Book Review: What Is the Bible?

This is not my copy (it’s from Goodreads), as I’m too lazy to go to my car and take a picture of the audiobook.

The Bible is a subversive, radical, progressive, subtly funny “ancient library,” with a vision for the world that is based upon positive, affirming love, but also, I feel as if I’d need to have a master’s degree in theology to unpack all of those teachings. Or at least, I’d need Rob Bell on my shoulder as I read through the passages.

That was my first takeaway from listening to Rob Bell read his book in audiobook form, What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything.

Listening to Bell’s book while driving to and from Dallas, Texas this past week, I enjoyed the overall gist of what he was saying: That the message of Jesus, the Bible, and God, is revolutionary in terms of the context and milieu in which the writers of the Bible were writing in, and that importantly, our culture, particularly the evangelicals, don’t actually tell that story! Instead, it is usually a far more myopic, hell and brimstone version of the Bible, restrictive, with a literal reading rather than a literacy reading (to paraphrase Bell), and with interpretative prescriptions that rob the Bible, and the Jesus message, of its beauty, its promise, and its inclusiveness.

And importantly, Bell reminds us: The Bible was written by humans over a few hundred years for humans of that time, this time, and all time. As you can imagine, the latter group tends to shy away from any emphasis on human, which Bell I think would argue robs the Bible of its power, and the ways in which it can resonate with us here and now.

Thus, we arrive at Bell’s thesis, as I see it. The more myopic way of reading and teaching the Bible has turned people away from the Bible, from Jesus, and from God precisely because it is such a narrow rendering of Biblical teachings, ripe for dismissal. Instead, Bell graciously offers, let me show you the ways in which the Bible is actually far more interesting than you’ve ever known it to be.

And he’s right! I was cracking up within seconds of beginning the audiobook not only because of Bell’s affectation (he’s a great reader of his book, it felt like a sermon from a former pastor of 25 years used to giving sermons, of course), but because of what Bell started with to demonstrate the power of his thesis:

Deuteronomy 34:7: Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.

If I read that on my own, I wouldn’t understand its significant, or its humor, at all. But with Bell’s unpacking, you learn that the writer of Deuteronomy is basically saying: Moses was dying, but he still was able to “get it up.” Wink wink. That back then, it was thought that the “seed” of vitality originated in men’s manhood, and, so, they were able to continue the lineage, and thus, the author wanted to point out, hey, yeah, Moses is 120-years-old, but he doesn’t need any Viagra! He’s good to go!

(Please bear in mind, I’m paraphrasing partly what I remember of Bell’s argument and partly the quick notes I tried to add to my Notes app while trying to drive; as such, as I’d recommend just reading/listening to the book yourself! Apologies if I get anything wrong.)

In all seriousness, I’m attracted in a general sense to a “ruthlessly hopeful” vision of the world. That’s how Bell describes the Bible. Whether I label myself a libertarian, an anarchist, or a humanist, or an all-of-the-above approach, if I could distill my worldview down to two words, it might be “ruthlessly hopeful.” And subversive, I like subversive! That’s also how Bell describes the Bible, as previously mentioned. So, three words.

Because, as Bell outlines, Abraham and Moses were attempting to take humanity into a new direction by pushing back against old power structures, and one based on love and blessing rather than hate and violence. The humans of that time were dealing with the same question we deal with nowadays, a question as old as humanity itself: Are we here to suffer, or are we here to do something bigger and better?

Even for a nonbeliever like myself, that question is salient, and the answer must be the latter, right? How could it be anything else? Even if my answer to what “bigger and better” entails doesn’t encompass a godly message, something bigger and better than ourselves still is the orientation we ought to strive for, and for which Bell believes the writers of the Bible were indeed striving for.

Bell, not unaccustomed to stating controversial things, at least among the more hardcore sect (according to my brief perusal of his Wikipedia page), believes again, that the Bible is for humans right now. It’s not a book about getting to Heaven. It is not a how-to book for that. Instead, he said something about how the Bible is more about learning how to “live between the trees.” It’s for how to live right now, here on Earth. That’s why this “ancient library” is filled with passages about politics of its time, tribes, rulers, kingdoms, and so on.

Again, the book is for humans, for all the humans, and in particular, I think Bell would argue, for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the outcast, the misfits. Those under the boot of rulers and oppressors and cultural castigators. Down with all of them, I say!

The example Bell uses to show how Abraham and Moses were trying to move humanity in a new direction, and indeed, how their vision of God was trying to move humanity in a new direction, was surprisingly (to me, as a nonbeliever who used to cite this incident, like every nonbeliever does, as an example of how crazy God is) the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac in Genesis. Bell agues that that scene is subversive from the norm of the time. The prevailing belief at the time was that the gods expected something of humans (like sacrifices), and this Isaac story is a way of showing that this God, as it turns out, did not expect Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac. And more than that, this God actually wants to give Abraham something.

Or in another example, the story of Noah and his Ark, also in Genesis, is a way of demonstrating that this God didn’t want to just destroy as the expectation was of the old gods, but be in relation to humans.

That’s powerful! That’s a powerful reorientation by Bell.

Bell also talks a lot about Jesus, and the ways in which he was the embodiment of all of what he’s said about the Bible in terms of being subversive, humorous, and pushing back against the old power structures. Excuse me if I sound ignorant to those who already know this, but for example, I had no idea that back in Jesus’s day, the Samaritan was a “character” that would’ve been met with the same sort of disdain we, in our time, reserve for pedophiles. So, Bell argues, for Jesus to use the Samaritan as a … well, Good Samaritan in our usage of today, was subversive as heck, and a paradox to a human reader of that time.

The parable is in the Gospel of Luke, about a traveler who is stripped of his clothing, beaten and left half dead alongside the road. Two people ( a Jewish priest and then a Levite) come by, only for the Good Samaritan to come along and help him.

This Jesus guy is pretty cool, huh? That’s Bell’s point. Jesus is way cooler and more interesting than a lot of church teachings would allow or suggest.

Heck, Bell points out that even those seemingly unending, rote genealogies in the Bible served a purpose, and would have been understood by readers of the time — that’s why I earlier suggested I need a master’s in theology to understand the Bible in the way Bell does because it would be like watching a 1930s movie full of pop culture references; of course I don’t recognize them! — to show that commoners mattered! That all of us matter! That there was no hierarchy of sorts. Again, a radical notion at the time when it was thought that only those at the top mattered.

Again, as someone who considers themselves a libertarian/anarchist/humanist, Bell’s vision of the Bible, of Jesus, and of God, as based on love, stripping away power structures, and raising up the oppressed? That’s resonate, revelatory, relevant, and revolutionary (even still in today’s time), and I could certainly see no issue with this vision of Biblical teachings as being compatible with a libertarian/anarchist framework, or just humanist framework (and yes, I know it’s trite to try to mold Biblical teachings into any sort of modern political and/or philosophical framework).

Toward the end of the book, Bell addresses some common questions about the Bible, one of which is the seeming contradictions replete within the Bible. Bell argues, however, that this “ancient library” was an evolving story, so if it seems contradictory, try to understand what was going on, and see how the story evolved. He uses the example of a line in the Bible about God inciting David to do a census of Israel, and then later, a different passage saying the devil incited David to do the census of Israel. Isn’t that a contradiction? No, according to Bell. Rather, the census, a negative thing at the time because that was the way a kingdom understood who was within its kingdom, its capability to wage war, and to ultimately, expand their kingdom, was originally attributed to God because that’s how the people of that time associated negative things that happened to them — with gods! So, later on, when they realize this is a different God, they needed to imagine what could be the figure inciting David to do something negative; thus, the image and inclusion of the devil.

I keep going back to this, but I gravitate greatly toward a story, any story, that orients itself, as Bell says, toward joy, not violence, toward love, not hate. That’s a good story, even if I don’t believe in God or the resurrection of Jesus and all of that. Please don’t misconstrue me: This is certainly not the first time I’ve encountered someone arguing for the Bible from such a positive framework. I’ve been fortunate to interact with a lot of very good Christians who put forth a similar message. But this was the first time I dove into it with such detail, at least since I read N.T. Wright’s, Simply Christian, and was able to hear it from someone who made it “click” in a way that’s new for me. Which is the best compliment you can give a book and someone putting forth a potentially controversial thesis!

Bell wrote, and read, the book for the believer, the nonbeliever, the person who left the church and is now disillusioned, or is skeptical of the church, or whatever else. I think it’s accessible to everyone, and the overall gist of the message is something, I hope, most humans would find resonate. I’m not going to lie, it did make me want to take another crack at the Bible. I guess I should get cracking on that master’s …

2 thoughts

  1. I find it amusing that Jesus Christ, who preached the sermon of the Good Samaritan, a man who put aside religious differences to practice compassion, will not be a Good Samaritan himself, according to the Christian religion, but will either cause or allow billions of human beings to suffer needlessly and purposelessly for all eternity for GUESSING WRONG ABOUT WHICH EARTHLY RELIGION TO BELIEVE. Ironically, Christian theology has turned Jesus into a being infinitely worse than the Devil. Will Jesus either cause or allow Einstein and Gandhi to suffer for all eternity? If not, Jesus is infinitely worse than the Devil. If not, the need for “salvation” vanishes and Christian churches have no way to bilk the masses out of billions each year. It is, indeed, a dilemma and the churches will no doubt continue to “follow the money.” I read the Bible from cover to cover at age eleven, then wrote this epigram to express my conclusion about the biblical God:

    If God
    is good
    half the Bible
    is libel.
    –Michael R. Burch


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