In the fifteen years I’ve spent writing about media online, only three things have earned me digital (and real-life) tongue-lashings.
- My proposal that Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is better than Captain America: Civil War.
- My belief that The Shack explains spiritual truths in a real and powerful way.
- My admiration for the sometimes bespectacled Rob Bell, former pastor, podcaster, speaker, and author.
Momentarily ignoring the first, I must admit that the complaints against the second and third seem to spawn from the emphasis of Paul Young and Rob Bell on the grace of God versus his judgment. [Others, even their detractors, have questioned whether jealousy plays a role in the way that the evangelical religious community has received Young and Bell, but that’s for another day.]
And then Bell released What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything as a follow-up to How to Be Here.
“Oh my goodness, he wants us to read the Bible differently? Who is this guy?”
The short answer: Bell is a very intelligent man with a lot to tell us about what it means to be human, to be faithful, and to read the Bible.
So he starts with a lesson about the Hebrew word used in Deuteronomy 34:7 about the state of Moses’ body when he died. Again, the short version: Bell says Moses was still fertile, that he could still “get it up.” And from that point forward, he launches into a series of stories and explorations about how we read the Bible, what we filter out and ignore, what we accept and include, how we allow ourselves to acknowledge the history, experience, and process around the books that make up the Bible.
Bell implores us to learn the historical context, to consider the things that seem strange or weird in the story (a left-handed assassin, a talking donkey, a practice of sacrifice that ends differently than it ever had before) as the most important or significant. Bell wants us to use our brains to consider the works in the Bible in the way they were meant to be received and to apply them to the life we live today. And it’s beautiful.
On page 116, Bell writes this (in response to another pastor, a pastor intent on emphasizing the judgment and anger of God):
I don’t read the Bible like a flat line. I don’t see all of the passages in the Bible sitting equally side by side so that you can pick one and then counter it with another and go back and forth endlessly., endlessly leading you to the barbaric and violent and random nature of life–and God. I read it looking for what the story is doing, what’s happening within it. What new perspective is emerging? What sense is being heightened? The stories in the Bible –and the Bible itself –have an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have. There are earlier parts in the story, and there are later parts in the story. The story is headed somewhere.
Here at ScreenFish, we have made it our business to consider the way that the gospel, the good news of God, is breaking through the world we live in. We are focused on interpreting and examining and re-imagining what the storytellers meant and what we see or feel in response to our own experience. But the truth is that one person’s joy (remember BvS?) is another person’s tragedy (or at least, their most panned movie). Ask our staff, and we’re mostly still arguing about the beauty or stupidity of Mad Max: Fury Road.
But Bell isn’t just concerned with interpretation. He wants us to recognize that we’re supposed to be applying and living out the truths contained in Scripture. It’s not just ‘wisdom’ or ‘colloquial’ but alive.
Read that again: Rob Bell clearly states that the Bible – words of God – are alive, and in motion.
He doesn’t lay out a definitive creed.
He doesn’t spend time on articles of faith by which a person can join a church, denomination, or movement.
He doesn’t answer all of the questions that his most famous book – Love Wins – raised in the minds (and hearts) of his critics.
But what he does do is demand we think, and pray, and apply. He does ask that we view the Bible and the world we live in critically. And he believes that when we do that, we can grow in our faith toward God.
And for that, What is the Bible? becomes beautiful, and approachable, and mind-blowing.
You just have to actually read it – like the Bible – to get it.