What Is the Bible? by Rob Bell
Many of my beloved friends at my first book club are huge fans of Rob Bell. My friend C showed Everything is Spiritual at a Friday-night gathering related to our discussion of Flatland, and while I didn’t quite get the fuss, I had to admit that Bell made interesting connections I had never thought of. K chose What is The Bible?, Bell’s newest book, for her book club pick in June (we’re meeting in July to discuss two books, because scheduling conflicts), and I was curious to see how I’d like reading the book. I’d never read any of Bell’s books before, but my friends’ raves made me wonder.
The loose premise is to unpack the Bible as more than just the Ten Commandments and a Fundamentalist whipping tool. Bell walks us through some common stories and provides little-perceived interpretations as a way to unmake traditional narratives. That part is interesting and unique.
What’s deeply problematic about the text is the way Bell repeatedly and continuously refers to the Bible as a collection of stories written by humans. Let me get one thing clear: he’s not entirely wrong about this. If we believe in the Bible as exactly the right words of God transcribed directly to human hands, we ignore the very human element involved in curating, remembering, and sharing the Bible. Yet if we insist on the Bible as a human document crafting interesting fairy stories, we diminish the divinity of the Bible and its spiritual significance to our lives and theology.
More specifically, there are fundamental elements of Christian theology that Bell undercuts in his book:
*that Jesus did not willingly go to his death but was murdered—declaring this undercuts the concept of salvation and diminishes Christ’s agency as both God and human.
*that sacrifices were invented by humans out of guilt—this directly undercuts the Book of Leviticus and the entire sacrificial system instituted by God in the Old Testament, as a way of foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice. It feels lazy to simply say that God didn’t institute this, instead of wrestling with the very violent and problematic nature of sacrifices present in the Bible.
*that the Bible is strictly human (as discussed above).
Ultimately, I believe Bell tried to appeal to two diverging audiences: his fan of liberal formerly-Evangelical Christians; and secular atheists. Unfortunately, atheists aren’t going to take his laissez-faire stance seriously, and Christians aren’t going to understand how and why their faith matters. This book was a hard pass for me, and I won’t be reading anything else by Bell, either. [By the way, I was so bothered by the theology, I couldn’t even get around to the obnoxious and self-congratulatory writing style in this review.]