What Is the Bible?

Be the first to celebrate

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)

The Lifegiving Home

The ache for home lives in all of us,

the safe place where we can go as we are

and not be questioned.

 - Maya Angelou -

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Inspired by the beautiful, almost ethereal word pictures painted by mother-daughter duo Sally and Sarah Clarkson in their book The Lifegiving Home, I set out to create the ideal dining experience for me and my three-year-old daughter. Warm candlelight flickered and soft strains of classical music filled the house as I embarked on what seemed a simple enough task: simmering a big pot of soup accompanied by a loaf of homemade peasant bread for an all-too-rare homecooked meal.

Fast-forward three hours later. The long-anticipated bread is gummy in the middle, the fragrant soup too thick. Unexpected guests show up for dinner, lured by visions of homemade feasting, and I have no choice but to serve them the subpar fare. Worse, three-year-old Elissa – who helped choose the soup recipe! – now refuses to eat a bite of it. I sink into my chair, exhausted and disappointed. This, I now recall, is why I’ve all but given up cooking – because it doesn’t turn out right, and rarely tempts my child to venture beyond mac and cheese or peanut butter and jelly.

But I am far from throwing in the towel on the quest to create my own lifegiving home. The Clarkson ladies paint a tempting, palatable, and yet realistic picture of home life in all of its unique rhythms and seasons. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of their story is that each of the four grown Clarkson children – after traveling far and wide around the globe – cannot wait to come back home again, to the place where they are fully known, accepted, and loved. The place where they each belong. At one point Sally remarks that she and her husband could never have imagined that their children would each grow into their kindred spirits. As adults, the bond of friendship between parent and child is stronger than ever.

As a single mom tasked with raising my daughter alone, this is the hope held closest to my heart: that my daughter will grow into a strong, unique, and independent woman and friend. Sally and Sarah hold out the hope that by God’s grace this is an achievable goal; that home can be just the place of nourishment, encouragement, and affection that a child needs to find themselves and their own purpose in life, and yet always return to be wholly affirmed and cherished.

Long before I finished this book I had begun putting new habits into action. Flickering candles have appeared in all sorts of nooks and crannies, filling our big, drafty house with fragrant warmth and light. Music – worship, classical, or the soothing melodies of Kenny G – often fills the silence that we two girls can tend to rattle around in. You see, I haven’t always had a vision for our home. Becoming a widow at age 26 and realizing that our perfect nuclear family would now be a family of two was the death of all my dreams of being a wife and homemaker. For a long time I couldn’t stand the thought of being home, confronted by the emptiness, the hush at the dinner hour when Nathan should have been coming home from work. The word “home,” once associated with love and light and warmth, became synonymous with dread. Foreboding. Grief. All I could think to do was escape.

I am so thankful that I read the Clarksons’ book at the start of a new year. For me, it signifies the start of a new season. A Lifegiving Home has called me to dream again, to put my dormant creativity and love of beauty to work in making a space where my daughter and I can live in comfort and at peace, inviting others in to join us who need a respite from the chill and bitterness that life can bring. I am taking baby steps, to be sure. My once robust passion for cooking has stagnated, and I find myself a novice in the kitchen. Many of the possessions Nathan and I collected during our marriage have been lost or broken in the numerous changes and variances of our life. I alone am at the helm of my life, with no husband to follow – no mission to sign onto save that which God lays out for me. There is much that is terrifying about the unknown – and yet, for the first time, I am tasting a sense of adventure that I thought had died along with the hope and dreams for my marriage.

Where this life will take us, and what we Farlow girls will accomplish on this unexpected journey remains a mystery. But one thing I know for certain: wherever the road leads, and whatever places we inhabit, I am committed to crafting warmth and love and beauty into the very fabric of our dwellings. Be it a big old farmhouse or a cozy apartment, the home I create for my family will be one where the weary can rest, the hungry be nourished, the senses delighted by beauty in all its forms, and souls commune with one another and with God. Thank you, Sally and Sarah, for breathing fresh vision into my concept of home. In the words of Andrew Greeley, I will seek to “treasure wisely this jeweled, gilded time/ And cherish each day as an extra grace.”

The Great Gatsby

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I was first introduced to The Great Gatsby as a junior in high school. A passionate lover of all things literary, I drank in the complex word pictures and sensuous imagery. Long after our study of the book was completed, I pored over its pages until phrases and descriptions were embedded in my memory. 

Soon I moved away to college, and then to Texas. All my belongings - including hundreds of well-loved books - were boxed and made various pilgrimages from bedroom to attic to moving van to three different apartments. In all the chaos I lost sight of my beloved Gatsby for awhile, until Baz Luhrmann's riveting preview of the film made its debut. I was spellbound by that preview. Thirty seconds of haunting, soul-beating music, accompanied by gold and glamour and heavy raindrops and Leonardo DiCaprio. As several other previews have leaked out over the past few weeks, I've grown even more excited about the film.

Luhrmann has some pretty big shoes to fill. Contemporary actors attempting to convey classic literary figures so vividly, perfectly painted in words can either impart the ultimate breath of life-giving air to complete the immortalization, or else fall despairingly short of portraying a character's psyche. That said, if I created a physical embodiment of Jay Gatsby out of thin air, I couldn't have painted a better portrait than Leonardo. He is Gatsby, in all his broken, extravagant yearnings. And Nick Carraway - dear, vague, introspective Nick - is given just the right touch of curious sincerity by Tobey Maguire.

This film has very nearly possessed me. The highlight of recent movies has been those glorious two minutes of Gatsby in the previews, a tantalizing appetizer for what is sure to be at least as exquisite as Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. I dug up my well-worn copy of Gatsby and elected to buy a brand-new one; I wanted to read it with new eyes, and the corpulent highlighting, underlining and marginal notes distracted me.

Then Nathan made the greatest of masculine sacrifices and allowed me to read Gatsby to him. Aloud. We breezed through the entire book in less than a week and he only fell asleep a few times. He then proceeded to top that and get us tickets to the premiere. Tonight. The night before he goes out of town. That, friends, is a selfless gesture worthy of the highest esteem - although I have a sneaking suspicion that he's nearly as enchanted with the mystery that is Jay Gatsby as I am. 

Here are some of my favorite quotes from this reading, as well as exquisite book covers from printings over the years. If you haven't yet been introduced to F. Scott Fitzgerald, I hope this whets your appetite.

"I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men."

"I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart."

"There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life."

"It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again...the exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain."

"The glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk."

"The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life."

"High over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."

"There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

"I saw the skins of tigers flaming in his palace on the Grand Canal; I saw him opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart."

"Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy."

"A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor."

"Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans."

"Ahead lay the scalloped ocean and the abounding blessed isles."

"Her voice struggled on through the heat, beating against it, molding its senselessness into forms."

"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..."

"I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Photos courtesy of

The New York Times Style Magazine