Rob Bell is a controversial figure. To some, he provides a new—and more useful—lens through which to view the Christian faith. To others, he embraces a wishy-washy view of the Bible that fails to commit God’s more difficult edicts.
His book, “Love Wins: A book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” shook the core of the Evangelical Christian worldview with its claims of universal salvation. Upon its publication, many decried Bell as a pastor whose teachings create a meaningless, watered-down version of Christianity that is more a system of ethos than a religion headed up by a supernatural deity.
It may be that a similar outcry will arise as Bell’s new work, “What is the Bible?” becomes available. Rather than focusing on issues of salvation, this book focus on how we should read the Bible, posing what Bell believes is the most important question to ask ourselves as we read: “Why did people find this important to write down?” This human-centered approach appears, at first, to leave God out of the picture, entirely.
But upon interviewing Bell, it becomes clear that his theology isn’t the disaster the Evangelical world has made it out to be. In fact, his insights into how Christians can better read and interpret their sacred text are astute, useful, and faith-affirming.
So wherever you fall upon the spectrum of Christian belief—all the way from fundamentalist to liberal—there is something to learn from Bell’s thoughts. His ideas are subversive, exciting, and rather than twisting the Bible to fit our modern narrative, Bell advocates look at this sacred text exactly as its writers would have.
Read on and consider his thoughts. You may just find a few gems of wisdom, and through these, an entirely new way to read the Bible.
What was the need you perceived that inspired you to write “What is the Bible?”
“I was in a band when I was in college—the band broke up, and I somehow ended up giving a sermon, and I had this moment of awakening, like ‘I’m going to reclaim the sermon as an art form.’
In the tradition that I came from, sermons are something that you give from the Bible. So I started reading it and I went to get a graduate degree and did all that, but I discovered that when I actually read it and studied it, people weren’t talking about the things that were actually happening in the pages of this ancient library.
So, this started with me, 25 years ago, getting caught up in something—a movement, a realization that the Bible was written by a minority group of people who had been conquered by one global military superpower after another.
So these people are fundamentally suspicious of coercive military power—which is why so many Americans misread the Bible at a deep, deep level. When you’re a citizen of a global military superpower, you may miss some of the essential themes of this book, which is about resistance to these very things.
I noticed that the more I read where this book is actually coming from—the Old Testament is edited together in Babylon. These people have been violently yanked from their homeland and taken into exile. No wonder they tell stories about people doing violence in the name of their God—they’re saying ‘Do you see how completely evil this is?’
A lot of the critiques about the Bible are actually completely missing the dangerous, subversive, poetic, intelligent, interesting things that are actually going on.
Maybe at some level my work has been to right some wrongs, you know what I mean? It’s an injustice that people don’t think about the Bible and Rage Against the Machine in the same breath. Or you think about Bernie Sanders talk about a widening gap between the rich and the poor—yes, welcome to Amos. Welcome to the minor prophets.
The idea that this ancient library of books is somehow aligned with many of the things in our culture that are the exact opposite of what these writers were intending to communicate makes me upset.
This wasn’t like ‘Gee, what is the hot topic.’ I had been thinking it would be interesting to try writing the book on Tumblr, and writing a chapter a day. It was almost like almost like clearing RAM space in my head—I had 25 years of stuff on the Bible. Like, oh yeah, the Abraham and Issac story—that’s actually about something else. Oh, yeah—the Jonah being swallowed by the fish. That’s actually about Nineveh and Assyria and ‘can you forgive.’ These stories are about a bunch of other things that are much more interesting and pressing questions that people are asking today.
So I got about a week or two into writing this stuff on Tumblr, and the response was like nothing I had ever seen—the response was so electric. And then my publisher, right away, was like, ‘Why don’t you just do this as a book?'
So there you go!”
One of the things I particularly like about “What is the Bible?” is the assertion that the Bible isn’t so much an argument, but a record of experiences. Would you be able to talk about that idea for a moment?
“Yeah, yeah—it’s 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, you’re asking a completely different set of questions. You sit in the pain of grief of pain and silence. When you lose your job, who’s right and who is wrong? Who’s on top, who’s winning, who’s losing? When you get divorced or when your kid makes a horrific decision with destructive consequences, you think about the book of Psalms—many people would argue that the Psalms, these prayers in the middle of the Bible—half 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 they’re sitting in the ashes. Where were you? Does anything matter anymore? Is there any up and down? Let alone doubt.
It’s fascinating to me at the end of the book of Matthew—Matthew 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 you’re 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 don’t buy it.’
This book is about doubt as much as it is about belief. It’s about uncertainty just as much as it is about certainty. And then you just read it differently and it can actually speak to what life is really like, as opposed to the same old ‘this book is an owner’s manual that will help you.’
By the way, no one ever reads owners manuals. No one has ever been inspired by owners manuals. Even some of the images that are most often associated with the Bible are recipes for boredom.
But if you talk about what happens when people in government positions are liars, and they’re only out for their own ego—this is something that comes up again and again in the Bible. How do you keep your calm when the political powers that be are corrupt to the core.
Well, now, we’re having a 2017 discussion, and that makes this a much more dangerous, interesting library of books.”
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 books—you can only get there honestly, and you have to go through the humanity of this book.
There’s sort of a standard—‘Well, it’s 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 it’s like certain things you can only see and experience for yourself—think about how many people grew up hearing sermons about how the Bible is the word of God, and they’re less convinced now. All that actually worked against them as opposed to just letting these stories—unleashing them and letting them run around the room.”
So what you’re talking about is reading the Bible like you’d interpret a piece of literature—unpacking 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 communicating—so there’s rants and there’s poetry and there’s innuendo, and there’s hints, and there’s letters, and there’s 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, there’s 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, that’s 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 they’re feeling and you’re feeling and the bond that it stirs between you may fail you. ‘I’m like a 7.3 on the compassion scale today,’ isn’t 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.
What’s interesting in the modern world is that people are so almost enslaved to literal fact that language about soul, spirit, and heart—oftentimes, people don’t have much practice speaking that way, and so the Bible, then, like Shakespeare, it takes a while to get into it.”
The skill of being able to take on that mode of reading is sorely needed now.
“Absolutely. And what’s interesting—I’m wondering if you agree—it’s interesting how the people who are the sharpest critics of the Bible—modern world, quantum physics, going to the moon, ‘do we even need these ancient barbaric texts’—when 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 don’t either. How are you a brilliant scientist, biologist, or television personality? You’re reading the Bible like a first grader. [Laughs] We all graduated a long time ago. Come with us.
That’s 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 side—that both sides read the Bible the same way, and completely miss the point.
The one says that the guy was swallowed by a fish—‘The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. If you don’t 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? It’s 2017!
They’re both actually literalists, and in the process, they both fail to read it as the compelling, subversive, prophetic story—how the first audience would have heard it.
I’m trying to give people a completely different way to think about and discuss this book—and enter into it.”
Do you feel like there’s room to read the Bible as literature and to consider the supernatural aspects as well?
“Absolutely. And actually, I would say that while you should read it like literature, I don’t in any way want to minimize the power of a sacred text.
You and I can read a Jane Austen novel and read it as literature and appreciate it. The power of this library is how it fits as a sacred text for literally thousands of years, and when you read this, you’re reading something that literally millions of people have read. And something can happen to you simply in allowing it to work on you over the years.
And that coming to these books with an expectation that the Spirit is going to speak in some way, that you’re going to hear something that transcends materiality—what I wanted to do with this book is take people into the humanity so that they might have an experience that takes them way beyond their humanity and hopefully create the conditions where somebody could say, ‘Oh, I can see why this is called a sacred text.I can see why somebody would call it the Word of God. I can see why this has endured.’”
It is a strange thing that the idea of reading the Bible in an old way is a new idea.
Bell, in “What is the Bible,” advocates exactly this—that by carefully and deeply interpreting the sacred text of Christianity as it was meant to be interpreted, Christians can better learn from it and apply it to their own lives.
Whatever you believe, there is wisdom in this—the Bible is rife with many different forms of communication, and if we are truly dedicated, as Christians, to operating in truth, it is our responsibility to read in an honest way, without applying our own presuppositions and biases.
Do this, and you might just find out what the Bible truly is.