Book Review: “The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea” by Russel Rathbun (2017)

Monuments, Missteps, and the Audacity of Ambition

Image result for The Great Wall and the Salton SeaThis book first drew my interest due to both its relation to China and its Christian bent. I myself am a Christian with a long-time interest in the inner-workings of China and her people, so The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea had much to offer this reader. Having just completed it, I can summarize my feelings this way: Russel Rathbun in a great writer with a keen observer’s eye and a contagious curiosity, though it appears he’s hoodwinked his readership by posing as a Christian author.

As we move through the book, our guide takes us on a road trip across the deserts of the Western United States as well as across the past hundred or so years of American and Chinese history (though not Chinese-American history). Rathbun enhances his engaging style of writing by mixing each chapter with a hodgepodge of history, Bible, cultural critiques and in-the-car frustrations, all the while seeking to answer one basic, desperate question: “Am I significant?” In his opening pages, Rathbun states his purpose this way:

This investigation, this contemplative narrative is midrashic in structure. I tell stories about the Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea, about the Tower of Babel and the Great Flood, about Madame Mao and her Gang of Four, about my Grandpa Webb—his Union Study Bible and his 30- 06 Springfield rifle. I tell all these stories in an attempt to get a glimpse of what it might mean to be me here, now—in relationship to God, other people, history, and the created world—to acknowledge my participation in the continuation of creation and my complicity in the dull march of empire. (9)

As the author seeks to find truth to the legends he’d heard about how the Salton Sea was formed, he emphasizes over and over his own thesis that the men who created objects such as these, and those who talk these objects, and those (like himself) who write about those who talk about these objects (and, I suppose, I who review books about such people) are really only focused upon ourselves. We are only crying out in the void: “Look at me! Listen to me! I am significant!”

Whether he’s writing about the time China’s reality destroyed his romantic ideas of the country, or about the not-so-perfect Perfect Carwash which destroyed his rear-windshield wiper without apology, Rathbun writes with a dark humor about the bitter truths of life. The questions he raises about why we do the things we do or about how our own personal histories have helped shape us into the adults we’ve become are both human and challenging. At times, I even found myself wondering about my accomplishments and why they actually count as such. Though he might not have intended it, he challenged me reflect upon my life in terms of 1Cor 10:31 – “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” So for this, I thank the author.

As I continued through the book, however, I found that his being a “Christian” author really had no bearing on the book at all. While the label allowed him to use the Bible as a reference point (comparing the building of the Tower of Babel, for instance, to that of the Great Wall), it was more of a distraction than anything, because I kept expecting him to mention Jesus or sin or any of the key doctrines that make Christianity Christianity. Instead, he only dabbled with the Word (and sarcastically at that), so I’m left to think that maybe he’s not as Christian as he purports to be. At best, I’d say he’s a closet agnostic lost in the murky waters along the far shores of Roman Catholicism. But I really can’t be too sure.

What really got me was his low opinion of the biblical accounts. He writes that “The story in Genesis is as much a midrash on the meaning of life as it is the beginning of a tall tale. As much a parable about the mystery of what it means to be human as it is an odd origin story.” (28) No one who approaches God’s Word this way should feel they have a right to tell anyone else what it means, so to find out that Rathbun is a pastor shocks me.

Not only does he have a low view of the Word, but he also has a low view of God, his own Creator! When writing about the Flood, he says, “Sure, mistakes were made in the Garden, and people paid for them. But after that, before things really got out of hand, maybe God could have stepped in to give clearer guidance? All the talking God was doing (about how he regretted making people and how he was going to destroy everything) was just internal monologue. But he sure found his voice when it came to plans for drowning everyone.” (38) Such blasphemy! Curiosity about God and His wisdom I understand, but portraying God as an insolent child who stumbles his way through history imbalanced by his emotions is another matter. What does Rathbun think he’s teaching his readers (followers) other than how to have low, minimized view of Almighty, sovereign God?

While I appreciated the sociological insights offered in this book, I can’t shake the feeling that I spent a week learning from a mystic who likely puts more stock in his own words than he does in the Word of God. Perhaps he reads a chapter from his book to his congregation each week, or perhaps they all just sit around on couches chatting about their impressions of a God-like being somewhere out there, I don’t know. Needless to say, enjoy this book for the writing quality and the interesting story, but be very wary of its theology.

©2017 E.T.

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