I feel like any time someone mentions the name “Rob Bell” in Christian circles post Love Wins, someone should yell out: “LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!!!” So whether you love him or hate him, he’s back with a new book called What Is The Bible? and I’m sure it will get us talking.
If you are unfamiliar with who Rob Bell is, he founded and pastored Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids MI for about a dozen years, he’s written eight other books including: Velvet Elvis, the New York Times Best Selling Love Wins, and What We Talk About When We Talk About God. He hosts his own podcast called the RobCast, he’s done some events with Oprah, and in 2011 he was listed in Time Magazines 100 Most Influential People in the World.
In his newest work Bell sets out to answer the question presented in the books title: What is the Bible? This book is written for people who have never read the Bible before, people who love it, people who are suspect of it, people who are bored by it, people who are confused by it, people who are afraid of it, both believers and unbelievers.
Bell writes this book like someone who has visited the most amazing and mind-blowing place in the world (the Bible) and desperately wants everyone else to come and experience it too.
The book begins with Bell unpacking numerous sections of scripture, giving examples of how rich and complex and layered these passages are when you begin to dig into the cultural contexts and start unpacking the original languages it was written in. Throughout the book we are reminded that the Bible was written by “real people, in real places, in real times”, and when we read the Bible with this in mind it will change how we understand and experience it.
When people say the Bible is boring, they’re saying that because they haven’t actually read it. Because if you actually read it, and enter into the stories, and the depth and background and context and innuendo and hyperbole, the one thing you will not be is bored. (p. 141)
In my opinion, this reminder (not necessarily all his conclusions) for Christians to dig deeper into the text, has been a strength of Bell’s going all the way back to his first book Velvet Elvis. I personally have been challenged by Bell throughout the years to dig deep when studying scripture and it has most certainly had positive impact on my relationship with the Bible.
Another thing I appreciate about this book, is Bell’s unbridled passion and excitement for the Bible. If I had never read the Bible before, the first thing I would have done after reading this book, would be to go and buy a Bible.
When you read the Bible in its context, you learn that it’s a library of radically progressive books, calling humanity forward into a better future. (p. 114)
Bell’s consistent affirmation throughout the book of the relevance of scripture for today is also a very encouraging note, and one that I strongly agree with. That said, I find it somewhat inconsistent with at least one comment I’ve heard Bell say on the Bible. In an interview with Oprah a few years ago on the subject of sexuality, and the varying moral positions between much of the church and culture, Bell said: “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense…” In my opinion, whether he intended it or not (probably didn’t), his statement regarding scripture comes off as a low view of the Bible, and not very affirming towards the relevance of scripture if it holds a position contrary to our own or that of our culture (regardless of the issue being discussed). While I completely agree that we need to unpack scripture in it’s original context to properly understand it, and we have to exegete it for our current cultural context, my comfort level or level of agreement with something in scripture doesn’t make it any more or less true or relevant. So on this point of scriptural relevance, I probably agree-ish with Bell.
Another line from the book that MIGHT BE of concern for me, is when he speaks of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The line begins saying: “The next time you hear someone insisting that it was an actual, literal resurrection…” Now, in no other book (including this one) or interview, have I ever heard Bell say that he denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but this line feels like he is distancing himself from those who do hold that belief. If that is the case, I have significant concerns with that position, but if I have read too much into that line, I apologize, and there is nothing to see here.
What about the big questions concerning the Bible? Is it the word of God? Is it authoritative? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired? Where does Bell land on the big ones? Well, he actually dedicates almost 90 pages to answering those and other questions.
The Torah started the discussion. For many in our world, the Bible ends the discussion. Someone stands up and reads from the Bible and then tells the gathered masses what it means and what is right and how it should be interpreted and then the service is over and everybody leaves. But in the first-century world of Jesus, the Torah and the prophets and the wisdom writings were the start of the discussion. You read it, together. And then you interpreted it. You engaged with it. (p. 153-154)
Some people will sound the alarm that this book should not be read by anyone (especially new Christians) because they may begin to interpret the Bible solely through the opinions of Rob Bell, and that’s dangerous. Amen. I couldn’t 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 ______________ (insert your favorite theologian here) 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.
There are definitely some conclusions Bell comes to that I would need to do some further study and research on before I could stand by them (or not), there are some conclusions that I find to be a bit of a stretch, and there are other conclusions I completely agree with. If you are curious as to who Bell’s theological influences are, he gives a pretty hefty list of books that have helped shape his theology including authors like: Thomas Cahill, Bruce Feiler, Peter Enns, Dallas Willard, and N.T. Wright to name a few.
What Is The Bible? in my opinion will be no where near as controversial as Love Wins, but similarly to that book I think it will be successful in bringing people into a conversation, in this case about the nature and purpose of the Bible, and that’s a great thing. So yeah, you should check out Bell’s newest book. Read it, question it, affirm it, disagree with it, but more importantly, and Bell would agree, just go grab a Bible and start reading that.