Once Bitten, Twice Shy
I’ve never been bitten by anything other than a mosquito. I’ve had my close calls for sure, but managed to make it this far without being bitten by a dog, or cat, or shark, or … camel. Kent Dobson can’t say the same. The former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church (the church started by one time evangelical superstar Rob Bell) and editor of the NIV First Century Study Bible actually was LITERALLY bitten by a camel. In fact, his new book Bitten by a Camel starts with the story about coming down Mt. Sinai after yet another failed attempt to experience something magical about the faith of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus only to have a camel try to take a bite out of his elbow. The book itself is a type of spiritual memoir, which seems to never really go out of style as a genre, but is also a brutal commentary on evangelical Christianity. There are more than a few cringe worthy stories from Dobson’s upbringing here, including one where a teacher told students to kiss a Bible and imagine what it was like in communist China where one could be shot in the head for doing such a thing. However, the bulk of the book is dedicated to Dobson’s own spiritual journey. And whether or not the reader will find his conclusions palatable (and many won’t) there is no doubt that he is a seeker of truth. And some of what Dobson offers is genuinely insightful. What follows are some of the more interesting quotes and ideas arranged thematically.
1. The Loyal Soldier
As said before, Dobson starts the book with a story about going to Israel and getting bitten by a camel. But the book really starts to take off with the idea of the “Loyal Soldier.” Using an example from history, he notes that several Japanese soldiers continued acting as soldiers long after the war was over because word had not reached them yet. It’s a striking image and Dobson uses it to talk about his own spiritual journey in the sense that we all have inner “Loyal Soldiers” whose job it is to protect us from hard things and specifically, change. However, Dobson argues that “remaining loyal to what’s safe and comfortable doesn’t help us grow up” (28). This is a helpful metaphor for anyone who has begun the process of walking away from some ideas about church or theologies once learned that are no longer helpful. Dobson doesn’t say this, but one could argue also that the success of the “Loyal Soldier” is evident in every church that refuses to change. More specifically, the leader’s “Loyal Soldier” is what needs to be dismissed if any church is going to move forward and stop fighting battles that the rest of the world quit fighting years ago.
2. Original Sin
Dobson has no problem taking on sacred cows in this book. Transactional atonement theories (which he says a healthy Christianity must walk away from ), biblical inerrancy (which he is very well versed in as an idea), heaven (not the point), hell (something Dobson says he has now quit believing in, at least in a literal geographical sense), and more are examined and tossed out as unhelpful unless they are reframed. Often Dobson is able to point out a lot of the ironies in these ideas with the humor of a lifelong insider. For example, he reminds the reader that “there’s something funny about the evangelical preoccupation with being saved” (109) when it was Jesus who said those who want to save their lives will lose them.
Yet, it is Dobson’s discussion or original sin that might be one of the most helpful things in the book. Dobson argues that starting from a better place of original blessing would be better. Rather, that no amount of sin can destroy the God-ness inside someone and that the church’s main job should be to help people find this in themselves and reflect it into the world. As he says, “we can’t say our hyper-focus on sin has served us very well” (44). And though he only hints at it, perhaps this is his strongest point, that the church is suffering from an amnesia or sorts and that everyone is suffering from this core spiritual problem, forgetfulness of who we actually are: not a problem to God.
3. The Bible
While the previous may be the most important idea in the book, Dobson’s chapter on the Bible may be the best one overall. It’s obvious he loves the text, but hates what the church has done to it. Any minister or leader currently trying to move a church or a leadership to new ground through Bible study should read about his own struggles here and ask, “Is this the way to go?” For Dobson, discussing homosexuality with a group of leaders at Mars Hill ended with virtually nothing being accomplished. As he says, “I thought that giving people different interpretive possibilities for the contentious texts would bring more openness. But I was wrong. The thirst for Biblical certainty kept us from getting anywhere” (78). So before any leader currently in the midst of or getting ready to begin such a journey starts down that path, it’s helpful to have someone like Dobson to come alongside you (again, the editor of the NIV First Century Study Bible for crying out loud) and say, “Yeah, it didn’t work for me either.” Dobson thus suggests a more “mythopoetic” reading of the text, one where the minister or leader looks for and talks about the great patterns of truth in the Bible rather than trying to master it or make it conform to a theology. This, according to Dobson, is the evangelical church’s “self-imposed curse, that to tell the truth one must be literal, historic, and scientific, categories the Bible knows little about” (80). His points are actually quite moving in this section and well worth checking out.
In the end, this is one of the more interesting, shocking, and strangely uplifting spiritual memoirs you’ll read this year. By the time you finish the book, you’ll find yourself asking if Dobson is really even a Christian anymore (as he even lifts up panentheism as a viable way forward in the final chapters), but then, you might also just find yourself asking if that’s even a helpful question. Dobson would most likely love that. As he says, “Maybe it wasn’t about converting to something but being converted by something” (115). Whatever the case, Dobson has written one of the more interesting books of the year, and readers in the Christian community, especially those burned out on the faith, shouldn’t be shy about letting this book take a bite out of their time.