What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell
I grew up in an evangelical bubble. For some of you that concept will read like “I was raised by aliens on another planet” but let me paint the picture: It was the 60s and my Dad, who had grown up in a staunchly non-religious environment was suffering from an extreme case of young person ennui. One night around a fire on a camping trip hosted by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship my Dad “accepted Jesus into his heart” and in a flash of conversion that became a legend in my family, felt a call to spread the “good news.” He went on to become a minister, then a seminary professor. I went on to become an art dealer who had a whole other set of gods…but that’s a story for another day. Just know that I strayed far, far from the family fold after I left the evangelical bubble. Once I was out in “the world” I found that none of my insulated views on other religions and social issues (like gay marriage and abortion rights) had any purchase. I was done with dreary old self-righteous and judgmental Christianity.
Fast forward and now I find myself peddling books at a church bookstore. My, my how life twists and turns. I have become the proverbial church lady, and I do indeed identify as a Christian again, but in a much less black and white way. I give you that bit of backstory in the run-up to reviewing Rob Bell’s latest book, What is the Bible? to say I share a bit of history with Bell and consider him a voice in the wilderness…and a prophetic one at that.
For those of you who do not know Rob Bell, he’s the founding pastor of Mars Hill, a midwest megachurch that redefined megachurching for a generation. His breakout 2012 book Love Wins defied religious book publishing categories by debuting on the New York Times best seller list at #2. Love Wins was a breath of fresh air for people who, like me, grew up with a rigid, judgmental and dualistic form of Christianity. In the intro he confronts one of his parishioners who flippantly says something about it being “too bad that the Buddha was going to hell for not believing in Jesus,” or something along those lines.“Really? You really think the Buddha’s going to hell? Really?” Bell replies and goes on to break down what a toxic form of you’re-in-or-you’re-out Christianity that person was buying into. This bent, twisted and condemnation-based form of Christianity has become a blight on one of the world’s most essentially inclusive and love-based religions.
Now I will admit to something really embarrassing. After I closed my art gallery, got married and moved to Greenwich I went on my own spiritual journey. I had the sneaking suspicion that I had thrown the baby (Jesus) out with the bath water when I had walked away from Christianity. I signed up for a class on the Bible hosted by Christ Church and tried engaging with this book that Bell calls in his subtitle “an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories [that] can transform the way you think and feel about everything.” I got into source criticism, the historical Jesus and all that other eggheaded stuff that helps you crack open the Bible in seminary. It was when we were studying the Gospel of Matthew that a thought hit me, and hit me HARD: this is a Jewish book.
Obvious, I know, but hear me out. I had grown up looking at Jesus and the Bible only through the lens of Christianity. I actually had to force myself to re-see Jesus as Jewish, and Christianity as a radical reform movement from within Judaism itself. When you live in a bubble and never interact with with actual practicing Jewish people, this concept can seem very abstract. Thank God I got to have that career in the New York art world where so many colleagues and clients were Jewish, many devoutly so. Christianity as the single gateway to God was blown right off of its hinges for me when I started looking at the Bible, and specifically the Gospels, as Jewish. A story not unlike this opens Bell’s book, making me feel only slightly less like a idiot.
After a sermon at Mars Hill when he was thinking to himself “nailed it” a Jewish scholar approached him and said, “Boy, did you miss the point.” He begins to lay some Midrashic exegesis on Bell and his mind is summarily blown. This is when Bell had that same “Hey, this is a Jewish book” epiphany. This exchange was when the lens of interpreting the Bible through the history, agenda, need and eschatology of Christianity was removed. This is one of the most important moments in the lives of all Christians who love and revere the Bible—the moment when the Bible stops being self-referential—and starts being the Bible.
Being self-referential is the basic human condition, and until we are willing to give up the various identities we cling to out of fear we will never be able to see the Bible for the messy, agenda riddled—and, yes, self-referential—human document that it is.
The other lens Rob Bell very insightfully encourages us in this country to remove, is the lens of being American. The Bible was written by a minority group living under the oppression of a succession of massive military super powers who has conquered them. How is it possible for citizens of our country, a modern day global super power to relate? Our American psyches are so shaped by capitalism, democracy and a spirit of entitlement and/or exceptionalism that we are embodiments of the drive for “more.” More land, more money, more power. When reading the Bible Americans must be aware that our natures are much more like the Egyptians, Babylonians and Romans, than the Hebrew protagonists, and until you are able to see that this is an underdog story being read by an over-dog, you will never understand the true nature of the struggle at the heart of the Bible. Indeed the Bible is a critique of systems, nations and individuals endlessly pursuing “more” at the expense of everyone they’ve stepped on along the way. Because of this Bell says, “The power of the Bible for people like us living in times like these is that it shows us what it is to resist what needs to be resisted and critique what needs to be critiqued while holding onto the conviction that there is a sacred mystery at the heart of being human.”
The book is an amusing, fast and informative read. If you love—or indeed have any interest in—the Bible and care about the fate of Christianity in these polarizing and divisive times, I think Bell’s book will give you some hope and some answers. He is, however, a public speaker and his writing style can come off as annoyingly conversational. I prefer to listen to Bell’s audio books and think of it like listening to a very long podcast. But even in the audio format he breaks into Rob-isms and insists on breaking down the fourth-wall of the audio experience and addressing the reader directly about things like chapter breaks. He also side-bars a lot with quips like, “ I hope your’e laughing at that!” It gets tedious. But its a tedium that’s worth it for the potentially heart-changing pay off.
I’ll end with one of my favorite passages from the fourth section where he answers some classic questions about the Bible, like “Is it the word of God?,” “What about sin?” and “Did Jesus have to die?” In this quote Bell tackles the question “Is the Bible inerrant?”—a question I’m fairly certain you would never even think to ask, but trust me, it is an extremely pervasive concept in more conservative circles, the kinds that beget beliefs like Creationism (the belief in a literal seven day creation—don’t even get me started.)
“However you deal with the funkiness of the Bible, if you deny it or avoid it or act like its easily dismissible you’ll miss something central to the power and life of the Bible. The power of the Bible comes not from avoiding what it is, but from embracing what it is. To argue for inerrancy is arguing for a different kind of library of books, a library that we don’t have. We weren’t given a science textbook, or an owners manual, or a hermeneutically sealed document. What we have is a fascinating, messy, unpredictable, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, sometimes viscerally repulsive collection of poems and letters and accounts and gospels that reflect the growing conviction that we matter, that everything is connected, and that human history is headed somewhere. To fully appreciate the Bible you have to let it be what it is.”
Amen, Rob Bell. Amen.