Between Irrelevance and Inspiration: Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?”

I imagine it was a paradisiacal day—whatever happy, joyful, and blissful picture that gives your imagination—when the serpent slithered to the woman in the Garden of Eden. He did not come armed with bow or sword but only with his tongue and a simple but provocative question: “Did God actually say?” There was the starting point of humanity’s tragic descent into sin and misery. Its origin was doubt, disbelief, and misinterpretation of God’s word. I cannot help but hear an echo of that fateful question in Rob Bell’s new book, What is the Bible?

For many evangelicals and Reformed folk Rob Bell is, perhaps, a relic of the past. His departure from some of the main tenets of Christianity have made him all but irrelevant. So why should we care that he has written a new book? Well, if there is any value in this book it is simply that it offers a popular representation—without big vocabulary or complex hermeneutical rules—on where many people place the Bible in their understanding of Christianity. Rob Bell doesn’t write without knowing exactly to what audience he is writing, and he has learned well to connect with that audience in a captivating way. This book is compelling because so many people are compelled by it.

Middle of the Road

In What is the Bible? Rob Bell wants to “help you read the Bible in a better way because lots of people don’t know how to read it.” On the one hand, Bell says, are the people who view the Bible as “an outdated book of primitive, barbaric fairy tales that we have moved beyond.” His problem with this approach is: “It doesn’t matter how smart or educated or studied someone is, to make broad dismissals of scripture as having nothing to say to the modern world about what it means to be human is absurd and naive.”

On the other hand, are the people who insist that the Bible needs to be read but “butcher it with their stilted literalism and stifling interpretation.” His problem with them is that they want to read the Bible literally when, rather, we must read it literately: “I’ve heard people say that they read it literally. As if that’s the best way to understand the Bible. It’s not. We read it literately.”

Whatever end of the spectrum you’re on, Bell wants to help rescue you out of the “insanely boring,” “irrelevant,” “distracting,” and “small” discussions most everybody has about the Bible. He does so from a position that he believes is advantageous—the middle road, somewhere between irrelevant and inspired.

Profoundly Human

So, if the Bible is neither irrelevant or inspired, what is it? Well, for Bell it is a “profoundly human book.” What exactly does that mean? First, it means that the Bible is humanity’s product. He says: “The Bible did not drop out of the sky; it was written by people.” Or elsewhere he writes: “That’s what the Bible is. It wasn’t written by a third party somewhere in the sky who passively and objectively tells you what the plan is.” And, just to be crystal clear, he says: “[The Bible] it’s not God’s perspective, it’s their’s.”

Second, it means that the Bible is about humanity’s understanding: “The Bible is a library of books reflecting how human beings have understood the divine.” Or human perspective: “The Bible was written by people. People with perspectives grounded in their cultures and times and places.” Or human interpretation: “They’re having experiences and undergoing events and then processing and interpreting those events and experiences. That’s what the Bible is.” Or human enlightenment: “It’s about becoming more enlightened.” Or human connection: “You read these books and are reminded of your shared human connection with everybody everywhere.”

Third, it means that the Bible is about humanity’s destiny. Here, Bell insists that it’s not a book “about going to heaven.” In fact, he argues that the term “eternal life,” in the biblical context, is not about life after death. He writes: “What happens when you die was not something people in Jesus’ day talked much about, and it wasn’t something Jesus talked about much at all. The focus in the first-century world that Jesus inhabited was this life, this time, here and now. Eternal life was that phrase people used to describe a particular divine quality of life.” Rather, he says, “The Bible is a book about what it means to be human.” He also notes: “When you read the Bible in its context, you learn that it’s a library of radically progressive books, calling humanity forward to a better future.” If that isn’t enough, he states unequivocally: “Gospel is the announcement of who God insists you are.”

This is what it means to be a “profoundly human book.” It’s a book produced by humans, about what it means to be human, to the end of attaining a better human consciousness.

Humanity’s Lessons

If the Bible is profoundly human then how do we read it? For Bell, the best approach is to ask questions of the text to discover a meaning. Yes, I said a meaning. Bell writes: “There are, of course, lots of ways to miss the point and truly read it wrong. But to say that there’s a right way unnecessarily limits your reading of the Bible. There are lots of right ways to read it.”

One of the misguided ways to read the Bible, he insists, is to ask the question: “Why did God say so?” Rather, when you come to a biblical story ask: “Why did people find it important to tell this story?” “What was it that moved them to record these words?” “What was happening at the time?” “What does this tell us about how people understood who they were and who God was at that time?” And “Why did these people think it was a story worth telling?” In fact, the majority of this book is simply Bell doing that. He weaves together dozens of biblical stories—some well-known and others obscure—and tells readers what connections, patterns, images, and words should be found to help understand a meaning.

When we do this, he emphasizes, the Bible comes alive and extremely relevant to our situation today. For instance, Abraham and Moses teach that “you weren’t stuck, that you didn’t have to repeat everything that had already happened.” That’s because “this story is about an evolution in human thinking about the divine […] It’s about a growing understanding of what it means to be human.” The story of Noah “reflects how people saw the world and explained what was happening around them.” He says: “This story was a major leap forward in human consciousness, a breakthrough in how people conceived of the divine, a step toward a less violent, more relational understanding of the divine.” Melchizedek teaches us not to be “surprised when you meet people who have none of your religious background (and baggage) and yet clearly have a genuine connection with the divine.” Leviticus demonstrates that “human actions matter.” Ehud teaches us the “failure of violence to actually solve anything.” The woman caught in adultery is “about political and social resistance to anything that robs people of their dignity and honor.” The life of Peter is a lesson that “it’s possible to resist the very growth and change and expand in consciousness that God desires for you by appealing to your religious convictions.” The incarnation “raises questions about the very nature of what it means to be human […] There is something divine, something infinite, something eternal residing in every one of us.” Finally, the death of Christ is “a story about humanity growing in maturity, leaving behind the idea that the divine needs blood. That’s the giant leap that’s happening in the New Testament. The Bible is a reflection of a growing and expanding human consciousness.” For all of this, the message of the Bible isn’t what humanity is to believe concerning God and what duties God requires, but the message is one of human progress and enlightenment.

So, back to the central question: What is the Bible? For Rob Bell the Bible is an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories that can transform the way you think and feel about being human. And in that, he says, there is a “sacred power” and “you may even find the divine lurking there.”

Only Human

Rob Bell finds himself in a peculiar situation. He rejects the belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God; but he also rejects the idea that the Bible is of absolutely no use. It’s as if he wants to have one foot on inspiration and the other on irrelevance and the book reads like he’s trying to persuade himself that doing the splits—splits that would make an Olympic gymnast blush—isn’t that uncomfortable for a full grown man. But it is. It is uncomfortable because you cannot have it both ways.

Here’s what I mean. The Bible make startling claims about itself. So if we’re going to ask the question: “What is the Bible?” the best place to go is the Bible. And the Bible’s most profound answer to that question is simply this: it is the Word of God—it is theopneustos, that is, God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Because it is the Word of God it is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. Yes, it was written by real people in the real world about real events, but its human character is not opposed or contradictory to its divine character (see 2 Peter 1:21). Whether you agree with its claims or not, it is simply dishonest to lessen or minimize the Bible’s own claims about itself.

So in answering that leading question: “What is the Bible?” there are only two possible answers. The Bible is either what it says it is, or it is not. Between those two there is no middle ground. Rob Bell has chosen his side—the Bible is not what it says it is. And in rejecting its own claims Bell, perhaps not unsurprisingly, finds a Bible made after his own image—liberal, progressive, universalistic, and inclusive. So, in the final analysis this book is nothing but an unsophisticated demonstration of unbelief echoing, with all the craft and subtly, the serpent’s question: “Did God actually say?”

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