Rob Bell’s latest book continues his tradition of writing in a way that is provocative to both the conservative/traditional Christian and the progressive/nontraditional Christian, as well as thought provoking and informative for those people who claim no association with Christian faith or the Bible as a holy book.
What Is the Bible? Bell repeats throughout his book that the Bible is a library, a collection of books written by a collection of people, “Real people, writing in real places, at real times, choosing to include some material, choosing to leave out other material” (22). In Part 1, “There’s Something More Going On Here,” Bell catches the reader’s attention by retelling stories from the Bible that are unfamiliar and even a bit uncomfortable [including use of the phrase, “he could still get it up” in reference to the virility of the great prophet and leader of Israel, Moses (11)]. He explains contextual considerations, breaks down language into easily understood translation notes, and surprises even the most educated student of Bible and theology with connections between various characters in the narrative history of Israel.
In Part 2, “The Nature of that Something,” Bell turns to an explanation of the various ways in which context concerning the metanarrative of the Bible affects a contemporary understanding of Scripture. He frequently returns to the founding of the tribe of Abraham and how that tribe’s self-understanding shapes the way in which all parts of the Bible come together. He also points to Babylonian exile as the period of time in which this tribe, now the nation of Israel, formally wrote down a record of their self-understanding. Bell accurately depicts the Bible, especially the Old Testament, as a record of the experiences of Israel and the people of Jewish faith. His depictions of etiologies (origin stories such as the flood of Noah) in conversation between Israel and other ancient nations, especially Babylon, point to the larger cultural context of the Ancient Near East. Bell does a fantastic job of situating both Old and New Testaments within the political context in which those texts arose. He describes this as reading the Bible “literately” rather than “literally,” explaining, “There are lots of right ways to read it. In fact, right isn’t even the best way to think about the Bible. How about dancing? You dance with it. And to dance, you have to hear its music. And then you move in response to it” (80-81). By situating oneself in the context of the people of Israel, the tribe of Abraham called to be more, we begin to dance along with the people of the book.
Bell’s focus shifts in Part 3, “Where that Something Takes Us.” Toward the end of Part 2, he states, “When you read the Bible in its context, you learn that it’s a library of radically progressive books, calling humanity forward into a better future” (114). In Part 3, Bell reminds the reader that the Bible is both an account of the past and a vision of the future, but is also a book about now, a collection of stories and poems and calls to social justice that unveils and reveals things for what they actually are – not only is the book of Revelation an apocalypse, but Bell reads all of the Bible as an unveiling of what was and what is and how life should be lived in light of the better future toward which we participate in creating.
Anyone familiar with Rob Bell’s wildly popular NOOMA video series of the early 2000s will not be surprised by the formatting and rhythm of this book. Bell writes in small paragraphs, single sentences split up onto four lines, tweetable bold points, and long lists of adjectives and nouns designed to enrapture your senses. Bell’s writing in What Is the Bible matches his preaching and his storytelling methods in the NOOMA series, in such a distinct way that you can hear Bell’s voice and pauses and passionate emphasis throughout the entirety of this book. This is especially true in Part 4, “The Questions That Always Come Up.” In this final section, Bell lists the questions he most often receives about the Bible, attempting to answer these questions gently but with a firm stance informed by the methods proposed in earlier sections of his book. It is here that the real challenge to the assumptions of conservative or progressive Christians exist. Progressive Christians are forced to think about the Bible in traditional ways, such as in discussion of the sacrificial system and the reality of sin. Meanwhile, conservative Christians are led into the realm of moderate thought, forced to rethink what words like inerrancy, authority, or inspired might mean. Bell closes by proposing two questions that he calls the best to ask while reading the Bible: “Why did people find this important to write down?”, and, “Why did this passage endure?” (300).
Overall, What is the Bible is a compelling look at the broad spectrum of the Christian scriptures. It invites readers of all levels of knowledge about the Bible on a journey to better understand where it came from and how it affects our lives in the here and now. This book would make a very approachable text for an adult or high school group study, or even a compelling discussion piece to assign in a college freshman-level introductory Bible course.
Val Fisk is a MDiv. candidate at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, a Pastoral Associate at University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and an aspiring Old Testament scholar. She is also an Enneagram 8, a coffee addict, and the type of cat lady that names her cats after Harry Potter characters.