So What Youre Talking About Is Reading The Bible Like Youd Interpret A Piece Of Literatureunpacking The Literary Devices And Experiencing The Lives Of The People Within In Order To Learn And Grow
In the book, I talk about reading literately, which is very different than reading it literally. Because these writers have all these different ways of communicatingso theres rants and theres poetry and theres innuendo, and theres hints, and theres letters, and theres history mixed with mythic poetic elements and there are mythic poetic elements mixed in with history.
And actually, the way that language and communication works, theres different kinds of language for different kinds of communicating. So if your car is broken, and you take it to get it fixed, and they tell you your carburetor is in a bad mood, thats not helpful. I need to know what is the name of the part, how much it costs, how soon can you replace the part?
But then, when your friend gets cancer, technical language about how theyre feeling and youre feeling and the bond that it stirs between you may fail you. Im like a 7.3 on the compassion scale today, isnt really going to be very helpful. But with I will walk with you through this valley whatever storms come our way, you immediately shift into a different kind of language.
Whats interesting in the modern world is that people are so almost enslaved to literal fact that language about soul, spirit, and heartoftentimes, people dont have much practice speaking that way, and so the Bible, then, like Shakespeare, it takes a while to get into it.
Just Let The Bible Be Whatever It Is But Just What Is The Bible
What is the Bible? This is a vitally important question.
Rob Bell is a famous American author, pastor, and “a singular rock star in the church world” . He is most notably known for his previous pastoral leadership of mega church Mars Hill and his New York Times bestseller “Love Wins” .
Let me first start out by saying that I personally don’t know Rob Bell, but I am vaguely familiar with the controversy that has surrounded him in recent years, especially in Evangelical circles. This is particularly so since the release of his book Love Wins in 2012 where he was essentially black listed from the orthodox Evangelical church as a “liberal” teacher who had wandered from traditional orthodox Christian doctrine . This even prompted Francis Chan to pen a response to Love Wins in his book titled Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up.
Bell’s most recent book What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Change the Way You Think and Feel About Everything is actually the first book of Bell’s that I have read.
I personally came across Bell in his Nooma videos 15 years ago, which were short videos that had high production quality discussing matters of God and the Christian faith. I have personally used these for outreach small group bible studies in the past and thought they were tremendous.
Who Is This Book For
This book is for people who would not normally pick up a book on the Bible.
Non-Christians, people who have left the church, and people disenchanted with the current state of the church. The book doesnt include footnotes and rarely adds in the refence for the portions of Scripture Bell is addressing. Because of this, the book reads very quickly .
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Problems With The Theology Of The Bible
Through the book, Bell deliberately writes with a choppy method, circular reasoning, asking and answering questions along the way. On many different levels, he remains ambiguously unclear about where he stands on specific theological matters. But, thats not true regarding every issue. Tragically, Bell makes it explicitly clear where he stands regarding the nature the Bible as he consistently points to the human rather than the divine authorship, connects the flood of Noah to ancient flood stories, places Jesus resurrection in long line of other resurrection stories, and claims that the Levitical sacrificial system emerged from a long line of ancient sacrificial methods to false gods.
As he comes to the conclusion of his book, the last main section is comprised of 15 short chapters that answer popular questions about the doctrines found in the Bible. In one chapter devoted to Jesus death, Bell comes to some troubling conclusions. Bell claims that Jesus didnt have to diehe was murdered. Cloaking his doctrine with ambiguityBell seems to sidestep the answer. If the Bible is merely a human book, as Bell teaches throughout his book, the storyline of the Bible will be confused. As Bell writes on page 244:
In his chapter on predestination, as you can imagine, it was never unpacked grammatically, historically, or theologically. It was merely dismissed with one question and answer and a few confusing conclusions between the two. At one point, Bell writes:
So Should You Read It
It depends. I think it is worthy of reading for many reasons, but you need to be prepared to eat the meat and leave the bones. This takes maturity and conviction , so if you are not at a place in your faith to do this than I wouldn’t recommend it.
I think this quote from another review is helpful on this point:
Some people will sound the alarm that this book should not be read by anyone because they may begin to interpret the Bible solely through the opinions of Rob Bell, and thatâs dangerous. Amen. I couldnât agree more. Though it would also be dangerous for us to have John Piper, or Tim Keller, or C.S. Lewis, or N.T. Wright, or your pastor, or ______________ be the sole expositor of scripture in our lives. There is nothing wrong with reading other theologians and their interpretations of scripture, in fact reading a diverse mix of voices is an important and healthy thing, but the best thing, is that we are personally reading and praying and wrestling through the scriptures ourselves and we are doing so in the context of community.
For more helpful reviews on this book from various theological traditions see:
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What Is The Bible: How An Ancient Library Of Poems Letters And Stories Can Transform The Way You Think And Feel About Everything
According to Bell, the creation story of Genesis was arranged during exile in Babylon as a peaceful alternative to the violent pagan creation myths . Satan also took literary form during this time as a way of thinking about evil, which resolves some of the apparent contradictions between Old Testament books . Discussing Leviticus, Bell explains that the sacrificial system was a human invention put in place to deal with feelings of fear and guilt .
Perhaps will ease your concerns with the Bible, maybe even grant you hope for today, but will it lead you to a faith worth dying for?
Bell treats the New Testament similarly when he contends that Jesus didnt have to die. Rather, he claims Jesus was murdered, and the writers of the New Testament simply interpreted his death in light of the sacrificial system. According to Bell, Christ didnt come to die for the atonement of sin. Instead, his life was spent putting flesh and blood on the words of Scripture. He was a physical interpretation of the Torah and left his followers a similar responsibility to make decisions about whats written in the Bible .
The Skill Of Being Able To Take On That Mode Of Reading Is Sorely Needed Now
Absolutely. And whats interestingIm wondering if you agreeits interesting how the people who are the sharpest critics of the Biblemodern world, quantum physics, going to the moon, do we even need these ancient barbaric textswhen they talk about the Bible, they talk about it like third grade fundamentalists, know what I mean? Like, I could never believe in a God who slaughters a whole village.
I dont either. How are you a brilliant scientist, biologist, or television personality? Youre reading the Bible like a first grader. We all graduated a long time ago. Come with us.
Thats actually going back to your question about why this book. I kept noticing that some of the harshest critiques were literalist fundamentalists, just from the other sidethat both sides read the Bible the same way, and completely miss the point.
The one says that the guy was swallowed by a fishThe Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. If you dont believe Jonah was swallowed by a fish, you have to reject the whole thing.
The other one says These idiots actually believe someone was swallowed by a fish. Can you believe that? Its 2017!
Theyre both actually literalists, and in the process, they both fail to read it as the compelling, subversive, prophetic storyhow the first audience would have heard it.
Im trying to give people a completely different way to think about and discuss this bookand enter into it.
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Emphasizing The Importance Of Context
Context, context, context.
Seriously taking context into consideration is the one practice that will transform your Bible reading unlike any other. Bell begins his book talking about how once he began taking Jesus Jewish context seriously, the way he read the Bible was forever changed. And once you see, you cant unsee. And once you taste, you cant untaste .
I know the same has been true in my own faith journey. Context is everythingand not just textual context but the historical, economic, socio-political context.
The beauty is in the details.
The more we can accurately understand the Bible then, the more appropriately we can apply it to our now.
One Of The Things I Particularly Like About What Is The Bible Is The Assertion That The Bible Isnt So Much An Argument But A Record Of Experiences Would You Be Able To Talk About That Idea For A Moment
Yeah, yeahits so interesting how our culture is so enslaved to binaries. Is it this or is it that? Is it right or is this wrong?
But when your friend commits suicide, youre asking a completely different set of questions. You sit in the pain of grief of pain and silence. When you lose your job, whos right and who is wrong? Whos on top, whos winning, whos losing? When you get divorced or when your kid makes a horrific decision with destructive consequences, you think about the book of Psalmsmany people would argue that the Psalms, these prayers in the middle of the Biblehalf of them are laments.
Or take the Lamentations poems. There is a book of the Bible in which God is, in many ways, on trial. Like these people, their city has been completely demolished, and theyre sitting in the ashes. Where were you? Does anything matter anymore? Is there any up and down? Let alone doubt.
Its fascinating to me at the end of the book of MatthewMatthew tells this story, post-resurrection, of Jesus meeting with his followers, and Matthew adds that some of them worshiped and some of them doubted, which is the crappiest propaganda in the history of the world. If youre trying to argue that Jesus is the Messiah or the Savior or the Son of God, why do you want us to know, at the end, that some of the people closest to him are like, Eh, I dont buy it.
Well, now, were having a 2017 discussion, and that makes this a much more dangerous, interesting library of books.
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Bells Version Of The Bible
From the start, Bell explains that the Bible is a book about what it means to be human . He describes it as a library of evolutionary thought written to deepen our understanding of what it means to live an enlightened life . Starting with Abraham, Bell treats the biblical narrative as focused on a new tribe committed to blessing the world and displaying love as opposed to perpetuating the cycle of violence prevalent in the ancient Near East . Over time, he claims, Abrahams offspring compiled and edited the Hebrew Scriptures to create a progressive and enlightened ethic aimed at raising consciousness of its readers.
Attempting To Tackle Topics That Usually Arent Up For Discussion
When we say things like the Bible is authoritative, inerrant, and inspired how often do we actually take the time to explain what we mean and how we should act because of these?
While I dont believe Bell did a particularly great job at explaining these ideas, I do appreciate him taking a fair amount of space for hard questions to be asked of them. What we believe about the Bible is always going to influence what we believe from the Bible, so we have to struggle with these concepts.
Saying That All Truth Is Gods Truth
Now, I do partly understand where he was trying to go with this.
Hes expanding upon the all things concept from 1 Corinthians 3. He does this in multiple places throughout the book, but chapter 23 is where he tries to push it past its limits.
Depending upon your theological leaning, his argument might seem like a perfectly legitimate place to take the verse. But if youre uncomfortable with the idea of transcending beyond the Christian religion then you may want to build some boundaries around this idea.
Is Your Book Focused More On The Human Than The Divine
What I wanted people to see is that any statements, assumptions, beliefs, or convictions someone has of the Bible being more than just a collection of booksyou can only get there honestly, and you have to go through the humanity of this book.
Theres sort of a standardWell, its the word of God. Why? Well, because it says it is. That, obviously, breaks down in like a thousand different ways. You have to go into the heart of the humanity, and what I wanted in this book is that I wanted to show people that if you go deep into the heart and humanity of these books, you just might see all kinds of things that inspire you and move you and make you think differently about the divine. But you will have gotten there honestly.
And so in some senses its like certain things you can only see and experience for yourselfthink about how many people grew up hearing sermons about how the Bible is the word of God, and theyre less convinced now. All that actually worked against them as opposed to just letting these storiesunleashing them and letting them run around the room.
Why You Need To Read It
If you’re reading this, chances are you were raised with Western views on the Bible, which are a far cry from what the first Christians thought and believed. Rob Bell along with other theologians all recognize what we seem to overlook: that this compilation of books we call the Bible is in fact “an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories.”
…the Bible isnt a Christian book.
It is a Jewish book about their history, their culture, their religious practices. This is not to say that it’s not sacred, or important, or life-changing because it is! But we need to remember that God is bigger than a book. The moment we try to confine God in a box, or a book for that matter, we limit His love, grace and power to our human understandings.
For me, reading this book didn’t push me away from God, or make me walk away from my faith. On the contrary, it plunged me even deeper in love with God. Something extraordinary happened the moment I understood and read the Bible in a more accurate light. I found myself fascinated, amazed, and drawn closer to God. I no longer felt embarrassment, no longer had unhealthy fears. When people asked me what I geek out on, I used to shy away from saying anything faith-based. But now that I have a better understanding of God and what it means to be a follower of Christ, I can’t help but say “God.”
Refreshing Our View Of Timeless Stories
Once the foundation of context is in place, stories you once thought you knew everything about become entirely new puzzles to be explored. Bell does a great job of opening up stories weve taken for a granted. A few of my favorites were:
- Ruth and how her story is this beautiful crescendo to the Abraham and Lot conflict
- Lukes complicated relationship to the other Gospels, and how he works to highlight the marginalized
- How crazy Revelation is, but how less crazy it sounds when you place its imagery in an ancient Roman context
- Moses and his freshness
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Saying That Theres Only One Kind Of Sinthe Kind That God Has Forgiven In Christ
This really disappointed me because Bells chapter on sin is honestly fantastic.
He captures the raw sorrow of itwhy its so much more than this religious concept, but something that actuallydamages our lives and our world. Maybe if he defended the statement more, I would have been more okay with it. But as it stands, I believe he misses the mark on this one.
A Tough Question From The Crowd
The people who assembled two hours before the show at the Variety Playhouse didnt look like church folks. There were big biker types with ZZ Top beards, young women with tattoos, college-age students in sandals and shorts.
Bell doesnt look a typical pastor either. Tall and lean, he was wearing navy blue capri pants and tan leather sneakers without socks when he came out before the show to meet some of his fans. He looked like a middle aged surfer and, in fact, he likes to surf when hes back home.
The laid-back Southern California vibe he gives off, though, dissipates when he talks about his faith. Hes a rapid-fire speaker who can go from delivering comic one-liners one minute to in-depth discourses on first century Jewish hospitality customs the next. Hes a compulsive reader, and his dazzling erudition was on display during a Q& A session inside the theater before the show.
But there is another side to Bells ministry that was on display, one that endears him to so many fans. At the end of the Q& A, a young man raised his hand and told Bell he was struggling with his faith. He was awaiting the birth of his child but a doctor recently told him and his wife that their baby probably wouldnt survive. Is he wrong for being angry with God?
I was being handed Bible verses and told this was what youre supposed to do. The answers I was given were insufficient because I still felt like I was dying inside. Rob Bell was not scared of those questions.
Rob Bell fan Ben Baldwin
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