Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Review: "Bold as Love" by Bob Roberts, Jr.

Bob Roberts, Jr. has two points in this short book:

  1. Christians shouldn't be jerks to non-Christians.
  2. I did it, and you can too.
(Of course, Christians probably shouldn't be jerks to other Christians either, but that's not the point of this book.)
In broad strokes, Roberts points out that it's easier to evangelize if we befriend people first and work towards common civic goals than if we scream at them in the street, condemn them to hell, and are generally driven by hate. More, he says it's not just easier, it's actually Biblical- though he spends much less time on the "Biblical" bit. 
Most of the book is composed of personal anecdotes, where he describes meetings he has had with diplomats, international leaders (including the government of Vietnam and a Prince of Saudi Arabia), and community members which have all resulted in deep and abiding friendships and given him opportunities to share the Gospel. 

Which shows us the two problems with the book.
But before I point out the issues, let me state for the record that this book is fine. Not great, not even really good, but fine. Roberts is a competent writer and seems to be sound enough theologically (even if it did take him 120 pages out of a 180 page book to actually get to any doctrine), but the overall sense I was left with was pretty much a sense of... meh. Then again, I tend to think already that Christians shouldn't be jerks. I mean, if there's a Christian out there who is a jerk and picks up this book and reads it and is convinced not to be one anymore, then I suppose Roberts' work is done. Of course, if you are a jerk you're not likely to pick up a book that's trying to convince you not to be. If you're already not a jerk, well, there are better books to read than this one. And if you're the kind of jerk that I am, it involves not so much a hatred of other religions as a general cynicism about human nature in general, in which case the book is equally ineffective. 

So the two big problems I had with the book:

First, the Bible doesn't really have anything to say about friendship. As others have pointed out, it's a category that's pretty much absent from Scripture. The Bible divides people into two groups: those who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (the church) and those who are not (the world). Within the church, we are to have fellowship (which is not quite the same thing as friendship, and which there isn't time to go into here- should you have the time and inclination, here's a talk on the subject, and here's a sermon that touches on it, and here's a more meaty theological work on it). Between the church and the world, we are to be witnesses who share the Gospel by explaining it to others and model the Gospel by living it in our own lives. How are we to share it? Well, verbally, certainly. That's the thing we see people doing most in the New Testament. But beyond that, we're really not given a whole lot. Which suggests that we have some flexibility in doing so, which further suggests that we are free to be friends with nonbelievers with the ultimate goal of sharing the Gospel with them. 
Hopefully it's clear why I'm going to want to hesitate a bit before endorsing Roberts method. We are free to be friends with the world, and we certainly should be kind to the world, whether we do that while being friends or not. But to walk through the Biblical process of evangelization is not quite the same thing as to jump to the end and say "just be nice to everybody so that they'll believe in Jesus." One of the ways we share the Gospel with others is by befriending non-believers (and I do believe it's an important way), but the friendship itself is not the ultimate goal of the interaction. (Roberts doesn't say that it is, but he trumpets it enough that it starts to sound like he leans in that direction.)
If I'm not being clear, here's the short version: there is no Biblical category of "friendship", so I'm not entirely comfortable to have a pastor be telling me to be friends with people. Which isn't to say it's not a good thing to do, it just needs to be in its proper context.

Second, Roberts clearly has access to individuals and circles that you and I will just never have. Not just because he lives in an urban center (many Christians live in the suburbs or rural communities, where interactions with minorities or global cultures will be much less common), but because he seems to meet people on the highest levels. "I was visiting Prince Turki al-Faisal... the founder of Saudi Arabia's modern intelligence service... We both served on a think tank established by the United Nations under the Alliance of Civilizations" (4). Which is fine, but you and I will likely never meet the Prince of anything. Our reaching out to others is going to be on a personal and local level in any case-- which of course is how it should be. We are called to love our neighbor, not the guy around the world but the guy who lives next to us. This doesn't mean that we hate the people around the world, it just means that our primary concern is going to be for those we actually interact with in a personal and regular way. The growth of a global society is having some impact on that, but at the end of the day my primary field of evangelization is to be with the people I actuall am with, not the people I am not. The "inspirational" stories in this book weren't terribly helpful in that sense, and occasionally felt more like a litany of all the important people Roberts is friends with. (Again, not that he's explicit about that, it just felt that way sometimes.)

And with all of that said, I should also point out that Roberts runs in slightly different geographical and cultural circles than I do. I grew up in a part of America which is not overtly religious, and now live in a place which is equally not overtly religious, so I've never really be surrounded by the kind of Christian... unease? Even hatred? that he writes about. (I didn't watch "Christian" TV growing up, so I was never exposed to the various infamous anti-Islam rants on certain programs...) So maybe this book offers a corrective that there's more need for than I am aware of. Certainly Christians should never, never engage with others from a position of hatred. We should always remember that we are sinners saved by grace and to be a display of God's love to the world, working without rancor and from the deep desire to see others repent and believe in the Gospel.

As a final disclaimer, as I was reading through the book I thought I was going to have a problem with the word he kept throwing around: multifaith. That... sounded suspicious to me. By the end, he'd sold me if not on the use of the word or the idea being a good one, at least on it not being an actively bad one. Basically, it means that we should all agree on the things we agree on and use those to work for the common good of civil society. And while he goes a bit farther in some places than I think wise (praying in a Mosque, for example, can be a bit touchy as it implies things to Muslims that he may not quite want to imply), by and large he's right- we certainly should work with others in areas where we agree. Just as we should work with feminists on ending sexual slavery and environmentalists on caring well for nature, so we can work with other faiths to advance common causes. We just have to be careful that we're maintaining appropriate boundaries and being clear that "working for civic goals" does not mean the same as "we endorse your beliefs as legitimate." Which, to his credit, Roberts is clear on. 

So, overall this book is, well fine. There are lots of better ones out there, but then again, there are lots of worse ones too.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher on the condition that I review it- I was not required to give it a positive review.

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