You talk about it. You read it. You listen to sermons about it. But do you really know what the Bible is, and what to do with its contents?
Some people simply see the Bible as an interesting book of mythology and fairy tales. Others see it as a barbaric narrative that encourages exclusion and abuse. Still more take every word of the Bible absolutely literally, operating under the sincere belief that their interpretation is the only correct one.
New York Times bestselling author and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, Rob Bell, claims that all of these views are wrong.
Bell wants you to see the Bible in an entirely new light. He wants you to see it in its fullness, and in his own words, to see that “The power of the Bible comes not from avoiding what it is, but by embracing what it is.”
Let’s take a look at a few of the basic—yet vital—lessons from Bell's upcoming book, What is the Bible?.
What is the Bible made of?
Bell begins his second chapter with, “In the beginning, someone wrote something down.” And it’s a game-changing sentence.
The Bible didn’t materialize out of nowhere. It was put together by a number of authors over a period of many centuries, and each of these authors were actual people living in real places around the world. These writers had their own worldviews, were shaped by their own cultures, and historical contexts.
So instead of seeing the Bible only as something that fell from the heavens, perhaps we should be focusing on the human elements—the fact that the authors of the Bible, as Bell puts it, wrote about the same issues we deal with today—things like “love and hate and technology and shame and hope an betrayal…”.
When we forget this, one of two things happens. The first is that, without this human element, we see nothing but an outdated and irrelevant document. The Bible ceases to speak to us as people about what is happening to us today. The second—and arguably more destructive—is that we see only the divine. We see a strict, unyielding system of theology that leaves no room for either interpretation or the human heart.
But when we realize that the Bible is a complicated interaction between the human and the divine, we’re in a better position to interpret the Bible correctly—we can see each verse through the lens of the human cultural and historical contexts which shaped them, and we can also recognize the divine purpose that is directing and driving each writer.
To know what the Bible is made of is to be able to truly understand it.
Is the Bible a fairy tale?
The books of the Bible are full of what seem like contradictions, and so it can be tempting to label the entire narrative a fairy tale, a set of stories derived from the mythology of the time periods these books were written in.
But to take on that viewpoint would be a mistake.
Consider the Gospels. Between the four accounts of the life of Jesus, there are numerous contradictions. But if the intent of the authors of the Gospels was to show that Jesus was the son of God, and the foretold Messiah, would it not be better to erase any inconsistencies?
Bell helps us find the answer when he asks, “Is the haphazard humanity of it all reason to dismiss it or signs that it’s an authentic record of what happened?”
The answer to this leads us away from the idea of the myth, and toward the idea that something noteworthy truly happened here.
What’s more, the Bible is the story of ever-changing, ever-evolving groups of people, written over a huge span of time—what and how they think in one book is not what and how they think in a later book. This isn’t inconsistency—it’s humanity. Imagine seeing someone who had risen from the dead. You’d probably be a little shaken up, too!
Don’t discount the power and special nature of the Bible just because things don’t seem to add up. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that these contradictions speak more of truth than a unified narrative ever could.
Is the Bible literal?
To answer this question, we go back to Bell’s idea of what the Bible is made of. Remember, it’s a library of books written by many different authors over the course of many centuries.
But the key here is that it’s also written in many different formats, including poetry, hyperbole, and even satire, many of which aren’t literal. These passages communicate higher truths through imaginative imagery or metaphors, taking incomprehensible supernatural ideas and distilling them into something we humans can understand.
The Bible isn’t meant to be a factual history book—it’s meant to convey the nature of God, to generate faith, and to show us the best way to live.
Bell recommends asking one question as you read: “Why did people find this important to write down?” Asking this of yourself helps to cut through any notions of literal or non-literal interpretations, as well as any faulty assumptions we might make about God, Himself.
When we get down there and really examine the motivations, circumstances, and goals of the Biblical authors, rather than adhering to a literalist mindset, we can see God’s message all the clearer.
Change the way you see.
The Bible is a library of different books written by different authors over a long period of time, and conveys truth, although sometimes through literary devices rather than historical fact. Remember this.
Knowing what the Bible is can help us read it more clearly, and when we can read the Bible clearly, we can get a better grip on the big questions of Christian life, such as why we’re here, what we need to do, and how we need to do it.
Don’t let yourself get stuck on a certain way of seeing the Bible—open your eyes, read with discernment, and enjoy the grand narrative that God has laid out for our good.