what is the bible

Rob Bell is back on best-seller lists with a new book entitled, “What Is the Bible?” The evangelical author set off something of a theological fire storm six years ago with “Love Wins,” which suggested that hell does not exist.

The book cost him his job as pastor of the 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since then, Bell has been lecturing and writing. His newest bestseller is about the Scriptures and is subtitled: “How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel about Everything.”

Bell wants readers to engage the Bible in new ways.

  • For critical thinkers, who largely dismiss the Bible as “an outdated book of primitive, barbaric fairy tales” and
  • For readers who talk about how important and inspired it is but “butcher it with their stilted literalism and stifling interpretations…”

Bell recommends that readers consider a larger picture when reading the Bible. He calls the Bible “a library of books dealing with loss and anger and transcendence and worry and empire and money and fear and stress and joy and doubt and grace and healing, and who doesn’t want to talk about these things?”

Critical thinkers, including those who have turned their backs on the Bible, can find places in its poems and letters and stories where there is healing and hope. Literalists might want to consider reading the Bible from a new perspective, by flying close to the ground as he puts it. While Bell believes the Bible is divinely inspired, it is first and foremost written by humans who were struggling to understand the complexities of life in their own times. Bell, in a recent interview, put it this way: “I begin with its humanity. Who was writing this? What was the world like at that time? What were the economics and politics? Were there any new technologies.” Engaging the Bible that way leaves room for doubt, fear, even anger. “It opens its arms wide to the full spectrum of human experience and I think that’s interesting.”

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Bell peppers his book with fascinating examples of what the Bible can look like when we read it from a different angle. Here’s one from the chapter entitled, “Who Paid Jesus’s Bills?” Did you ever think about that topic? I hadn’t. But the Jesus movement had expenses associated with getting the word out in Galilee. Who paid the bills? Well, he had friends who paid them. And who were they? Turn to Luke 8: 1-3 and you will meet them. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Susanna, and others helped finance the Jesus movement. Curious about them? Mary Magdalene had been possessed by seven demons, which was probably some kind of mental illness. By the way, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. There’s absolutely nothing in the New Testament that even suggests such a thing. What about Joanna, the wife of Chuza? Who was he? Well, Chuza worked for Herod Antipas. He managed the king’s household, which was a huge pile of money. Yes, that’s the Herod who would eventually consent to having Jesus killed. But at this moment in the Jesus movement we have a Jerusalem aristocrat’s wife hanging out with Jesus helping to pay his bills, along with a woman who has struggled with mental illness. Fascinating, don’t you think? Jesus attracts people from all walks of life from all conditions. What about us? Can we be that open? Can we take risks like that?

Bell describes this way of reading the Bible as flying close to the ground, trying to capture what is really going on. What I appreciate about Bell’s approach to the Bible is his wanting readers to ask new questions of the texts. Our worn-out defensive posturing or imposing our doctrinal points of view on the Bible quench the power of the texts.

What does a better question look like? It does not begin with “Why did God…?” Instead, Bell suggests that readers should begin with questions like, why did people write this down in the first place? Or why is this passage still around after all these years? Why has this story or that passage rung true through the centuries? What does this story or that passage tell us about what it means to be alive right now? Questions like these require us to put aside dogma and doctrine and enter into biblical texts in a new, fresh way. When we do that, we find these ancient words are quite contemporary and perhaps transformative.

“What Is the Bible” is published by Harper Collins and is available in print, audio, and electronic versions.

The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe is the retired dean of St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena.

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