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What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything Hardcover – May 16, 2017
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“Rob Bell is at it again. Love him or loathe him, the theological provacateur says it’s time to rethink the Bible.” (Relevant)
“With pastoral prodding, Rob Bell helps us see that scripture is a masterpiece of penetrating subtleties crafted by ancient authors with a transformative vision for humanity. Bell reminds us that the Bible is neither simple nor mundane, but worthy of our full attention.” (Peter Enns, author of The Sin of Certainty and host of The Bible For Normal People podcast)
From the Back Cover
I’ve been reading and studying and exploring and rereading and rethinking and giving sermons from the Bible for twenty-five years, and I find it more compelling and mysterious and interesting and dangerous and convicting and helpful and strange and personal and inspiring and divine and enjoyable than ever.
Some people see the Bible as an outdated book of primitive, barbaric fairy tales that we have moved beyond. And then there are the folks who talk about how important and central and inspired the Bible is but then butcher it with their stilted literalism and stifling interpretations. But you, I want you to read the Bible in a whole new way.
—from What Is the Bible?
In Love Wins, New York Times bestselling author Rob Bell confronted the troubling questions that many people were afraid to ask about heaven, hell, fate, and faith. Using the same inspired, inquisitive approach, he now turns to the most widely read book of all time. What Is the Bible? provides surprising insights and answers about how the Bible actually works as a source of faith and guidance, showcasing a brand-new way of reading this sacred text.
Bell takes us deep into actual passages, revealing not only the humanity behind the scriptures but the revelation that one cannot get to the holy without going through the human. When considering a passage, Bell explains the worst question we can ask of a text (“Why did God . . . ?”) and the best question to ask (“Why did people find this important to write down?”) to get at how scripture can best guide us today. In asking these questions, Bell goes beyond the one-dimensional question of “is it true?” to reveal the Bible’s surprisingly transformative power. What Is the Bible? recaptures this ancient library’s subversive energy and reaffirms its enduring ability to inspire and shape our lives today.
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I say all of this, to acknowledge that most who read this book or engage it have probably already made up their mind on how they will receive it. And when I say most, I include myself, regardless of which side or perspective you find yourself in we come to the book being open or closed to what it holds. But then there is there is this small slice who will pick up this book who don’t know Rob, who don’t know the controversy that was Love Wins, who have a longing for connection with something larger than themselves, or who have been hurt by the structures and systems that have become the ‘church’. This latter group, I would argue, is who Rob has always deeply desired to connect with and bring a needed fresh and good word to. Of course, I believe he also hopes to challenge the machine that has become American Christianity and he hopes to keep journeying alongside those who have resonated with his message but I believe that this is only secondary to that smaller 'slice'.
With all this in mind, as a pastor and preacher that has drawn attention for his provocative engagement of the Bible throughout the years, Rob set out to answer many of the questions he has been asked throughout the years from individuals and groups concerning it. These questions helped form this book and ultimately gave it, it’s title. Below are a few my thoughts on What is the Bible? that I hope are helpful if you are considering reading it (and if you decide to read the book, I would love to hear your thoughts as well).
To receive Rob’s writing well, you have to be familiar with his speech and cadence. If you are not, the formatting of the text alone will drive you up the wall. But if you have heard him speak, for only 10 minutes on an old Nooma or part of an interview, all of a sudden his books have the ability to become very conversational and dare I say intimate.
Through this conversational approach, Rob willingly engages topics, subjects, and struggles that many are often afraid to address – especially leaders within the Church. Rob doesn’t run from the complexity found in the text but invites readers to breathe a sigh of relief that whatever question or doubt that might come to mind won’t and can’t scare off God, and reminds readers that God actually welcomes them.
First, a familiar critique of Rob is that he asks a lot of questions but doesn't offer many answers. I might suggest that this critique can’t really be applied to this book as each chapter dives into answering either a stated question or there is an implied thought or question Rob addresses as he champions the complexity of the text, of humanity, and of God. Rob even goes as far early on in the book, as if to address this very thing, by saying “Great Question. Now, an answer.” (73) before diving into a topic.
Second, one of the main criticisms of Rob is often that individuals and groups will often say that he doesn’t take the Bible seriously, or seriously enough. For one, I must say if anyone can dedicate writing 300+ pages on the Bible alone, I think their argument might be a bit off.
The big three topics I see that individuals will have more questions or resistance with are on the Bible’s authority, inspiration, and inerrancy. Each of these topics can be discussed separately but are intimately linked to one another. Because they are so linked, these three topics ( taking an illustration from Rob’s first book Velvet Elvis) are often viewed as major sections or foundational blocks that make up a ‘wall’ that is the Christian faith. For some removing, challenging, or tweaking any of these blocks causes the whole wall of faith to fall apart and in turn, at the very worst, make the Christian faith useless. While for others, finally being given permission to think deeply on these matters and yes, even to question them is such a freeing opportunity.
For those who find themselves in more of the former camp, I believe it would be helpful if you read first NT Wright’s “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative”. In this short 25 page article, Wright puts forth a similar argument to Bell by arguing that the Bible is not the ‘Word of God’ but rather is the word of God because The Word of God (Jesus) has chosen to work in and through the pages, poems, and people found within. Often, especially in Protestant streams of thought, we have conflated Scripture and preaching to a place of authority that only God can dwell and this is where Bell and Wright invite readers to rethink this approach.
This is a major shift in thinking for many, which cause the other two topics to have to be addressed and thankfully Rob takes the time to go there.
Third, nothing Rob is saying is new (I think I could say this for everyone one of Rob's books). What we see with Rob is simply one of Christianity’s best communicators acting as a springboard for individuals to dive deep in the stream of thought and discussions many thoughtful people have been having since it all began. This would be where I would have my biggest criticism of the book, in that I would love for it to be footnoted or for a footnoted version to become available. This would allow individuals, like myself, who want to explore more on some of things Rob touches on, to be able to engage the source material he is references throughout.
In short, I believe this to be Rob Bell’s best work to date.
Like so much of what he does, Rob has the ability to start conversations with individuals and groups that have often felt disregarded or have left behind the Church for whatever reason. His writing invites everyone, regardless of religious stripe (or no stripe at all) into conversation and challenges those like myself, to find a fresh way to articulate the complexities of the Divine and life without simply glossing over or minimizing it. I do not say this lightly, but his closing section of the book called ‘A Note on Growing and Changing’ might contain some of the most important words he has ever written – these are words anyone who is or has or will wrestle with their faith and community need to hear again and again.
At it’s very best, this book challenged me to fall in love again with the Bible and at it’s worst, humbled me and reminded me that there is so much more to learn and experience of God in the Bible and in the world we live.
Fast forward through a thousand different situations where I questioned the instruction manual being given to me, until we get to the one where Rob Bell releases his book “Love Wins”. Love Wins caused such a ruckus in the Christian ranks. (*yawn*) A big ole bandwagon of faith defenders cried out on every social channel available to them: DO NOT read this dangerous work! “Rob Bell is an apostate!” they warned. “Heretic!” “Defector of the faith!” “He’s going to hell on greased runners!” WARNING! WRONG WAY! DO NOT ENTER!
Don’t touch the buttons!
People previously profoundly moved by Rob Bell’s offerings jumped ship as if it was being invaded by a horde of marauding huns.
See me in the background of all that fear, shaking my head from side to side and saying, “Come on baby, you are literally lighting my fire.” Which is to say: the quickest way to get my mind moving is to tell me not to think for myself. Which is to say: it is in my Divine-designed DNA to challenge the man-made rules, to ask the questions, to break from the herd, to risk the censure of the status quo.
Since then I’ve read everything Rob’s written. I listen to his podcasts and sermons and conversations. I watch his videos. I LOVE his work. I love him. And this book, “What Is The Bible?” is maybe the most important of anything he’s put out in the world.
If you read the Bible, stop reading the Bible until you read this book.
If you hate the Bible because you’ve been beat sideways with it once or too many times, a. someone is using it wrong. And b. read this book.
If you’ve read the Bible for 20 years and still come away scratching your head, read this book.
If you think the Bible is a strange, violent, backwater, convoluted collection of archaic documents that has zero relevance for how to be a human today (I’m looking at you, Leviticus!), read this book.
Rob Bell rescues the Bible from the empire, from the west, from nationalistic religion, from tradition that isn’t actual tradition, from self-appointed gatekeepers and the "endless red tape to keep the truth confined”.
"The Bible isn’t a Christian book […] the Bible is a book about what it means to be human.”
Oh, and: read this book.
Even if you don’t agree with all of Bell’s conclusions, you cannot deny his infatuation with the Bible. This book breathes new life into familiar stories and enrich your understanding of the cultures that help shape the Bible into a breathtaking piece of literary art and history. The final one hundred pages is written in Q+A format and is worth the price of the book alone.
While Bible scholars and seminary students won’t find anything in here that hasn’t been said before (by C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, etc.), What Is The Bible? will prove most challenging to those who have been raised within strict fundamentalist traditions, but Bell’s simple and engaging style will provide ample material for reflection and discussion – regardless if you agree with him or not. What Is The Bible? illustrates the heart of Biblical study isn’t the mental acknowledgement of historical facts, but the participation in a vibrant dialogue that’s been going on for thousands of years
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