People have lots of ideas about the Bible. A lot of those ideas are incomplete, misguided, or just plain wrong. And often those mistaken ideas lead people to miss the richness of the biblical stories. That’s what Rob Bell is trying to correct in this book. He wants to guide readers to take a fresh look at the Bible and maybe discover something they hadn’t seen before. And, for me, it worked!
I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the literal truth of the Bible. God said it. I believe it. That settles it. But, over the years, I came to find that view unsatisfying, limiting even. Contradictory accounts, like the different timelines around Jesus’s death and resurrection were explained away. The violence God directed people to commit in the Old Testament was shrugged off. And, sometimes, the obsession with historicity seemed to miss the point. For example, focusing on the fact that Adam and Eve ate some fruit God forbade them to eat for no clear reason makes God seem capricious. Remembering that it’s the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” and looking at it as a metaphor for the desire to know good and evil makes it a much richer story.
Bell urges readers to look for the hidden truth inside the story, rather than focusing on literal truth. His belief is that this approach is more true to the biblical writers’ intentions. These writers weren’t just recording what they saw and heard. They made choices about what to include and what to leave out. And then others came along and chose these specific writings to lift up as saying something important about God’s relationship to the world. It’s not just taking dictation. (Bell does not believe in biblical inerrancy, and he makes his case in one of the later chapters in this book.)
My favorite chapters in this book are those that examine specific biblical stories, putting them in context and picking out details that are easy to miss. For instance, in his discussion of John 8, the story of the woman caught in adultery, he notes that it takes place at the time of the Feast of the Tabernacles. During this feast, the leaders who asked Jesus if they are to stone the woman would have been teaching a passage from Jeremiah that includes the verse “Those who turn away from you will be written in dust.” So when Jesus bends down and begins writing in the dust, he is quite possibly calling back that passage. What Jesus writes is one of those unanswerable questions people like to bandy around, but Bell’s idea is one of the best I’ve come across.
Bell takes a similar approach to other stories, like that of Jonah, whose sojourn in the fish’s belly proves to be less important than the choices that led him there. He doesn’t pretend the unpleasant stories aren’t there, but he looks for things that we can learn from them. Even though I consider myself pretty biblically literate, I learned lots of new things.
The last part of the book addresses questions that Bell gets (or might get) asked about the Bible and his way of understanding it. What about all that violence? Why is Leviticus in the Bible? Is it authoritative? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired? These chapters provided fewer aha moments for me because the questions are ones I’ve thought about a lot, and his answers weren’t altogether new or different from ideas I’ve come across before. (And I generally agree with his answers.)
Bell writes in an engaging style, one that’s meant for general audiences, not Bible scholars. Despite the topic, it’s a light read. However, I sometimes found the humor to be over the top. He even goes so far as to say things like, “Please tell me you thought that was funny” after cracking a bad joke. I usually didn’t, but I liked the book anyway. I hadn’t read Rob Bell before, although I know many people who liked his past books. I may give some of those a try.