Review of Rob Bell’s What Is the Bible
“Just let the Bible be whatever it is.” But just what is the Bible?
What is the Bible? This is a vitally important question.
Rob Bell is a famous American author, pastor, and “a singular rock star in the church world” (according to Time Magazine, who also named him among the most influential 100 people in the world in 2011). He is most notably known for his previous pastoral leadership of mega church Mars Hill and his New York Times bestseller Love Wins (which was a controversial book that some think catalyzed his exit from Mars Hill).
Let me first start out by saying that I personally don’t know Rob Bell, but I am vaguely familiar with the controversy that has surrounded him in recent years, especially in Evangelical circles. This is particularly so since the release of his book Love Wins in 2012 where he was essentially blacklisted from the Evangelical church as a “liberal” teacher who had wandered from traditional orthodox Christian doctrine. This even prompted Francis Chan to pen a response to Love Wins in his book titled Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up.
Bell’s most recent book What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Change the Way You Think and Feel About Everything (2017) is actually the first book of Bell’s that I have read. (For other reviews on this book, see the bottom of this post.)
I personally came across Bell in his Nooma videos 15 years ago, which were short videos that had high production quality discussing matters of God and the Christian faith. I have personally used these for outreach small group Bible studies in the past and thought they were tremendous.
All of that being said, there is much that I could write in way of response to Bell’s new book, and to do it justice I would probably need to write a 20-page paper, but I won’t. I will try to keep this concise (while acknowledging the risk that in seeking brevity I don’t address things adequately).
Right out of the gate I will tell you my motive for writing this review is simply because I recognize the amount of influence that Bell has in modern American culture, especially “Christian” culture, which is what I think could be so dangerous—but more on that in a moment.
First, the good:
In his book, Bell makes a clarion call and appeal for people to actually read the Bible for themselves (which is awesome!), and seems to have a level of respect, admiration, and appreciation for the Bible (although he admits that it was really his love for giving sermons, i.e., public speaking and persuasion, that seems to have led him to deeper study of the Bible [p.1], which seems suspect to me? c.f. Phil 1:15-18).
I can also appreciate his passion for helping people dig into the Bible much further than what many church kids are taught in Sunday school. In particular I think he helps the religiously raised American population who have been weened on a “for the Bible tells me so” type of simplistic, and often unhealthy, view of the Scriptures. He helps them to see the complexity, tension, beauty, diversity, and humanity of the Bible. (Yes, the Bible was written by people, and contrary to popular belief, did not actually drop out of heaven on some golden tablets or something.)
Bell has a highly engaging and provocative writing style, and because of this he has the ability to appeal to a broad audience, such as non-Christians that would likely not be interested in the Bible and those who have been disenfranchised by the Christian church (the “de-churched”). I think this is a really good thing and he even curses a few times in the book (sure to appeal to many, a la Rachel Hollis, “I love Jesus and I cuss a little“). Of course leading more people to read the Bible is undoubtedly a wonderful endeavor, but how he is leading them to read the Bible is where I have some major concerns…but again, more on that in a moment.
Seeing the Bible as an entire narrative is extremely important and needed (see p.47-54). Through helping people to see the humanity of the Bible’s authorship, Bell causes people to take seriously not only the literary styles of the biblical writings, but also the cultural, social, economic, political, and spiritual backdrop of when these things were being written. Because after all the Bible is an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories written across thousands of years by numerous authors living in real and different contexts from each other, and from us.
For more on this, see the important work by Fee & Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth. This is also akin to the amazing and very important work that The Bible Project has done recently, which seeks to “help people experience the Bible as a unified story that leads to Jesus.“
This “meta-narrative” framework that helps us to see the movement of the Bible as a whole and the story it is telling, that is leading us to wholeness, reconciliation, and striving to create a world right here and now that is filled with justice and non-violence (as opposed to Christians just waiting to “go to heaven”) is an important point. I thought Bell did a great job emphasizing this.
On this point see also N.T. Wright’s works, in particular Surprised by Hope, one of the best books I have ever read. (Bell nods to N.T. Wright in the endnotes saying to read anything he has done with the word ‘Jesus’ in the title.)
One other final point here: if you are a Christian and you really love America, you might not want to read Chapter 28 “Why Americans Often Miss The Major Themes of The Bible” (p. 211-215). I thought his assessment was excellent and a much needed critique of the nationalistic ideologies deeply embedded for so many America Christians (i.e. we are “God’s country”), but that are in need of being deconstructed and are not supported by the Bible (c.f. Phil 3:20).
Now, the concerning (to put it mildly):
I know many people in my spiritual circles that have flocked to Bell’s most recent book, and that is how it caught my attention in the first place.
And after reading it, I can see why.
Bell is extremely gifted and a highly polished speaker and writer, and can be very persuasive. Even the interior formatting of the book helped me easily and quickly keep turning the pages!
Which is all part of the problem.
My primary concern with Bell’s latest book is it is like a highly camouflaged leopard stalking its prey, looking to strike us unawares because we can’t see well in the dense jungle.
Bell’s book is clearly a popular work, aimed at the masses, most of whom have had no theological training, or perhaps even critical thinking training for that matter. I’m afraid many people will have a difficult time discerning Bell’s arguments and positions amidst the current cultural affirmations and postmodern worldview they swim in.
Here is a look at some of this camouflage by a discerning eye:
Probably the main message drawn from What Is the Bible? is that the Bible is a thoroughly human book. It “is not a Christian book”; it “is a book about what it means to be human” (p. 4). It is not about Jesus and a narrow way to God (p. 16). Rather the Bible is a book produced purely by people sans any direct revelation from God (pp. 116-117, 188, 243-246, 266-267, 291, 295-296). As a result, the Bible has all the problems, errors, contradictions, and wrong values that can be found in any human literature: “The Bible was written by people. People with perspectives, grounded in their cultures and times and places” (p. 243). Thus “God didn’t set up the sacrificial system. People did” (p. 244). This leads to the invention of the crucifixion. Bell writes, “God didn’t need to kill someone to be ‘happy’ with humanity. What kind of God would that be? Awful. Horrific. What the first Christians did was interpret Jesus’s death through the lens of the sacrificial system [which of course they created, not God]” (p. 245). We, according to Bell, have misunderstood the cross-story all along. “The truth is, the story as we read it is actually a giant leap forward. It’s 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” (p. 245). In response to a direct question, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” Bell does his usual dance: “Yes. Lots of things are” (p. 266). The Word of God can be found through books, human words, and experiences. “There are lots of words of God and you can and should listen to them all” (p. 267). In other words, there is nothing unique about the Bible; it is just one source, of a multitude, that is God’s word (see p. 173). Biblical accounts are often exaggerations (p. 80) and pure fabrications (p. 103) according to Bell. Nevertheless we are assured that we can learn something from the stories anyway (pp. 94, 103, 240). (Gary Gilley)
Some things that I personally found most disturbing is that Bell seems to denounce that there is such a thing as absolute truth (p.169-181) but rather you can “stumble upon truth, whoever says it, however you come across it, you affirm it and you claim it because it’s yours” (p. 175). But the question that is begged here is how exactly do you “affirm” it? Unfortunately Bell never really gives us any direction, only the vague notion that “it’s yours” (which sounds dangerously close to the relativistic worldview of truth, i.e., “whatever is true to you is true to you,” I have to speak “my truth,” etc.).
In regards to the authority of the Bible, he says;
“The problem, of course, is that the folks who talk the most about the authority of the Bible also seem to talk the most about things like objective and absolute truth, truth that exists independent of relational realities.” (p. 271)
To me this sounds an awful lot like Pilate retorting to Jesus’ claims about himself, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
Elsewhere in the book he even discusses “dancing” with the Bible (I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a terrible dancer … but what does that even mean!?) and seems to indicate that there is not a “right” way of reading passages in the Bible. I’m all for engaging the text, asking questions and probing at it … turning it like a “gem” as he discusses (p. 79-82), but that is in order to try to figure out its meaning, the right way to read it and understand it.
“Other times people want to know the right answer to a passage in the Bible. As if there is a right and wrong reading of each verse in the Bible. There are, of course, lots of ways to miss the point and truly read it wrongly. But to say that there’s a right way may unnecessarily limit your reading of the Bible.” (p. 81)
I think I understand what he is trying to say, but which one is it? Can you read it wrongly, or not?
If there is no way to “wrongly” read the Bible, then from that starting point it can mean literally anything you want it to (i.e., relativism).
Bell also really gets close to the proverbial third rail when he seems (?) to assert that Jesus might not have had a bodily resurrection?
“Interesting that the people who were closest to Jesus and spent years with him don’t recognize him post-resurrection. Hmmm. The next time you hear someone insisting that it was an actual, literal resurrection, make sure you add that bodily must mean that he didn’t look like he looked before“ (p. 185).
Now of course Jesus’ resurrection body was indeed unique (the firstborn from among the dead Paul calls it, c.f. Col 1:8) as he could walk through walls and locked doors (c.f. John 20:19, 26), and apparently shape shift and hide his appearance and disappear (c.f. Lk 24)! If this is what Bell is meaning by a bodily resurrection, then sure, but his wording seems to indicate that he thinks perhaps Jesus didn’t have a bodily resurrection, which of course would be very similar to that which was soundly denounced and rebuked in many of the N.T. letters as “proto-gnostic” teachers were starting to enter the church teaching people that Jesus didn’t come in bodily form, because all matter was inherently evil (c.f. 1 John).
I barely have time to mention some sweeping statements that Bell makes, such as the fact that because Jesus’ ministry was bankrolled by some women, then it’s “crazy when religious and faith communities and churches don’t allow women to do certain things like lead or teach or preach or be elders or priests? This movement started with women not only being fully empowered participants but also bankrolling the work. How insane is it when a religious institution has a list of what women can and can’t do?”
Now don’t get me wrong, I personally wrestle with the boundary lines of women’s work in the ministry, and obviously Jesus elevated women (and children, and the poor, etc.) to an entirely different level in his cultural context, but to say something so matter-of-factly when the tradition of the church for thousands of years have wrestled with these very difficult things seems irresponsible and misleading.
What Bell presents will, for many I fear, be swallowed “hook, line, and sinker” all while being chased down with smooth rhetoric, snappy prose, polished style, and post-Christian new-ageism zeitgeist pulsating throughout the book.
This again is part of the problem, and appeal, of Bell’s book. It’s so attractive. It touches the nerve of many of our societal and fleshly longings.
And I get it. I myself had mixed feelings as I read the book, and I consider myself at least to have a beginner’s understanding of some of the arguments to Bell’s assertions (which he quaintly doesn’t present or source by the way, leaving you to wonder, just where did you get that from)?
While Bell does give a helpful list in the endnotes of other “books about the Bible that will blow your mind” (p. 315-318) (many of them are on my shelf), he doesn’t site any of them in his actual body of work (which I suppose is why it is so readable), nor does he cite any Scripture. While I concede this makes for easier reading and broader appeal, I believe this can leave the unscrutinizing more susceptible to being led astray (c.f. 2 Tim 4:3).
So, what is the Bible?
That is a great question that I believe Rob Bell answers essentially by saying it is a mysterious, beautiful, divine, self-affirming-that-you-are-amazing-and-are-already-a-saint-and-don’t-have-a-problem-with-sin-and-judgement-kind-of-person-so-you-don’t-really-need-to-worry-about-anything book, written by humans.
While Bell’s ability to teach others to appreciate the cultural and human lens in which the Bible was written, I think it slides way too far (perhaps even into apostasy?) by giving the sense that the Bible is really just one of many ways to the divine, and doesn’t deal with the stark statements (particularly of Jesus) that there is only one way to God the Father (John 14:6). Nor does he seem to deal with the fact that the message of the New Testament is that people need to repent because there is a judgment to come (c.f. Mark 1:15; Acts 26:20; 24:25; etc.)!
In this I am reminded of the final scene of the movie The Book of Eli in which after a hard fought (and highly violent) battle to save “The Book” (the Bible) from annihilation in a post-apocalyptic future, it is placed neatly on a shelf next to all the other “good religious literature” (i.e., the Koran, Torah, etc.) for society to rebuild. Bell presents a not-so-subtle form of universalism – that all paths eventually lead to God, something the Bible soundly refutes.
With Bell’s hermeneutic approach to the Bible, you can really make it say just about anything you want (which interestingly, and rightly, he calls out Christians for doing many times), and in doing so put yourself over the authority of the Bible and ultimately make God whoever you want him to be.
So, should you read it?
It depends. I think it is worthy of reading for many reasons, but you need to be prepared to eat the meat and leave the bones. This takes maturity and conviction (and likely theological and cultural exposure and education), so if you are not at a place in your faith to do this, then I wouldn’t recommend it.
I think this quote from another review is helpful on this point:
Some people will sound the alarm that this book should not be read by anyone (especially new Christians) because they may begin to interpret the Bible solely through the opinions of Rob Bell, and that’s dangerous. Amen. I couldn’t agree more. Though it would also be dangerous for us to have John Piper, or Tim Keller, or C.S. Lewis, or N.T. Wright, or your pastor, or ______________ (insert your favorite theologian here) be the sole expositor of scripture in our lives. There is nothing wrong with reading other theologians and their interpretations of scripture, in fact reading a diverse mix of voices is an important and healthy thing, but the best thing, is that we are personally reading and praying and wrestling through the scriptures ourselves and we are doing so in the context of community. (Jon Stephens) [emphases mine]
For more helpful reviews on this book from various theological traditions see:
- The Gospel Coalition (Reformed)
- Southern View Chapel (Independent)
- Covenant (Episcopal)
- Jonathan Stevens (random guy – but I thought it was fair)
- Church Leaders (Evangelical)
- Missio Alliance (Evangelical)
For more from Jon Sherwood, check out www.jonsherwood.com.