation is not an end-times view held by many conservative evangelicals. They interpret it as an event that has already happened to Christians under Roman persecution. This may bother some. Not me.

One chapter in the book, which is the real point of the book, is how America is empire not too distant from Babylon. The book turns polemic with Bell's statistical tidal wave about how much America has to the rest of the world and how little we do to alleviate suffering. None of this is new. People have been researching and informing us of this for years and years. I get weary of the statistics, in part, because they can pure rhetoric when removed from their context. American's make more money but American's also spend more money on daily needs. We can help AIDS in Africa, but what do we do to help our own communities? What is more, Americans outgive the rest of the world in relief efforts, something few if any empires have done unless they owned the property themselves. I knew people who make, in world's standards, quite a bit of money, but are constantly living on the edge of feeding their family and giving them a good education, paying insurances, taxes, and on and on. One day our leaders may discover that many are not motivated by statistical rhetoric as much as we are motivated by example, watching needs be met and being invited to help those needs. This is where Shane Claiborne outshines most evangelical spokespeople on this issue.

If you're looking for an evangelical motivation to help the oppressed and how it is done, read Shane. If you want a theology of Scripture about how God reaches the oppressed and how quickly we fall when we lose dependence on him (and if you haven't read the Bible yourself and found this to be true), then grab Bell and Golden's book and give it a good run through. Then, be excited to read your Bible with fresh eyes.

And if you want to see how the church has done this through the centuries, even in the American empire, step outside of modern evangelicalism a bit and look around. The Quakers are a good start. Let's not make the mistake that evangelicalism is THE church, though many evangelicals have risen to the occassion from time to time (we can thank our fundamentalist roots for segregating us from culture and from relief efforts that align us too closely with those preaching the 'social gospel'). Bell and Golden are trying to uproot, in a good way, some of those roots.

I'm troubled when the authors oversimplify problems, like saying the only reason we are in the middle-east is for oil. Sometimes they sound like a political sound-byte in these pages (well, a manifesto is supposed to be political, so maybe that's why it sounds political! :)). It feels more emotional and uninformed than a real education into what is really going on. No one will doubt that America has empire-like attributes in recent years, but it has been unlike most empires in world history. This isn't noted much, if at all. And they don't separate out the American people from poor leadership (just like we shouldn't curse all the Jews because a few rotten Jewish leaders crucified Jesus). We need less head-wagging and finger-pointing. There seems to be two sides among evangelicals today: those who fly the American flag as they wave their Bible and those who are suspicious of America because, as a country, we've done some damage. I'd like to see more tension between the two as builders of God's Kingdom but also citizenry with a voice in a democratic republic.

Oversimplifying issues may cause us to oversimplify solutions and leave many enthusiastic but unempowered.

The footnotes are the place the authors get casual. This kind of casualness in writing is growing more popular but it feels like another modern device. Do these authors really want to be that close of a friend to me as a reader? If so, why not give an email address so we can do that lunch? I would have liked to see the writing style here offer an invitation for real connection.

A final point is that Bell and Golden say you cannot market or make a trend out of an authentic kingdom life. But it seems that this is what's happening. This will be a trend and that's probably something that cannot be avoided. That these men have a vehicle of a mega-church to sell books furthers the illustration (and publishers like mega-pastors writing books because the first 10,000 sales are a given... and then word spreads).

So while I want to believe the church can't be marketed, I would rather hear it more from those who aren't in the larger evangelical system. It's too convenient. I want to hear grass-roots creatives who do things in quiet places among quiet conversations and away from the dazzling lights.

That's why I recommend reading grass-roots creatives than evangelical superstars. And, I have a hunch that these authors would be glad a book like this motivated you to do the same (they do quote Anne Lamott!).

Now that I've finished the book, I still don't understand the cover...


Emily said...

Haven't heard of this one yet, but I'm glad to hear the review. I was thinking that some of the topics you were touching-on sounded similar to what I'm reading in Jesus for President, so it's good to hear a bit of the distinctives between Bell and Claiborne. I'd be interested to hear more about that since I'm not too familiar with Bell. (I might be the only one out there whose not!) Thanks for the review!

Dale Fincher said...

Emily, the book isn't released yet. Look for it next month.

Glad you're reading Claiborne too. I don't agree with all of his pacifist approach, but his view is definitely worth wrestling with.

Anonymous said...


i enjoyed reading your pre-release review.

i found this idea to deeply resonate with me. "I want to hear grass-roots creatives who do things in quiet places among quiet conversations and away from the dazzling lights."

i think in order to hear these grass roots creatives one will need to visit their lands and churches. if evangelicalism marketing geniuses get a hold of what these small communities are doing, then they will no longer be grass roots. they become mainstream.

so how does a small christian community get the message out there without selling out to the schemes of evangelicalism marking?
how does a congregation not go mainstream?

i don't know bell, but i would bet he originally did not want to go mainstream.

at fuller, we were highly encouraged to grapple with the theological paradigms of the new exodus, new humanity, and the idea that God's sole mission is restoration and reconciliation. although we were never really taught how to implement these theological ideas into praxis.

i think why bell is so attractive is because he is a translator and a producer. he can take lofty and fresh theological ideas of NT Wright, Borg, and Lohfink and produce an effective eccelesiology. he can take the invisible and make them visible. any lay person can understand deep and perplexing theological ideas. he is very unassuming, which has its limitations of simplicity.

i am not sure if i will read this book?

i am at a point in my life where i am trying to read primary source and make sense of out them.
i am really trying to break free of copying what the next mega-church pastor is saying and doing. i think the first step is not reading and listening to these mega-church pastors.


Dale Fincher said...

Jeremy, I'm glad you stopped by (I thought you dropped off the map there for a while! LOL).

I have no beef with Bell. (I may be more annoyed by his followers who wear similar clothes and similar glasses... but that's not Bell's fault that others have an identity problem!) Bell is doing his thing and I'm glad he's using his gifts and that people are finding a Jesus worth following. You are right, he's a translator like many of us, trying to engage the culture.

As for grass roots becoming mainstream, we know it can be done. You work in a church where that is done (and it's the best example of a church doing it anywhere that I know of). It isn't exporting. It's using local talent and local gifts.

While isn't Bell's fault, per se, many of the NOOMA videos are used in church services all over the place. This is exporting and diminishes the local giftedness of a congregation (with movie-making capabilities on every iMac sold, there are many who are eager and ready to jump at the chance). This is the same with all the exported Bible study programs (a la Beth Moore) that discourages local teachers to develop their own material.

I don't know Bell's story either, just bits, and am unsure what his original ambitions were in starting his church, etc. My wife has been to his church and she said it is slick, the loud music, the lights. She said it was still innovative and creative. Yet from all the descriptions, it still sounds mainstream. The very format. And this is without evangelical marketing machines. It is something the locals decided to do. They decided to mimic the slickness of mega-churches in other places. At some point, someone decided to get a bigger space. Someone decides to have electro-pop performances. Someone decides to be slick. Someone decides to look mainstream. It doesn't happen by accident.

And I think it can be avoided, even nationally. Claiborne does it. It's hard to create a popular commune in poor neighborhoods. When that becomes popular, we might just see the Third Great Awakening.

When I look at folks like Dick Staub and Gregory Wolfe and Alan Jacobs and the Little Church by the Sea, I think of unslick efforts to make quality that changes lives beyond the craving consumerism of the popular culture. While there is a larger audience of pop-culture folks craving to be met in that medium, one day they may wake up out of it and wonder why all the spiritual candy wrappers on the floor.

I'm with you... reading thoughtful creatives with original thought is a great place to be... and to hang out with others who do the same. And maybe one day we'll write creative original things too. :)

Anonymous said...


thanks for the response. i am back. i was on vacation and i have been slowly getting back into blogging.

investing in the local art, local talent, and local music is a huge way to stay true to the grass roots.

i am also annoyed with bell's followers. seriously at fuller, many of the 1st year students were there only because rob went there. no lie they would wear the classic military type of jacket with the squared glasses frame. needless to say, they dropped out by second quarter.

will you be at the youth specialties conference in Sacramento?

Dale Fincher said...

That's funny about the new students at Fuller.

I often wear a field jacket... now I'm feeling nervous! :o/

And, yes, we'll be in Sacramento for the NYWC. I'm part of two workshops: one I'm doing alone on emerging questions of youth and the other shared with Jonalyn on youth workers and gender.

You going?

Got any new questions students are asking that I can consider using for my seminar?

Anonymous said...

I am trying to go. I have to move a few things around in my schedule.

I have gotten one question regarding Gandhi and the teachings of Hinduism to Christianity.

The question went something like this: Aren't the principles Gandhi followed (simplicity, faith, nonviolence, and truth)very similar to the teachings of Jesus?

Is Gandhi in heaven?
How could Gandhi not go to heaven when he followed such firm principles that mirrored Jesus' teachings?

Did Jesus get His principles from Hinduism since Hinduism has been known as the oldest world religion and with the oldest sacred texts?

I encouraged the student to look at the Hindu religion and to compare and contrast the teachings of the Vedas/Hinduism to the teachings of the Jesus.

So we are still in the process of figuring out his series of questions. I am not going to lie, it was a great question. Obviously this student just studied Gandhi in history class.

Dale Fincher said...

Great questions, Jeremy. I'll use these (a form of them anyway). And it's no surprise. With so much an assimilation of West and East (and designer spirituality on the rise), it makes sense that these emerge.

I have a book at home by an professor from India who does historic work to show that the reasons for some similarities between Hinduism and the teachings of Jesus is because Thomas influenced India.

Many of the Hindu teachings were not codified until after the time of Jesus, he claims. In fact, many of the hot-beds of Hinduism in India, he says, were actually hot-beds of the church in Thomas' day. And Hinduism (originally an animistic religion) assimilated it, like the way gnosticism assimilated it.

I appreciate the feedback. I hope you can make it to the convention next month.

Mary said...

This book just landed in my mailbox today and after reading the first chapter, I am sure your review is right on. I doubt I will continue the book as it does not do for me what his NOOMA videos do-point me to the depth of my heavenly fathers love. I am bookmarking your blog and adding it to my links.

Dale Fincher said...

Mary, thanks for your comment. You've got a great archive of book reviews on your blog! You've been at this a while!

On the Golden/Bell book, I would re-think about whether it's pointing to the Love of God. You can certainly see God's heart for the oppressed which in turn gives us eyes to see too. And if you haven't taken a bird's eye view of the Scripture in a while, it's a good refresher.

The book is not as inspiring as NOOMA with the music in the background and the conversational quick edits (I've only seen a couple of NOOMA, so that's all my experience with it)... This book is just a different kind of format.