Rob Bell is no stranger to new ideas. In his new book, Jesus Wants To Save Christians, he and Don Golden examine the disparities between the message of Christ and the message of the modern, Western Church. RELEVANT talked to Rob Bell about the ideas he and Golden explored.
In the intro of your new book, Jesus Wants To Save Christians, you describe the specific theology you are trying to articulate as a New Exodus perspective. How is this approach to reading the Bible different from a systematic or biblical theology?
Systematic theology dissects the story, cutting the body of the text into separate pieces for the purposes of study. Biblical theology puts the pieces back together into a living narrative. Both do so from a particular perspective influenced by the reader’s history, culture, politics and economic status. The New Exodus is one perspective, taken from the side of the weak and marginal and the God who cares about them. We’re interested in the big story because that’s what the Bible is—a story that unfolds across history. Who are the major characters, what’s the plot, how do we take part in it? Perhaps this is why Jesus can be hard to understand. It’s hard to understand the later parts if you haven’t been brought up to speed on where the story has been so far.
The literal and metaphorical idea of Exodus is a key part of the story God is telling—why don’t we hear more about the connection of Exodus in our churches today?
The Exodus is about the oppressed-slaves-being rescued. Less than two hundred years ago in our country, people in churches owned slaves. Exodus would have been an awkward story to tell in those settings, because after all, the Pharoah character is the bad guy. Needy people talk about Exodus. Jesus said it. It’s hard to enter the kingdom of heaven when you’re content with the kingdom you already have. If we aren’t talking about Exodus it’s because we aren’t looking for one. That’s when we know we need the needs of others. Their Exodus can become our own.
In your book you say, "To preserve prosperity at the expense of the powerless is to miss the heart of God." In what ways do you believe the church in America has "preserved prosperity" at others’ expense?
I think it’s wise to avoid generalities such as "the church" because whenever I hear people make sweeping generalizations about "the church" I always think "yes, but I know lots of churches where they are compassionate, where they are intellectually honest, etc…"Perhaps one obvious question a church can ask herself is "What percentage of our budget is spent on us and what is spent on others?
The Church has missed the heart of God by speaking out against abortion while keeping silent about war. Both are forms of violence used to preserve prosperity. Abortion is prenatal war against the powerless child. War is postnatal abortion that destroys innocent life. The kingdom is life for the fetus and life for the civilian. The church embodies this life in a world of expedient and preemptive killing.
It can be difficult to understand the plight of the powerless when we have so much, what can church leaders do to help connect their communities with the heart of God for those suffering right now?
The most powerful thing we’ve seen is when people make a friend from outside their bubble—through a tutoring program, a job skills training class, a Habitat for Humanity build project-when "the poor" has a name and a face and personality for you, everything changes. And check out http://www.thecommon.org. An eminently practical tool to help churches share needs and resources within the community.
The traditional mold for doing church has been to invite people to our churches and to build bigger programs and add more staff as we grow. As you describe, this inward focus is a luxury many international churches can’t afford. In what ways should we rethink our strategy for church success?
There are organizations (Look out, here comes a plug for coauthor, Don Golden’s work at World Relief) who connect western first world resourced churches with churches in the third world. When an entire church sees how just a little generosity on their part can seriously help another church, it’s intoxicating. They want to do more and it helps put their own blessing in perspective. We shouldn’t resist the tendency in our churches to launch building campaigns. Good things take place when Americans are unleashed in this sort of way. It rallies churches and gives them focus. People are energized, resources are shared and communities are served. We could, however, reconsider the kind of buildings we build. Ezekiel imagined a New Exodus people building a temple for the true worship of God. Only, the building he pictured was actually the people themselves. Imagine a church launching a million campaign to build up the poor, to house the homeless and to care for the sick? Peter saw Christians “like living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.” We should embrace the American gift of the grand and the great. Celebrate it and inspire it toward a more compelling vision of what it could be.
How can churches aid in subverting the myth of redemptive violence?
At a personal level, gossip and slander and divisive language is evil to the core. It causes stress fractures in us, our churches, and our culture that destroy any sort of common good. On the larger, national level, “question war.” The Roman Empire had this phrase "peace through victory" that is simply not true. Yet people still use it today. Jesus taught a third way—not passive acceptance because "that’s just how things are," and not violent revenge, but a third way. Where are the experts in third way? Where are those Christians so thoroughly versed in third way that world leaders call them in when things get dodgy to give courageous, innovative, creative, freedom-loving (!) counsel on how not to resort to the same old guns and bombs.
As the title of the book suggests, Jesus Wants To Save Christians. In your opinion, what are the biggest things we need saving from?
Boredom. Which is really despair in its non-caffeinated form. And boxes. Where we live in fear and where we put those who unsettle us.
You describe the plan of God for the church to be a gift to the world. Many people today would say that the church is anything but. What are some crucial changes that our churches need to make to become a Eucharist that is broken and poured out for the world?
1. Master the art of doubt. Faith needs it to survive.
2. Surrender the compulsive need to constantly remind people that according to your worldview you’re going to heaven forever when you die and they’re going to burn in hell forever.
3. Celebrate the good and the true and the beautiful wherever and whenever you find it regardless of the label it wears or the person it comes from or the place you found it. All things are yours.
4. Remember that the tax collectors and prostitutes loved to feast with Jesus and the religious establishment gossiped about him and dissected his teachings and questioned his commitment to orthodoxy and eventually had him killed. There’s a lesson for us there.