What Is the Bible?

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whatever is good and true and beautiful

in your midst, regardless of where it comes from

or who says it or how it arrived there.

 - Rob Bell -

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Rob Bell seems to be one of the most controversial voices in the evangelical world today. A documentary was recently released about him titled – you guessed it – The Heretic. Just his name can incite feelings of intense angst and indignation in the Christian community (I experienced this myself when I posted this year’s book list and got plenty of feedback about why he shouldn’t be included in my repertoire). Anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that I will do just about anything to avoid a conflict – especially in the internet world. I do not write this review to start a debate – though I would love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of Bell’s books! – but to share my own experience with this book. So, without further ado, I give you my summary of What Is the Bible?

One important lesson I’ve learned through my journey of love, loss, and a reconstructed faith is not to put any voice(s) in a box as “unsafe” to read. Of course, we should cling to what is good, true, and lovely, and not fill our minds with darkness or lies. But throughout the Christian life we continue to grow and evolve, and if what we believe is true, we should not shy away from views that differ from ours, but continue to learn and be challenged through exposure to other viewpoints and apologetic defense of our own. Do we avoid certain authors and viewpoints because we believe they are lies? Have we honestly grappled with their views and prayerfully reached our own conclusions about them? Or are we afraid that our opinions won’t stand up to honest criticism? Is God big enough to be more multi-faceted than any one human can determine? Is it possible that He has many dimensions that are revealed to all kinds of believers from every background and human experience? Why would we intentionally choose to only read and study those authors who agree with our exact worldview? Isn’t there a whole universe of diversity and enrichment that awaits us – if we are brave enough to explore it?

These are some of the questions that compelled me to add What Is the Bible? to my 2018 reading list, as well as the realization that I have drifted somewhat from consistent Bible reading over the last few years. A dear friend told me about this book , saying that it got her to start reading the Bible again. I realized that, whatever “heretical” claims Bell may make, if he could get me to start reading the Bible again it would be well worth it. So I bought the book and plunged in.

I’ve learned all kinds of things from What Is the Bible?. Yes, I’ve learned why people have such a violent reaction to Rob Bell – some of his claims directly contradict basic tenants that Christians have held for centuries, and often seem to clash with the words of Jesus Himself. But I’m glad that I explored these claims for myself instead of taking others’ word for it, because if I had shied away from this book I would have missed out on all the valuable points that Bell does make. Bell’s approach to Bible reading is a bit like peeling an onion: he takes a story that may seem grossly out of context and nonsensical in our day – like the one about Abraham cutting a bunch of animals in half and walking between the pieces to make a covenant with God – and peels away layer after layer of historical context and religious significance. You come away from the story with a brand-new understanding of all that God was up to in an event, and how meaningful it would have been to the people experiencing it. Awe-inspiring, revelatory, educational, and ground-breaking are all appropriate words for Bell’s handling of Biblical history.

Another helpful approach Bell takes is to calm everyone down from the debates that have raged for thousands of years – often an end in themselves, rather than challenging the hearers to go and live differently. For example, the apocalypse. Bell concludes his discussion of all the prophesies and pictures and unknowns with a challenge: “it’s better if people agree that we aren’t going to worry about what we can’t control and we are going to become far more intentional about what we can control—loving our neighbor, becoming people of character and integrity, taking better care of the earth. What if all that anxiety and fear and concern about apocalypse…was channeled into actual change?” (Bell 201) I would add: What if all that anxiety and fear and concern was channeled into an urgent care for our neighbor’s well-being, that incited us to tell as many people about Jesus as possible? Likewise, Bell points out that the word election (which has tripped up Christians for centuries) ought to be associated with ”mission, purpose, calling, action on behalf of others, for their well-being.” (Bell 248) How differently we would live if we could get past the endless arguments of who is chosen and how, and instead fully embraced the mission and calling of the Christian life.

Now a few words about what I didn’t agree with. Bell is quite the master of getting a rise out of what he calls “deeply religious” people (myself included) who grew up in a church culture steeped in Biblical apologetics and worldview. He sets out to debunk all kinds of claims about the divine inspiration of the Bible (he can’t overemphasize the fact that the Bible was written by people), and the exceedingly biblical truth that Jesus’s death is the only way we can be reconciled with a righteous God – calling us to leave behind the antiquated idea that “the divine needs blood” (Bell 245), while subtly poking fun at traditional believers who haven’t quite evolved enough to see things from his point of view. Ironically, by asking us to leave behind everything we thought we knew about God, Bell makes the most massive claim about God of all: calling us to leave God out of controversial events in history, insisting all the time that the Bible was written by people and we ought not drag God into it. Bell can’t stop reminding us that we’re reading “someone’s perspective that reflects the time and the place they lived in. it’s not God’s perspective—it’s theirs.” (Bell 295) I came away from the book with the sense that Bell is condemning Christians who have taken the Bible literally, by claiming to know which parts of Scripture are allegorical, which contradict the true heart of God, which are poem instead of prose, and on and on – blithely writing off Christians over the centuries who have gotten it all wrong. The Bible then becomes a guidebook for how to be a better person, instead of a divinely inspired letter from God to His children that revolves around the all-consuming person and work of His Son, Jesus.

But I found even this approach helpful. At the same time that I was disagreeing with certain statements, I was heavily underlining and taking notes in the margins as I looked up Scriptures and mentally argued opposing viewpoints with Bell. He did, indeed, get me back into the Bible. I didn’t take his word for it – I recalled the nuggets of truth that I myself have gleaned over the years and pitted my interpretations against his. I found this refreshing, freeing, empowering. My challenge to my audience is to read a broad variety of authors and opinions for yourself. It is only in contact with vastly opposing worldviews that your own beliefs and convictions can be sharpened and honed into a system that you can stand behind, that you would die for. It is now yours – not your church’s, not your parent’s, but the living word of God to you.

I want to end with a few of Bell’s words on identity. If you never get a chance to read What Is the Bible?, I hope this exceedingly edifying passage will stay with you as it has with me:

In the Bible, sin is the middle word about you. The first word is that you’re created in the image of God, crowned with glory and honor, a child of the divine. That’s who you are. The second word is the honest, unvarnished truth about how we all fall short. We all sin; we all disrupt the shalom that God intends for all things. The third word is the continual insistence that the last word hasn’t been spoken about you and your sin, that all sins have been forgiven in Christ, that we are loved and restored, redeemed, reconciled, and renewed. (Bell 261)